An Interview with Montague Ullman

From: Jubilee, January 1968


Dr. Montague Ullman is past president of the Society of Medical Psychoanalysts, a charter fellow of the Academy of Psycho­analysis, and Professor of Psychiatry at the State University of New York Down­state Medical Center. He is also Director of Community Mental Health at Mai­monides Medical Center in Brooklyn and the author of Behavioral Changes in Pa­tients Following Stroke and other studies.

Jubilee: The recently publicized seance at which Bishop Pike allegedly communicated with his deceased son has focused attention on various psychic phenomena. As a longtime student of parapsychology do you feel this field of research has proved itself, if not as 'a scientific discipline, at least as a richly suggestive area of research?

Ullman: Serious organizational sponsorship of studies and research in what at the time was loosely referred to as psychic phenomena began with the establishment in London in 1882 of the Society for Psychical Research, to be followed a short time later by a similar group in this country. The phenomena investigated included physical and mental mediumship, survival evidence, precognition, telepathy and clairvoyance. With the founding of the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University in 1934 the research took a more ostensibly scientific form by virtue of its emphasis on the use of quantitative methods and statistical analysis. Despite, on the one hand, the accumulation of the impressive, descriptive studies of spontaneous paranormal events and, on the other, reports from, the laboratory yielding values of extraordinary magnitude, the fact remains that parapsychological research has not as yet achieved any significant degree of scientific respectability. Although the field has always captured the imagination of some of the best scientific minds of the past as well as the current scene (Crookes-physics, James­-psychology, Freud-psychiatry, Herrick-neurology, Haldane­-biology, Eccles-neurophysiology, Hardy-evolution, Hutchinson-­biology, Margenau-philosophy of science, and Murphy-psychology) the Scientific Establishment qua Establishment has maintained an oppositional stance. The organization of professional researchers in the field has not been able, for example, to crack through on the question of affiliate membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, nor has anyone as far as I know succeeded in gaining Governmental support for research in this area. Critics such as Hansel in his recent book, and Price, earlier in Science, prefer hypotheses of fraud, bias, self-deception and collusion to accepting the innovating impact of the data themselves. There are, however, some beginning signs that aggressive skepticism, no matter how articulately expressed, can no longer effectively contain the rising tides of experimental data. Borrowing the tools of the biologist, the neurophysiologist and the physicist, parapsychological research is moving towards the goal of working with palpable data rather than statistical inference alone. In our own case we have been using electroencephalographic monitoring techniques to study the incorporation of extrasensory effects in dreaming. Others are using fine physiological measures such as the plethysmograph to record minute autonomic changes when extrasensory effects occur, Further signposts along the way include the fact that in the past year psychiatric journals (Corrective Psychiatry and Journal of Social Therapy and the International Journal of Neuropsychiatry) devoted complete issues to a review of these methodological and experimental advances. I have recently received word that the First Moscow Congress on Parapsychology is planned for May 1968 and will include wide representation from all scientific disciplines. I hope it will not take a Russian parapsychological Sputnik to get us going as a nation in this field.

Jubilee: In the Christian mystical tradition there have been hundreds of cases reported of stigmatics, but only an infinitesimally small proportion have been of men. Similarly, such women as Dr. Murphy's own wife, Eileen J. Garrett, Gertrude R. Schmeidler and Laura A. Dale have been in the forefront of research in parapsychology. Is this significant? Does it say something about a differing psychosomatic structure in women? Why has the typical medium been a woman?

Ullman: Physical stigmata bear only a questionable relationship to psychical phenomena. The stigmata form a rare type of psychosomatic disorder in which circumscribed vegetative changes occur involving hemorrhage into the skin and where, by their appearance and location, they have obvious symbolic significance. Because of the involvement of the autonomic nervous system the stigmata appear as psychosomatic effects. On the other hand, because of their obviously symbolic character they resemble symptoms seen in conversion hysteria. The latter was considered, by the ancients at any rate, as predominantly a female disorder. The name itself comes from Greek roots denoting a "wandering of the womb." The names you mention could be equally matched by distinguished male investigators like Rhine, Pratt, Warcollier and Soal. There have also been many brilliant male mediums (D. D. Home), although you are right in suggesting that they have been outnumbered by the women. My own experience also suggests that women generally tend to be less belligerently skeptical and more accepting of paranormal events. When I address mixed audiences on the subject, it is generally women who seek me out after the lecture to report validating personal experiences. Perhaps this does derive from certain characterologic or even physiological factors as yet unidentified, or perhaps it is simply due to the fact that women tend to deal more directly with their own emotive processes than do men.

Jubilee: Do you think that parapsychology might lead to a radical reconstruction of our notions of space, time, energy and personality?

Ullman: I believe the answer is yes, not because we can spell out the implications at the present time, but rather because I think it is inevitable that sooner or later someone will succeed in identifying intermediate steps leading from the observed event to the kind of model that could link parapsychological data to what we know in other fields, or else so transform our existing knowledge of these fields as to enable us to bridge the present theoretical rift between psi events [psi is a neutral term used to designate the range of parapsychological data] and all other natural phenomena. The range of competing models extends from those attempting to focus on the possibility of energy transfer at a micromolecular level to those accounting for psi events as capricious intrusions by events occurring in dimensions other than those familiar to us. Russian investigators have been systematically concerned with the energy transfer aspects of the psi event. Although their work has provided further negative evidence concerning the operation of any known electromagnetic energies, it has pointed up the need for a more rigorous investigation in this area than has characterized the research up to the present. The weight of much past research, based on the model set forth by Rhine, has too readily assumed a dualistic, mind-over-matter character. This emphasis on the apparent freedom from time and space and the ordinary laws of energy transfer as a major feature of psi events reflects more the priori bias of the observer than it necessarily does the ultimate nature of the events in question. Pursued in this way, parapsychological research has, in my opinion, lent itself too ingenuously to those seeking scientific basis for religious doctrine. It seems to me that the major religious concerns on the nature of man and his ultimate destiny can conceivably remain just as much a mystery and matter of belief were a breakthrough to be made in the area of psychical research.

Jubilee: Might parapsychology also illuminate our understanding of the nature of human community and human conflict?

Ullman: These are broad questions. Our Occidental culture tends very much to reinforce pragmatic and role-defined contact among individuals at the expense of openly acknowledged and directly experienced emotive processes. There is neither the skill nor the investment made (except perhaps for certain exceptions like the Hopi Indians) in the kind of acculturating experience that forces the child to end up with feelings of closeness and the ability to take emotional support and contact for granted. Psi events seem to break through under conditions making for distance and alienation when such circumstances can no longer be tolerated and where an acute stress arises, necessitating contact. The medium or sensitive is one who has learned to transfer this random and capricious use of emergency into a way of life. As things stand now, we tend to turn our back not only on psi events generally, but on the usual vehicle for their manifestation, namely, dreaming. Except for an insignificantly small channel open to the psychoanalyst's ritualized professional concern, there are no open social channels for the registering and sharing of and learning from our personal dream experiences. For the most part our dreams are destined to die as transient personal fantasies. Were dreams ever to assume any salience in our society and considered for what they are, namely, vivid, metaphorically conceived confrontations occurring within the individual on an issue of importance to him, they would conceivably pave the way to an understanding of the link between the social and the personal. The use of socially derived symbols for the expression of attitudes and feelings provide us with a rich but untapped approach to a deeper grasp of how the social institutions presented in the dream foster idiosyncratic defensive maneuvers or nurture the residual creative growth-enhancing potential of the individual.

Jubilee: Certain orthodox Christians like Canon Charles Kingsley, Cardinal Manning and Baron von Hugel believed in the existence of an immortal principle in animals. Has psychical research contributed to our understanding of the animal "mind"?

Ullman: The age of effective animal experimentation in animal psychology is about to begin. I say this without meaning to derogate any of the very elaborate and sophisticated animal research of the past, particularly the excellent studies of Pratt on the homing of pigeons. The fact is, however, that they have not succeeded in channels worthwhile pursuing. I have expressed myself hopefully because recent research has tended to highlight the fact that we share with lower animals certain physiological states which, in man at any rate, appear to facilitate psi contact. I refer to the dreaming phase of the sleep-waking cycle. The distinct physiological changes that characterize dreaming sleep in humans is found in other animals. Since this phase of sleep has, in our experimental work as well as in the in vivo situation, been associated with psi effects, it seems reasonable to assume this might be a worthwhile lead to pursue with animals. In the case of the latter the physiological factor involved in the Rapid Eye Movement or dreaming phase of sleep can be more easily controlled and manipulated.

Jubilee: Has your openness to the real possibility of genuine psychic phenomena antagonized members of your own profession? With the decline of a narrow behavioristic or monistic psychology are professional psychologists more willing to entertain the idea of psychic phenomena?

Ullman: Antagonized is perhaps too strong a word. The only feedback I have been apt to get is from colleagues who have been relatively close to me. Reactions vary from one in which, based on their knowledge of me they are willing to make allowances for, or discount, my insistence on legitimizing ESP to, at the other pole, and somewhat less frequent, a situation where because of their knowledge of me they are willing to temper some of their negativism or skepticism. I am happy to note, however, that a change has come about quite recently. I would attribute it not to the decline of behavioristic psychology (after all, even in dynamically oriented psychology psychoanalysts after Freud did not measure up to his receptive and interested attitude in psychic phenomena) but rather to the fact that the quantitative accumulation of data is resulting in the qualitative transformation in the response to such data. Furthermore, the techniques of data gathering now result in more palpable forms of data than the purely statistical inferences characteristic of the past. Finally, investigators themselves have begun to command attention by virtue of their achievements in other fields.

Jubilee: Is there anything you would like to add concerning the religious dimension of parapsychology?

Ullman: Without any explicit or primary religious focus myself, my interest in the field has of course brought me in contact with many whose religious concerns primarily account for their involvement in parapsychological research. I think the "apparent" religious dimension in parapsychological research has stood in the way of its movement as a scientific discipline. By this I have reference to, at a crude level, the exploitation of various spiritualist cults of the data of psychical research in the service of instant contact with those who have "passed over." At a more sophisticated level, I refer to the emphasis experimenters took in this country, stressing the unconnectedness of psi events to other natural phenomena. Much as psi events do differ from other phenomena, and have to be apprehended in their difference, the assumption that they differ absolutely is gratuitous and tends to close off potential collaborative research. To the extent that psi research sheds further light on the properties of life generally and human life specifically, I think it will help close the gap between the way things are -and the way we want and need them to be which, to my way of thinking, would be a contribution to the genuine religious dimension of our lives.