Roberts, F. Somerville. An Extension of the 'Psychological Factor' in Tyrrell's Theory of Apparitions, JSPR, 56, 1989-91, 216-20.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Peter Roberts.
List of papers by the author; archived at



An Extension of the 'Psychological Factor' in Tyrrell's Theory of Apparitions


The part played by the 'Psychological Factor' in Tyrrell's theory is referred to briefly. The applicability of his 'idea-pattern' hypothesis to an extended range of perceptual phenomena is discussed in detail, suggesting that the concept has a substantive basis. The difficulty this situation raises for the mind brain identity hypothesis is considered. The similarity between autokinesis and voluntary perception is described, together with the remarkably strong support for dualism offered by the autokinetic phenomenon. A theory to account for autokinesis, based on Tyrrell's 'idea-pattern' is suggested.

 The basis of Tyrrell's theory of apparitions {1} is that hallucinatory images indistinguishable from sensory images are created in a stratum of consciousness independent of the brain, and that such hallucinatory images (i.e. apparations) are generated from a 'psychological idea-pattern' existing within the personality. As apparitions of the 'crisis' type could arise between an agent and percipient hundreds, or even thousands, of miles apart, he postulated that the 'idea-pattern' could be telepathically induced.

Tyrrell does not appear to have realised that, minus its telepathic connotations, his hypothesis was applicable to a wide range of parapsychological phenomena, and also to hypnotic hallucinations, to voluntary perception and to many aspects of sensory perception. The circumstantial evidence supporting his theory in these areas is so extensive that consideration must be given to the possibility that Tyrrell, probably unknowingly, provided a rational theory to account for many anomalous phenomena, in addition to that for apparitions.

The aspect of perception to which his theory is most readily applicable is sensory perception. According to his hypothesis, the various senses create their own brain states which act as the initiating 'ideas' which generate the relevant perceptual experience within the independent stratum of consciousness. The theory is, of course, open to the objections of the mind brain identity theorists who maintain that the hypothetical stratum is unnecessary, and that the brain configuration itself is the image, or is at least an integral part of it. There are, however, formidable difficulties with this theory which do not arise with the 'idea' hypothesis. For instance, although we have two retinal systems we see only one image, which could result from the fact that only one 'idea' is involved and therefore only one image is created. Similarly, when we close one eye and expect to halve the illumination of the field of vision, it is in fact not significantly affected, presumably because the other eye by itself is sufficient to initiate the process leading to the creation of the 'idea'.

Another phenomenon which clearly indicates the possibility that perceptual images are created by an 'idea', and are not necessarily based on a cerebral state, is hypnotic instruction. As reports on this are sometimes subjective, it must be shown there are good grounds for accepting the validity of the hypnotic creation of conscious experience, and of its control, and these have been suggested by Roberts. {2} These observations also indicated that hypnotic hallucinations are indistinguishable from similar sensory images, and in addition, that these criteria apply not only to visual images, but also to the whole range of perceptual experience.

In these circumstances it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that similar hallucinatory and sensory images comprise the same elements and exist in the same level of consciousness. Whilst one image has arisen from a molecular pattern in the visual cortex, there does not appear to be any evidence suggesting that the visual cortex is involved in the creation of the hallucinatory image.

In this respect it is generally accepted that cerebral activity occurs when an hallucination is being experienced, and experiments have shown that when sensory and hallucinatory images are identical, the EEG is the same for both. As the sensory image is the result of a brain state, it is natural to claim that when an identical EEG reading is recorded for the hallucinatory image, that also is the result of a similar brain state. However, it does not seem to have been established that the significant EEGs arise prior to the creation of the hallucinatory percepts, when they could indicate cerebral cause and effect, or whether they follow the onset of the hallucination, when obviously the brain state cannot be causing the visual image. Until it can be shown otherwise, such experiments cannot form grounds for claiming that hallucinatory percepts are the result of cerebral activity.

Percepts of any kind almost invariably result in cerebral activity; when I have a visual percept, sensory or hallucinatory, of a car tearing straight at me, I have the same cerebral reaction in each case, resulting ultimately in a violent jump. As I am not able to distinguish between hallucinatory and sensory images, my EEG will be the same in both cases, but this fact does not invalidate the conclusions drawn from hypnotic experiments, i.e., that the induced images are apparently independent of brain initiation. In fact, the observed evidence strongly suggests that this is the case since the hallucinatory image is able to obliterate the sensory image, either entirely or in part. In the same way there is no reason to believe that other areas of the brain, associated with the other senses, take any part in the hypnotic hallucinatory process.

What, then, initiates the hallucinatory image? There would appear to be good reason for considering the possibility of an 'idea' being the originating agency. Take the case of a suitably hypnotised subject instructed that he will see flowers on an existing table, where there are in fact none. There is no doubt but that he will see a 'real' flower arrangement, and it will be real in all respects, i.e., in colour, shape, scent, texture, etc. All this has been created by nothing more than air pressure on the ear-drum, which is therefore able to create a molecular and electro-neural arrangement in the visual system identical to that resulting from light waves activating the retina.

There would appear to be only two ways in which this could happen. One is that there is a direct physical electro-neural-chemical chain of reaction from the eardrum to the visual cortex, on the lines of the neural link in vision between the retina and the visual cortex. However, the verbal creation of the same image is a totally different procedure. In this case, stimuli from one sense organ have to generate the end product of an entirely different sense organ, for example, the ear has ultimately to create a visual image. On this basis, it could be argued that the perceptual end product of eating fish and chips could be the experience of listening to a symphony. The objections to such a theory are indeed formidable and outside the scope of this Note, but a typical example is the necessity of explaining how such an utterly useless faculty was developed through organic evolution.

The alternative is that at some point 'meaning' is extracted from the incoming auditory impulses, and the agent operating this process, together with the information it has acquired, is able to exert a controlling influence on the ultimate perceptual experience. This is clearly a function of consciousness, and is basically the 'idea' which creates the visual and other perceptual images. Whilst 'meaning' is something which definitely exists, it cannot be described in physical terms, as can the cerebral activity from which it originates, thereby suggesting it may be something more than a physical manifestation. The question then arises as to whether or not the controlling 'idea' is able to develop an image or experience directly in the consciousness, as proposed by Tyrrell. If so, this could explain in a simple manner why hallucinatory percepts of the five senses can be created so effectively. It is possible it is in this way that the verbal instruction of 'flowers' develops an 'idea' and from this consciousness creates within itself an hallucinatory image of flowers complete with the floral characteristics of colour, scent, etc., without the necessity of an initiating brain configuration.

It can be argued that consciousness somehow translates the information it has acquired back into electro-neural signals which are simply directed to the appropriate brain area for further action, such as with the hearing of an instruction followed, if so willed, by the relevant physical or mental action. This step has evolved to meet the needs of developing creatures, but even so it is still unknown whether it is a physiological process or not.

However, the case of an instruction to hallucinate received under hypnosis is quite different. It is not perceived in a normal conscious state, voluntary effort does not control its execution and its influence is not directed to any recognizable motor system. Instead, the aural area of consciousness has to direct its instructions, if visual, into channels leading to the visual cortex (or any other area of the brain which the theory necessitates must be involved in visual perception) and, moreover, to any or all parts of the brain simultaneously, should any of the other senses be concerned.

With such an extensive demand of extraneous requirements beyond the normal range of its operations, the question must arise as to whether the functioning of this stratum of consciousness can be a purely physical process, or whether some type of dualistic operation, based on the 'idea' hypothesis, and with all-pervading contact with the whole brain at the same time, is not a more plausible theory.

The claim that this aspect of consciousness is solely an electro-neural function is merely a reversion to the theory of a continuous neural link between ear and image, with the virtually insuperable difficulties this presents, and it is no argument in its defence to claim that these inexplicable activities are cerebral, but that the brain structure and its processing are so extremely complex, that not even a tentative modus operandi can be offered.

In the case of voluntary perception, it is somewhat difficult to avoid accepting the 'idea' theory as being the most likely explanation. In the examples of this phenomenon already given in the Journal, {3} the rotating arm is seen to reverse direction simply by the observer 'willing it' to do so. In other words, the 'idea' is present that the arm will reverse direction and the image immediately behaves accordingly, in spite of the fact that the visual system is registering the opposite direction. This is a verifiable fact and gives rise to two very important deductions. The first is that, as with hypnotic images, a visual percept can apparently be created without a corresponding reaction in the visual cortex. The second point is one which Tyrrell also postulated as a foundation of his theory, namely, that the nebulous entity he termed an 'idea' was a more potent factor in perception than a brain state. This fact raises the question as to whether the displacement of the sensory image could be a physiological function, or whether it is more probably an interplay of psychical influences within an independent stratum of consciousness, where the dominant agency determines the nature of the image.

The dominant 'idea' theory offers an explanation of many other anomalous phenomena. For example, it gives a plausible reason why hallucinations can be experienced in spite of the visual cortex exhibiting something entirely different, and why a brain pattern registering severe pain is nullified by a verbal command creating the 'idea' that no pain can be experienced.

Closely related to voluntary perception is autokinesis. If a dim light such as a lighted cigarette is placed at one end of a room in total darkness, with the observer at the other he will, within a few seconds, see the light beginning to move, although, of course, it is stationary. The movement is random and erratic, it can be in any direction, fast or slow, sudden or gradual. Several theories have been put forward to explain this situation and some have been critically examined by Gregory {4} who proposed that the cause of the spot of light wandering in the dark is the corrective signals applied to the eye muscles to prevent the eyes from moving.

What might prove to be a simpler explanation follows from Gregory's statement (p. 99) that people tend to see the light moving in the same direction as other people present claim to see it moving. It follows that there could be a group with perhaps a dozen observers seeing the light move in the same direction. This means that a dozen individuals each suddenly develops exactly the same molecular structure and electro-neural pattern, at precisely the same moment, in the same visual areas. As no sensory stimulus is involved (the light is stationary), the situation must be the result of prior physiological activity, identical in each case; for example, if it is claimed the light movement is the result of moving particles in the aqueous humour, everybody must have the same sized particles in exactly the same place at the same time, moving in the same direction at the same speed, and this situation arises every time the experiment is carried out. The chances of such an occurrence arising fortuitously are remote in the extreme, in fact, virtually impossible, and these conditions apply to any theory based on a physiological function. The inference is obvious.

What appears to be taking place, according to the 'idea' hypothesis, is that at first all the observers perceive the light as stationary. One observer claims 'the light is moving upwards' and each observer then has an 'idea' in his consciousness which creates the image of the light moving upwards, and all responsive observers will see the light doing so, as Gregory points out.

In the case of the solitary observer, whose sensory image of the light is not primarily influenced by an 'idea' the image remains either stationary or moves in an entirely random manner. On the other hand, most observers are able to control the movement simply by 'willing' it (i.e., by convincing themselves they are able to do so), as with the anemometer effect described in an earlier issue of the Journal. {2} Control of movement is total and the light can be directed in whichever direction may be desired, or it can be rendered stationary. The observer sees it follow his 'willed' direction because there is now an 'idea' in the consciousness which is controlling the behaviour of the image. Most people will have no difficulty in confirming this phenomenon for themselves.

As has already been mentioned, experiments with autokinesis and voluntary perception strongly indicate that the visual images being perceived arise simply from a belief (i.e., TyrrelPs 'idea-pattern') in the observer's consciousness and are apparently not related to activity of the visual cortex. Ample confirmation of this situation is provided by hypnotic hallucinations which arise from an 'idea' implanted by an external agent. There would appear to be little doubt but that the percepts from all three sources are created by the same mechanism, comprise the same elements and exist in the same area of consciousness. Since sensory and hallucinatory images are indistinguishable, there would appear to be good grounds for including sensory perception. However, there is one serious objection in that sensory images are obviously not initiated basically by an 'idea', but by a brain state, and yet it can be shown that their behaviour may be controlled by nothing more than an 'idea'. This implies that the visual cortex cannot be an integral part of the image (contrary to a widely held opinion), nor can it create the image as some kind of physiological appendage. It seems merely to provide information from which the consciousness may, or may not, create a percept.

Normally, in the creation of a percept, consciousness always follows a pattern in the visual cortex, and it does so with meticulous exactitude, as otherwise life would clearly be impossible. Such an arrangement has undoubtedly come into existence, as Tyrrell points out in considerable detail, through biological necessity in the course of evolution. Nevertheless, the overriding control of such a reliable procedure by an insubstantial 'idea' is a phenomenon which indisputably exists, as can be demonstrated experimentally. How and why, then, has such an alien influence become part of the perceptual process? Certainly not through evolution which, however, is the only technique possible for the development of biological faculties. The most likely alternative is that 'idea control' is an inherent quality or characteristic of the level of consciousness involved, and since it did not arise biologically, the only conclusion must be that the stratum of consciousness encompassing it, is itself not a physiological entity.

The significance of the part played by the 'idea' hypothesis in the apparitional theory has been fully covered by Tyrrell and does not arise here. However, taking into account the possibly non-physical nature of the requisite stratum of consciousness, it is clearly possible that an 'idea' could arise from one or more psychical sources and thus provide a plausible theory for several other types of parapsychological phenomena. If the psychically inspired 'idea' is of a scene, it could explain the many accounts in the literature of people finding themselves in totally inexplicable surroundings, and if these have historical associations, we get the Versailles type of experience recorded by Jourdain and Moberly. {5} If the observer is of, say, a religious disposition, the 'idea' may well create a holy figure in a grotto or on a church wall. Although widely different in their presentation, all these manifestations, and those aspects of perception already discussed, are in fact simply different aspects of the one phenomenon, that is, an image arising in the consciousness on the inducement of an 'idea', for which in some cases there is apparently no physical basis.

It is probably useless to speculate on the nature of the 'idea-pattern' and its associated stratum of consciousness, because if these are non-physical entities, as their behaviour would suggest, then the human intelligence, with its limitations, may be incapable of comprehending them. We might have no alternative but to be content with observing their manifestations. However, the extensive range of phenomena in which they appear to operate suggests that this situation already presents a serious challenge to the mind brain identity theory and lends credence to many of the claims of parapsychology.

Ashford, Kindlestown Hill
Delgany, Co. Wicklow