Tyrrell, George Nugent Merle

George Nugent Merle Tyrrell (1879–1952) was a mathematician, engineer, and psychical researcher, a leading member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Best known for his theoretical work on apparitions, he also made experimental studies of Extrasensory Perception (ESP) and was the author of several books that, although now largely forgotten, were well regarded in his day.

G. N. M. Tyrrell studied physics and mathematics at the University of London. He was an early student of Guglielmo Marconi, and helped to develop the radio. When he joined the SPR in 1908, he was in Mexico Demonstrating Marconi’s wireless to the government. During World War I he served as a signals officer in the British Army.

After the war, Tyrrell turned to psychical research; it was to become the consuming interest of his life. He devised an experiment the task of which was to pick out boxes (rather than to guess the designs on cards) and he was among the first to apply statistics to the analysis of results. His experiments met with much success, but after his equipment was destroyed in an air raid during World War II, he turned his full efforts to writing instead.

For Tyrrell, psychical research meant “the exploration of the human personality,” especially of its unconscious levels. In all of his books, he was concerned with the relationship between ESP and the unconscious. In Science and Psychical Phenomena (1938), he suggested that the human personality underwent varying amounts of disintegration after death, and it was these fragments with which the medium came into touch, re-creating out of them a personality more or less like the original.

Tyrrell’s most lasting achievement was his theory of Apparitions, first given as the SPR’s Myers Memorial Lecture (see Frederic W.H. Myers) in 1942. The lecture was later revised and published posthumously as a book in 1953. Although by no means universally accepted, the theory has been influential and continues to receive attention today. (See Apparitions.)

Tyrrell followed Edmund Gurney in believing that apparitions were hallucinations of the precipient based on information received via ESP from the agent, but he proposed that a two-stage process was involved. In the first stage a part of the unconscious he called the “Producer” became aware of the agent’s situation via ESP, and in the second stage the “Stage Carpenter” produced the “apparitional drama,” using such familiar psychological processes as dreams, visions and impressions.

By this means Tyrrell accounted not only for the veridical (evidential) aspects of apparition cases, but also for such troublesome features as apparitions’ clothing and the fact that they were sometimes seen riding in carriages; these were props ordered by the Stage Carpenter to create a realistic scene.

Tyrrell was a member of the SPR Council from 1940 until his death and its president for 1945–46. He died on October 29, 1952. His other books include Grades of Significance (1930), The Personality of Man (1946), Homo Faber (1951), and Apparitions (1953).

Further Reading:

  • MacKenzie, Andrew. Hauntings and Apparitions. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1982.
  • Salter, W. H., G. W. Fisk, and Harry H. Price. “G. N. M. Tyrrell and His Contributions to Psychical Research.” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)37 (1953): 63–71.
  • Tyrrell, G. N. M. Science and Psychical Phenomena. London: Methuen, 1938.
    ———. Apparitions. London: Duckworth, 1953.


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

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