Frederic W.H. Myers

Why Is He Psychology’s Forgotten Man?

Ask any practicing psychologist or graduate psychology student about the contributions made by Frederic W. H. Myers to the field of psychology and you’ll likely get a befuddled reaction. Like, “Frederic Who?”

And yet, some very distinguished scientists, scholars, and writers of his era looked upon Myers as a pioneer in the field of psychology, being one of the first, if not the first, to seriously delve into the subconscious. According to Dr. Sherwood Eddy, a popular American writer of the first half of the last century, Myers began to explore the subconscious, or subliminal self, simultaneously with and independently of Freud.

Myers’ greatest admirer may have been William James, who, along with Freud, Wilhelm Wundt, and John Dewey, is considered one of the founders of modern psychology. James wrote that Myers “will always be remembered in psychology as the pioneer who staked out a vast tract of mental wilderness and planted the flag of genuine science upon it.”

University of Geneva psychology professor Theodor Flournoy opined that Myers’ name “should be joined to those of Copernicus and Darwin, completing the triad of geniuses who have most profoundly revolutionized scientific thought.”

Popular author Aldous Huxley saw Myers as a classical scholar, a minor poet, a conscientious observer, and a platonic philosopher, someone who “was free to pay more attention to the positive aspects of the subliminal self than to its negative and destructive aspects,” as with Freud and others involved in the study of the subconscious.

With such accolades from esteemed peers, why is it that Myers is not remembered today? To begin with, Myers was not trained as a psychologist, though the field was not really established when Myers began his research during the early 1870s. However, the primary reason he is not remembered is most likely his conclusion that brain and mind are not one and the same. “The conscious ‘Self’ of each of us—the empirical, the supraliminal Self, as I should prefer to say—does not comprise the whole of the consciousness or of the faculty within us,” Myers wrote. “There exists a more comprehensive consciousness, a profounder faculty, which for the most part remains potential only so far as regards the life of earth, but which reasserts itself in its plenitude after the liberating change of death.”

By attempting to put the “ghost” back into the machine, Myers was clearly bucking the trend toward a belief in a purely mechanistic universe, one devoid of God, an afterlife, and meaning. In the wake of Darwinism, such ideas as those presented by Myers were looked upon by the intellectual aristocracy as a return to religious superstition and idolatry. To dare suggest something so “ridiculous” was to invite smirks, scoffs, sneers, and sarcasm.

After graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1864 with degrees in the classics and moral science, Myers, the son of a minister, earned a masters degree and became a classical lecturer at his alma mater. In 1869, he began a career as one of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools. By that time, he had, like most Cambridge intellectuals, lost his faith and his belief in the survival of consciousness at death. It was a time when The Age of Reason had significantly reduced the influence of the Church, and, concomitantly, man’s belief in God and an afterlife. Darwin’s The Origin of Species, published in 1859, accelerated the underlying Weltschmerz; i.e., world weariness. More and more educated people began to see life as a march toward an abyss of nothingness, toward extinction, toward obliteration. Life had no meaning beyond what one could leave behind for his descendants or future generations, but even this seemingly worthy goal left the reasoning man wondering to what end the progeny or to which generation full fruition.

Myers wrote that his agnosticism or virtual materialism affected him like “a dull pain borne with joyless doggedness, sometimes…a shock of nightmare-panic amid the glaring dreariness of the day.” A “deep disquiet” had overcome the entire civilized world, and Myers felt that the hope of the world was vanishing, not his alone. Calling it “soul sickness,” William James suffered from the same affliction as Myers and is said to have considered suicide shortly after receiving his M.D. degree from Harvard University in 1869.

Influenced by the reports of such scientific luminaries as Alfred Russel Wallace, co-originator with Darwin of the natural selection theory, and William Crookes, one of England’s leading chemists, on their observations of mediums, Myers saw mediumship as a possible source to rediscover the spiritual world and restore faith and hope. He believed that the new science of psychical research offered a meeting place of religion, philosophy, and science.

With fellow Cambridge scholar Edmund Gurney, Myers began seriously investigating mediums in 1874. The two men were most impressed by William Stainton Moses, an Anglican minister who had somewhat reluctantly become a medium, producing a variety of phenomena, including levitations, communicating raps, numerous lights, luminous hands, musical sounds, direct writing (no hand holding the pencil), apports, the passage of matter through matter, the direct voice, and trance voice, the latter including inspirational messages given by various spirits through the entranced Moses.

“That evening was epoch-making in Gurney’s life and mine,” Myers wrote of their first meeting with Moses on May 9, 1874, pointing out that Moses was a man of university education and of unquestionable integrity. While there were clearly charlatans able to dupe many people, they were certain that Moses was not one of them.

It was not until 1882, however, that Myers and Gurney were persuaded by William Barrett, a professor of physics at the Royal College of Science in Dublin, Ireland, to establish a formal organization that might give scientific recognition to psychic phenomena. While Barrett, Wallace, Crookes, and other distinguished men of science had observed mind-boggling mediumistic phenomena and had concluded that it was beyond imposture, their reports did not appear in any kind of peer review journal, a prerequisite for scientific acceptance.

Myers and Gurney agreed to the plan as long as their friend and mentor Professor Henry Sidgwick, also a Cambridge classical scholar, be appointed the organization’s first president. Thus, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) came into existence, Barrett serving as the first vice-president and both Myers and Gurney on its council as well as its chief investigators. Rather than declare that their research was aimed at finding evidence for life after death, the SPR focused on subjects that seemed to suggest that the mind was not totally dependent on the brain—primarily thought transference, which Myers renamed “telepathy,” hypnotism, dreams, apparitions, haunts, and the physical phenomena of Spiritualism, such as levitations and materializations. It was no doubt concluded that validation of some or all of these phenomena would strongly suggest life after death, but the organizers deemed it best to avoid making this a formal objective lest it discredit the organization among the many scientific fundamentalists of the day. They may have also felt that the churches would resent the SPR’s encroachment into their domain if life after death were to be listed among the SPR’s areas of study.

In 1886 Myers, Gurney, and Frank Podmore collaborated in the SPR’s first outstanding work, Phantasms of the Living. This 1,300-page book was produced primarily by Gurney. It was, however, Myers’s 1903 book, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, published two years after Myers’s death, that most impacted the field. In it, Myers explored disintegrations of personality, genius, dreams, hypnotism, sensory automatism, phantasms of the dead, motor automa­tism, trance, demonic possession, and ecstasy.

“In the long story of man’s endeavors to understand his own environment and to govern his own fate, there is one gap or omission so singular that its simple statement has the air of a paradox,” Myers began the Introduction to Human Personality. “Yet, it is strictly true to say that man has never yet applied the methods of modern science to the problem which most profoundly concerns him—whether or not his personality involves any element which can survive bodily death.”

Through his extensive scientific research, Myers’s original belief in the survival of the consciousness at death was restored. “Telepathy, I have said, looks like a law prevailing in the spiritual as well as in the material world,” he wrote. “And that it does so prevail, I now add, is proved by the fact that those who communicated with us telepathically in this world communicate with us telepathically from the other world.”

Human Personality is considered the seminal work in the field of psychical research and was the first book dealing with the psychology of the subconscious or subliminal activity available to the English-speaking world. “In this great book Myers brought together an immense store of information about the always strange and often wonderful goings-on in the upper stores of a man’s soul-house,” Huxley wrote. “And this information he presents within a theoretical frame of reference that takes account not only of the rats and beetles in the cellarage, but also of those treasures, birds and angels so largely ignored by Freud and his followers.”

As William James saw it, psychology was suddenly divided into two separate schools, the “classic-academic” and the “romantic.” The former looked for exact measurements and replication, while wanting to explain things by as few principles as possible. “A sort of sunlit terrace was exhibited on which it took its exercise,” James explained the classic-academic school. “But where that terrace stopped, the mind stopped.”

Myers and several other psychologists went beyond the terrace and into the shrubs by introducing something infinitely more complex than what had been suspected. In so doing, James felt that the beauty of academic neatness was lost. “I expect that Myers will ere long distinctly figure in mental science as the radical leader in what I have called the romantic movement,” James offered. “Through him for the first time, psychologists are in possession of their full material, and mental phenomena are set down in an adequate inventory.”

And while the romantic school seemed to triumph, at least in James’s mind, he recognized that most psychologists have lingering prejudices which they tend to obey and favor nobler simplicity. Thus, James concluded that it would be some time before the romantic school would be able to celebrate its victory.

James became a close friend of Myers’s and was present at his deathbed in Rome when Myers died of Bright’s disease, a kidney disorder, on January 17, 1901, at age 57. James observed that “his serenity, in fact, his eagerness to go, and his extraordinary intellectual vitality up to the very time the death agony began, and even in the midst of it, were a superb spectacle and deeply impressed the doctors, as well as ourselves.”

Among the others belonging to the romantic school was Dr. Charles Richet, the 1913 Nobel Prize winner in medicine. “If Myers was not a mystic,” Richet eulogized him, “he had all the faith of a mystic and the ardour of an apostle, in conjunction with the sagacity and precision of a savant.”

Sir Oliver Lodge, an esteemed physicist and radio pioneer who joined the SPR a year after its formation, stated that Myers had been, before his untimely death, “laying the foundation for a cosmic philosophy, a scheme of existence as large and comprehensive and well founded as any that have appeared.”

Through their work with the SPR, including the investigations of mediums Leonora Piper and Eusapia Palladino, Lodge and Myers became good friends. In his autobiography, Lodge stated that Myers had a remarkable interest in science and a portentous memory. He knew the Aeneid by heart and could recite many of the Bab Ballads without difficulty. Lodge recalled attending one of Myers’s lectures on the poet Crabbe, calling it a remarkable tour de force. “He had no notes,” Lodge wrote, “but after speaking of Crabbe and his poetry in unexpectedly eulogistic terms, he recited from memory whole reams of Crabbe’s poetry, which I had never heard before, and was ignorant of.”

It was Myers, Lodge explained, who broke down his skepticism and showed him the reasonableness of the survival hypothesis. “He it was who put evidence in my way such as gradually convinced me of the truth of the doctrine.” Lodge further wrote that he sometimes questioned a career decision he had made many years earlier, but then he would remind himself that had he not made that decision he might not have crossed paths with Myers. Thus, he was certain he had made the right decision.

A month after Myers’s death, Lodge and his wife Mary were sitting with Rosalie Thompson, a trance medium, in Birmingham, when they first heard from Myers. Lodge recorded that Myers struggled in his initial attempts to communicate. “Lodge, it is not as easy as I thought in my impatience,” Myers explained his difficulty after some delay. “Gurney says I am getting on first rate. But I am short of breath.” (Gurney had died in 1888.) He also mentioned that he had met up with Sidgwick, who had died several months before Myers, and that Sidgwick was still a skeptic.

Myers added that he was confused when he first arrived on the other side, before he realized he was dead. “I thought I had lost my way in a strange town, and I groped my way along the passage,” he said. “And even when I saw people that I knew were dead, I thought they were only visions. I have not seen Tennyson yet by the way.”(The famous poet had been an early member of the SPR and had died in 1892.)

As Myers further awakened and learned how to communicate, he began sending messages through other mediums. Some of the messages were very fragmented and made no sense until they were collected and pieced together to make complete ideas. “The whole process seemed at times like a giant Victorian word game (anagrams, cryptic puzzles, strange puns and rhymes), of which, in fact, Myers and his colleagues…were inordinately fond,” Trevor Hamilton, Myers’s biographer (Immortal Longings, 2009), explains. “These so-called ‘cross-correspondences’ were interpreted by other researchers as attempts by Myers, as well as by Gurney and Sidgwick, both of whom preceded him in death, to overcome some of the objections to mediumship, including fraud and telepathy. [They suggested] a high level of collective design and purpose, implying character, intention and personality.”

But it became increasingly clear there were many obstacles to clear communication that he could not overcome. “Oh, I am feeble with eagerness—how can I best be identified,” Myers communicated through the mediumship of Alice Macdonald Fleming, the sister of author Rudyard Kipling. Again, through Mrs. Fleming, he communicated, “If it were possible for the soul to die back into earth life again I should die from the sheer yearning to reach you to tell you that all we imagined is not half wonderful enough for the truth.” And in a communication through Leonora Piper, he said, “I am trying with all the forces…together to prove that I am Myers.”

One message for Sidgwick’s widow, Eleanor, who had been very active in the SPR, read, “Now, dear Mrs. Sidgwick, in the future have no doubt or fear of so called death, as there is none.”

In another communication, Myers gave this message about the afterlife: “The reality is infinitely more wonderful than our most daring conjectures. Indeed, no conjecture is sufficiently daring.”

In 1924, Geraldine Cummins, a renowned automatic writing medium from Ireland, began receiving messages purportedly from Myers. These messages told much about the afterlife environment and were combined in two books, Be­yond Human Personality (1932) and The Road to Immortality (1933). A number of the messages dealt with the subliminal self. In one of them the purported Myers explained that after death, the person who is sufficiently developed enters into the subliminal self. However, the relationship of the supraliminal (conscious) mind and the subliminal (subconscious) are not quite what he had imagined or what psychologists still living believe. “I have come to realize that actually, in the sense of the pure mind, there is no supraliminal part,” he communicated. “There is in its stead an infinitely complicated machine which has become more and more subtilized through the centuries, so that now it responds to the slightest of vibrations, sent out by the subliminal, or what you may perhaps call the subconscious, mind.” He went on to give a detailed explanation as to how the mind has evolved since primitive times and how body, mind, and soul interact with each other.

While Professor James expected the romantic school of psychology to celebrate its victory in the future, he gave no indication that he thought it would be delayed as long as it has. Clearly, the classic-academic school has succeeded in digging a moat around that sunlit terrace and filling it with alligators, thereby preventing the more enlightened and less combative romantics from making any headway.

Frederic William Henry Myers is no doubt shaking his head in disgust and bewilderment.


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