Page images

tives or friends, even though they have never been known to the medium in life; sometimes manifesting their power in the production of strange many-coloured designs, having no prototypes in anything we know either in heaven above, or on the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth ;' but having a spiritual significance which may either be revealed through the individual by whom they are executed, or made known through some other interpreter. Then, again, there are the medical mediums' who may be presumed to be animated by the spirit of departed doctors, possessing a deeper diagnostic insight and greater therapeutic powers than they enjoyed on earth; for they either 'cure the sick by the hand of the medium being floated to the patient by a power felt but not seen, and placed on the diseased part of the body, the medium till then not knowing where the diseased part is,' or they dictate prescriptions for material medicines to be made up by the family druggist, and used as directed.'

In all these forms of communication the medium,' if not altogether wide-awake, is, at any rate, not asleep; and though the spirits do not always attend when summoned, the receptive powers of the 'medium' do not seem to be ever wanting. In the case of the “trance-mediums, however, it is different. They pass into a state which, as regards the outer world, is one of complete unconsciousness; and in this condition they manifest far more extraordinary powers, of which the pouring forth of some of the purest and most magnificent poetry the world has ever seen’ is one of the least. The spiritual revelations made by these trancemediums are to serve as the foundation of the religion of the future.' A new set of Ten Commandments has already been issued by Mrs. Emma Hardinge; and the two great Christian precepts on which ‘bang all the Law and the Prophets,' will, doubtless, be soon superseded by the higher teaching of some yet more enlightened Spiritualist.

But as there are obstinate sceptics, who are prejudiced enough to affirm that all these extraordinary communications represent nothing more than the ordinary workings of the minds and bodies of their supposed recipients, under conditions well understood by physiologists and psychologists, the spirits occasionally vouchsafe to manifest their presence by their direct action on material bodies, inanimate as well as animate. Chairs and tables are listed into the air, or drawn along the floor, without the contact of human hands; exquisite melodies are given forth by pianos, accordions, and guitars, without the instrumentality of any but invisible perforiners; and—wonder of wonders ! — living men and women are caught up' from the ground and borne aloft in the air: sometimes floating between the heads of


the circle’ and the ceiling of the apartment in which they were sitting together; sometimes being carried through open windows into another chamber of the same house; but sometimes being transported from one house to another at miles' distance, and entering chambers of which the doors and windows are firmly closed ; so that the only mode of accounting for their ingress is to suppose that the ceiling has dissolved itself into its constituent atoms, to allow the fleshly—not the spiritual—visitor to enter, and has then closed together again into its pristine continuity. This, be it observed, is the explanation offered, in sober seriousness, by spiritualists themselves. All these wonders we are gravely called on to believe on the testimony of multitudes who knowo them to be true;' and we are assured that their purpose

is to convince an unbelieving world that the dead still live, and hold direct communication with those whom they have left behind them on earth.'

Now, with regard to a large part of the phenomena which fall under the first and second of the above categories, we are ready to admit, in limine, that they may occur independently of any intentional or consciously-exerted agency on the part of the individuals who manifest them, and that they are, to that extent, genuine. We are intimately acquainted with ‘writing' and drawing mediums, whose honesty we regard as beyond all question, and who assure us most positively that the products of their pencils are not knowingly or designedly executed by them; their hands being guided, not by any will of their own, but by some power altogether independent of it. And we have 'assisted' at spiritual séances, at which answers have been given, by the tilting of tables, to questions addressed to the supposed spiritual visitants; and have had reason for accepting, with the fullest confidence, the assurance of our coadjutors that they had no more consciousness of having been in any way parties to the movements than we had ourselves. Of course, there are pretenders to the possession of these as of other'occult' powers, who, either for gain or for amusement, practise on the credulity of the public. We put such out of the question for the time, and address ourselves to the consideration of the phenomena which have presented themselves within our own experience, under conditions which satisfy us that, although the performers are wrong in assigning them to spiritual agency,' they are quite justified in affirming their own unconsciousness of any active participation in their production.

Our position, then, is that the so-called spiritual communications come from within, not from without, the individuals who suppose themselves to be the recipients of them; that they


belong to the class termed subjective? by physiologists and psychologists; and that the movements by which they are expressed, whether the tilting of tables or the writing of planchettes, are really produced by their own muscular action, exerted independently of their own wills and quite unconsciously to themselves. And of the truth of this position we hope to be able to satisfy every unprejudiced reader, though we entirely despair of convincing such as have already surrendered their common sense to the delusions of a credulous imagination.

The doctrine of unconscious muscular action' is not, as the spiritualists allege, a 'hypothesis' invented for the occasion, but is one of the best established principles of physiology, having its basis in daily and hourly experience, the only question being as to the extent of its applicability. What is the beating of the heart' but unconscious muscular action? our consciousness being only affected by the movement when makes itself felt by undue violence. What is the drawing of the breath' but involuntary muscular action, of which we only become conscious when we direct our attention to it? That which is true of these instinctive or primarily-automatic movements is no less true-as was shown a hundred years since by Hartley-of many others, which, learned in the first instance by voluntary effort, become

secondarily - automatic' by habitual repetition. Has it never occurred to one of these objectors to be carried along by the "unconscious muscular action of his legs, whilst either engaged in an interesting conversation with a friend or deeply engrossed in a train of thoughts of his own, so that he finds himself at his destination before he knew that he had done more than set out towards it? Could not almost any of our fair readers remember to have played a piece of music, under circumstances so distracting to her thoughts and feelings that she has come to the end without the least idea of how she ever got through it'? And has not the like experience occurred to many a member of the stronger sex, who has been called on, under similar circumstances, to read aloud, or to go through a public recitation ? The celebrated prestidigitateur Robert Houdin, whose entertaining autobiography affords many valuable lessons in psychology to those who know how to profit by them, tells us that in early life he trained himself to read a book with attention whilst keeping four balls in the air ; and that he so far retained this power, after an almost entire disuse of it for thirty years, as to be able still to read with ease whilst keeping up three balls. He had also trained himself to solve mechanical problems whilst exhibiting conjuring feats that would seem to require the most intense and unremitting attention. We have been assured by an intimate friend of the late Albert Smith that he frequently went through his performances of Mont Blanc' so mechanically as to be quite unconscious of what he was doing, his mind being otherwise occupied throughout. In these and similar cases, the movements depend upon the reflex action of that lower division of the nervous centres which includes the spinal cord and the ganglia of special sense at its summit. It is through the original endowments of this nervous tract that those instinctive movements are performed, which are either essential to the maintenance of our existence—as is the case with the act of breathing throughout life, and with the act of sucking in infancy—or serve for the protection of important organs from injury, as when the eyelids close at a flash of light or a loud sound.* And it is through their acquired endowments that those habitual movements and trains of movement are carried on, without anything more than initiation by the Will, which constitute a much larger part of our daily life than is commonly supposed. Each separate muscular contraction, in this class of movements, may be prompted by a fresh sensory suggestion, immediately received from without; as where the fingers of the piano-forte player or the lips of the reader automatically respond to the sight of the notes or the words on the pages before them. But in such cases as those of Houdin or Albert Smith, it would seem as if the nervous mechanism (in accordance with a well-known law of nutrition) had so shaped itself in accordance with the use habitually made of it as to execute a long series of varied actions without any renewed prompting from without, each contraction being excited by the sensory impression produced by that which preceded it; just as when the lifting of a lever in starting'a locomotive or a spinning.mule gives rise to that wonderful succession of diverse movements, for the performance of which its organisation was adapted by the constructive genius of a Stephenson or a Roberts.

intimate * It was by involuntary and unconscious muscular action, that one of our most distinguished chemists a few years ago escaped the loss of his sight, whilst engaged in the investigation of a new compound he had discovered, of tremendously explosive power. He was looking at a small quantity of this liquid in a bottle held up before his eyes, when he saw a flash of light and heard a loud detonation, the bottle being shivered into fragments of extreme minuteness. At the first moment he believed that these fragments had been driven into his eyes, probably blinding him for life ; but he presently found to his intense relief that the fragments had all been driven into the skin of his eyelids, which had been closed by the reflex protective action of his sensory ganglia, in a shorter time than that required for the passage of the particles of glass from his hand to his face.

It may be said, however, that these and similar facts merely show that movements which have become mechanical' by habit may be performed involuntarily and unconsciously, and


[ocr errors]

that they afford no ground for affirming that such movements as obviously express ideas or other forms of mental activity can take place with equal independence of the will or freedom from conscious exertion of the muscles. Here, again, we can meet our objector by showing that such a modus operandi has long been one of the admitted verities of physiological science. As far back as the year 1844, a very important memoir was published by Dr. Laycock (now Professor of Medicine in the University of Edinburgh) on the Reflex Action of the Brain,' in which he most distinctly showed that involuntary muscular movements take place in respondence not merely to sensations but to ideas; and not merely at the prompting of ideas actually before the mind, but through the action of the substrata left by past mental operations. Thus, for example, the convulsive paroxysm of hydrophobia may be excited not merely by the sight or the sound of water, but by the idea of water suggested either by a picture or by the verbal mention of it. But as Dr. Laycock did not at that time recognise the essential distinctness of the sensory ganglia from the cerebrum, which—being so obscurely marked in the brain of man as to be commonly overlooked --can only be properly appreciated by the student of Comparative Anatomy, he confounded together the two classes of actions of which they are the separate instruments, and his views did not receive the attention they merited. The doctrine of the “reflex action of the sensory ganglia' having been long previously taught by Dr. Carpenter, under the title of 'Sensorimotor Activity,' he was subsequently led, by Dr. Laycock's reasoning, to see that it might be extended to the cerebrum proper. And on the 12th of March, 1852, some months before the Table-turning epidemic broke out, he delivered a lecture, at the Royal Institution, on what he termed the Ideo-motor principle of action; which consists in the involuntary response made by the muscles to ideas with which the mind may be possessed when the directing power of the will is in abeyance. Considered as the 'reflex action of the cerebrum proper"" this Ideo-motor principle,” said Dr. Carpenter, “finds its appropriate place in the physiological system, which would, indeed, be incomplete without it. And, when it is once recognised, it may be applied to the explanation of numerous phenomena which have been a source of perplexity to many who have been convinced of their genuineness, and who could not see any mode of reconciling them with the known laws of nervous action. These phenomena have been clearly proved to depend upon the state of expectant attention on the part of the performer; his will being temporarily withdrawn from the control of his muscles by the state of abstraction


« PreviousContinue »