Saturday, May 30, 2009

Studying Personal Experiences

The psychical researchers of the late 19th century wanted to extend the methods of science so that personal experiences could be studied quantitatively and objectively.

Their first attempt was to use a survey to help make sense of anecdotal information about crisis apparitions. The survey was called "the census of hallucinations". They tried to do a representative survey of the British population asking a simple question:

"Since January 1, 1874, have you when in good health, free from anxiety, and completely awake had a vivid impression of seeing or being touched by a human being, or of hearing a voice or sound which suggested a human presence, when no one was there ? Yes or no ?"

If a subject answered yes, they requested further information. If the event seemed to include veridical information, they sought corroborating testimony from other witnesses such as family members to whom the subject described the hallucination at the time it occurred.

This is described in: "Phantasms of the Living" by Edmund Gurney, Volume 2 Chapter XIII "The Theory of Chance Coincidence"

Next, using sources of information on the frequency of deaths such as "Supplement to the 45th Annual Report of the Registrar-General", they calculated the expected probability of having a hallucination near the time of death of a relative or acquaintance. From this they were able to demonstrate that the frequency of crisis apparitions (seeing an apparition of someone near the time of their death) was much too high to be explained by chance coincidence.

The census of hallucinations is also described in The Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. Many articles on the census can be read in the Proceedings on line at These articles can be easily found using the Web Guide to the PSPR on my web site:

Unfortunately, the ambition of extending the scientific method to the study of personal experiences withered when a new generation of researchers turned toward easily replicable laboratory experiments when that methodology had come into vogue in the 20th century.

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