Automatic writing is the process or product of writing without using the conscious mind. The technique is often practiced while the person writing is in a trance state; others are fully awake, alert, and aware of their surroundings, but not of the actions of their writing hand. Automatic writing has been predominantly used in Spiritualism or the New Age movement as a method of "channeling" spirits, and has often been a part of séances. During the Surrealist movement, automatic writing was one of many games played by artists to stimulate creativity and produce original works of art. Automatic writing has also been used as a therapeutic technique in Freudian psychoanalysis. Although many skeptics question the source of writings produced in this way, it is clear that many writers have produced material that they would not have written using only their conscious mind. As humankind advances in understanding both the conscious and unconscious aspects of the human mind, and the nature of the afterlife, automatic writing will be better able to make a positive contribution to enhancing the world.
Automatic writing first became popular during the golden age of Spiritualism (late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) by mediums attempting to contact the spirit world, similar to some forms of necromancy. Automatic writing was quicker and more efficient than communication through raps or knocks. Such "spirit guided" writing was initially produced through the use of a pencil attached to a basket or "planchette." This type of automatic writing was often very difficult to decipher, and mediums soon adopted the practice of holding the pen or pencil directly in their hand. Typewriters and, in more recent times, computers have also been used to produce automatic writing.
According to spiritualistic beliefs, the medium would channel the spirit, allowing it to guide the pencil or planchette, thereby producing a message that the spirit wanted to communicate to the world of the living. Channeling allowed the spirit to utilize the medium's body to communicate, a practice that is differentiated from spiritual possession. Channeling is a voluntary action, freely undertaken to facilitate communication, while possession is not.
In the early 1900s, a St. Louis housewife named Pearl Curran believed she had contacted a spirit named Patience Worth through the Ouija board. Patience began to dictate what would become nearly 5,000 poems, a play, several novels, and many short works. Initially, Curran used the Ouija to receive Patience's messages, but as time went on, she found the Ouija board cumbersome and began to use automatic writing. Unlike many mediums, Curran did not feel the need to go into a trance, and channeled Patience while in a fully conscious, aware state of mind. Authorities have studied the works of the alleged Patience Worth, and many have concluded that it is highly unlikely that Pearl Curran would have been able to create the literary style, vocabulary, history, or subject matter present in Patience's writing.
One of the best-known automatic writers was Hélène Smith, who used the pseudonym of Catherine Elise Muller, a medium born around 1863 in Geneva, Switzerland. Smith never worked as a paid medium, but held numerous séances for friends and admirers. In addition to claims of past lives as a Hindu princess and Marie Antoinette, Smith produced automatic writing in Arabic and what she claimed were the languages of Mars and Uranus, which she then translated into French. Theodore Flournoy, a professor of psychology at the University of Geneva, studied Smith's mediumistic abilities and determined that the so-called Martian alphabet was simply the subconscious construction of an imaginative woman. Other investigators supported the claim that Smith's alphabet was indeed extraterrestrial. Smith was a popular figure with the Surrealists in the early twentieth century.
The Brazilian medium Francisco Chico Xavier, born in 1910, was one of the most prolific automatic writers in history, having produced about a hundred thousand pages of work. Xavier began his automatic writing in primary school, where he won an essay contest with an essay he claimed came from a spirit. Though he never continued his education, Xavier produced books of a scientific and literary quality that appeared to be beyond his abilities. He was a popular figure in Brazil, appearing on talk shows in the 1960s and 1970s, and donated the income from his books and any donations he received to charity. Xavier never made an attempt to produce any scientific proof of his abilities; supporters claim that the size of his body of work, the diverse subject matter, and different styles are evidence enough of Xavier's authenticity.
William Stainton Moses, born in England in 1839, a well educated and ordained minister in the Church of England, became interested in spiritualism. Initially a skeptic, Moses investigated séances and soon found himself drawn to automatic writing. He is best known for the automatic writings found in his books Spirit Teachings (1883) and Spirit Identity (1879). His writings, of which even he was sometimes skeptical, eventually led him away from the more dogmatic ideas of the Anglican Church and towards spiritualism. He believed that his writings originated from higher spirits and were intended for good. He later helped found the Society for Psychical Research.
Automatic writing has been used as a tool in Freudian psychoanalysis and in related "self-knowledge" studies, where it is seen as a means of gaining insight into the mind of the automatic writer through their subconscious word choices.
Pierre Janet, a French psychologist, was one of the first to pioneer ideas of automatic writing in the field of psychology. In the late nineteenth century, Janet discussed automatic writing as a form of somnambulism: A condition where part of a personality is dissociated from the rest. Janet viewed automatic writing, sleep walking, multiple personalities, and hypnosis all as variants of somnambulism.
In the United States, automatic writing was utilized by psychologists Morton Prince and Anita Muhl. Muhl described the "paraconscious" as "the state in which ideas and images are beyond the field of awareness but which are not too difficultly recallable." According to Muhl, this is the area where most automatic activity exists, and she concluded that "automatic writing is an indicator of the fundamental factors underlying the personality and that it may be considered an especially valuable instrument in the study of mental disturbances of psychogenic origin, to reveal the predominating elements of the patient's mental make-up."
Automatic writing was an important part of the Surrealist movement. Surrealism was a cultural movement founded in the 1920s by the French writer and poet André Breton, and included artists as well as writers and poets. Breton was influenced by psychological theories, especially those concerning the subconscious, and defined surrealism as "pure psychic automatism … The dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason, excluding any aesthetic or moral preoccupation."
The surrealists would often meet in groups, discussing surrealism and playing various games. Automatic writing was a popular game among the surrealists, as was automatic drawing. The surrealists would write as quickly as possible, attempting to remove conscious control or interest over what was being written. If a break in flow occurred, they would begin a new sentence with the same pre-determined letter. Once material was written, it was often manipulated and reinterpreted into further compositions. Surrealist writers produced a number of works, one of the most famous being Breton's book Soluble Fish.
Skeptics have criticized Spiritualist automatic writing, claiming there is little evidence to distinguish automatic writing of so-called supernatural origins from the automatic writings of a parlor game that is little more than sparks of creativity in the minds of the participants. They assert that there is no evidence that messages are coming from anywhere other than the subconscious minds of the participants. Such critics often cite the ideomotor effect—a psychological phenomenon wherein a subject makes motions without conscious awareness. In fact, many subjects remain unconvinced that their actions originate solely from within themselves, leading researchers to conclude that "honest, intelligent people can unconsciously engage in muscular activity that is consistent with their expectations."
The use of automatic writing in therapeutic situations is also debated. Critics argue that there is no scientific evidence regarding the value of automatic writing in psychotherapy, and its usage to release repressed memories is also suspect. While unconscious ideas are expressed in automatic writing, skeptics question the likelihood that they are any more profound than the writer's conscious thoughts, since there is no evidence that the "true self" lies in the unconscious any more than there is for it to lie in normal consciousness.
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