Can people move or alter physical objects simply by using a hidden power of the mind called psychokinesis? I have encountered many claims of such powers in the course of my work (since 1969) as a paranormal investigator. And I have pretended to have such ability myself—both as a professional stage magician and mentalist (a magician specializing in apparent psychic feats). In the fall of 2012, I attended a workshop that enabled me to investigate the latest popular expression of psychokinetic metal bending.
The term psychokinesis (formerly telekinesis), or PK, derives from the Greek words for “mind” and “motion.” Together with extrasensory perception (ESP), it constitutes what parapsychologists refer to as “psi” to describe the two seemingly closely related phenomena. However, the existence of psi has never been proven and, indeed, according to a sympathetic source: “Despite decades of research, psi continues to elude physical and quasi-physical theories of how it functions; it operates outside the bounds of time and space” (Guiley 1991, 468).
PK describes the alleged power of mind over matter, including such “micro-PK” acts as subtly influencing how thrown dice will land, or “macro-PK” feats like levitating a table or producing so-called “poltergeist” effects (actually, typically the tricks of children1). Psychokinetic metal bending is another alleged macro-PK phenomenon.
Geller the PK Marvel
It appears that the first major performer of apparent PK metal bending (PK-MB) was Israeli-born former fashion model and nightclub magician, Uri Geller (b. 1946) (Figure 1). Claiming to be guided by super beings from a distant planet, Geller appeared to read minds, bend keys and cutlery with PK, see while blindfolded, and perform other feats—all of which skilled magicians easily duplicate. (I, for example, have driven a car while blindfolded [Nickell with Fischer 1992, 77].) He typically refused to perform when magicians were observing but, nevertheless, was occasionally caught cheating.
Renowned American magician and psychic investigator James “The Amazing” Randi once observed Geller up close. Posing as an editor when Geller performed in the offices of Time magazine, Randi saw the simple tricks behind Geller’s wonderworking. For example, while Geller pretended to cover his eyes as a secretary made a simple drawing, he actually peeked, thus enabling him to appear to read her mind and reproduce the drawing. Again, while supposedly bending a key “by concentration,” Geller had instead bent it against a table when he thought he was unobserved. (For more on Geller’s methods, see Randi 1982.)
Geller was soon imitated by other “psychics” who discovered that they, too, could bend keys and spoons. One was Judy Knowles, who impressed London physics professor and parapsychologist John Hasted with her apparent ability. Hasted invited James Randi to observe tests of Knowles in a lab at Bath. Randi arrived with colleagues and his checkbook, offering Ms. Knowles $10,000 if she successfully passed the test, which was designed by Harry Collins of the University of Bath. Collins had tested other spoon benders, but none had been successful, and some children had been caught cheating.
Briefly, the test involved Knowles holding the spoon in a . . .
(You Won’t Believe #6!)
“There is no way the psychic could have known that!”
I have been researching psychics since 2002, and I have heard this phrase too many times to count. Mentalist and psychic expert Mark Edward would answer that with “Oh yes, there is.” Let’s look at ten ways psychics could know that, with real life examples. I bet you don’t know them all!
1. These people are very good, slick, practiced, and fast.
Hollywood Medium’s Tyler Henry claims he has already given over a thousand readings, and he is only twenty-two years old. When you look at people who have been in the psychic business for ten or more years, those people are on auto-pilot; the questions and statements flow out of them naturally. To an audience member who is watching them for the first time, they appear to be making statements that seem specific, but if you watch enough of these readings you will see some of the same “specific” statements come up over and over again. Old photographs in a box, the sound of keys or coins in a pocket, a fire in the house, someone fell off a horse, a bird came into the house, a garden with roses—all are generalities that seem specific.
2. They use stooges, and sometimes it’s you.
I’ve attended several psychic group readings, and it is pretty typical to arrive early and find that the first couple rows are saved for friends and the best fans. I purchase the VIP passes to these events and never get to sit in the very front row. When I chat up these front row women (yes, they are usually women) I discover that they attend multiple shows in different cities. They talk comfortably and with statements such as “he usually does this in his shows” or “in his show a couple days ago, he said/did this….” Chip Coffey reserves a segment of his show for something called “Coffey Talk,” which is where he chats with the audience and answers questions. It was clear from the questions that several of his fans knew a lot about the TV shows Coffey had been on years ago. Some were fairly obscure questions only a true fan would know to ask. Later on, during the psychic part of the evening, he “read” one of these women with some specific statements. I guess you would call these people psychic groupies; they are unaware that they are being used as stooges and are honored that their dead family members always seem to come through at each show. The regular audience who is seeing Coffey for the first time think he is really accurate and don’t realize what is going on.
Also, in that same event Coffey said that he was getting a message about a psychic business one of the audience women was thinking of opening. He made it sound like he had received this information from the spirit world, but I knew he had been chatting with the woman during the break.
For Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! Show “Talking to the Dead,” Mark Edward examined the incident of psychic Rosemary Althea connecting with a couple’s daughter who had committed suicide. Althea snapped her fingers and said, “She was gone like that,” and the parents nodded their heads and wiped away tears. Mark explained to the show’s producer that there was something not right with that; you don’t want to say suicide unless you are very sure. The producer interviewed the parents, and sure enough, they said that Althea had done readings for them before and the couple was friends with Althea’s publisher who brought them to this show.
At another psychic show Mark and I attended in 2017, after the event was over I chatted with a woman who was so excited that the psychic had given her a reading.
Geoffrey Dean via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI
Today, phrenology (“head reading”) is usually seen as the fossilized stuff of cranks and charlatans. But in the nineteenth century it had a huge influence at all levels of Western society, more than all of its later competitors (such as psychoanalysis) put together. It was influential because of its attractive philosophy and because practitioners and clients saw that it worked. But we now know that it could not possibly work; personal experience had led millions of people astray. Indeed, few beliefs can match phrenology for its extent of influence and certainty of invalidity. So it has valuable lessons about any experience-based belief.
In the nineteenth century, phrenology affected all levels of Western life and thought. In Britain, Europe, and America, its influence was felt in anthropology, criminology, education, medicine, psychiatry, art, and literature. In France, it eroded established power and led to wide social changes. In Australia, it rationalized the violence against Aborigines and explained the criminality of convicts. For ordinary people everywhere a head reading was often required for employment or marriage.1 But how could this happen if phrenology was totally invalid? For answers, we need to start at the beginning.
First Steps to Delusion
Around 1790, the German-born anatomist Franz Joseph Gall, one of the founders of modern neurology, put together his skull doctrine that later led to phrenology. He held that behavior such as painting or being careful had their own specialized organs in the brain, and that they influenced the shape of the skull. So the skull’s bumps would indicate behavior and abilities that were innate. Gall spent eleven years examining hundreds of heads to test his ideas: “If … he observed any mechanician, musician, sculptor, draughtsman, mathematician, endowed with such or such faculty from birth, he examined their heads to see whether he might point out a particular development of some cerebral part…. He also called together in his house common people, as coachmen and poor boys, and excited them to make him acquainted with their characters” (Spurzheim 1815, 271).
Gall’s seemingly logical approach had two fatal defects. First, his claims were often based on a single striking case, for example “Cautiousness” was placed above the ears because an extremely cautious priest had a large bump there. Second, Gall looked only for confirmingcases and ignored disconfirming cases, a flaw not lost on his critics. Thus David Skae (1847), a physician at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, noted that once the truth is “fixed upon our minds,” looking for confirmation is “the most perfect recipe for making a phrenologist that could well be devised.” But to Gall and the thousands of phrenologists who came later, personal experience mattered more than procedural defects. Phrenology had taken its first giant step on the road to delusion.2 Note that the delusion of experience is not limited to artifacts of reasoning such as the Barnum effect.
I’ve discussed here and here how practitioners of paranormal piffle wish to look scientific. They fail under actual scientific scrutiny but, we have to admit, they are pretty effective at bamboozling the public with a sciencey show.
I came across a news story in Business Insider about an astrologer who was doing mighty well for herself. In times of uncertainty, society tends to turn to anything that will give them a sense of control. Astrologic and psychic advisors seem to fill that role for some people, even professional businesspeople. This astrologer, who thinks quite highly of her craft, had these things to say:
“What I do is scientific. Astrology involves careful methods learned over years and years of training and experience.”
“There are so many things we don’t understand in the world. What if 200 years ago someone had said that these metal barrels in the sky would get us around the world in a few hours? Or that we’d inject ourselves with mold to treat illnesses? People are so skeptical.”
And then I laughed.
Few examples of pseudoscience are more perfect than astrology, which has been studied A LOT, and whose practitioners still cannot demonstrate a root in reality.
By Carrie Poppy via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI