(3) An investigation of well-authenticated reports regarding apparitions and disturbances in houses reputed to be haunted.
(4) An inquiry into various psychical phenomena commonly called Spiritualistic.
The first report made to the society was concerning thought-reading, or thought-transference, and was a description of various experiments undertaken with a view to determine the question whether one person or one mind can receive impressions or intelligence from another person or mind without communication by word, touch, or sign, or by any means whatsoever apart from the ordinary and recognized methods of perception, or the ordinary channels of communication.
What is meant by thought-transference is perhaps most simply illustrated by the common amusement known as the "willing game"; it is played as follows: -
The person to be influenced or "willed" is sent out of the room; those remaining then agree upon some act which that person is to be willed to accomplish; as, for instance, to take some particular piece of bric-a-brac from a table or cabinet and place it upon the piano, or to find some article which has been purposely hidden. The person to be willed is then brought back into the room ; the leader of the game places one hand lightly upon her shoulder or arm, and the whole company think intently upon the act agreed upon in her absence. If the game is successful, the person so willed goes, with more or less promptness, takes the piece of bric-a-brac thought of, and places it upon the piano, as before agreed upon by the company, or she goes with more or less directness and discovers the hidden article. Nervous agitation, excitement, even faintness or actual syncope, are not unusual accompaniments of the effort on the part of the person so willed, circumstances which at least show the unusual character of the performance and also the necessity for caution in conducting it.
If the game is played honestly, as it generally is, the person to be willed, when she returns to the room, is absolutely ignorant of what act she is expected to perform, and the person with whom she is placed in contact does not intentionally give her any clue or information during the progress of the game.
In the more formal experiments the person who is willed is known as the sensitive, subject, or percipient; the person who conducts the experiment is known as the agent or operator. The sensitive is presumed to receive, in some unusual manner, from the minds of the agent and the company, an impression regarding the action to be performed, without communication between them in any ordinary manner.
This is one of the simplest forms of thought-transference; it is, of course, liable to many errors, and is useless as a scientific test.
Bishop, Cumberland, and other mind readers who have exhibited their remarkable powers all over the world, were doubtless sensitives who possessed this power of perception or receiving impressions in a high degree, so that minute objects, such as an ordinary watch-key, hidden in a barrel of rubbish in a cellar and in a distant part of an unfamiliar city, is quickly found, the sensitive being connected with the agent by the slightest contact, or perhaps only by a string or wire.
The question at issue in all these cases is the same, namely, do the sensitives receive their impressions regarding what they have to do from the mind of the agent by some process other than the ordinary means of communication, such as seeing, hearing, or touch; or do they, by the exceeding delicacy of their perception, receive impressions from slight indications unintentionally and unconsciously conveyed to them by the agent through the slight contact which is kept up between them?
The opinion of a majority of scientific persons has been altogether averse to the theory of thought-transference from one mind to another without the aid of the senses and the ordinary means of communication ; and they have maintained that intimations of the thing to be done by the sensitive were conveyed by slight muscular movements unconsciously made by the agent and perhaps unconsciously received by the sensitive. To explain, or rather to formulate these cases, Dr. William B. Carpenter, the eminent English physiologist, proposed the theory of "unconscious muscular action" on the part of the agent and "unconscious cerebration" on the part of the sensitive; and his treatment of the whole subject in his "Mental Physiology," which was published twenty years ago, and also in his book on "Mesmerism and Spiritualism," was thought by many to be conclusive against the theory of mind-reading or thought-transference. Espedaily was this view entertained by the more conservative portion of the various scientific bodies interested in the subject, and also by that large class of people, scientific and otherwise, who save themselves much trouble by taking their opinions ready made.
It was a very easy way of disposing of the matter, so thoroughly scientific, and it did not involve the necessity of studying any new force or getting into trouble with any new laws of mental action; it was simply delightful, and the physiologists rubbed their hands gleefully over the apparent discomfiture of the shallow cranks who imagined they had discovered something new. There was only one troublesome circumstance about the whole affair. It was this: that cases were every now and then making their appearance which absolutely refused to be explained by the new theory of Dr. Carpenter, and the only way of disposing of these troublesome cases was to declare that the people who observed them did not know how to observe, and did not see what they thought they saw.
This was the state of the question, and this the way in which it was generally regarded, when it was taken up for investigation by the Society for Psychical Research,