The Psi Researcher, August 1996


Psychical Research: A Personal Perspective

Montague Ullman

After sixty-plus years of interest in and, on occasion, exposure to psi effect, I welcome the opportunity to share in an informal way my concerns and hopes for the future of psychical research (I'm still partial to that old-fashioned term and reluctant to give it up). It seems to me our investigative efforts have moved along two paths, one small and ill-defined, taken by only a few explorers, and the other larger and well-defined, taken by most of those doing research in the field. The British Society and its early American counterpart, the American Society for Psychical Research, started out on the first path, the pursuit of psi effects in their natural environment, in anecdotal accounts offered by ordinary mortals and in the feats of the great mediums. Investigators in the United States, beginning with Rhine, have led the way along the second path in the hope that the laboratory approach could capture psi convincingly enough to establish parapsychology as a universally accepted scientific discipline.

In a way I think this divergence is reflected in the major concerns of the two giants in the field, Gardner Murphy and JB Rhine. This generalization may be unfair to both. All his life Gardner kept alive the hope for a repeatable experiment and Rhine's interests went beyond the laboratory. But the distinction holds, however, in terms of the former's focus on psi as a field effect and the latter's focus on the controlled experiment with a very palpable line drawn between experimenter and subject. Although that line has become a bit fuzzier with the awareness of the experimenter effect, there still remains a clearly defined difference between, for example, how those few of us in the psychoanalytic community who have been open to psi have experienced it and how psi experiments are structured in the laboratory. In the analytic situation there is no meaning to the terms subject and object, experimenter and experimental subject, recipient and sender. The psi effect, when it occurs, comes about through the complex interplay of the mutual needs and surfacing tensions of the parties involved. In the course of my psychoanalytic practice, I had encountered from time to time what I believed were telepathic dreams of patients oriented to what was going on in my own life at the time. While Eisenbud, Ehrenwald and a small group of others would, in writing about it, stress the

non-inferential character of the correlations in an effort to offer a convincing case to others, I can say for myself, and I believe it to be true for the others, that when such dreams occurred they carried with them a deeply felt (often uncomfortably so) conviction that something quite eerie was occurring. It was as if a transitory but powerfully tangible hidden connection had suddenly surfaced and had done so in a way that couldn't be denied.

It wasn't always easy to admit the role the analyst played in such occurrences, but he was every bit as much a player as the dreamer himself or herself. To stretch an analogy some�what, it was as if, being archaeologists on a dig looking for evidence of connections between discrete species, my patient and I had come upon a psychological stratum that blurred our discreteness. In tidying such experiences up for publication in an academic journal, I found it difficult to convey the full emotional depth of the experience or the degree to which I was often so shaken by what the experience revealed about myself. Intangible as it may seem to others, it was a hard reality when it struck home. These were field effects, quite different in intensity and depth from what is usually experienced in the laboratory. These were the field effects Murphy intimated might be the true nature of psi. A number of other encounters with psi, both before and after the psychoanalytic phase of my career, laid the ground for this perspective in the first instance and further reinforced it in the second.

My introduction to psychic phenomena began in the early 1930's when, at the age of sixteen, I became involved with a peer group intent on holding seances in a determined effort to reproduce the fascinating effects we read about in the writings of men like F.W.H. Myers, Oliver Lodge, William James, Cesare Lombroso, Schrenk-Notzing and others. We engaged in weekly sessions for over a year and a half, during which time there was a gradual development of rather striking phenomena. These included physical movement of the table, levitations, thought photographs and, finally, written messages purportedly from a physician who had died some years before but who still seemed intent on helping us with our teenage problems.

This is not the place to present a detailed description of these happenings, but for anyone interested, I have finally faced up to the task of rendering in print as complete a description as I can of what went on and why I felt the phenomena we witnessed were genuine. This is currently appearing in instalments in Rhea White's publication, Exceptional Human Experiences.

Aside from the actual effects that were obtained, there were two things that were unusual about this group. The first is that we stayed with it consistently and persistently and brought to it our youthful energy, our excitement and openness for the unknown and the mysterious, and the personal needs each of us had. I stress this because it soon became apparent, as one of the written messages indicated, that the force generated was the result of the collective energies of the group and that this was disrupted if anyone failed to show up. Secondly, the core group of six sitters met again in the mid-1940s for a few meetings with Gardner Murphy to see if the old magic was still there, but it wasn't. We then met again on three occasions in the 1960's for the purpose of reminiscing mutually about what had happened and to see how that experience had shaped our lives. We all felt that the phenomena we had witnessed were genuine although there were differences among us in interpretations. Two of the six felt we had in fact made contact with a deceased entity. The other four, myself included, were not convinced there was sufficient evidence to draw that conclusion. We were more inclined to view it as a field effect generated in some mysterious way by our combined energies and responsive to our collective adolescent turmoil and our various personal needs. I personally have ruled out fraud or deception, conscious or unconscious, on the basis of both the magnitude and the nature of the results and the over six decades of friendship with my co-sitters. This has left me having to accommodate to an unrelenting cognitive dissonance since there is not as yet, nor is there likely to be in my lifetime, any fit between what I experienced in my sixteenth and seventeenth year and the four-dimensional reality in which we all seem to be living out our lives.

In the early 1950's, concomitant with the interest in dreams I was getting from patients, Laura Dale (then Research Associate at the ASPR) and I embarked upon a two-year series of experiments to see if we could correlate our dreaming episodes in a way that would favour the occurrence of telepathic or precognitive dreaming. We made use of a dormiphone, a clock and tape arrangement that could be preset to go off at designated times during the night, to send a message to a sleeping subject. Since this was undertaken prior to the appearance of the REM studies, we chose arbitrary times during the night for the stimulus to go off. The idea was that both of us would hear the same word at the same time during the night, and the hope was that the word would function as what Whately Carington referred to as a K object. Carington felt that such a shared object played a role in initiating correlated paranormal effects. And so it had! Laura and I met weekly to compare the dreams we had had the previous week. Out of a combined total of 501 dreams (283 for Laura and 218 for me), we felt that approximately 10% (58) could be held to show paranormal correlations as judged both by explicit content and dynamic meaning. The level of sharing that went on in this very personal and mutual self-exploration again pointed to the role that an affective field plays in psi effects.

These studies set the stage for my later interest in the application of the REM monitoring technique to the experimental study of the telepathic dream. Through the kindness of Eileen Garrett and the Parapsychology Foundation, Douglas Dean, Karlis Osis and I embarked upon a series of pilot studies at the Foundation. Although I was in full-time practice at the time, I managed to stay up one night every two weeks in the company of my two colleagues and engage actively with the dreamer throughout the night. The subjects were known to me, eager to participate, and interested in parapsychology. Eileen Garrett, as a subject, came through with particularly interesting results. On the one occasion I was a subject, I was struck by certain very clear dynamic correlations in my dream to events in Douglas' life at the time. There were a number of others who were star performers.

The success of these early efforts resulted in the most important career change in my life. I gave up private practice and took a full-time position at Maimonides Hospital (later Maimonides Medical Center) with the purpose of developing a department of psychiatry and with the hope of setting up a sleep laboratory to study psi effects in dreams. With Gardner Murphy's help, a laboratory was set up and funds were raised to bring Stanley Krippner over from Kent State University to direct the experimental program. The results of these studies have been extensively reported. The statistical results supported the feasibility of this technique as facilitating psi effects in dreams.

While I worked closely with Stan in shaping the experiments, I was not as personally involved (except for the one series with Bob van de Castle) as I had been in the pilot studies. We were out to establish the validity of the technique on a statistical basis and we did so. In retrospect, I do regret that my responsibilities to the department and later to the community mental health center that was established there prevented me from engaging more personally in the research and from having had the opportunity to experience and explore the personal dynamics of the field set up between those of us involved in structuring the experiment and the dreamers who participated in it. There was a freedom, excitement and a deep sense of personal involvement in the pilot studies that I wish could have been carried over. There is a difference between engaging in an activity for the sheer excitement of it and in engaging in an activity with the not-so-hidden agenda of having to prove something in order to get funds necessary to keep the laboratory going.

My last effort at capturing psi effects in dreams took the form of a weekly experiential dream group made up of ASPR members who met at the ASPR to share and work on dreams. Our goal was to look for psi effects in the form of manifest correlations in any of the dreams that had occurred the previous week and to explore such correlations dynamically as the mutual associative contexts unfolded. Enough unusual correlations occurred to keep us at it for several years. Again, field effects were prominent as we explored the natural affective pairings that arose spontaneously in the group, e.g. male�female, doctor-nurse, parent-child. One unexpected result was the generation of unusual psi sensitivity in one of the participants, someone who was not aware of any such events in her life before.

These residues from my encounters with psychic phenomena, offered from so personal a perspective, risk exposing a very personal bias. My wish is not to defend and justify it but, rather, to widen the search for clues to the nature of these still very mysterious happenings. In each of the examples given it seems to me that the depth, intensity, and willingness for all to assume the subject rather than the object role generated the kind of emotional field that was psi-conducive. The dream work in particular provided the opportunity to combine these features and to have at hand a naturalistic kind of experimental arrangement. The spontaneously generated dream is an in vivo laboratory where we know psi occurs.

There is another bias that is the prevailing bias of modern parapsychology. The vision of the early founders of psychical research was broad and inclusive of what we might characterize as both the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the phenomena they set out to study. With the change in name from psychical research to parapsychology came a narrowing of focus and a bias in favour of the quantitative (statistical) approach. To return to the analogy of the two paths to illustrate this divergence. Visualize these two paths. One is a narrow country path surrounded by interesting scenery but also rough, unpaved, full of weeds and entangling brush that has to be cleared off. The other path is a modern paved street, more civilized, more clear-cut, and more readily traversed. The smaller country path is the one I have chosen and the one Rhea White has in recent years been exhorting us to follow. I find that path more interesting and more picturesquely related to the natural terrain.

To implement this plea to use a broader net in search of our prey (in spite of the possibility of coming up with unwanted detritus) I would offer a number of suggestions:

1. In the 1940's, the ASPR sponsored a Medical Section where clinical findings with regard to telepathic and precognitive dreams could be explored in terms of the transferential and counter-transferential dynamics of dreamer and therapist. Would not the re-emergence of a similar arrangement prove timely?

2. The Maimonides dream research opened up possibilities for dream research. Would not more such research, but with more regard to experimenter-subject interaction, be warranted?

3. Rhea White's concept of extraordinary human experiences has broadened the context in which psi may be embedded. Would it not be of value to support an approach that may ultimately result in a radical shift of perspective?

4. David Bohm has written on the interplay of the implicate and explicate orders, the concept of reality as a seamless whole, the emphasis on interconnectedness as primary and discreteness as secondary. His grounding of these concepts not on eastern mysticism but on the implications of quantum mechanics seem to me to go beyond being of pure philosophical interest. Might it not be of value to explore their heuristic potential?

To sum up I suggest following wherever psi events seem to be leading rather than pinning all our hopes on taming this still-elusive creature in the laboratory.