The geologist will meticulously measure and sample an outcrop to discern information about it. What if there was a much easier, speedier way to discern the history of a formation or a fossil or rock sample? In the mid-19th century, a few people thought the science of geology would be revolutionized by a technique called psychometry.

It’s a simple, elegant idea: the past is entombed in the present. That is, everything holds an essence or trace of influence or memory of its history. Certain skilled people are sensitive enough to touch the object and “see” this history. Psychometry – or measuring the soul – was an idea by Joseph Rodes Buchanan. He was sure that this concept would change humanity and the pursuit of scientific knowledge. William Denton was one of Buchanan’s disciples. A spiritualist, Denton had some radical ideas at the time. Along with his wife and sister, who had also been influenced by Buchanan, he conducted many experiments to show that psychometry for geology was genuine and useful. In his 1863 book, The Soul of Things, Denton blatantly states he has no doubts this technique works. In it, Denton says that, in nature, “each movement is infallibly registered for coming ages … Not a leaf waves, not an insect crawls, not a ripple moves, but each motion is recorded by a thousand faithful scribes in infallible and indelible scripture.”

How this can physically occur is left vague and speculative. He says that bodies both “throw off emanations” with these “particles” entering “into the pores of solid and fluid bodies, sometimes resting upon their surface, and sometimes permeating them altogether.” But, he also likens recording to a photograph, saying that “radiant forces are passing from all objects to all objects in their vicinity, and during every moment of the day and night are daguerreotyping the appearances of each upon the other; the images thus made, not merely resting upon the surface, but sinking into the interior of them; there held with astonishing tenacity, and only waiting for a suitable application to reveal themselves to the inquiring gaze.”

He also notes that sounds can also be preserved, the “matter receives the impression of whatever force is applied to it, treasures it up, and can impart it to a sufficiently sensitive individual.”

Even a pebble, he says, “that has been rolled to and fro by the waves, retains the rolling sensation communicated to it, and with such tenacity that the heat of a furnace does not cause it to relinquish that hold. Thus every body retains, not only all that light and sound have communicated to it, but all that motion has impressed upon it; and the autobiography of the meanest boulder by the roadside would fill more volumes than all our libraries contain.”

Obviously, this would be an entirely new way of unlocking the historical story of the earth.

“Why could not rocks receive impressions of surrounding objects, some of which they have been in the immediate neighborhood of for years, and why could they not communicate these in a similar manner to sensitive persons; thus giving us the clue to the conditions of the earth and its inhabitants during the vast eras of the past?”

Denton suggests the rocks of the Triassic basin that hold the footprints of dinosaurs could yield pictures of the “menagerie” to psychometers. But rocks even without fossils have recorded the impressions of all organisms that have passed by them.

As you may have gathered, The Soul of Things is a trudge through faulty data collection and wishful thinking. Denton would hand rocks and fossils to his wife Elizabeth or his sister Ann and they would recite colorful narratives about what they saw. A piece of coal would elicit images of a lush swamp. A chunk of lava would conjure oceans of fire. The readings were mostly subjective and untestable.

The flaw of this concept is obvious to those who are not wrapped up in its enticement. How can essences or memory be recorded? After all our forays into quantum physics, atomic structure, and materials science, we still have not seen any means by which such recording can be made. The mechanism for retrieval is another conundrum entirely.

This one is going to take a while…

Which “memories” throughout history are preserved? For rocks, which mineral or grain are you “reading”? What happens during metamorphosis or melting? Are you getting the sand grains’ memories from yesterday or 1 billion years ago? How would one even make sense of a playback of a recording of deep time in any rock sample? If everything at all times is recorded, how did Denton’s psychometers “read” a sample wrapped in paper. Why weren’t they flooded with memories of the tree being cut down and pulped? The entire concept was simply incoherent, inconsistent, and empirically unsupported.

The promise of psychometry was popularly proposed for medical diagnoses, archaeology, and solving crimes. We still see the hopeful concept rampant today in ideas that a psychic can hold an object of a person and get messages from it. It’s also the source of the idea that haunted places are the result of emotion and memories embedded into building materials or bedrock (known as The Stone Tape idea) or that water can hold memory (homeopathy). Some people have an aversion to objects that belonged to evil people and avoid contact with the material for fear that some of the badness will “rub off” on them. Some parapsychologists still entertain the concept of “morphic resonance” the idea of inherited systemic memory.

Psychometry does not actually work for reading rocks, artifacts, weapons, people, or anything else. While the popular idea that there is “something to it” still exists, we’ll still need hammers, hand lenses, microscopes, and other testing equipment, along with our references, to tease out the history locked within earth materials.

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