There’s a great blog that I have on my RSS feed called “Sunday Magazine”. It shows Sunday New York Times articles from 100 years ago that day. This week, there is an article called “Palladino Outdone by a Non-Professional Medium”. The gist of the article is that a medium is proved to be a fraud, but the person writing the article wants to believe that Miss Burton (the medium) is not a fraud. She says and does things in a trance, and wakes up claiming no memory of it. David, who writes the blog, concludes, “At worst she’s a fraud. At best she’s self-delusional,” and questions the value of dedicating newspaper space to such things.
In reading Jung’s “occult” cases, he describes an interesting phenomenon called “automatism”. This is a psychological term that has been around forever, and basically describes any activity performed unconsciously. A blatant example of automatism would be sleepwalking, but there are more subtle examples. After reading the Sunday Times piece, it occurs to me that the case of Miss Burton is quite similar to at least one of Jung’s described case studies. I mention it because it is often not a case of fraud, and not exactly self-delusional in the way we usually think of that phrase. The debunkers are right (it's not spirits but the medium's actions), but so is the medium (he or she is not being consciously deceptive).
Certainly there are many mediums who are outright frauds, but the phenomenon of automatism is entirely legit. Jung cites experiments in auto-suggestion that demonstrate how the mind tricks itself into believing in things like a table moving of its own accord, or how a subject can “hear” messages of the person who begins the auto-suggestion by an almost imperceptible movement of a table or surface where the subject is resting their hands. The subject comes out of their hypnotic state, and both they and others present will swear that objects have moved, and that messages were received from a spirit. In fact, it is nothing more than a psychological trick that stimulates the personal unconscious.
That said, Jung points out that psychology uses a phenomenological approach; the psychiatrist is not there to prove whether or not supposed spirit communications are real, they are they to observe authentic psychological phenomena. And anything dealing with “spirit communication” is of interest, because it suggests a direct connection with the collective unconscious if it reveals archetypal ideas.
It is interesting to read Jung’s take on spirits, because he starts out assuming they don’t exist, and his later writings suggest that he believes they do exist. Their connection with the collective is sketchy; it’s unclear at times whether he thinks spirits are manifestations of the psycho-archaeology of humans, or something in a separate class just outside the collective.
Of interest here is the idea of fakery; even when something is being faked (i.e., the medium is seen physically moving something that was claimed to be moved psychokinetically), it’s not always because the medium is a deliberate fraud. In many cases the medium is doing something without consciously being aware that they are doing it. That doesn’t make it a spiritual manifestation, but it shows how much the unconscious affects us without our knowledge. In the case cited by Jung, the 15-year-old medium who was his patient knew things that she “could not know”, and supposedly manifested spirit personalities, but all of them could be attributed to things stored in her personal unconscious (complexes often appear as different “personalities”), and he was able to prove this point by point.
And herein lies the secret of Tarot cards and other forms of divination (astrology excepted). Jung coined the term “synchronicity” to describe the associations that revealed unconscious content. Synchronicities are often mundane things that we notice that seem to bear relevance to an event or crisis in our lives, and it is often the unconscious trying to “point out” something to us that we can’t consciously see. When someone lays out Tarot cards in a spread, they are activating the collective through the use of collective imagery. The symbols on the cards connect with an unconscious symbolism, and you are able to “predict” astonishing things that on some level you are already aware of. Jung points out how things related to the collective defy space-time constraints, and this is what makes them interesting. They point to a super-psychological non-linearity of time.
So—in the case of the medium, she may have been receiving unconscious messages, but these are in no way involving spirits—just as Tarot cards don’t involve any manipulation by spirits. It’s an entirely natural psychological phenomenon.
“Parapsychology” deals pretty exclusively with the collective unconscious, at least according to original definition. The existence of spirits is difficult to prove as we know, and psychology does not even attempt to answer the question. It can’t be answered any more than the “Is there really a God” question can be answered by any scientific methodology. All you can do is gather case studies.
That said, I’m personally inclined to believe in the existence of spirits and other beings, though the border between what is an unconscious manifestation and what is a legitimate separate phenomenon is not clear. It’s not entirely clear what a “ghost” or “spirit” is, either. I do think there are legitimate mediums out there, though I haven’t seen many. What they are contacting is also unclear, but it seems they are able to directly “hear” what may be remnants of personalities, or perhaps actual intelligent beings. It’s a perpetually interesting question, and one for which we’ll never have a definitive answer. The only way to know for sure is to actually die—and then there’s no way for us to report back. Not a way anyone would accept scientifically, at any rate.