As a person of science, I like to keep an open mind about what might exist, but simply can’t be monitored or recorded. Technology advances every single day, and who knows what we might call “normal” ten years from now. With this in mind, there are a few concepts that will take a lot of proof before I will commit to saying “that’s real”. One of these concepts is psychic ability.
In the great debate of extrasensory perception, there is no scientific evidence to prove that it exists or is even possible. However, that may not rule out the possibility of legitimate sensitivity all together. Things such as this are hard to prove and much easier to disprove. Even if the ability is real, it's a rare gift and anyone able to do it probably isn't subjecting themselves to testing. For all we know, there are people out there who are sensitive to things others can’t perceive. So far, I haven’t come across anyone who could convince me of this, but that could change any day now. If you are looking for psychic advice, by all means indulge yourself. But be wary, there are many frauds out there.
Attend any paranormal convention, expo, or panel and you’ll find palm readers, fortune tellers, and psychics galore. When the topic of the supernatural comes up, there will always be someone in the crowd who claims they are sensitive to the paranormal, or can speak to the dead. There will be strangers with cards or boards or stones who say they can see your past, present, and future. Some people will roll their eyes and ignore these fantastic claims, but some cling onto the belief that these mediums can be a bridge between them and their lost ones, or help them predict the future that awaits them. In fact, according to a Gallup poll taken in 2012, 41% of Americans believe in extrasensory perception (ESP), and 21% believe that people can mentally communicate with the dead. What these believers may not know is anyone can be a “psychic”, and they can make a pretty decent living doing it, too (an average of $36,000 per year, according to salaryexpert).
While also known as clairvoyants, fortune tellers, channelers, spiritualists, telepaths, or palm-readers, we mostly hear these individuals called psychics or mediums. They draw spectators in with charm and charisma, trying to persuade anyone who will listen that they have special psychic abilities, or ESP. Once they draw someone in, they go to work using whichever methodology they specialize in.
There are quite a few different methods used for fortune-telling, including astrology, spirit board reading, cartomancy, tarot reading, palmistry, and crystallomancy. These methods use specific devices, such as cards or crystals, as a physical representation for their readings. (With a tarot card labeled “Death”, you can evoke a lot of emotions from your customer without even saying anything.) Some mediums only use one of these methods and consider it their specialty, but others may use more than one to further enforce the notion of being special.
Another method used by psychics is called “reading” or “spiritual consultation”, in which the practitioner gives their client advice and predictions said to come from spirits or visions. In many cases, they claim to be communicating with dead loved ones in order to pass on messages from the deceased. This is commonly seen at paranormal expos or conventions when a psychic addresses a room of people with someone’s name, trying to find the audience member who their spiritual message is supposed to go to.
If one finds themselves in one of these situations, whether it be a psychic with a bag of stones or a medium with a message from your deceased grandmother, one may start to believe in the existence of ESP. Extrasensory perception, also known as ESP, is perception such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition that involves awareness of information about events external to the self, not gained through the senses and not deducible from previous experience. In other words, having ESP means you know things that you should have no way of knowing. If you’re a suggestible sort, you may find yourself shocked and in awe of the psychic sitting across from you, knowing things about your life that they have no way of knowing. However, if you’ve extensively studied Psychology, you’ll know what’s really going on during your session.
Psychologists know that people are constantly sending signals with their body language. These nonverbal signals such as body movements, facial expressions, hand gestures, and posture speak more than words ever could. Simple things like a flutter of an eyelid or a smirk can tell a person everything they need to know in certain situations. Psychics are entirely aware of this fact, and they use your own body language against you to lead you into thinking they are actually supernaturally perceptive. In reality, they are perceptive, but no more than anyone else who pays attention to human body language.
If a palm reader mentions a crush in your life, and your mouth forms a smile, they know they’ve struck gold. If a tarot reader flips a card and you slump in your seat, they can feel the disappointment or disapproval. In either case, you’re doing most of the work for them. This works the same way with “spiritual consultation”. Once a medium has picked a target audience member, they will use a technique called “cold reading” to read facial expressions, hand movements, and posture to determine whether they’re on the right track, which will eventually coax the truth out of the participant, whether they’re conscious of it or not.
Not only are self-proclaimed psychics using your body language to influence their readings, they are also doing something that you might not even notice: They’re using general, broad statements; statements that can be presented to almost anyone and merit a response; things that are so broad that they can be interpreted a number of different ways. It’s a sly technique that can be so subtle, most people will believe that the message is specifically for them. This technique, known as equivoque, has been used by magicians and con-men since the 1800s. The word, meaning “capable of having more than one meaning or possible interpretation; ambiguity”, is used to perform cold readings and produce illusions such as mentalism.
I will use my personal experience getting a tarot card reading as an example. Some of the clairvoyant statements made were: “You feel like a doormat. You feel stuck in your life. There’s a man in your life who thinks he always has to be right. You stopped doing something you used to love. You’re afraid of failure, but shouldn’t be afraid.” What person hasn’t felt like a doormat at some point? Who is 100% satisfied with their life? What man doesn’t think he always has to be right? Who still has time, money, or energy to do every single thing they love doing? And who isn’t afraid of failure? The statements were so general and broad that almost anyone else in the area could have gotten the same results and it would have been fine.
This works the same way with “spiritual consultation”. In a room of twenty people, if a medium says a common name, at least five will raise their hand. If they continue with a common disease like “cancer” or “heart disease”, that still leave two or three people. They might continue with the commonality and say something like “he wants you to know he’s so proud of you”, and at least one person will begin crying, sharing information about their father and how they never got his approval. By using average or ordinary names, places, descriptions, or causes of death, the psychic could be “talking” to any number of people.
Another profession that is known to use broad statements to appeal to a large audience is motivational speaking. And what is a psychic if not a motivational speaker with a magical gimmick? Clients may receive excellent advice to “believe in themselves” or “put themselves out there” during a session. The added mysticism and spiritualism behind the advice gives weight to it. Believing that this person might even know your future may make you actually believe in yourself, and what’s the harm in that? We know there are certain individuals out there who simply want to lie to people and take their money, but I don’t believe everyone in the profession has malevolent intent. In fact, I’d like to think the majority would have the opposite.
Sensitive people may be out there right now, but there is absolutely no scientific proof yet. That may change before we know it but, until then, it’s a good idea to be wary of people who claim to have psychic abilities. While hardcore believers of the supernatural may believe that these individuals are performing mystical feats using their extrasensory perception and ability to talk to the dead, it’s logically a combination of body language, psychology, and equivoque. People want to believe, and it’s this fundamental desire that enables others to manipulate them. But while these psychics may be manipulating their customers, I do not believe that is inherently a bad thing.