Survival Tests

Survival tests are tests created by living persons with the idea that they will attempt to communicate their solutions through Mediums after death, intended to provide evidence for their survival after death. The most popular form of such tests was once the “sealed envelope,” but this has lately given way to combination locks and texts enciphered using special “afterlife codes.”

Frederic W.H. Myers described some apparently successful survival tests in his Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (1903). In one case, a brother left with his sister one piece of a brick marked with a streak of ink, telling her that he would hide the other part in a place that only he would know. After his death, his sister and their mother began trying to communicate with him through mediums, without success until they tried sitting at home. After some period of trying, their table began to tilt, and, by calling out the alphabet and recording the letter at which the tilt came, they were able to receive a message from the deceased brother, telling them where he had hidden his part of the brick. They discovered the brick in the place indicated, and it was found to match the piece left with the sister. The same brother left a sealed envelope, the contents of which he communicated in the same way.

Sealed letter tests were for a time very fashionable, but the interpretation of the results was not always straightforward. For one thing, even apparently successful results, such as those above, could be interpreted as examples of Clairvoyance rather than spirit communication. The sister could have determined clairvoyantly where the piece of brick was hidden, and through her own psychokinesis could have caused the table to tip out the message. The same is true of the sealed letter; the sister could have read the contents clairvoyantly. In this instance, the message was read accurately, but if the communication is not a verbatim representation of the message in the envelope, but only refers to it obliquely, other questions arise. Such is the case with the sealed envelope left by Myers himself.

Another crucial problem with such tests is that the envelope can only be opened once. If the communication is wrong, there is no second chance. In order to get around this limitation, the British mathematician and psychical researcher Robert Thouless devised what he called the “cipher test.” He invented a code and encoded two passages, with the idea that after death he would communicate not the message, but a key to the code that would allow the message to be read. The cipher test had the advantage that it could be tried any number of times, and it also provided the opportunity for psychics and mediums to get the solution from Thouless through ESP before his death. If mediums provided the solution only after Thouless’s death, this strengthened the likelihood that they had received it from Thouless’s spirit.

Thouless’s cipher test required some ingenuity, and not all persons who wished to leave such tests for themselves felt themselves up to it. It was in view of providing a simpler test that Ian Stevenson introduced the “combination lock test.” This required a person to buy a particular kind of combination lock and to set it, committing the solution to memory, but not writing it down anywhere. As with the cipher test, the idea was for the person to communicate a keyword that would allow the lock to be opened. Stevenson described the test publicly, and invited everyone who was interested to deposit such locks with him. The response was so tremendous that he soon had to limit the depositors to the elderly or others who faced imminent death.

Neither the cipher nor combination lock tests have been very successful. Thouless died in 1984, and sittings aimed at allowing him to communicate his code were begun soon thereafter. No successful communications have been received from him. J. G. Pratt, an experimental parapsychologist with an interest in psychical research and survival, set one of Stevenson’s combination locks before Pratt died in 1979, but no successful communications have been received from him either.



  • Gauld, Alan. Mediumship and Survival: A Century of Investigations. London: Heinemann, 1982.
  • Myers, Frederic W. H. Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death Vols. I & II. New ed. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1954. First published 1903.
  • Stevenson, Ian. “The Combination Lock Test for Survival.” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)62 (1968): 246–54.
  • Stevenson, Ian, Arthur T. Oram, and Betty Markwick. “Two Tests of Survival After Death: Report on Negative Results.” Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)55 (1989): 329–36.
  • Thouless, Robert H. From Anecdote to Experiment in Psychical Research. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972.


The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written byRosemary Ellen Guiley– September 1, 2007