Psych-Out :: by michael joseph lmsw


The Cobra and the Mongoose: psychics, mindreaders and rogue magicians

October 1st, 2008

Tarot. Astrology. Mind-reading. Channeling. Make these claims to a magician, and be prepared to dodge his bite. In the magician’s world, psychics are at worst liars, cheats, and swindlers who prey on people’s pain. At best, they are self-deceived charlatans — highly intuitive, perhaps –but gullible to their own trickery. (Watch accompanying videos as much for their entertainment value.)

Illusionist Chriss Angel takes on paranormalist James Callahan. (See James Callahan’s full performance by pressing here.)

The fight is as bitter as that between mongoose and cobra. If you’re a psychic in the company of a magician be prepared for the challenge – “dare to show me your psychic gift and I’ll dare to expose the man behind your curtain.” From Houdini’s challenge to famed spiritualist Mina Crandon, to the Amazing Randi dogging psychic healer Doris Collins. Through misdirection, switching, hypnosis, cold reading, and other forms of trickery, contemporary magicians and illusionists such as Penn & Teller, Chriss Angel, David Blaine, and Derren Brown can make a skeptic out of the most die-hard believer.

Mentalist Derren Brown demonstrates “cold reading” technique (click twice for youtube video)

We are most vulnerable when we are in pain. We will turn anywhere for comfort. Sometimes in spite of ourselves, we will choose to believe the comforting wish, over a crueler truth. The shadow side to our capacity to imagine is that we are prey to illusions and unsubstantiated beliefs. A case can be made, albeit an arguable one, that it’s these very illusions that help us endure through troubled, uncertain times, and sometimes to keep us pushing forward when the odds are clearly against us.

David Blaine turns coffee to money. Better than water to wine?

What we perceive about the world doesn’t have to be accurate, only “good enough.” Good enough so we can feed ourselves, protect ourselves, and mate. Throughout two million years of evolutionary history, survival depended on quick judgments. We sacrificed accuracy for reactions that increased the odds we’d not only save our own skins, but also feel better inside our skins when times were hard, cold, and cruel. It’s better to be wrong and safe, mated, fed, certain, and un-alone, than to strive for accuracy and end up dead.

rotating snake illusion

rotating snake illusion

Sight is powerful to belief, even if what we see isn’t exactly what’s before us. (See some interesting optical illusions.) We don’t always see what’s there, but what we expect to see. Or, we tell ourselves a good story that confirms what we most hope, or most fear.

Moreover, we are not prone to being skeptics about our own beliefs. We are given to snap judgments. We are bad at estimating probabilities. We fail to understand that mysterious coincidences are far more likely than we want to believe. (Did you know that in a room or office of 23 people there’s a 50-50 chance that two of those people will share the same birthday?) We look only to confirm that which we want to believe, not seek the evidence against. One of the hardest things in the world for our minds to do is to look for information that disproves the stories and beliefs from which we draw comfort and strength.

James Randi and psychic Maureen Flynn

The psychic upholds our need for comfort in the thought that there’s a place beyond this world and, indeed, we are not alone. The magician will bring doubt to our beliefs in ghosts, spirits, reading the future in the stars, and then show you the trick — “Anything they can do, I can do and better.” Theirs is a complex, illusory reality filled with trickery, misdirection, and disguises. “Face it,” they seem to say, “you are on your own.”

Penn & Teller’s 7 basic principles of magic

The magician’s challenge is as much toward you and me. Be skeptical of what you see. Look for the man behind the curtain. If you see hoof prints think first of horses, even if you’ve come to believe that unicorns do, in fact, exist. (1)

Astrology? Watch at your own risk. (Click twice for youtube video)

1) Cognitive scientists and visual neuroscientists are now utilizing magicians and their tricks to study such phenomena as visual tracking, attention, and awareness. Stephen Macknik, Ph.D., director of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology at Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, and Susana Martinez-Conde, Ph.D., director of the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience, are working with magicians James Randi (The Amazing Randi), Teller (of Penn & Teller), Apollo Robbins, Mac King and John Thomson (The Great Tomsoni).

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