Thouless, Robert Henry (1894-1984)

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Thouless, Robert Henry (1894-1984)

Psychologist, parapsychologist, and president of the Society for Psychical Research, London, from 1942-45. He was born July 15, 1894, in Norwich, England. He studied at Cambridge University, England (B.A. hons., 1914; M.A., 1919; Ph.D., 1922). After serving in World War I, he was a lecturer of psychology at Manchester University in 1921 and moved on to Glasgow University in 1926, and the Department of Education, Cambridge University in 1938.

His initial interest in parapsychology began about 1934 and was stimulated by contact with the experimental work of J. B. Rhine. After that, parapsychology became a prominent theme for half a century of his life. He published nearly ninety articles and book reviews in the Journal and Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.

Through the years, Thouless conducted many experiments in card-calling, psychokinesis, and other areas of parapsychology. He created many of the current terms used in parapsychology out of the realization that some of the original terms, such as "extrasensory perception," carried with them a suggestion of their operationin this case "perception." He coined the less-committal term " psi. " He and his colleague B. P. Weiser also coined the terms "psi Gamma" and "psi Kappa" to replace ESP and PK.

In distinction to parapsychologists who disparaged the study of spontaneous phenomena, Thouless maintained that it had value in structuring experimental methods:

"The special function of the study of spontaneous cases is to serve as a guide to the problems to be investigated by experimental methods. [The] choice is not between statistics and experiment on the one hand and observation of spontaneous cases on the other. Let us have much more of both. New problems for experimental investigation may be suggested by new observations of spontaneously occurring phenomena."

On the question of survival, he proposed a cautious optimism, and about 1948 devised a cipher test of survival which he believed was his most significant contribution to parapsychology. The test used a standard method of encipherment with a secret key passage. It consisted of two coded sequences: INXPH CJKGM JIRPR FBCVY WYWES NOECN SCVHE GYRJQ TEBJM TGXAT TWPNH CNYBC FNXPF LFXRV QWQL and BTYRR OOFLH KCDXK FWPCZ KTADR GFHKA HTYXO ALZUP PYPVF AYMMF SDLR UVUB. The key to the first sequence was a passage of poetry or prose indicated by reference to its title, and the key to the second sequence consisted of two words. The key passage necessary to cipher the test might have been transmitted posthumously as a proof of survival of consciousness. This method obviated the objection that a claimed posthumous communication might be read by clairvoyance if left in a sealed envelope. The Thouless test did not involve any sealed message and only the correct key would solve the enciphered message. In the event of a claimed posthumous message, percipients were asked to contact the Society for Psychical Research so that it might be keyed into the society's computer program to see if it yielded a correct message.

Thouless was an active member of the Society for Psychical Research and served on its council. He was elected president in 1942. In the end he was willing to consider the religious implications of psi and argued that parapsychology pointed to a more interesting world in which God and what has been termed the supernatural play their part. Thouless died at the age of 90 on September 25, 1984.


Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology. New York: Helix Press, 1964.

Thouless, Robert Henry. Authority and Freedom. London: Hodder and Stroughton, 1954.

. Experimental Psychical Research. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin, 1963.

. From Anecdote to Experiment in Psychical Research. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

. "The Present Position of Experimental Research into Telepathy and Related Phenomena." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 47 (1943).

. "Problems of Design in Parapsychological Experiments." Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (1955).

. "Psychical Research Past and Present." [Myers Memorial Lecture] Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (1952).

. Straight and Crooked Thinking. N.p., 1930. Reprinted as How to Think Straight. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1939.