Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There - Richard Wiseman (2011)
Chapter 3. MIND OVER MATTER
In which we discover how one man fooled the world,
learn how to bend metal with the power of our minds,
investigate gurus in India and find out why we
sometimes cannot see what is happening
right in front of our eyes.
Born in New Jersey in 1959, James Alan Hydrick had a tough childhood.1 When he was three years old his alcoholic mother ran away from the family, leaving her equally alcoholic husband to bring up Hydrick on his own. When Hydrick was six years old a bad situation became even worse when his father was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to two years in prison. This, combined with rumours that Hydrick was a victim of physical abuse, caused social services to move him into foster care. Unfortunately, Hydrick’s behaviour proved problematic, and he was moved from one foster family to another.
When he was eighteen, he was convicted of kidnapping and robbery, and spent time in the Los Angeles County Jail. While behind bars, he developed an avid interest in martial arts and worked hard to master various fighting techniques. Around the same time he also appeared to manifest psycho-kinetic powers. In what was to become his best-known demonstration, Hydrick would balance a pencil lengthways over the edge of a table and ‘will’ it to move. With his head turned in the opposite direction and hands away from the table, the pencil would slowly rotate, then stop and reverse direction. On other occasions he would open the prison Bible and ask Jesus to make his presence known. The pages of the good book would turn over one after another as if being turned by a ghostly hand.
When he was released from prison, Hydrick travelled to Salt Lake City, set up the ‘Institute of Shaolin Gung Fu’, and offered to help others learn martial arts and develop their psychokinetic abilities. In addition to moving pencils and fluttering the pages of Bibles, Hydrick added other stunts to his psychic repertoire, including making heavy punch bags in his Institute’s gym swing without touching them.
In December 1980 he was invited to demonstrate his powers on ABC’s TV programme That’s Incredible!. Each week the show featured a bizarre mix of stunts and performers, including a record-breaking sword-swallower, a group of rats that played basketball in a specially constructed mini-court, and a man who was prepared to be dragged along the ground on a metal tray at over a hundred miles per hour. The programme attracted a huge audience and represented a golden opportunity for Hydrick to hit the big time.
Hydrick (who by this time had adopted the mysterious-sounding stage name ‘Song Chai’) opened the segment by performing his psychokinetic page-turning stunt. All went well, with the studio audience shouting ‘That’s Incredible!’ on cue, and the phrase appearing in large block capitals across the screen for the hard of thinking. He then chatted about his abilities with the hosts and performed the pencil stunt. The audience were impressed.
Then it happened. Host John Davidson, who was sitting closest to Hydrick during the pencil demonstration, said that he thought he had heard Hydrick blowing on the pencil. Hydrick looked hurt and denied the accusation. A dramatic hush spread over the audience, presumably as they readied themselves to shout ‘Actually, If That Is The Case, That’s Not Quite So Incredible!’ With his back against the wall, Hydrick turned to Davidson and asked, ‘Do you want to put your hand over my mouth?’ Davidson agreed, and the studio audience held their breath as Hydrick focused on moving the pencil. A few seconds later the pencil slowly rotated around. Davidson looked stunned and the audience went wild.
Word of Hydrick’s remarkable abilities quickly spread, with one national tabloid going so far as to label him ‘The World’s Top Psychic’. He seemed destined for a place in the psychic hall of fame. And he might well have achieved it if it hadn’t been for James ‘The Amazing’ Randi.
That’s My Line
In chapter one we learned how magician and arch-sceptic James Randi has devoted his life to paranormal myth-busting, offering a million dollars to anyone who can demonstrate the existence of paranormal abilities under scientifically controlled conditions (his money remains unclaimed).
Hydrick’s show-stopping demonstrations on That’s Incredible! caught Randi’s eye and he challenged the young psychic to perform his feats under more controlled conditions. In February 1981, the two of them crossed swords on another light entertainment television programme called That’s My Line. At the start of the segment host Bob Barker introduced Hydrick and asked him how he had developed his psychic powers. Hydrick seemed to forget about his time behind bars, explaining that a wise old Chinese man called Master Wu had taught him how to reach the fourth level of consciousness (which, it seems, also involved the ability to be highly economical with the truth about his alleged psychic powers). Hydrick then demonstrated his amazing pencil-moving abilities and the audience applauded. Next, Barker placed an open telephone directory on the table and Hydrick called upon the great operator in the sky to help turn the pages. After several aborted attempts, and 25 minutes of less than riveting television, he caused a page in the book to flip over.
In the second part of the segment, Barker introduced Randi, who unlocked a large trunk at the back of the stage and removed his secret weapon - a tube of Styrofoam chips. Randi scattered the chips all around the open telephone book and challenged Hydrick to again turn over one of the pages using the power of his mind. Randi explained that he suspected Hydrick had been turning the pages by secretly blowing on them and that if he tried this again the Styrofoam chips would go flying.
Under the watchful eyes of three independent scientific experts Hydrick tried to move a page. After 40 minutes of hand-waving and brow-furrowing, and with the audience getting increasingly hungry and restless, he admitted defeat. According to Hydrick the Styrofoam chips and studio lights were forming static electricity which was pulling the page down and disrupting his psychic performance. Both Randi and the panel of experts agreed that this sounded like total tosh. Hydrick was adamant that his feats were not due to trickery and again tried to move the page using his psycho-kinetic powers. Once again, his abilities deserted him. Barker, Randi and the independent panel gave Hydrick the thumbs down, and the audience finally got to eat.
Hydrick’s appearance on That’s My Line was not a great career move. Although his most devout supporters might have been able to convince themselves that their hero was simply unnerved by the sudden introduction of sceptical observers and Styrofoam chips, most viewers came away with the distinct impression that Hydrick’s line was one of trickery. He knew that he needed a saviour. A man who could both promote his abilities and cleanse his public soul of alleged deception. Enter the third and final character in the story - Danny Korem: one-time magician, psychic investigator and self-professed Messianic Jew.
Nowadays, Danny Korem is president of Korem & Associates, a company specializing in ‘rapid-fire on-the-spot behavioural profiling’. According to the company’s website, their unique training programme can help people accurately judge the motivation, personality and communication style of others in seconds. However, in the 1980s Korem was leading a somewhat different life.
Korem had gained a considerable reputation as a skilled magician and had, according to his current online résumé, ‘read or reviewed over 10,000 books, manuscripts, and periodicals on deception’. He had also developed a keen interest in the paranormal and, like Randi, had written extensively about the tricks of the psychic trade. However, unlike Randi, Korem was a strong believer in God and had co-authored a book, entitled Fakers, to help people separate fake supernatural phenomena from the real stuff. (In one section, Korem writes: ‘As stated in Chapter 10, spirits of the dead cannot come back, because of the spiritual laws the Lord has set up’2.)
In the first part of this genuinely informative but deeply odd book, Korem explains the psychological basis for lots of seemingly paranormal phenomena, including table-tipping, the Ouija board and fire-walking. In the second part he discusses ‘genuine’ supernatural phenomena, explaining, for example, that demons are scattered over the face of the planet and so may appear to be able to predict the future by drawing information from a great many sources (‘Angels were never given this power’). On a more down-to-earth level, Korem also offers practical advice to those trying to separate cases of genuine possession from instances in which a person requires psychiatric care (as Korem notes, ‘The key word is balance’).
Korem became fascinated with Hydrick and arranged to meet him. He decided not to tell Hydrick about his background in magic (‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’), and instead posed as a documentary maker keen to shoot a film about Hydrick’s life and powers. No doubt eager to recover from the damage inflicted by his appearance on That’s My Line, Hydrick agreed to be involved. After carefully observing Hydrick performing his page-turning and pencil-moving demonstrations, Korem became convinced that Randi was right: Hydrick was not using any form of psychokinetic ability but rather blowing on the objects in a highly deceptive and skilful way. Instead of confronting him straight away, Korem returned home and worked hard to duplicate all of Hydrick’s methods (‘Thou shalt not steal’). After much huffing and puffing, Korem felt ready to move onto the next stage of his cunning plan.
Korem asked whether he could film Hydrick exhibiting his powers. Hydrick agreed, and happily came along to a taping session and demonstrated his pencil-moving and page-turning abilities. Hydrick was then asked whether he would mind trying to transfer his remarkable powers to Korem. This was not a novel request to Hydrick. In fact, he frequently told people that he could bring out their latent psychic powers, and would then blow as the person moved their hands around the object, thus giving the impression that they did have abilities. Hydrick placed his hands above Korem’s hands and concentrated for a few moments. Korem then leant forward and used the power of breath to move a pencil. Hydrick looked confused and stunned.
Korem then arranged to interview Hydrick. Taking his life in his hands, Korem told the martial arts expert that he had figured out his methods and that the game was up. Hydrick calmly confessed all. He explained that as a nine-year-old he had seen an American magician named Harry Blackstone Junior, and became fascinated by the psychology of deception. Around the same time his father repeatedly locked him in a cupboard as a punishment for bad behaviour, and so he created the imaginary Master Wu to keep him company. Hydrick went on to admit that Korem and Randi were right - all of his supposedly psychokinetic demonstrations were achieved by air currents. (The only exception was the movement of the punchbags - that was due to them hanging from a metal roof that expanded under the heat of the sun.) Towards the end of the interview Korem asked Hydrick why he had felt the need to fake psychic powers. Hydrick explained that he longed for the attention that he didn’t receive as a child and, after a lifetime of being told that he was stupid, wanted to show that he was capable of fooling the world.
Soon after taping his confession, Hydrick was arrested for breaking and entering. He then escaped from confinement, was re-arrested, escaped again, and was re-re-arrested. Upon his release from jail in late 1988 he moved to California and soon attracted the attention of the police when he started to use his psychic stunts to befriend a group of young boys. When evidence of molestation emerged the police took action and issued a warrant for his arrest.3Hydrick fled, but then accepted an invitation to appear on a national television show and was subsequently recognized by an off-duty Californian police officer. Hydrick was re-arrested. Still unable to shake off his reputation as a psychic, the security guards driving Hydrick back to California became anxious when they thought he was using his supernatural powers to rock the van, and later warned prison staff not to look him straight in the eye because he might cast a spell on them. A few months after his arrest Hydrick was convicted on several counts of child molestation and sentenced to 17 years in prison.
In 2002 a British television programme listed the 50 greatest magic tricks in the world. Hydrick’s pencil and page-moving demonstrations came in 34th, beating Uri Geller’s alleged metal-bending by five places.
THE PINOCCHIO TEST
Fake psychics possess an innate ability to deceive others. Take this simple test to discover whether you too are a natural-born liar.4
Imagine sitting across a table from a friend. The following four cards are lying face up on the table in front of the two of you, but there is a barrier in front of one of the cards (in this case the one with the triangle on it) so that your friend can't see it but you can.
The aim is to speak to your friend and tell them to pick up the card with the star on it (shown by the arrow), but without giving away any information about the hidden symbol. You are not allowed to mention the position of the card so you might say something like 'Please pick up the card with the star on it', and your friend would lean forward and pick up the correct card. Got the idea? OK, turn over the page and try the following five sets of cards.
Finished? The test revolves around your behaviour on the fourth and fifth sets of cards. Good deceivers naturally think about how any situation looks from another person's point of view. On the fourth trial you were shown a small triangle and were asked to conceal the large triangle. However, from your friend's perspective there was only one triangle - the small one. Therefore, if you said 'Please pick up the card with the small triangle on it', this will give your friend a clue that the hidden card has a large triangle on it. How did you perform? The same applies to the final set of cards. Did you ask your friend to pick up the card with the 'square' or the 'small square'?
Try the test on your friends, colleagues and family to identify those with naturally deceptive tendencies!
Fooling all of the People all of the Time
Magicians and fake psychics consistently deceive one of the most sophisticated, complex, and impressive evolutionary triumphs in the world - the human brain. They face a formidable foe. Brains have put mankind on the moon, helped rid the world of major diseases, and unravelled the origins of the universe. How then do people like Hydrick deceive these finely-honed thinking machines?
Most magicians believe that the answer lies in their secret knowledge about how to fake the impossible, and so are fiercely secretive about their methods. However, as illusionist Jim Steinmeyer so eloquently put it in his book Art & Artifice and Other Essays on Illusion, they are guarding an empty safe.5 In the same way that Hydrick blew on the objects in front of him, so the methods employed by magicians often amount to little more than sleight of hand, a rubber band or a concealed trapdoor. The real secrets of magic are psychological, not physical. Like most fake psychics, Hydrick employed five different psychological principles to transform the act of blowing into an alleged miracle. Each principle is designed to act like a wall that prevents people from entering the performer’s inner sanctum and finding out what is really going on. Understand the principles and you will understand how Hydrick and others have fooled the world.
The first all-important issue is selling the duck.
Selling the Duck
Imagine that you really like ducks. In fact, you don’t just like them, you adore them. You love the shape of their beaks, the silly ‘quack’ noise they make, you’d love a pet duck and you think it’s cute the way your friends quickly lower their heads whenever you mention them. Now imagine that someone shows you the picture below.
It would not be at all surprising if you see a duck’s head looking to the left. In fact, you may be so taken with the picture of the duck that you completely fail to spot the cute rabbit looking to the right. Fake psychics work in a similar way. People often want to believe in the reality of psychic powers, perhaps because they inject a sense of mystery into an otherwise dull world, show that science does not have all of the answers, suggest that human consciousness is a force to be reckoned with, or offer the potential of serious problems being solved with the wave of a magic wand.
In the early 1980s, psychologists Barry Singer and Victor Benassi from the California State University conducted a now classic experiment that demonstrated the power of this principle.6 Singer and Benassi asked a young magician named Craig to don a purple robe, some sandals and a ‘gaudy’ medallion, and then perform magic tricks to groups of students. Some of the time the psychologists introduced Craig as a magician and other times they said that he claimed to possess genuine psychic abilities. Either way, Craig simply performed a series of standard magic tricks that involved him apparently reading people’s minds and bending metal. After his performance all of the students were asked whether they thought Craig possessed psychic abilities. A massive 77 per cent of those in the ‘Craig is a psychic’ group thought that they had seen a display of genuine paranormal phenomena. But more amazingly, 65 per cent of those in the ‘Craig is a magician’ group also thought he was psychic. It seems that when people are making up their minds about how to perceive the impossible, a purple robe, some sandals and a medallion go a long way.
In the same way that a deep love of ducks can drive people to completely miss the rabbit, so a strong need to believe in psychic powers can cause some people to watch individuals like Hydrick and be totally blind to the possibility of trickery.
Hydrick did all sorts of things to sell the world a duck. He evoked images of the mysterious East by wearing martial arts gear, occasionally called himself ‘Song Chai’, and made up stories about his encounters with Master Wu. Had he put on a top hat, announced himself as ‘Magic Jimbo’ and spoken about spending time with David Copperfield, it would all have been very different.
It was also about the type of abilities that he appeared to possess. Early in his career Hydrick experimented with different types of demonstrations. At one point he would apparently cut a piece of string in half, place the ends inside his mouth, claim to be rearranging the atoms and then show that the two pieces had magically joined back together. When he performed the demonstration people (quite correctly) thought that it looked like a magic trick and so it was quickly dropped from Hydrick’s repertoire. Cutting and restoring a piece of string set off mental ‘this is a magic trick’ sirens and encouraged people to go in search of the rabbit. In contrast, moving pencils with mind power matches people’s preconceptions about the paranormal and so encourages them to see the duck.
Hydrick also acted as if his powers were genuine. Most of the people who believe in the reality of psychokinesis think that such abilities are both energy sapping and elusive. Hydrick exploited these ideas by often acting as if the demonstrations were a drain on his mental resources, taking a long time before making a page turn or a pencil move, and sometimes even failing completely. He could have easily moved the objects without the slightest strain whenever he wanted but that would have looked like a magic trick.
Finally, he often appeared to bring out people’s latent psychic ability by having them believe that their mental powers were responsible for moving the pencil. This is a common ploy used by fake psychics because it has enormous emotional appeal. Many people want to believe that they do indeed have incredible powers and so when they appear to encounter proof of this ego-enhancing concept they become especially reluctant to look behind the curtain and find out what is really going on.
Hydrick walked like a duck and sounded like a duck. Because of this, lots of people assumed that he was the real deal and didn’t even consider the possibility of quackery.
Although some of the people watching him didn’t even think about fakery, many others would have been far more sceptical. Perhaps they didn’t believe in psychic ability, or did believe but were sceptical about Hydrick’s particular claim. Whatever their point of view, Hydrick fooled some of these people using a second principle.
Take the Road Less Travelled
Time for two quick puzzles. Here is the first one. Can you add just one line to the following statement in order to make it correct?
I0 I0 II = I0.50
Now for the second puzzle. The illustration below shows the number nine represented as a Roman numeral. Can you convert this into the number six by just adding a single line?
You probably assumed that the answer to the first puzzle required some clever mathematical thinking, and that the solution to the second involved Roman numerals. The puzzles are specifically designed to make you think like that. In fact, the solution to the first puzzle involves time, not mathematics. To make the statement correct, all you have to do is add a short line over the second ‘I’, thus converting the number ‘I0’ into the word ‘TO’:
I0 TO II = I0.50
Now the equation reads ‘ten to eleven is the same as ten fifty’. To solve the second puzzle you draw an ‘S’ in front of the IX to transform it into the word ‘SIX’.
Many people struggle with these types of puzzles because they require lateral thinking. The same principle prevents them from figuring out how Hydrick performed his miracles. Ask people how they would go about making a pencil mysteriously move and they will come up with various ideas. They might, for example, suggest tying a thin thread to it. Or they might think of putting a metal bar inside it and moving a magnet under the table. Or, they might even suggest experimenting with static electricity. However, people just don’t tend to think about secretly blowing on the pencil. In the same way that most people struggle with the puzzles above because they don’t think about the equation being about time, or that a line in the shape of the letter ‘S’ would make the word SIX, so Hydrick fooled some sceptics by using a method that didn’t cross their non-lateral minds.
Of course, this principle is not going to fool everyone. After all, some people are naturals when it comes to thinking outside the box, while others know a thing or two about trickery, and so would have considered the ‘blowing’ option. To crack these tougher nuts, Hydrick needed to employ the next principle.
Cover Your Tracks
Watching film of Hydrick in action is fascinating, and reveals just how skilled he was. He uses two main techniques to discourage the ‘doesn’t he just blow on it?’ brigade. First, Hydrick had spent months learning how to carefully control his breath, allowing him to produce perfectly timed puffs of air that took a few moments to reach the objects. The slight time delay between puff and impact gave him time to turn his head around, thus ensuring that he was looking away from the object when it moved. Second, he didn’t blow directly at the objects, but rather at the surface of the table. The air currents were then travelling along the tabletop, hitting the objects and causing them to move. This technique ensured that there was never a direct path between Hydrick’s mouth and the object. Together, these techniques were extremely deceptive, and allowed him to cover his tracks and encourage those considering the ‘blowing’ hypothesis to jettison the idea.
When he appeared on That’s Incredible! Hydrick encountered the toughest type of spectator - the informed sceptic. Host John Davidson was suspicious that Hydrick might be cheating, had figured out that he was breathing on the objects, and did not have the wool pulled over his eyes by Hydrick’s head turn and tabletop blowing. To fool Davidson, Hydrick used the fourth and especially deceptive technique.
Change the Route
Our brains are very poor at coping with problems in which the correct answer changes from one moment to the next, and instead like to think that there is a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Fake psychics like Hydrick exploit this assumption by switching methods when they repeat a demonstration. If one performance rules out one method, and a second performance rules out a second method, spectators assume that neither method accounts for either performance and so conclude in favour of a miracle.
Hydrick’s performance on That’s Incredible! is a classic demonstration of changing the route. When Davidson expressed his scepticism, Hydrick invited the host to place his hand over Hydrick’s mouth and yet the pencil still rotated. Why? Because Hydrick made a quick karate chop in the air and the resulting currents caused the pencil to move. He changed the route, and both Davidson and the viewers were completely fooled.
Hydrick fooled different people for different reasons. Some believed that he was psychic and so the thought of trickery never entered their duck-loving minds. Others considered the possibility that they were watching a trick, but didn’t think of the correct method. Some thought of the correct method but Hydrick’s head-turning and indirect blowing made them think that they were wrong. A minority thought of the correct solution and were not fooled by his skilled performance, but were baffled when he switched methods during repeated performances. Still, although highly effective, all of these principles would have a high chance of failure if it weren’t for the fifth, and most important, factor. But for now, a fun trick …
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SPOON-BENDING
It's time to apply some of the principles of deception discussed so far to fool your friends and family. Want to appear to bend a spoon with the power of your mind? Try following this …
1. When you are out in a restaurant or round at a friend's house for dinner, secretly remove one of the spoons from the table, put it in your pocket, and go to the toilet.
2. Once hidden away, carefully bend the bowl of the spoon towards the stem and then bend it back again. Repeat this process a few times. Two things will begin to happen. First, the metal around the bend will start to become very hot - be careful about burning your fingers. Second, the spoon will eventually develop a very fine fracture line at the point of the bend. As soon as you see the line, stop bending because even the smallest of movements will cause the spoon to break in half. You have now created what fake psychics refer to as a 'pre-stressed' spoon.
3. Place the pre-stressed spoon back into your pocket and return to the table.
4. When people are engaged in lively conversation, secretly take the spoon from your pocket and place it on your lap. Then, when the group is engaged in even more lively conversation, pick up the spoon from your lap and secretly place it back on the table.
5. When the conversation has ceased being lively, bring up the topic of psychokinesis and claim that as a child you could bend metal with the power of your mind. Explain that you haven't tried it for years, but are prepared to give it a go. If no one is interested, get your coat and go hang out with a more interesting group of people.
6. Assuming there is some interest in your lies, pick up the pre-stressed spoon and place the finger and thumb of your right hand either side of the fracture. By giving the spoon a slight jiggle with your left hand you will find that it easily breaks in half. Hold the two halves together between your thumb and finger as if the spoon were still solid. Then slowly relax your grip and cause the spoon to appear to bend before finally breaking in two.
7. Allow the two halves of the spoon to drop onto the table with a dramatic clatter. If you are at a friend's house, now is a good time to ask them if the cutlery is especially expensive or has sentimental value. Either way, you now have two options. You can explain how you performed the trick and get your friends to try it with the remaining cutlery. Alternatively, you can claim that it was a miracle, explain that you are thinking of starting a cult, and ask people if they are interested in joining.
This trick is especially effective because people assume that the performance begins when you announce that you are about to bend a spoon with the power of your mind. In reality, it began when you secretly picked up the spoon and placed the fracture in it. This technique, referred to by magicians as 'time misdirection', accounts for the success of many illusions and demonstrations of alleged psychokinesis.
People often underestimate the effort that some magicians and fake psychics put in before the start of a performance. For example, British magician David Berglas was once invited to stage a private performance in the third floor apartment of a wealthy London banker. During the performance, Berglas borrowed an empty milk bottle from the banker, attached it to a long piece of string, and carefully lowered it out of the apartment window. Next, Berglas picked up a pear from the fruit bowl, and apparently made it vanish into thin air. The banker was then asked to carefully retrieve the bottle by pulling on the string, and was amazed to discover that the pear was now inside the bottle, even though it was too large to fit through the glass neck of the bottle. This seemingly spontaneous piece of trickery involved a huge amount of planning. Months before, Berglas had found a pear tree with budding fruits, and placed one of the stems into an empty milk bottle. Over time, the pear grew inside the bottle, giving Berglas his impossible looking object. During the trick, he simply had an assistant stand on the street and switch the bottle that was lowered from the apartment for the duplicate containing the pear, and thus fooled his guests, who assumed that the trick had begun just a few moments before.
In the Land of the Blind
Before progressing to the fifth and final principle of psychic deception, it is first important to turn back the hands of time and find out about one of the most controversial experiments in the history of supernatural science.
In 1890 Mr S. J. Davey announced that he had acquired the gift of mediumship and invited small groups of people to his London home to witness his remarkable abilities. Each group gathered in Davey’s dining room and was asked to sit around a table. He then lowered the gaslight and joined the group.
Some of the guests had been asked to bring along some school slates, and at the start of the séance Davey placed a piece of chalk on one of them and put the slate under one corner of the table, with the edges protruding. He then held one edge and invited a member of the group to grasp the opposite side. Pushing the slate tightly against the underside of the table, Davey asked the spirits, ‘Will you do anything for us?’ Within a few moments some mysterious scratching sounds were heard, and when the slate was withdrawn the word ‘Yes’ was clearly written across its surface.
Encouraged by his success, Davey moved onto the second part of the séance. After the group had searched the room for any evidence of trickery, he extinguished the gaslights, and asked everyone to hold hands and join him in summoning the spirits. Slowly, a pale blue light materialized over Davey’s head. The light then developed into a full-form apparition that one guest later described as ‘frightful in its ugliness’. After this spirit had faded into the darkness, a second streak of light appeared and slowly developed into ‘a bearded man of Oriental appearance’. This new spirit bowed and moved just a few feet from those present, its complexion was ‘not dusky, but very white; the expression was vacant and listless’. The spirit then floated high into the air, and vanished through the ceiling.
Night after night people left Davey’s house convinced that they had made contact with the spirit world. In reality, Davey did not possess the ability to summon the spirits. Instead, he was a conjuror who had used his magical expertise to fake all of the phenomena. However, unlike almost all of the other fake mediums of his day, Davey was not interested in fame or fortune. Instead, his guests had been unsuspecting participants in an elaborate and cleverly conceived experiment.
In Davey’s day, many mediums claimed to be able to make the deceased write on school slates and materialize in front of people’s eyes. Those attending these demonstrations frequently found them convincing and came away certain that the soul survived bodily death. Davey was deeply sceptical and believed that the public were being fooled and fleeced by unscrupulous con artists. There was, however, one small problem. Many of the people attending the séances described witnessing incredible phenomena that couldn’t have been caused by trickery. Davey decided to conduct his own fake séances to discover what was going on.
In the same way that Korem learned to replicate Hydrick’s tricks, so Davey schooled himself in the devious ways of fake mediumship. Night after night Davey performed for his unsuspecting guinea pigs, and then asked each of them to send him a written account of the evening. He asked them to make their testimony as complete as possible and describe everything that they could remember. He was stunned to discover that people frequently forgot or misremembered information that was central to his trickery.
The slate-writing demonstration is a good example. Before the séance Davey attached a small piece of chalk to a thimble and slipped it into his pocket. When one of his guests took out a slate Davey slipped the thimble onto his finger. Then, when the slate was held beneath the table Davey wrote the word ‘yes’ on the underside. He then removed the slate and, by showing the upper face only, confirmed that there was no message. As the slate was replaced under the table, Davey turned the slate over, ensuring that the writing was now pushed against the underside of the table. When it was removed a second time, the word ‘Yes’ had mysteriously appeared. When participants later described the demonstration, the all-important removal and replacement of the slate vanished from their memories, with the guests firmly believing that the slate was placed under the table and had remained there until the spirit writing appeared.
There were also the alleged materializations. Before the guests arrived Davey hid a large amount of fake spirit apparatus in one of his dining room cupboards. Before extinguishing the gaslight, he invited the group to thoroughly search the séance room. When he saw someone about to look in the cupboard containing his spirit stash, he quickly diverted their attention by inviting them to search him for any hidden paraphernalia. When the room was plunged into darkness, Davey’s trusted friend, Mr Munro, quietly sneaked into the room, retrieved the objects hidden in the cupboard, and used them to fake various spirit forms. The ‘apparition of frightful ugliness’ was a mask draped in muslin and treated with luminous paint, while the ‘bearded Oriental’ was the result of Munro dressing up (‘a turban was fixed upon my head, a theatrical beard covered my chin, muslin drapery hung about my shoulders’) and illuminating his face with a weak phosphorescent light. Munro later noted that though ‘the pallor of my face was due to flour, “the vacant and listless expression” is natural to me’. To create the illusion that the spirit levitated and then vanished, Munro stood on the back of Davey’s chair, lifted the light high above his head, and extinguished it when he reached the ceiling. In the same way that people misremembered the slate writing, so they were convinced that they had thoroughly searched Davey’s dining room and completely forgot that they had not looked inside one of the cupboards.
In 1887 Davey published a 110-page dossier cataloguing a huge number of these errors, and concluded that people’s memories for apparently impossible events cannot be trusted. The report caused a sensation.7 Many leading Spiritualists, including the co-creator of the theory of evolution Alfred Russel Wallace, refused to believe Davey’s findings.8 Desperate to find out how all of his tricks were performed, Wallace declared that unless all of the fakery was explained, he would be forced to conclude that Davey possessed genuine mediumistic powers and was deceiving the public by instead claiming to be a magician. Davey contracted typhoid fever and died in December 1890, aged just 27. Soon after his death, Munro and others explained how they had faked all of the phenomena, but Wallace still didn’t accept it.9 In a long article he presented detailed descriptions of other séances that he had attended wherein such trickery would have been impossible. Davey’s supporters noted that there was no reason to believe that Wallace’s testimony was any more accurate than the ones produced by those attending Davey’s fake séances.
Air-brushing the Past
Davey’s findings are an astonishing example of the fifth and final principle used by Hydrick and other fake psychics to fool the world. Many people think that human observation and memory work like a video recorder or film camera. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take a look at the picture below of two people sitting at a table.10
In a moment, I would like you to turn over the page and look at a second picture. Although the new picture will appear very similar to the one below, a large part of the image has been altered. Try to spot the change. To make things as fair as possible, feel free to flick between the two pictures. OK, away you go.
Most people struggle to identify the difference, even though it is staring them in the face. If you haven’t spotted it, let me put you out of your misery. In the second picture the bar at the back of the photograph is much lower. Don’t feel upset if you didn’t spot the change. In fact, the vast majority of people struggle to see it. Psychologists refer to this rather curious phenomenon as ‘change blindness’ and the effect is a direct result of the way in which your visual processing system works.
When you first saw the picture you probably had the feeling that you were seeing all of it in a single instant. This is a compelling illusion generated by your brain. In reality, the ability to form such an instantaneous perception would take a massive amount of brainpower. Rather than evolve a head the size of a planet, your brain uses a simple shortcut to create the feeling of instantaneous perception. At any one moment, your eyes and brain only have the processing power to look at a very small part of your surroundings. To make up for this somewhat myopic view of the world, your eyes unconsciously dart from one place to another, rapidly building up a fuller picture of what is in front of you. In addition, to help ensure that precious time and energy aren’t wasted on trivial details, your brain quickly identifies what it considers to be the most significant aspects of your surroundings, and focuses almost all of its attention on these elements.
Conceptually, it is as if you are standing in a darkened sweet shop with a torch, and getting a rough idea of what sweets are on the shelves by quickly moving the beam from one spot to another, and then concentrating on the jars that hold your favourite kinds of confectionery. However, rather than letting you know that you are not looking at the entirety of your surroundings in an instant, your brain pieces together an image based on its initial scan of the area and presents you with the comfortable feeling of constantly being aware of what is going on around you.
In the case of the picture, eye tracking studies show that the bar receives scant attention, with most people focusing on the faces of the two people (with around 55 per cent of people wondering what on earth the woman sees in the guy). However, despite this selective looking, your visual system provides you with the impression that you are constantly seeing the entire picture, thus explaining why you could not spot the difference.
This process is taking place every moment of your waking life. Your brain is constantly choosing what it believes to be the most significant aspects of your surroundings and paying very little attention to everything else. By making important actions seem unimportant, fake psychics are able to use this principle to make key aspects of their performance vanish from spectators’ minds. For example, when Davey first withdrew the slate from under the table he seemed to be checking for a spirit message. Because of this the movement of the slate seemed unimportant and so was quickly forgotten by his guests. Similarly, when performing his stunts, Hydrick would briefly glance at the objects, secretly blow and then look away. Because the glance seemed so trivial, people would forget about it and later be convinced that Hydrick looked away from the objects throughout his demonstrations.
The first four principles of psychic deception - selling the duck, taking the road less travelled, covering your tracks, and changing the route - ensure that people do not figure out the solution to the tricks that are happening right in front of their eyes. The fifth principle - air-brushing the past - ensures that they are unable to accurately remember what happened. Without spectators realizing it, important details vanish from their minds and they are then left with no rational way of explaining what they have witnessed.
THE GURU AND THE REFRIGERATOR
A few years ago a colleague and I travelled to India to investigate top Godman Swami Premananda.11 Born in 1951, Premananda claims that his religious calling became apparent when he was a teenager and a saffron-coloured robe suddenly materialized on his body. Since then, Premananda has performed his alleged miracles on an almost daily basis, materializing objects in his bare hands and regularly regurgitating egg-shaped stones. In the early 1980s Premananda established a religious retreat in a remote part of Southern India, and at the time of our visit this self-contained village was home to the guru and about 50 of his followers. Drawn from across the world, this merry band of devoted disciples were convinced that their leader's miracles were genuine and had dedicated their lives to his teachings.
My initial glimpse of Premananda was somewhat strange. On the first day of our visit I went to the retreat shop to buy a cold drink. The owner said that unfortunately his refrigerator had broken and that he was waiting for Premananda to solve the problem. I instantly conjured up a mental image of Premananda's followers cramped into a meeting hall with their guru leading the group in refrigerator-based prayer. A few moments later the shop door swung open and in walked Premananda clutching a bag of tools. The Swami yanked the refrigerator away from the wall, took a spanner out of his bag, and started tinkering away at the back of the machine. Within minutes the refrigerator burst into life. Sensing that his work here was done, Premananda quickly re-packed his tools, bought a chocolate bar, and left.
That afternoon we were informed that Premananda would meet us at six o'clock the following morning to demonstrate his paranormal powers. Early the next morning I dragged myself off the wooden plank that constituted my bed and made my way to the meeting hall. Six o'clock came and went. As did seven o'clock, followed by eight o'clock. It seemed that Premananda was playing the 'guru game'; testing our level of devotion by arriving several hours after an agreed time. (When I play the same game with my students it is referred to as 'unprofessional behaviour'.) After four hours waiting in an increasingly hot and sticky hall, I decided that enough was enough and made my way towards the exit. As if by magic, the door swung open and in walked Premananda, surrounded by a small group of followers.
The Godman smiled and quickly made a sweeping motion with his hand. A small stream of 'vibhuti' - a fine ash used in Hindu worship - started to trickle from his fingertips. A few moments later the ash ceased and Premananda appeared to pluck two small gold trinkets from thin air. Miracles over, I handed my Polaroid camera to one of the devotees and suggested that we all step outside for a group photograph. The resulting image clearly showed an odd purple haze surrounding the group and two additional blobs of purple directly above Premananda and me. Premananda looked at the photograph and modestly pointed out that many religions associated the shade of purple with sainthood.
Careful observation of the guru at work suggested that he had hidden the objects that he miraculously found in the folds of his garment, and was secretly picking them up when people weren't watching. When we eliminated the possibility of this by placing a clear plastic bag around his hand, the materializations suddenly dried up.
And what about the purple haze on the photograph of Premananda? When I returned to Britain I took the photograph to the Polaroid laboratories. The technician explained that when a Polaroid photograph is ejected from the camera, pouches containing developing chemicals are broken and the chemicals are dragged across the image. The technician then looked at the code number on the back of my photograph, consulted a big book of numbers, and revealed that the chemicals would have been past their sell-by date and therefore prone to a purplish discolouration. As a result, the scientific community has been reluctant to view the image as compelling evidence of sainthood. Personally, I am more convinced.
Field footage of the Premananda test
Davey’s ground-breaking work constitutes the very first experiment into the reliability of eyewitness testimony. Since then, psychologists have carried out hundreds of such studies that have demonstrated that the same type of selective memory clouds our ability to recall everyday events.
Around the turn of the last century, German criminologist Professor von Lizst conducted some dramatic studies on the subject.12 One such study was staged during one of von Lizst‘s lectures and began with him discussing a book on criminology. One of the students (actually a stooge) suddenly shouted out and insisted that von Lizst explore the book from ‘the standpoint of Christian morality’. A second student (another stooge) objected and a fierce argument ensued. The situation went from bad to worse: the two stooges started to trade punches and eventually, one of them pulled out a revolver. Professor von Lizst tried to grab the weapon and a shot rang out. One of the students then fell to the ground and lay motionless on the floor.
Professor von Lizst called a halt to the proceedings, explained that the whole thing was a set-up, had his two stooges take a bow, and quizzed everyone about the event. Von Lizst was amazed to discover that many of his students had become fixated on the gun (a phenomenon that psychologists now refer to as ‘weapon focus’) and so, without realizing it, had forgotten much of what had happened just a few moments before, including who started the argument and the clothing that the protagonists were wearing.
In the 1970s psychologist Rob Buckhout conducted a similar experiment, staging mock assaults in front of over 150 witnesses.13 Again, the witnesses tended to focus on what they thought was important - the nature of the assault - and so failed to remember much other information about the incident. When they were later shown six photographs and asked to identify the perpetrator, almost two-thirds of them failed to do so. On another occasion an American television programme broadcast footage of a mock purse-snatching incident and then asked viewers to try to identify the thief from a six-person lineup. Over 2,000 people called the programme and registered their decision. Even though the footage clearly showed the face of the assailant, just over 1,800 of the viewers identified the wrong person.14
A large amount of research has revealed the same finding time and again. We all like to think that we are reliable eyewitnesses. However, the truth of the matter is that, without realizing it, we tend to misremember what has happened right in front of our eyes and frequently omit the most important details.
Your brain is constantly making assumptions about which parts of your surroundings are most deserving of attention and the best way of perceiving what is there. Most of the time these assumptions are correct, and so you are able to accurately perceive the world in a highly efficient and effective way. However, once in a while you will encounter something that trips up this finely honed system. In the same way that a good optical illusion completely fools your eyes, so those claiming psychokinetic abilities perform the simplest of magic tricks but fool you into thinking that you have witnessed a miracle. They subtly discourage you from considering the possibility of deception, use sneaky methods that you would never consider, and ensure that any possible evidence of trickery is quickly airbrushed out of your memory. Seen in this way, rotating pencils and bending spoons are not proof of the impossible, but are instead vivid reminders of just how sophisticated your eyes and brain really are. The people performing these demonstrations do indeed have remarkable powers, but their skills are psychological, not supernatural.