The Quest for the Life Force

Has Science Found It and Then Ignored It?

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It may very well have been the most important discovery in the history of mankind—a “life principal” that permeates and connects all living things. What German chemist Baron Karl von Reichenbach (1788–1869) called odic force, or just od or odyle, was likened to the prana of the ancient Hindus, the vis medicatrix naturae of Hippocrates, the mana of Polynesian culture, the chi of the Chinese, the astral light of the Kabbalists, the telesma of Hermes Trismegistus, and the magnetic fluid of Mesmer. Later names associated with it include ectoplasm, or teleplasm, as given off by some mediums, and orgone energy, as named by Dr. Wilhelm Reich during the 1930s. However, while Reichenbach was well respected in the scientific world, having discovered paraffin and creosote, and was considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject of meteorites, his findings on od were rejected, even ridiculed, by mainstream science when first published in 1845, and they are forgotten or ignored today.

Od might be best described as a mostly invisible energy field often associated today with the human aura and with holistic healing. It is believed to somehow interact with the physical body through what are called the chakras, the vital energy centers in the spirit body, to govern higher consciousness and spiritual awakening. Indications are that it is also the “soul mist” that many have observed given off by the body at the time of death. Reichenbach said that it is present in all living matter.

While Reichenbach’s research involved studying a number of “sensitives”—people who today might be called clairvoyants or clairsentients—it did not include any kind of “spirit” intervention. It focused on “mind-over-matter” tasks, such as identifying objects in a dark room, dowsing for water in an open field, and moving the needle of a compass without touching it—activities outside the normal five senses and in defiance of known science, what modern-day parapsychologists refer to as extrasensory perception or ESP.

“Under the term odyle, I collect and unite all the physical phenomena occurring in the course of these researches, which cannot be brought under [heat, electricity or magnetism], and also the vis occulta, which produces them,” Reichenbach’s German words were translated. “It remains for future investigation to determine whether and to what extent these phenomena will admit of being distributed among, or transferred to, [those forces].”

Most of Reichenbach’s peers dismissed his findings as absurd, more superstition than science, making no attempt to replicate his research, but one exception was Johann Karl Friedrich Zöllner, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Leipzig. Zöllner observed Reichenbach carry out an experiment in which a sensitive caused the needle of a box compass to oscillate by waving his fingers over it. “These oscillations were not inconsiderable, and the experiment succeeded with each repetition, even when Reichenbach was in other parts of the room, and also when the finger alternately approached and removed from the pole,” Zöllner recorded, adding that he checked for concealed magnets on the sensitive and otherwise ruled out deception.

Zöllner proceeded to carry out a similar experiment on his own and succeeded, leading him to investigate other psychic phenomena and eventually writing a book titled Transcendental Physics, published in 1888, and focusing on his experiments with the medium Henry Slade. However, in spite of his detailed and well-controlled experiments, his scientific peers concluded that Zöllner was, like Reichenbach, the victim of clever tricksters or simply deluded.

Reichenbach’s research began in 1840 and his report issued three years before the “Rochester knockings,” of 1848—the mediumship phenomenon involving the Fox sisters of New York that triggered the “Spiritualism” boom in the United States, England, France, and Germany. The first dedicated investigator of the various mediumship phenomena of Spiritualism was John W. Edmonds, who served as Chief Justice of the New York State Supreme Court. Beginning in January 1851, Edmonds, who had served in both branches of the New York legislature, for some time as president of the Senate before he was elevated to the Supreme Court, undertook an investigation of mediums, assuming he would expose them all as charlatans.

Over the next 23 months Edmonds witnessed several hundred manifestations in various forms, both physical and mental, keeping very detailed records of them, collecting some 1,600 pages of manuscript. He observed a mahogany table with a lamp burning on it levitated at least a foot off the floor, and he had many questions answered by communicating spirits—answers which he was certain were outside the knowledge of the medium or anyone present.

On May 21, 1851, Edmonds witnessed amazing physical phenomena at the home of Charles Partridge. “For three hours I there witnessed physical manifestations which demonstrated to me beyond all doubt that they were not produced by mortal hands, and were governed by intelligence out of and beyond those present,” he wrote. “It is vain for any one to say we were deceived. I knew that I was not, and so did every one of that large party. So it is vain to say the mediums did it, for they were actually more frightened at what occurred than we were, who were spectators, and essayed in vain to stop it. Then it was that the chair ran back and forth on the floor, the bell was rung over our heads, and one of the party was forcibly torn by an invisible power from my grasp, in spite alike of his strength, and mine.”

Many more veridical cognitive messages further convinced Edmonds that there was a high order of intelligence involved—“an intelligence outside of, and beyond, more mortal agency; for there was no other hypothesis which I could devise or hear of, that could at all explain that, whose reality is established by the testimony of tens of thousands, and can easily be ascertained by any one who will take the trouble to inquire.”

When Edmonds asked a communicating spirit what the manifestations were all about, the answer came: “It is the result of human progress, it is in execution, not a suspension of nature’s laws, and it is not now for the first time manifesting itself, but in all ages of the world has at times been displayed.” He was further informed that the manifestations began a dozen or so years before the “Rochester Knockings,” but from fear of ridicule or from ignorance they went unrecognized.

“It is an electricity, but more perfected than that which you are familiar, that which you term electricity,” a spirit communicated. Edmonds was further told that his knowledge of nature was too imperfect to permit him to understand the phenomena and was referred by the communicating spirit to Reichenbach’s Dynamics of Magnetism for a better grasp of the subject. There, Edmonds read about od, Reichenbach describing it in his book as “an exceeding subtle fluid, existing with magnetism and electricity, found in fire and heat, and produced in the human body by the chemical action of respiration and digestion and decomposition, and issuing from the body in the shape of a pale flame, with sparks, and smoke, and material in its nature, though so much sublimated as to be visible only to persons of a peculiar vision.”

Upon further questioning the apparently advanced spirit, Edmonds was informed that, “Man physically is composed of one element in three distinct grades of perfection, which grades serve to form a link between the spiritual and physical worlds.” The first and lowest grade, he was told, is called the vegetable motive element, which is one grade above the common electricity. Its function is to give involuntary growth or action and is to the vegetable creation what the soul is to the human creation.

The second grade is called the animal motive element, also called magnetism, a substance that pervades the nervous system and gives voluntary motion. “It is that which gives life to the nerves, and which gives sensation. This element is but one grade below the soul, and is that through which you receive instinct.” It was explained that animals use such instinct without reason. “You will understand that I do not mean to convey the idea that plants or animals have organized, individualized souls that will ever exist. Its organization is necessarily confined to organized bodies, and when the body becomes disunited, this element must be disorganized with it.”

And thirdly, there is the soul motive element, which is the grand microcosm of all below the divinity. “This is an element which baffles your efforts to analyze, as self can not investigate self. It is that element which forms man, and constitutes him an ever-existing, individualized being. It is superior to the animal element, and therefore exists independently of the physical body.”

After Edmonds went public with his investigation in an 1853 book, Spiritualism, co-authored with Dr. George T. Dexter, he was attacked by the press, the pulpit, and politicians, and was forced to resign his position on the Bench and return to the practice of law. Edmonds wrote that he knew what he was in for when he made his views public, but he was compelled to do it. “I went into the investigation thinking it a deception, and intending to make public my exposure of it,” he explained. “Having, from my researches, come to a different conclusion, I feel that the obligation to make known the result is just as strong. Therefore it is, mainly, that I give the result to the world. I say mainly because there is another consideration which influences me; and that is the desire to extend to others a knowledge which I am conscious can not but make them happier and better.”

In 1871, William Crookes (later Sir William), a renowned British scientist known for his discovery of the element thallium and for his pioneering work in x-ray technology, undertook an investigation of the medium Daniel D. Home, who had received much attention in the United States and Europe for producing mediumistic phenomena. “The most striking cases of levitation which I have witnessed have been with Mr. Home,” Crookes reported after 28 sittings with Home, most of them in his (Crookes’s) own home and under good light, there being no opportunity for lifting mechanisms to be rigged as skeptics had suspected. “On three separate occasions have I seen him raised completely from the floor of the room—once sitting in an easy chair, once kneeling on his chair, and once standing up. On each occasion, I had full opportunity of watching the occurrence as it was taking place.” Crookes noted that voices were sometimes heard in which one invisible being seemed to be instructing another invisible being on how to effect the levitation.

One of the more mind-boggling observations by Crookes and his guests was a floating phantom playing an accordion. “A phantom form came from a corner of the room, took an accordion in its hand, and then glided about the room playing the instrument,” he wrote, mentioning that he (Crookes) had purchased the accordion for test purposes. “The form was visible to all present for many minutes, Mr. Home also being seen at the time.”

At a sitting on June 28, 1871, Home went into a trance state and a voice began speaking through him. One of Crookes’s guests asked who was speaking. “It is not one spirit in particular,” came the reply through Home. “It is a general influence. It requires two or three spirits to get complete control over Dan. The conditions are not very good tonight.”

In an early report, Crookes referred to Home’s visualization of light from a magnet, “as per Reichenbach,” but he preferred to call the force involved in the phenomena psychic force, a name given to it by his research associate, Serjeant Cox, rather than od, a word derived from a Germanic deity. Whether the force was from spirits of the dead, as the Spiritualists claimed, or the mind of the medium, as materialistic science preferred to see it, was the question Crookes was unable to answer at the time, though after investigating other mediums he said the phenomena “point to the existence of another order of human life continuous with this, and demonstrate the possibility in certain circumstances of communication between this world and the next.”

Like Reichenbach, Zöllner, and Edmonds, Crookes was the target of much hostility from his scientific peers after his findings were made public.

As other researchers investigating physical mediumship discovered, this psychic force, or od, is not always invisible or vaporous, as it was with Home. Johannes Greber, a German Catholic priest turned researcher, was informed by “communicating spirits,” that there are many degrees of odic concentration—from that visible only to a clairvoyant’s eye to a black, gray, or white milky-looking substance, to the complete materialization of spirits. The degree of condensation, the color, the odor, and the quality of the materialization, Greber was informed, depends on the advancement of both the medium and the spirit and the amount of od available, which is based on the strength of the medium as well as the sitters, from whom additional od can be drawn by the spirits. “The odic radiations of a good spirit give off a beautiful light and, as the condensation of the od progresses, emit a sweet odor, whereas the od of base spirits is shrouded in darkness and always causes an offensive smell,” Greber recorded. “It is true that mortals cannot always perceive this odor, as it can be detected by your physical sense of smell only in rare instances.”

Dr. William J. Crawford, an Irish mechanical engineer and university lecturer, carried out a number of experiments with Irish medium Kathleen Goligher and even photographed the “psychic force.” During his experiments with Goligher, Crawford began communicating with spirit entities and questioned them on the force. One such spirit explained to Crawford that two types of substances were used in the production of the phenomenon. One was taken in large quantities from both the medium and the sitters, then returned to them at the close of the séance. The other substance was taken exclusively from the medium in minute quantities and could not be returned to her as its structure was broken up. It was pointed out that it came from the interior of the medium’s nerve cells, and if too much were taken she could suffer serious injury. However, Crawford concluded that the spirits didn’t understand the force much better than he did, or they were at a loss to explain it in human terms.

Dr. Charles Richet, a French professor of medicine, gave the name ectoplasm to the od he witnessed flowing from one of the orifices of mediums in an entranced state—at times flowing from the nostrils, and at other times from the mouth, ears, vagina, or even the pores. “This ectoplasmic formation at the expense of the physiological organism of the medium is now beyond all dispute,” Richet, the 1913 Nobel Prize winner in medicine, asserted. “It is prodigiously strange, prodigiously unusual, and it would seem so unlikely as to be incredible; but we must give in to the facts.”

And yet, nearly a century after Richet wrote those words, science still wants nothing to do with it.

By Michael Tymn