The problem of determining the source of discarnate communications is perhaps "the most important as well as the most difficult challenge facing modern parapsychology" because of its bearing on the case for postmortem survival (Palmer, 2009, p. 160). This article examines the conceptual and methodological issues of the "content-source" problem in modern mediumship/channeling research; that is, use of the content of mediumistic/channeled communications to determine the source or origin of those communications--whether normally, abnormally, or paranormally conceived. The popular literature commonly uses the terms "medium" and "channel" interchangeably to refer to any individual who transmits messages from a purportedly nonphysical or discarnate personality to living persons. The two terms, however, can be distinguished. The traditional spiritualist medium allegedly conveys veridical information of an extrasensory nature from survival personalities (termed discarnates) for interested observers or relatives to provide evidence for the existence of life after death. The modern psychic channel typically does not deal with apparent communications from the dead, but instead conveys esoteric information of a scientific, philosophic, theological, sociological, or psychological nature from purported discarnate entities that may or may not have been human.
The Content-Source Problem
The problem of confirming the discarnate source of a mediumistic/ channeled communication by an analysis of its content alone is more difficult in the case of channeling than in the case of mediumship. One reason is that the content of a channeled communication usually does not provide sufficient veridical extrasensory information to prove the entity's discarnate identity. A second reason is that communication is with an entity who may never have existed as a human being or who does not belong to physical reality and of whose condition we have no independent knowledge. The absence of veridical extrasensory information and objective confirmation of the communicator's identity makes determining whether channeled material is a genuine communication from a discarnate entity especially problematic.
Myers's problem. Determining the independent status of the alleged discarnate source of a mediumistic/channeled communication from an analysis of its content alone is also problematic. As F. W. H. Myers (1889, 1892, 1893) recognized, even if a discarnate personality external to the medium's own self is the source of the material, that material must first be communicated through subconscious levels of the medium's psyche. Mediums are personalities who must interpret the information they receive. The conditions and manifestations of any discarnate communication, therefore, will be limited by the capacity of the medium (e.g., medium's vocabulary) and colored by the medium's personal subconscious. There are no pure channels through which information magically flows undistorted, in other words. Myers's problem was how to distinguish between mediumistic communications that originated within the medium yet outside her (his) normal waking consciousness, and communications that originated in a source external to the medium's own psyche.
Despite this problem, Myers was able to use the content of mediumistic communications as a heuristic basis for arranging messages into a taxonomy of probable sources with some success. In a classic study of motor automatism, Myers (1893) categorized written and other messages that professed to come from discarnate personalities into four categories of possible origins ".judging by their definite contents alone" (p. 41). One category identified messages that came from the medium's own mind with content supplied from ordinary long-term memory or more extensive subconscious memory. A second category pertained to messages with content derived telepathically from the minds of other living persons who were either conscious or unconscious of transmitting the information. …