A magician will instantly see the truth behind any colleague’s illusion. But we have a bit of an advantage: We know we are being fooled. Scientists are instinctive doubters who employ a rigorous method to zero in on the truth, but they aren’t necessarily trained to expect deception by subjects and collaborators.
We can’t make magicians out of scientists — we wouldn’t want to — but we can help scientists “think in the groove” — think like a magician. And we should.
For most of my life I’ve pecked away at a certain type of swindler: faith-healers, mystics, mind-readers. Those of a certain age may remember my appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson — a skilled amateur magician himself who introduced my exposure of flummery to a huge television audience.
Mine was a lonely voice back then, but I’m not alone anymore. The immensely talented and popular Penn & Teller long ago joined me as foes of harmful deception, along with other magicians; the president of my foundation, D.J. Grothe, has a background in magic, and many of our associates are professional magicians, as well. They all agree with me that the Society of American Magicians and the International Brotherhood of Magicians should re-establish their once very active investigations of the fakers who claim supernatural powers.
It’s not something that is generally done, or maybe at all – I’d love to see one funding grant that has a line item for the services of a magician, if somebody out there has one. But it is long overdue that my peers in the conjuring profession try to take a more active role in the elimination of nonsense science by joining forces with scientists, and that scientists be open to the proposition.
Please bear with me while I offer you a peek behind the curtain, a cursory glance at what we magicians are — and aren’t. First, we’re entertainers, actors, showbiz people who have as our primary objective the delight of our audiences. We’re deceivers, yes, taking on roles and characters to express our art, just as any actor does.
We are not scientists — with a few rare but important exceptions, like Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman. But our highly specific expertise comes from knowledge of the ways in which our audiences can be led to quite false conclusions by calculated means — psychological, physical and especially sensory, visual being rather paramount since it has such a range of variety.
The idea of summoning the spirits took thrilling hold of the Victorian imagination – and has its adherents now. But the psychology behind spiritualism is more intriguing
As the evenings get darker and the first hint of winter hangs in the air, the western world enters the season of the dead. It begins with Halloween, continues with All Saints’ and All Souls’ days, runs through Bonfire Night – the evening where the English burn effigies of historical terrorists – and ends with Remembrance Day. And through it all, Britain’s mediums enjoy one of their busiest times of the year.
People who claim to contact the spirit world provoke extreme reactions. For some, mediums offer comfort and mystery in a dull world. For others they are fraudsters or unwitting fakes, exploiting the vulnerable and bereaved. But to a small group of psychologists, the rituals of the seance and the medium are opening up insights into the mind, shedding light on the power of suggestion and even questioning the nature of free will.
Humanity has been attempting to commune with the dead since ancient times. As far back as Leviticus, the Old Testament God actively forbade people to seek out mediums. Interest peaked in the 19th century, a time when religion and rationality were clashing like never before. In an era of unprecedented scientific discovery, some churchgoers began to seek evidence for their beliefs.
Salvation came from two American sisters, 11-year-old Kate and 14-year-old Margaret Fox. On 31 March 1848, the girls announced they were going to contact the spirit world. To the astonishment of their parents they got a reply. That night, the Fox sisters chatted to a ghost haunting their New York State home, using a code of one tap for yes, two gaps for no. Word spread and soon the girls were demonstrating their skills to 400 locals in the town hall.
Within months a new religion had emerged – spiritualism – a mixture of liberal, nonconformist values and fireside chats with dead people. Spiritualism attracted some of the great thinkers of the day – including biologist Alfred Russel Wallace and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who spent his latter years promoting spiritualism in between knocking out Sherlock Holmes stories. Even the admission of the Fox sisters in 1888 that they had faked it all failed to crush the movement. Today spiritualism thrives in more than 350 churches in Britain.
Last week I spent 40 minutes with a telephone spiritualist who passed on messages from four dead people. Like all mediums, she was skilled at cold reading – the use of probable guesses and picking up of cues to steer her in the right direction. If she hit a dud – the suggestion that she was in the presence of a 40-year-old uncle of mine – she quickly widened it out. The 40-year-old became an older person who felt young at heart. And then someone who was more of an uncle figure. She was also skilled at the Barnum effect – the use of statements that tend to be true for everyone.
Among dozens of guesses and misses, there was just one hit – the correct name of a dead relative. Their relation to me was utterly wrong, as were details of their health. But the name was right and, even though it was a common name among that person’s generation, it was a briefly chilling moment.
Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist and magician, says my response to this lucky guess is typical. People tend to remember the correct details in a seance but overlook statements or events that provide no evidence of paranormal powers.
Wiseman’s work has also shown that we are all extremely susceptible to the power of suggestion.
- The psychology of spiritualism: science and seances | Science | The Observer (theguardian.com)
- The World’s First Recorded Séance (sunstarxpress.wordpress.com)
- The ‘Levitating In The Face Of Science’ Séance (sunstarxpress.wordpress.com)
- Derren Brown …. Mind control! (hrexach.wordpress.com)
According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 37 percent of Americans believe in haunted houses, and according to a 2013 HuffPost/YouGov poll, 45 percent believe in ghosts. These are surprising numbers, but the next time you hear a spooky sound, don’t call the Ghostbusters—get a scientist instead. Behind every shadow, poltergeist, and disembodied voice, there’s a perfectly rational explanation.
10 • Electric Stimulation Of The Brain
Frightened witnesses all over the world have seen the shadow people. These dark beings are glimpsed out of the corner of the eye only to vanish when confronted. Many believe them to be demons, some think they’re astral bodies, and some say they’re time travelers, here for a second and gone. However, some researchers have a more shocking theory.
When Swiss scientists electrically stimulated an epileptic patient’s brain, things got really spooky. The patient reported a shadow person sitting behind her, copying her every move. When she sat up, it also sat up. When she bent forward and grabbed her knees, it reached around her body and held her. The doctors then told her to read a card, but the shadow person tried to take it out of her hand.
What happened was the scientists had stimulated the left temporoparietal junction, the part of the brain that defines the idea of self. By interfering with the area that helps us tell the difference between ourselves and others, the doctors screwed up the brain’s ability to understand its own body, thus leading to the creation of a copycat shadow person. Researchers are hoping this is the key to understanding why so many people, both schizophrenic and healthy, encounter shadow beings and other creatures like aliens.
9 • Ideomotor Effect
The Spiritualist movement was pretty big in the 1840s and 1850s. It provided a way for people to talk to their dead loved ones. One method of communication was the Ouija board. Still popular today, the board was covered in letters, numbers, and simple words (like “yes” or “no”). People would then place their hands on a wooden piece called a planchette and ask the spirits a question. A ghost would respond by moving the planchette from letter to letter, spelling out a response (or unleashing Captain Howdy).
Another creepy method for interacting with spirits was table tilting. During a séance, people would gather round a table and place their hands on the tabletop. To everyone’s surprise, the table would start moving by itself. It might tilt up on one leg, levitate off the ground or scoot around the room.
Con men were definitely involved in some of these incidents, but were all these encounters frauds? Renowned physicist Michael Faraday wanted to find out. Through clever experimentation, Faraday discovered that the tables were often moving thanks to the ideomotor effect. This is when the power of suggestion causes our muscles to move unconsciously. People expected a table to move so they unintentionally moved it. A similar event took place in 1853 when four doctors held an experimental séance. When they secretly told half the participants the table would move to the right and half it would move left, the table didn’t budge. But when they told everyone it would move in one direction, the ideomotor effect struck again! This same principle applies to the Ouija board. It’s our own muscles that are doing the spelling, not the spirits.
8 • Infrasound
After seeing a gray ghost near his desk, researcher Vic Tandy was worried his laboratory might be haunted. But the next day, Tandy made an interesting discovery. While preparing for a fencing match, Tandy placed his sword in a vise. He then noticed the blade was vibrating on its own. All of a sudden, everything clicked. He realized the force causing his sword to shake was the same force haunting his lab. Vic Tandy was dealing with infrasound.
Humans can hear sounds up to 20,000 Hertz, but we’re unable to detect anything lower than 20 Hz. These “silent” noises are called infrasound, and while we can’t hear them, we can feel them in the form of vibrations. Dr. Richard Wiseman says we can feel these waves, especially in our stomachs, and this can create either a positive feeling (such as awe) or a negative feeling (such as unease). In the right surroundings (see “creepy house”), this might create a sense of panic.
Infrasound can be produced by storms, wind, weather patterns, and even everyday appliances. Returning to Vic Tandy, after witnessing his wobbling sword, he learned that a new fan had been installed in his laboratory, and sure enough, it was issuing vibrations of about 19 Hz. Since our eyeballs have a resonant frequency around 20 Hz, the infrasound was vibrating Tandy’s eyeballs and creating images that weren’t really there. When Tandy turned off the fan, presto: no more ghost.
Similarly, Dr. Wiseman believes these vibrations are responsible for paranormal activity in “haunted” locations. For example, when investigating two underground sites, he discovered evidence of infrasound coming from the traffic overhead. Wiseman thinks this explains the ghostly figures and creepy footsteps in these areas, proving there’s nothing good about these vibrations.
7 • Automatism
What do witch doctors and Shirley MacLaine have in common? They’re all big into channeling! Channeling is one of mankind’s oldest attempts to reach the spirit world. The idea is to clear the mind, connect with some sort of cosmic consciousness and let a centuries-old spirit possess your body, which doesn’t sound creepy at all. The shamans of ancient religions were believed to channel the dead, TV psychic John Edward says he can speak to those who’ve crossed over, and medium J.Z. Knight claims she channels a spirit named Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old spirit from Atlantis. Obviously, there are quite a few frauds in the channeling community, but what about the people who sincerely believe in what they’re doing?
The answer is automatism, an “altered state of consciousness” where people say things and think things they’re not aware of. So when a psychic clears his mind, he starts searching for a friendly spirit guide. The spirit guide is supposed to enter his body and then provide secret knowledge about the universe. When the psychic clears his mind, random ideas and images start popping up in his head, and the medium assumes these thoughts are coming from another entity. However, these ideas are just coming from his mind. Our brains are capable of coming up with all kinds of crazy stuff without any conscious effort on our part. How many times has something inspired you out of the blue? How many times have you had totally bizarre nightmares or daydreams? That’s not the work of an otherworldly guide. That’s your brain, working overtime all the time.
6 • Drafts
You’re exploring a creepy, run-down mansion in the middle of the night when suddenly the air grows cold. However, if you take a few steps to the left or right, the temperature returns to normal. This is what parapsychologists call a cold spot. According to ghost hunters, a cold spot is a sign of paranormal activity. When a ghost has nothing better to do than appear out of thin air and scare people to death, it needs energy. So the ghost draws heat from its surroundings (including people) in order to manifest.
However, scientists have a much simpler (and much more boring) explanation. When skeptics investigate “haunted” houses, they usually find cool air entering the house through a chimney or window. But even if the room is sealed off, there’s still a perfectly rational explanation. Every object has its own temperature, and some surfaces are hotter than others. In an attempt to equalize the room temperature, the objects try to lose heat in a process called convection. This is where hot air rises, and cool air drops. Similarly, when dry air enters a humid room, the dry air sinks to the floor and the humid air rises to the ceiling. This swirling air will feel cool against a person’s skin, giving the impression of a cold spot. Next time you feel a ghostly presence, turn on the heater.
- 10 Scientific Explanations For Ghostly Phenomena (listverse.com)
- 10 Famous Seances (listverse.com)
- Glass Ouija Board (gnostalgia.wordpress.com)
- Ghostly Pics: San Antonio Railroad Ghosts (newsfromthespiritworld.com)
- Ally’s Take On A Ouija Board (ouijatales.wordpress.com)
- DIY Ouija Board Coffee Table (dangerousminds.net)
- It’s That Time of Year… (blogmecolorful.wordpress.com)