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Automatic writing, also called psychography, is a claimed psychic ability allowing a person to produce written words without consciously writing. Scientists and sceptics consider automatic writing to be the result of the ideomotor effect and even proponents of automatic writing admit it has been the source of innumerable cases of self-delusion. Automatic writing is not the same thing as free writing.
Spirit writing, later called Fuji (planchette writing) (扶乩/扶箕), has a long tradition in China, where messages from various deities and spirits were received by mediums since the Song dynasty. In the 19th century, messages received through spirit writing led to the foundation of several Chinese salvationist religions. The spread of Chinese cultural techniques, such as printing and painting, introduced the influence of "spirit writing", practiced by Japanese Zen Ōbaku monks, who were said to communicate with an ancient Taoist sage credited with creation of the kung fu system.
In the West, an early example of the practice is the 16th-century Enochian language, allegedly dictated to John Dee and Edward Kelley by Enochian angels and integral to the practice of Enochian magic. The language is said to be extremely detailed and complex with its own grammar and rules. Dee also claimed that the Enochian instruction included information regarding the elixir of life in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey.
Parapsychologist William Fletcher Barrett wrote that "automatic messages may take place either by the writer passively holding a pencil on a sheet of paper, or by the planchette, or by a 'ouija board'." In spiritualism, spirits are claimed to take control of the hand of a medium to write messages, letters, and even entire books. Automatic writing can happen in a trance or waking state. Some psychical researchers such as Thomson Jay Hudson have claimed no spirits are involved in automatic writing and the subconscious mind is the explanation.
A prominent alleged example of automatic writing is the Brattleboro hoax. When Charles Dickens died in 1870 he left The Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished. According to the itinerant printer T. P. James this angered Dickens' spirit so much that he channeled the rest of the novel through James's hand. This is supposed to have begun on Christmas Eve 1872 and continued in thrice weekly sessions until completion.
Automatic writing as a spiritual practice was reported by Hyppolyte Taine in the preface to the third edition of his De l'intelligence, published in 1878. Besides "ethereal visions" or "magnetic auras", Fernando Pessoa claimed to have experienced automatic writing. He said he felt "owned by something else", sometimes feeling a sensation in the right arm he claimed was lifted into the air without his will. Georgie Hyde-Lees, the wife of William Butler Yeats, also claimed she could write automatically. Sri Aurobindo and his follower, The Mother (Mirra Alfassa), regularly practiced Automatic writing.
Arthur Conan Doyle, in his book The New Revelation (1918), wrote that automatic writing occurs either by the writer's subconscious or by external spirits operating through the writer. Doyle and his wife led an automatic writing séance with Harry Houdini where Lady Doyle wrote fifteen pages of purported messages from Houdini's mother although this information was immediately discounted as fraudulent by Houdini.
The essay The Automatic Message (1933), first published in the magazine Minotaure, No. 3-4, (Paris), was one of André Breton's significant theoretical works about automatism. In 1919, Breton and Philippe Soupault had used what later became the Surrealist automatism method to compose Les Champs Magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields). In 1997, "The Magnetic Fields" was also the title of a compilation of surrealist writing of André Breton, Paul Éluard, Philippe Soupault, and others. It included the authorized translation of Breton's The Automatic Message in English by the poet David Gascoyne, whose Man's Life is This Meat (1936) (a collection of his own surrealist writings and translations of the French surrealists) and Hölderlin's Madness (1938) established Gascoyne's reputation as one of a small group of English surrealists. Gascoyne's 1935 A Short Survey of Surrealism for the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition also expanded the movement to the English-speaking world. The Surrealist poet Robert Desnos claimed he was among the most gifted in automatic writing. Surrealist automatists, most notably André Masson, adapted these methods to art-making in which the artist suppresses conscious control over the making process, allowing the unconscious mind to have great sway. Prior to the Surrealists, Dadaists, such as Hans Arp, made some use of this method through chance operations.
The medium Pierre L. O. A. Keeler had an alleged spirit writing communication from Abraham Lincoln currently exhibited at the Lily Dale Museum. Despite Lincoln being a well known skeptic and Keeler having been known to employ magician's tricks this is used as one of the many examples of skeptics purportedly endorsing spiritualism—posthumously. Skeptical investigator Joe Nickell who made a detailed examination of the "spirit" writing concluded it had no resemblance to Lincoln's handwriting and described the message as "bogus".
There was an apocalyptic cult led by a lapsed Scientologist named Dorothy Martin. She and her followers were waiting for an alien ship to take them to the nonexistent planet Clarion and save them from a worldwide flood that was to commence at midnight on December 20, 1954. When that did not occur Martin allegedly got an automatic writing message from God calling the whole thing off.
In 1975, Wendy Hart of Maidenhead claimed she wrote automatically about Nicholas Moore, a sea captain who died in 1642. Also in 1975 the CIA attempted to employ remote viewing through the Stargate Project. In the spring of 1989, Angela Dellafiora, a member of Stargate Project's remote viewing unit, claimed to be guided by spirits moving her hand in writing responses about the location of a fugitive DEA agent named Charlie Jordan. In reviewing the matter, Joe Nickell states, "[T]he Charlie Jordan case, touted as one of the most successful examples ... in the U.S. government's psychic-spying project is not convincing evidence of anything-save perhaps folly. ... [I]t also illustrates the limitations of anecdotal evidence: conflicting versions, selective reporting, and lack of documentation, together with additional manifestations of faulty memory, bias, and other human foibles."
David Icke said he first became aware of being Son of the Godhead via automatic writing. Vassula Ryden claims to receive and transcribe messages from her guardian angel Daniel, Jesus, Yahweh. She has provoked both skepticism and credulity from Catholic laity and clergy, as well as the skeptical community at large. Alleged cases of automatic writing have included Joseph Smith, Patience Worth, Aleister Crowley, Jane Roberts, Helen Schucman and Neale Donald Walsch. Crowley, for instance, compiled the Collected Works over time, which included The Book of the Law as well as transcripts of his visions of the first two Enochian Aethyrs.
Scientific analysis and scepticism
According to skeptical investigator Joe Nickell, "automatic writing is produced while one is in a dissociated state. It is a form of motor automatism, or unconscious muscular activity." Neurologist Terence Hines has written "automatic writing is an example of a milder form of dissociative state". In 1900, Swiss psychologist Theodore Flournoy studied the case of the French medium Helene Smith, particularly her handwriting during seances. He concluded that the automatic writing phenomenon was an effect of autosuggestion produced by autohypnotization, leading to the emergence of a secondary self.
Paranormal researcher Ben Radford writes in his 2017 book Investigating Ghosts that there is no real way to know if the writing is coming from "outside their bodies," you "must take their word for it. Because the source of the information is at issue and the medium cannot be validated, we must turn to the content of the material." Various psychic mediums have claimed to channel famous dead people like Susan Lander who claimed that Betsy Ross contacted her to say, "I am gay and I fly the flag of pride and liberty for all of us." Radford states that historians say that there is "no credible historical evidence that Ross ... either made or had a hand in designing the American flag." Without some kind of validation, "anyone can claim to communicate with the spirit of anyone." Radford states that it would seem to be easier for the ghost to communicate by voice than by controlling a pen, considering spelling and grammar are more difficult. "Automatic writing should logically hinder, not help spirit communication."
In an 1890 paper on hypnotism Morton Prince claims, "automatic writing is not a purely unconscious reflex act, but, the product of conscious individuality," and further claims that the hand that is writing is under the control of a separate hypnotic personality during trances. Physician Charles Arthur Mercier in the British Medical Journal (1894) criticized the spiritualist interpretation of automatic writing, concluding, "there is no need nor room for the agency of spirits, and the invocation of such agency is the sign of a mind not merely unscientific, but uninformed."
Psychology professor Théodore Flournoy investigated the claim by nineteenth-century medium Hélène Smith (Catherine Müller) she did automatic writing to convey messages from Mars in Martian language. Flournoy concluded her "Martian" language had a strong resemblance to Ms. Smith's native language of French and her automatic writing was "romances of the subliminal imagination, derived largely from forgotten sources (for example, books read as a child)." He invented the term cryptomnesia to describe this phenomenon.
A 2012 study of ten psychographers using single photon emission computed tomography showed differences in brain activity and writing complexity during alleged trance states vs. normal state writing.
Pop culture and media
Automatic writing is featured prominently in the 1961 episode of Perry Mason, The Case of the Meddling Medium.
Automatic writing of Mina Crandon
Automatic writing of Hélène Smith
Automatic writing of Mrs Thomas Everitt
Example of automatic writing cited by magician William Marriott
Automatic writing of Francis Ward Monck
Automatic writing of Leonora Piper
- Alien hand syndrome
- Automatic drawing
- Artistic inspiration
- Asemic writing
- Automatic speech
- Memoirs of a Suicide
- Chico Xavier
- Joseph Sieber Benner
- Bicameral mentality
- Divided consciousness
- Dual consciousness
- Ideomotor phenomenon
- Left brain interpreter
- List of topics characterized as pseudoscience
- Matthew Manning
- Oahspe a New Bible claimed to be written via automatic writing
- Surrealist automatism
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