Psychical Research in the History of Medicine and the Sciences

By Sarah Chaney

The Centre’s inaugural conference, organised by Andreas Sommer, was focused around creating a dialogue across the disciplines on psychical research in history, with speakers including historians, psychologists, neuroscientists and parapsychologists. As the conference organisers recognised, researchers in the field of nineteenth and twentieth-century parapsychology are often met with hostility, captured in terms such as “pseudoscience”, “irrational” and “quackery”. Yet this refusal to engage with a particular field of ideas may lead to sterility within both history and science, whereby research only confirms what we already think we know. As keynote speaker historian of science Ivor Grattan-Guinness pointed out, it is well to remain sceptical of scepticism!

Indeed, the papers indicated the diversity of the field of psychical research. Dr Richard Noakes, of the University of Exeter, highlighted the ways in which the state of experimental physics at the turn of the twentieth century predisposed scientists to take an interest in the so-called paranormal. As with psychical research, physics could be viewed as unstable, uncertain and often controversial. The results of experiments were often faint and highly open to interpretation. On the other hand, physicists were generally well-respected, and their status encouraged broader support for psychical research: indeed, in the 1920s, membership of the Society for Psychical Research reached its peak of around 12,000.

Renaud Evrard, of the University of Rouen, gave a historical talk on Pierre Janet’s experiments on mental suggestion and experimental psychology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a topic that fascinated him due to his own research on exceptional states. A clinical psychologist by profession, Evrard co-founded the Centre for Information, Research and Counselling on Exceptional Experiences in 2009. He worked on this topic for his doctoral dissertation, and discovered that the relationship between mystical or paranormal experiences and mental health was far more complex than is often allowed. CIRCEE offers French speakers an opportunity to discuss their experiences: perhaps for the purpose of advice, perhaps simply to become a part of future research.

The relationship between studying history and psychology was brought into sharp relief by this fascinating conference, and we hope that future events at the Centre will prove just as rich.




This post is reprinted from The Bethlem Blog of the Bethlem Royal Hosptal Archives and Museum. Dr Sarah Chaney recently defended her PhD thesis at the UCL Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines entitled’ Self-Mutilation and Psychiatry: Impulse, Identity and the Unconscious in British Explanations of Self-Inflicted Injury, c. 1864 – 1914′. She also curates the Damaging the Body seminar series.


One thought on “Psychical Research in the History of Medicine and the Sciences

  1. Pingback: Psychical Research in the History of Medicine and the Sciences | c19 Mad Men

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