Automatic writing or psychography is a claimed psychic ability allowing a person to produce written words without consciously writing.

The words purportedly arise from a subconscious, spiritual or supernatural source.

Scientists and skeptics 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.

Early history

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.

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 an ‘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.

The Surrealist poet Robert Desnos claimed he was among the most gifted in automatic writing. Some psychical researchers such as Thomson Jay Hudson have claimed no spirits are involved in automatic writing and the subconscious mind is the explanation.

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, as well as The Mother (Mirra Alfassa), regularly practiced Automatic writing.

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 Dicken’s 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.

Shortly after his 1917 marriage to Georgie Hyde-Lees the poet W. B. Yeats came to be heavily influenced by her delving into what they referred to as “the automatic script“.

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“.

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.

Paranormal investigator Harry Price exposed the supposed automatic writing in the Borley Rectory as the wall-scrawling of a housewife attempting to hide an extramarital affair.

There was an apocalyptic cult led by a lapsed Scientologist named Keech. He and his 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 didn’t occur Keech allegedly got an automatic writing message from God calling the whole thing off.

Recent history

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, Defense Intelligence Agency’s remote viewing unit was called in to assist in locating the fugitive Charlie Jordan.

One Angela Dellafiora employed a form of automatic writing she called written remote viewing. Although there are conflicting accounts of exactly where she claimed Jordan was she was apparently able to describe his location “somewhere in northern Wyoming, near a campground” accurately.

David Icke claims to have been alerted he was a Son of the Godhead through his 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.

Scientific analysis and skepticism

Scientists and skeptics consider automatic writing to be the result of the ideomotor effect.

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“.

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.

Scientific studies

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.

In 1927, psychiatrist Harold Dearden wrote that automatic writing is a psychological method of “tapping” the unconscious mind and there is nothing mysterious about it.

In 1986, A. B. Joseph investigated two female patients who were found to exhibit ictal hypergraphia.

Automatic writing behavior was discovered by Dilek Evyapan and Emre Kumral in three patients with right hemispheric damage.

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.


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