Somerville Roberts, F. (1993). Universal perception: A challenge to materialism. JSPR, 59, 293-298
Reproduced with the kind permission of Peter Roberts.
List of papers by the author; archived at

Universal perception: A challenge to materialism

by F. Somerville Roberts,

An analysis of universal perception suggests that it cannot be a totally physiological function. The arguments strongly support the contention that parapsychology should be accepted as a discipline of science. A hypothesis is put forward based on Tyrrell's 'idea-pattern' theory which appears to resolve the paradoxes of universal perception.

Parapsychology is not a science. This is a fact which is not refuted by the claim that its ample and detailed literature justifiably demonstrates its scientific nature. What is lacking in parapsychology is one simple experiment, phenomenon, situation or observation which falls within the definition of being psychical and which can be repeatedly observed, and possibly manipulated, as and when required. The dictionary defines the psychical as being phenomena and conditions apparently outside the domain of physical laws, whilst the founders of this Society defined it as those faculties of man which appear inexplicable on any generally recognized hypothesis.

The realization of this situation is of vital importance to parapsychology. If such a situation cannot be established, then parapsychology will remain regarded by orthodox scientists as an interesting mixture of superstition and dubious procedures, and a mass of unproven claims. On the other hand, if it can be shown that even just one situation exists which cannot be explained in physical terms, then more will have been achieved towards the acceptance of parapsychology as a science than with all the existing experimental reports in the literature. It would show that some influence exists apart from the physical world, and this fact is an essential foundation for dualism and parapsychology. For this reason, no apologies are offered for the length and detail of the analysis and hypothesis being presented.

The great difficulty with psychical research is the transient nature of the phenomena being examined. However, there is one area of apparently psychical phenomena which can be observed and experimented with at any time. It was suggested several years ago by, I believe, Susan Blackmore, that the most promising line of research would be the study of consciousness, and this has been confirmed by recent work.

Many accounts of conscious activity for which no adequate physiological hypothesis has apparently yet been put forward, and which therefore by definition fall within the scope of being psychical, have already been published in this Journal (Roberts, 1991; 1992). These include binocular vision, the voluntary control of perception, the non-ageing of perceptual faculties, hypnotic perception and regression, the anomalies of sensory perception, etc. These phenomena, although apparently parapsychological, can be observed and investigated at any time, and their study should therefore qualify for acceptance as a science.

The full significance of this situation will be better realized if assessment is applied in detail to just one area — for example, universal perception. It should perhaps be pointed out that this analysis is unaffected by the nature of consciousness or the structure and composition of perceptual images, provided it is accepted that there is observation by the Self of an image resulting from sensory perception. The interpretation, or any subjective significance, of these images can be disregarded, as these have no bearing on the procedure by which they are produced.

The instinctive reaction to universal perception is that there cannot be any problem : if everybody is looking at the same object, they must all be seeing the same object. But this is not the case. It might therefore be advisable to refer briefly to the accepted facts of sensory perception. Although it is agreed that everybody looking at the same object, for example, a red rose, believes they are seeing the same red rose, it must be understood that what they are observing is their own mental picture of a rose. There is, in fact, no rose in the garden. There is something there which initiated the individual pictures of the red roses, but it is nothing more than a structure of vibrating organic molecules in the total blackness of physical space—there is no colour, no light, no scent, only a shape. Electromagnetic radiation from the sun is reflected from this object and, carrying its surface characteristics, falls on the retina, where it generates chemical and electro-chemical reactions. The resulting electro-neural signals are then conveyed by the optical system to the visual cortex, where the appropriate activity takes place. It will be appreciated that in all this physical activity there is nothing remotely resembling a red rose.

There is no divergence of opinion on this sequence of events between the materialist and the dualist. The next stage is the translation of the cortical pattern into what we see, and at this point materialism and dualism sharply divide. The materialist maintains that the cortical pattern is itself our sensation of vision, or that this is transferred to a further stage of cerebral processing, whilst the dualist suggests that a non-physiological stratum of consciousness interprets the cortical pattern to provide the picture of the rose.

In view of this situation, universal perception will now be considered in detail. If a large crowd of people, of all ages, sizes, sexes, races, etc., who had no imperfection or damage in the optical system were asked to look at the same object, such as a coloured mosaic design, and then, after having been supplied with the necessary coloured components, were asked to reproduce the design, they would all construct designs identical in every respect: in size, shape, colour, perspective, etc. If they did not, then life as we know it would obviously be impossible. When the individuals are constructing their designs they are reproducing their perceptual images, and since the designs they construct are identical in every detail, so, too, must be their perceptual images.

If the observers' perceptual images and their corresponding brain areas are physically connected, then the cortical patterns of everybody looking at the same object must also be identical. One could hardly have a variety of cortical patterns all producing exactly the same image. With a large-scale experiment, such as all available people in the world looking at the moon at the same time, then we would have the situation where billions of people must simultaneously have brain patterns identical to each other in all respects. This could be an interesting physiological situation.

However, it has been suggested that situations can exist where varying types of equipment all have the same output, and if this principle could be applied to universal perception it would mean that varying cortices could in fact produce similar images. For example, television sets are available in all designs, shapes and sizes, yet all produce identical images on their screens; or, a wide range of musical instruments are all capable of producing the note of middle C. The comparison is invalid. With the television sets, whatever the differences which may exist, the output of one electron beam unit, which is the equivalent of the visual cortex, is identical to every other. In addition, whilst all the musical instruments can certainly produce middle C, nobody would maintain that all such notes sounded the same.

A better comparison is probably obtained by considering a large group of violins. They are all basically the same in construction, all produce the same notes, yet the slightest difference between them in any respect, even in the density or grain direction of the wood, is immediately apparent to the musical ear. It is thus clear that if the cortical patterns are different, so, too, must be their dependent images; yet experiments show that these are all identical. From this it follows that in the experiment all the cortical patterns are identical.

However, it can be shown that the visual cortex of each subject in such an experiment is, in fact, different from every other. Everybody's physiological functions and characteristics, whilst being similar in general appearance, are completely different in detail. We all have faces but each one is different, as are our finger-prints, genes and the way we walk, talk, think, learn, respond to emotion and so on. Only the optical system and the visual area of the brain appear immune from variations, and as such variations, or mutations, are the basis of evolution it is necessary to explain how such an isolated and exceptional faculty ever came into existence; it was certainly not by any accepted evolutionary procedure.

One indisputable pointer indicating that there is variation in the cortices is the fact that the observers in an experiment will be of all ages, and all sections of the brain will change as it grows older. In the experiment there will be brains at different stages of development and efficiency. There would appear to be little doubt but that the whole visual system does in fact carry the normal variations between individuals which occur in all physiological systems. This leaves the question as to how varying cortices create identical percepts.

It has been suggested that in these experiments the cortices are indeed all different, but that there is some kind of undefined compensatory device in the brain, perhaps similar to the automatic volume control of a radio set based on computer technology, which in some unspecified way adjusts the images so that they are identical. However, there are several objections to this type of analogy. For example, an automatic volume control is designed, constructed and programmed by an external intelligence for a specific purpose, and the introduction of External Intelligence into perception would create a highly controversial situation. In addition, such a device, as part of the brain, must deteriorate in efficiency with the normal ageing of any physiological function, but such a decay in perception has not been recorded.

The lack of age deterioration in perception is a most important factor in assessing the nature of perception and must be seen in its proper perspective. In the group of observers in the mosaic-design experiment there will have been very young people and very old, yet both types register identical images. This shows that perception is as effective in old age as it is in adolescence, which is something everyday experience appears to confirm. Therefore the agency which creates perceptual images does not deteriorate as it gets older. If it is cerebral, then there is a living organic entity which is immune from the changes and decay normally leading to death. Such a phenomenon is apparently outside the domain of physical law and therefore falls within the definition of the psychical.

The paradox with universal perception arises from the fact that experiments show that all participants have the same perceptual image and that, since perceptual images are dependent on the visual cortex, they all must have identical cortical patterns, which physiologically is highly improbable. At the same time, experiments also show that the cortices are in fact all different, within mutational limits; yet they all result in absolutely identical images, which is even more improbable. All this activity takes place within a system which does not change and decay with the passing years, and this situation is not just improbable but virtually impossible.

On the other hand, there is an adequate non-physiological hypothesis to explain this situation, based on Tyrrell's 'idea-pattern' (1953) theory, the principles of which can be used to explain many phenomena in the field of perception, which otherwise at present are inexplicable (Roberts, 1990). Tyrrell proposed that visual perception relied on a stratum of consciousness which was independent of the brain. Within this stratum there took place the creation of the perceptual images observed by consciousness.

Since the stratum is not physically connected to the brain, the images cannot be physically caused by the visual cortex, and they only follow the retinal pattern which it exhibits. This situation allows the possibility of other agencies creating images, and it has been found that there are at least four image-initiating agents in addition to sensory stimuli. These are volition, suggestion, hypnosis and possibly telepathy, and as the images they create are indistinguishable from sensory images they must be constructed in the same way and comprise the same elements. These agencies create a belief in the stratum of consciousness, which is then translated into the appropriate image. In the same way, consciousness receives a signal from the visual cortex, which it can follow up if it wishes to. That is why an image created by volition is able to supersede a sensory image, even though the retinal signal continues to register in a normal manner, and that is why the field of vision may comprise partly percept induced by sensory stimulus and partly that induced by, say, suggestion, as in hypnosis.

This stratum of consciousness is not affected by the observer's bodily condition (apart from injury), because perception is seen to be as detailed and clear when he or she is suffering from high blood pressure, exhaustion, depression, nausea, etc., as when perfectly fit; yet these and similar conditions adversely affect all physiological activities, thereby suggesting that perception is not subject to physiological constraints. This is supported by the fact that perception is not affected by ageing, as shown by the mosaic-design experiment.

The explanation of such situations could be that consciousness can construct fully detailed images from a minimum of cerebral information; in fact, it can do so from nothing more than an idea or belief. A readily observable aspect of this phenomenon is the fact that the field of vision does not include a blank area caused by the blind spot in the eye. In this case it would appear that consciousness is able, with sufficient information from the blind-spot fringes, simply to fill in the details of the image it has created.

Even if the visual cortex, due to ageing or bodily conditions, is deficient or imperfect in the configuration it presents, consciousness nevertheless constructs the full image we observe, a characteristic it has developed through necessity during the course of evolution.

Here, then, is the possible explanation of the fact that perception appears to be independent of the passing of time and the normal changes in an individual's cortex, and why a crowd of people with differing cortical patterns will have identical images. The changes in the visual cortex during a lifetime can be accommodated by the stratum of consciousness because at no time are the changes sufficiently pronounced to cause distortion. At all times in a person's life he, or she, is able to construct perceptual images of unchanging quality, and when a crowd is looking at the same object, they will all see it identically and with the same degree of clarity.

Nevertheless the question naturally arises as to how consciousness is able to maintain clarity of perception with varying physiological conditions of the visual cortex, especially when different people are involved, but this question presumes that such a stratum has properties which can be described in physical terms. There is nothing in its observable functioning to suggest that it is a physiological activity, and for this reason its modus operandi could well be beyond comprehension by the human intellect. At present, we can be aware of its nature only by observing its apparently non-physical influence on perception.

The question then arises as to why it is necessary to postulate a non-physiological agent — could not exactly the same result be attained with a physical construction of images from cortical data? The answer is 'no' —because a physical image must follow precisely any change, no matter how trivial it may be, which takes place in the cortex, and in this case the percept would consist of images arising from both sensory stimuli and indeterminate non-sensory configurations in the cortex, but this does not happen.

It is clear that at the present time universal perception can justifiably be claimed as being apparently outside the domain of physical laws, and as being a faculty of man which appears inexplicable by any generally recognized hypothesis—and, moreover, that it apparently contravenes the laws of physics. As such it must be accepted as psychical and as a reliable and permanent example of a parapsychological phenomenon. It can only justifiably be refused recognition as psychical if it can be shown to have a physiological basis. This could be achieved only by proper scientific research, and if scientists investigate an acknowledged psychical subject, then this is a tacit acceptance of that subject as a discipline of science.

Ashford, Kindlestown Hill
Delgany, Co. Wicklow


- Roberts, F. S. (1990) An extension of the 'psychological factor' in Tyrrell's theory of apparitions. JSPR 56, 216-221.
- Roberts, F. S. (1991) Some apparently non-cerebral aspects of consciousness. JSPR 58, 31-38.
- Roberts, F. S. (1992) A possible non-physiological basis for perception and a defence of dualism. JSPR 58, 250-257.
- Tyrrell, G. N. M. (1953) Apparitions. London: S.P.R./Duckworth.