Unreality TV: "Psychic Secrets Revealed"

Recently, NBC aired an hour-long prime-time special called "Psychic Secrets Revealed," produced by reality TV pioneer Bruce Nash. In the style of earlier programs that demonstrated how professional magicians pull off their tricks, including Nash’s own "Breaking the Magician’s Code," the show ran through a variety of mentalist acts and revealed the ruses behind the illusions.

Actually, one of the secrets not revealed by the program was its exact title. In TV Guide, NBC press releases, and assorted other places it was known variously as "Psychic Secrets Revealed," "Secrets of the Psychics Revealed," "Secrets of Psychics Revealed" (sans "the"), and most dramatically, "Secrets of Psychics – Revealed!"

Whatever you call it, the show consisted of a wide range of mentalist tricks, most of which were nightclub-style acts that would probably never be taken as serious evidence of psychic ability. Some of the tricks were not so secret; the slate-writing gimmick, in which words magically appear on a chalkboard, has been known and written about for a century. Other tricks were barely tricks at all. We see a fake psychic reciting vague generalities to her clients, who claim to be amazed at her "accuracy." I can’t imagine that too many responsible adults would be taken in by that one.

The gullibility of the audience was pretty surprising at times. I almost wondered if their oohs and aahs weren’t a little bit rehearsed. In this respect it may or may not be relevant that the March 12, 2003, jobs bulletin at Tinseletown.com includes an audition notice for actors needed for "the NBC special ‘Secrets of Psychics – Revealed!’" No details are given, except that the job opportunity was first posted on October 8, 2002. It’s not clear if one or more actors are required. There may be a perfectly innocuous explanation, but I do wonder why the show, advertised as reality TV, would need any actors at all. What roles did they play? Gullible man #1? Credulous woman #2? Maybe "Psychic Secrets" is keeping a few secrets of its own.

Be that as it may, if "Secrets" was meant to warn us not to take every street-corner psychic seriously, it served its purpose well. If it was meant to convince us that psychic phenomena are never genuine – that all such occurrences are magic tricks – then I’d say it overreached. Let’s look at the some facts the show didn't choose to reveal.

Early in the program, one of the fake psychics demonstrates spoon bending, which is then revealed to be a trick made possible by a precut spoon that could be snapped with minimal pressure. The stage illusion has been explained. But how about spoon bending that isn't done by magicians? How about a party where regular folks – and their kids – start bending silverware with their minds? If you think it can’t happen, you haven’t heard of "spoon bending parties," a remarkable social phenomenon that’s been going on since the 1980s.

The best report I’ve read on the subject is found in Michael Crichton’s highly entertaining book Travels. "In the spring of 1985," Crichton writes, "I was invited to attend a spoon bending party. An aerospace engineer named Jack Houck had become interested in the phenomenon, and from time to time had parties in which people bent spoons. I ... was told to bring a half-dozen forks and spoons I didn’t care about, since they would be bent during the evening ...

"About a hundred people were there, mostly families with young kids. The atmosphere was festive .... We were instructed to hold the spoon vertically and shout, ‘Bend! Bend!’ Once intimidated by being shouted at, the spoon was to be rubbed gently between our fingers ... A lot of people were laughing. It was hard not to feel self-conscious, holding up a spoon and shouting at it ...

"I was sitting on the floor next to Judith and Anne-Marie ... Rubbing her spoon, Anne-Marie said, ‘I don’t think this is going to work...’ I looked down at her hands. Her spoon was bending.

"‘Look, Anne-Marie.’

"Anne-Marie laughed. Her spoon was like rubber. She easily twisted the spoon into knots.

"Suddenly Judith’s spoon began to bend, too. She was able to bend the bowl in half. All around me, spoons were bending....

"My own spoon had begun to bend. I hadn't even realized. The metal was completely pliable, like soft plastic. It wasn’t particularly hot, either, just slightly warm. I easily bent the bowl of the spoken in half, using only my fingertips. This didn’t require any pressure at all, just guiding with my fingertips.

"I put the spoon back and tried a fork. After a few moments of rubbing, the fork twisted like a pretzel. It was easy. I bent several more spoons and forks....

"A year later, I mentioned to an M.I.T. professor that I had bent spoons. He frowned in silence for a while. ‘There’s a way to bend spoons,’ he said, ‘by a trick.’

"‘I think so,’ I said. ‘But I don’t know the trick.’"

As of August 2002, Houck had reportedly hosted 354 such events. At 100 people per event, that’s 35,400 people "fooled."

In the course of "Psychic Secrets Revealed," other examples of fake psychokinesis (or PK) are shown, in which hidden mechanisms enable the mentalist to manipulate small items like matchsticks or dollar bills; another mechanism creates the illusion that the audience, using its collective psychic power, can shatter glass. These techniques work fine in a theatrical performance, but could they be employed in the controlled conditions of a laboratory, where the psychic is carefully searched and there is no opportunity to set up any hidden equipment? It is precisely in such conditions that countless small-scale PK phenomena been observed – and large-scale phenomena, as well.

Some of the most dramatic effects were observed in the presence of the Italian medium Eusapia Palladino. Sir William Barrett, a parapsychologist active in the early part of the 20th Century, summarizes an investigation of Palladino undertaken by neurology professor Enrico Morselli. "The control of the medium was very strict," Barrett writes. "Her hands and feet were held by Dr. Morselli and Sig. Barzini, editor of the 'Corriere della Sera,' who states that he was present 'with the object of unmasking fraud and trickery,' but was in the end convinced of the reality of some of the phenomena. The person of the medium was thoroughly searched before the seance, and the room was also searched; the light was never entirely extinguished.

"Under these conditions Dr. Morselli testifies to the occurrence of the following phenomena: movements of the table; raps on the table and sounds on musical instruments without contact; complete levitations of the table; movements of objects at a distance from the medium seen in the light, and, also, the operation of self-registering instruments by the unseen agency; 'apports', i.e., objects brought into the room from outside; the sound of human voices not proceeding from any visible person; impressions on plastic substances of hands, feet and faces; the appearance of dark prolongations of the medium's body; of well delineated forms of faces, heads and busts. Although entirely sceptical at the outset of his experiments he declares himself convinced that most of the phenomena alleged to occur with Eusapia are 'real, authentic, and genuine' ....

"Professor Philippe Bottazzi, Director of the Physiological Institute at the University of Naples, having read the report of Dr. Morselli's experiments at Genoa, made an attempt to verify the phenomena by means of an elaborate and carefully arranged set of self-registering instruments, in the hope of obtaining an automatic graphic record of the psychic force exercised by the medium. Such a record would negative [i.e., nullify] the hypotheses of hallucination or mis-description on the part of the observer. These important experiments, carried on with the collaboration of several able professors of the same University, were remarkably successful, and Professor Bottazzi's article concludes by stating these experiments have 'eliminated the slightest trace of suspicion or uncertainty relative to the genuineness of the phenomena. We obtained the same kind of assurance as that which we have concerning physical, chemical or physiological phenomena. From henceforth sceptics can only deny the facts by accusing us of fraud and charlatanism.'"

Investigations of Palladino continued, with varying results. At times she very obviously attempted to cheat. At other times no known trickery could account for the phenomena she produced.

"In 1909," Barrett continues, "three members of the S.P.R. [the Society for Psychical Research], the Hon Everard Feilding, Mr. W.W. Baggally and Mr. Hereward Carrington, were commissioned by the Society to carry out another serious investigation with this medium. The selection was specially made with a view to the qualifications of the investigators. Mr. Carrington was a clever amateur conjuror, and for ten years had carried on investigations on these physical phenomena in the United States. His book on this subject shows his familiarity with the methods adopted by fraudulent mediums and his cautious attitude towards all such experiences. Mr. Baggally was also an amateur conjuror with much experience, and had come to a negative conclusion as to the possibility of any genuine physical phenomena. Mr. Feilding's attitude was the same, and, moreover, he had had extensive experience in investigating physical phenomena.

"The result of this investigation was that all three of these well-qualified men were convinced of the absolute genuineness of the remarkable supernormal phenomena they witnessed at their hotel in Naples."

Transcripts of the Naples sessions fill the greater part of a lengthy book, Sittings with Eusapia Palladino, by Everard Feilding. More recently, Stephen Braude has ably summarized these sessions in his important book The Limits of Influence. A reader willing to wade through the exhaustive, literally minute-by-minute transcripts of the Naples sittings cannot help but be impressed by the variety, complexity, and sheer scale of the effects witnessed by these competent and skeptical observers.

Less dramatic examples of PK have been documented extensively. Dozens of experiments conducted by parapsychologist J.B. Rhine, in which test subjects tried to influence the fall of dice, have been subjected to a statistical "meta-analysis" by Dean Radin. In The Conscious Universe, Radin writes that even after eliminating some possibly defective tests, "there was still highly significant evidence for mind-matter interaction, with odds against chance of greater than a trillion to one." His analysis of random number generator (RNG) tests yielded similar results. After looking at 597 RNG studies conducted between 1959 and 1987, Radin found that "the overall experimental results produced odds against chance beyond a trillion to one. Control results [from 235 control studies] were well within chance with odds of two to one."

The hundreds of participants in these studies were not skilled conjurers engaged in a massive, decades-long conspiracy. They were ordinary people demonstrating a little-known, barely understood, but perfectly genuine ability.

The last major "psychic secret" to be revealed was communication with the dead. "Is it for the real?" narrator Stacy Keach asks ominously. "You be the judge."

Two readings with audience members are shown; both sessions seem highly convincing. Then we learn that these audience members had earlier been approached by the mentalist’s accomplices, who engaged them in seemingly casual conversation. Personal details were elicited, which were given to the mentalist. Color-coded stickers discretely placed on these audience members’ seats ensured that the mentalist would know whom to select for the readings.

Afterward, a man who thought he’d been in touch with his dead grandfather was told the truth. He appeared crestfallen. "A big part of me genuinely wanted to believe. Ultimately I was really let down."

Assuming that this gentleman had really been duped and was not someone who’d responded to the show’s casting call, I find this part of the demonstration somewhat unethical. The mentalist and the TV crew are toying with the raw emotions of real people. It’s a cruel thing to do just to prove a point.

But the question remains: Does this ruse explain all mediumship?

It certainly does explain some of it. In his book The After Death Experience, Ian Wilson recounts the exposure of prominent British medium Doris Stokes, whose public performances were rigged to feature clients she already knew. "Not only had the key individuals been known to Doris beforehand," Wilson writes; "each had been specifically invited to the show by none other than Doris herself." Wilson gives the example of a certain Mrs. Stenning, who received an impressive reading in front of the audience. "A friend had written to Doris Stokes on her behalf, telling her about Mrs Stenning’s loss of her daughter Kerry. As a result, Doris Stokes had personally telephoned her at her home just the week before, offering her two complimentary tickets ... At the very least the fact that Doris undeniably knew beforehand Mrs Stenning’s surname, Christian name, and deceased daughter’s name makes a charade of her professed hearing of these names as ‘other side’ voices. And with Doris’s similarly undeniable prior knowledge of Mrs Stenning’s telephone number, there is scarcely anything other-worldly about how she could have known Mrs Stenning’s 239 Kingston Road address. She had only to look in the London telephone directory."

But Doris Stokes had never been subjected to close scrutiny. Are there any mediums who have been tested – and who’ve passed the test?

One of the most famous mediums in history was Leonore Piper of Boston, who was active in the late 1800s. Her abilities came to the attention of many prominent Bostonians, including William James. An investigation was undertaken by the American Society for Psychical Research, whose chief investigator, Richard Hodgson, was notoriously skeptical and had debunked countless mediums. His colleague F.W.H. Myers explains Hodgson's methods: "Mr. Hodgson has been in the habit of bringing acquaintances of his own to Mrs. Piper, without giving their names ... Mr. Hodgson also had Mr. and Mrs. Piper watched or ‘shadowed’ by private detectives for some weeks ..." All such efforts were fruitless. "It was thus shown that Mrs. Piper had made no discoverable attempt to acquire knowledge" used in her sittings.

It’s worth noting that even in the 19th Century, investigators knew that fake mediums would attempt to gather information about their clients in advance – hence Hodgson’s policy of bringing anonymous, unannounced visitors to see Mrs. Piper, while setting private detectives on her trail to ensure that she was not conferring with an accomplice.

In 1889, British parapsychologists arranged for Mrs. Piper to come to England. Myers writes, "Professor Lodge met her on the Liverpool landing-stage, November 19th, and conducted her to a hotel, where I joined her on November 20th, and escorted her and her children to Cambridge....

"Mrs. Piper while in England was twice in Cambridge, twice in London, and twice in Liverpool, at dates arranged by ourselves; her sitters (almost always introduced under false names) belonged to quite different social groups, and were frequently unacquainted with each other. Her correspondence was addressed to my care, and I believe that almost every letter which she received was shown to one or the other of us. When in London she stayed at lodgings we selected; when in Liverpool, in Professor Lodge’s house; and when at Cambridge, in Professor Sidgwick’s or my own...

"We took great pains to avoid giving information in talk; and a more complete security is to be found in the fact that we were ourselves ignorant of many of the facts given as to friends’ relations, etc. ..."

Myers sums up, "Few persons have been so long and so carefully observed; and she has left on all observers the impression of thorough uprightness, candor, and honesty."

Other mediums whose reputation for honesty was never tainted, despite years of close observation by trained experts, include Gladys Osborne Leonard and Eileen Garrett. Garrett, in particular, went out of her way to be tested, even helping to set up an institute for research into psychic phenomena. More on Garrett can be found in my essay "R-101," which tells the story behind some of her most famous readings.

There are, in short, two points for viewers of NBC’s "Psychic Secrets Revealed" to keep in mind. First, it’s a mistake to assume that professional parapsychologists would be taken in by any of the magicians’ tricks showcased on the program. These tricks, and many others like them, have been known for more than a hundred years. Members of the (British) Society for Psychical Research and its American sister society have exposed hundreds of fake psychics and mediums. In most cases the exposure isn’t especially difficult. Although my knowledge of magic tricks is very limited, even I could guess how some of the effects on the NBC show were done. A professional investigator would make short work of any of the mentalists who appeared on that stage. That’s what psychical investigators do – they identify the frauds and unmask them.

But not all the people they investigate are frauds. And that’s the second point. Just because some money is counterfeit, we can’t assume that all of it is. Likewise, the fact that some people can fake some psychic phenomena does not entitle us to assume that all such phenomena are – or can be – faked.

In his important book The Afterlife Experiments, Gary Schwartz tells a revealing story. With his associate Linda Russek, he had designed a laboratory test for several mediums – John Edward, Suzane Northrup, Laurie Campbell, and Anne Gehman – and he wanted to know if a professional mentalist could duplicate the mediums’ impressive results. For this purpose, he found a local magician, Ross Horowitz, who was knowledgeable about mentalist techniques. But when Schwartz explained the protocols used in his experiments, the magician balked.

"He quickly explained that his techniques were useless unless he had the opportunity of obtaining secret information beforehand, or of holding a dialogue with the sitter, or preferably both. I pushed him to try, and he reluctantly agreed. Giving it his best shot, his +3 accuracy [meaning his score for the most solid "hits"] was well under 20 percent.

"When Linda and I told him that the mediums we had tested produced specific and accurate information during a silent period, when the medium did not even know who the sitter was, we had his full attention. He wanted to see the videotapes ...

"The look on Ross’s face as he watched [the first tape] was actually funny to see. After only a few minutes, he told me he could not find any indications that Suzane [Northrup] was using psychic cold-reading techniques....

"He told us that none of the tricks or tools he knew would allow him – or any psychic magicians he knew of – to score as high as Suzane did."

The mentalist’s only suggestion was that all four of the tested mediums, as a group, had cheated by tapping the laboratory’s phones and Professor Schwartz’s personal phones. Even this unlikely conspiracy would not explain all the data that the mediums provided. In subsequent experiments, the protocols were tightened still further, but the mediums continued to supply accurate, verifiable information at rates well above chance.

Schwartz’s experiments are only among the latest in more than a century of investigations into psychic phenomena. If hidden mechanisms and planted accomplices could explain all paranormal occurrences, interest in the field would have died out long ago.

Viewers who choose to be wary of palm readers and carnival fortune-tellers have learned a good lesson from "Psychic Secrets Revealed." I just hope they don’t draw the wider, mistaken conclusion that the entire realm of the paranormal consists of fraud.

After all, there’s one thing worse than being taken in by a fake psychic. It’s being in the presence of a genuine paranormal phenomenon – and thinking it’s a trick.


William Barrett, "Eusapia Palladino," available online at http://www.survivalafterdeath.org/articles/barrett/palladino.htm

Michael Crichton, Travels (2002), pp. 318-320. Most of the chapter in question can be found online (without attribution) at http://www.uri-geller.com/mct27.htm. Crichton’s more recent comments on spoon-bending can be found at http://www.michaelcrichton.net/travels/travels_books.shtml

Everard Feilding, Sittings with Eusapia Palladino and Other Studies (1963)

F.W.H. Myers, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (1961), pp. 324-325

Dean Radin, The Conscious Universe: the Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena (1997), p.137, pp. 140-1

Gary E. Schwartz, with William L. Simon, The Afterlife Experiments (2002), pp. 176- 177

Tinseltown.com audition notice. As of this writing, it is still in Google’s cache at http://www.google.com/search?q=cache:qNAyn7UvXzAC:www.tinseltownonline.com/tour4.asp+%22Secrets+of+Psychics+Revealed%22+role&hl=en&ie=UTF-8

Ian Wilson, The After Death Experience (1987) pp. 76-77

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