Sunday 23 September 2018

The Sixth Sense by Rosalind Heywood

I am ambivalent, to say the least, on the subject of extra sensory perception. The romantic side of me thinks it would be so cool if such a thing existed. The scientific side shakes its head at the quality of evidence...

But I remain sufficiently interested in ESP to read the occasional book about it. I am very cautious about choosing these, because there is — to quote Fight Club — "an avalanche of bullshit" out there on the subject.

One writer I trusted to discuss the phenomena sensibly was Arthur Koestler. Having exhausted Koestler's writings on it, I've now begun to explore the books by other writers that he recommended.

Chief among these is Rosalind Heywood. The Sixth Sense, published in 1959, is the first of two notable volumes by her. (The second one, which I will also discuss, is The Infinite Hive from 1964.)

The real problem with ESP is that there have been a huge number of experiments, mostly by J.B Rhine at Duke University and concerning boring and repetitious attempts to guess which Zener cards will come up next in a random sequence.

And when analysed, the  dry boring stats showing irrefutable proof for the existence of a paranormal effect.

Or to quote HJ Eysenck, as quoted in this book: "Unless there is a gigantic conspiracy involving some thirty university departments all over the world, and several hundred highly respected scientists in various fields, many of them originally sceptical to the claims of the psychical researchers, the only conclusion that the unbiased observer can come to is that there does exist a small number of people who obtain knowledge existing in other people's minds, or in the outer world, by means as yet unknown to science."

Eysenck also makes a point which is particularly compelling to me. There are some statistical effects which weren't even thought of at the time of the experiments and and only discovered when retrospectively analysing the data.

So to falsify this would itself have required ESP.

There you go. The results are in, and ESP apparently exists. But, but, but...

But is seems that there is nothing to be done with such evidence. No respectable scientist wants to build on this research — and I completely understand why.

So does Rosalind Heywood. "Most scientists prefer to avert their eyes," she says. And she sympathises: "it is not easy to propound new systems based on facts whose natural habitat seems to be through the looking glass..." 

This is characteristic of her often charming and witty style. And Heywood has some valuable insights, too. She makes the important and telling point that creating the right kind of atmosphere is crucial. Which is why Duke got successes when his counterparts in the UK, doing the same kind of experiments, got nothing.

She also discusses how Sigmund Freud started from a point of not believing in the paranormal, yet he encountered sufficiently persuasive evidence to convince him at that telepathy at least was real. But a colleague, Ernest Jones, lobbied hard to prevent Freud from coming out in public with his belief in telepathy. 

Jones was convinced any action like this would seriously damage the reputation of psychoanalysis. And he may well have been right. The upshot was that Freud's paper on the subject wasn't published until years after his death.

This pretty much sums up the scientific position on ESP. Don't talk about it.

So we end where we began, with the dry boring stats showing proof which can't be denied and should not be ignored and everybody, including me, either denying it or ignoring it. 

Rosalind Heywood wrote, "It is hard to doubt that in time answers will be found to the questions raised in this book." 

Nearly sixty years on there's no sign of them.

(Image credits: The pale blue original British hardcover is from ABE. The American hardcover is from Weiser Antiquarian Books. The early British Pan paperback is from Amazon. The Pan reprint is from Tiki. The Penguin reprint with the rather witty Jones Thompson cover design is scanned from the rather battered copy fromy own sweet library.)


  1. From my own experiments in college, I'm the opposite of psychic. Given a choice between random chance and me guessing the answer, random chance is better at it.

    I don't deny it might exist, Horatio, but it doesn't mean anything to my life. It does annoy me a bit, seeing it treated as an X-Men type ability (reliable and accurate and never ever wrong) on practically every type of TV show: crime dramas, sit coms and, of course, sci fi shows.

  2. I think that's a very healthy and balanced view... though of course if you really are way below random chance, that in itself suggests psi at work! ;)