Freud and psychical research

by Alan Murdie

Autumn 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the death of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) on 23 September 1939 in London.  Freud was living in exile from Vienna at a house at 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead, north London which is now a museum.

That Freudian ideas might tie up with psychical research may be a surprise to many people nowadays; Freud is presented by his followers today as a thorough-going materialist. But this is far from the case.

Freud’s perceived materialism – in the sense of rejecting evidence accumulated by psychical research – is an erroneous perception; rather he did not claim any expertise and preferred not to address the topic himself directly.

Freud joined the Society in 1911, and published his paper on the unconscious mind in the Proceedings of the SPR the following year, his first publication in English. [i] The years that followed there were discussions of the libido in the Journal in the midst of World War I and later upon the psychoanalysis of dreams.[ii] Reviews of Freud’s translated works such as Totem and Taboo (1919) were carried periodically in Society publications, his books held in its libraries though few cases of psychical phenomena were examined for a psychoanalytic point of view.


Indeed, Freud’s connection can be traced back even further, having first communicated with the Society in 1893. As recorded in the Proceedings/Journal  of the SPR in March 1893 when Frederic Myers raised the matter of a  ‘Preliminary Communication’ from Freud at a meeting of the Society. A notice was published a notice in the Journal, which later reported on Breuer’s and Freud’s Studies in Hysteria in 1897. This received further posthumous mention in Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903) by Frederic Myers.

Months before his death in 1939, Freud was considered to be ‘one of the Society’s most distinguished living members’ the Society conferring an honorary membership upon him in 1938 when he had been forced to flee Vienna. But although the revered intellectual status that Sigmund Freud achieved from the mid-1920s was acknowledged and seen as enhancing the Society’s own credibility and status, there was a marked reluctance to embrace his doctrines and certainly no enthusiasm for applying them as explanations for psi phenomena.


Frederic Myers (1854 1901)
Frederic Myers (1854 – 1901)

It was Myers rather than Freud who was seen within the Society as far more important, though this view failed to make progress beyond its immediate circle and a few Jungian analysts.[iii]

Freud had not invented the concept of the subconscious or unconscious, but succeeded in transforming its image, but to such an extent that earlier ideas – such as ‘subliminal self’ postulated by Myers which recognised a psychical portion became quickly forgotten also-rans.

Freud not Frederic

Although Carl Jung stated in his treatise The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche (1928), volume 8, Collected Works,  that the credit given to Sigmund Freud for the first scientific description of the’ Unconscious Mind’ should go to Frederic Myers of the Society for Psychical Research,[iv] it was a case of ‘Freud, not Frederic’ as to who would become  linked with the term in popular culture, to the extent that many have erroneously believed that Freud was the sole originator of the concept.

In fact, anyone with a knowledge of 19th century psychology will realise this was not the case. Both men were interested in dreams, automatisms, and hypnotic trances but reached different conclusions.

Myers saw the unconscious as the subliminal self, the well-spring to all manner of creativity and the gateway to the paranormal and spiritual experience.

In contrast the descriptions of the unconscious by Freud presented it as a dark place filled with internal monsters, driven by primitive and conflict-ridden sexual instincts and containing all manner of with irrational fears and aggressive tendencies. Myers believed the unconscious could be entered by other influences beyond the mind, including the dead.

Freud And Psychical Research 3

Freud and telepathy

Often forgotten today among his many works is Freud’s book on telepathic influences and dreams.

Materialist though he was, Freud was open to evidence accumulated by psychical research, in so far as it could be fitted within his theories of psychoanalysis, publishing in 1921 his book Dream Telepathy.

In twenty-seven years of work as an analyst Freud maintained he had never been able to observe a truly telepathic dream but sought to draw a distinction between ordinary dreams as products of the dreamer’s mental life, whereas a purely “telepathic dream” is a “perception of something external”.

In marking the 80th anniversary of his death, this book and a number of other interesting paranormal involvements during his lifetime deserve to be remembered as another aspect of Freud’s life and theories.


Freud, Sigmund (1912) ‘A Note on the Unconscious in Psycho-Analysis’. Proceedings of the SPR Vol 26 1912-13 p 312.

Long, Constance (1918) The Psychoanalytic Use of Material Proc SPR Vol 30 Part LXXV;   Annual Report of the Council for 1938 published Feb 1939 p 27. Journal of the SPR 38 1955-56 (Freud Collected Papers ‘Dreams and Telepathy’ 4408-435   JSPR 38 1955-56 

Myers, Proceedings in 1893 (Vol. ix, pp. 12-15), Myers discussed at length the recent paper by Freud and Breuer on 'The Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena' and was pleased to find there some independent confirmation of his own views on the workings of unconscious mental processes.

Jung, Carl, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche (1928), volume 8, Collected  Works,