I recently had two separate interesting discussions with some other expatriate Sri Lankan friends who did not know each other. Each independently recounted their experiences with what is called a ‘light reader’ in Sri Lanka or a psychic or a medium in the US. They both talked about the same person named Hendo Hamy who lived in a village. People would go to him with various problems and he would be able to deduce why they had come to see him, what the problem was, and the resolution of the problem. Both were highly impressed by his abilities.
These events had happened a long time ago. In both cases, it was their respective parents who had gone to the psychic because they had experienced a robbery in their homes. As the parents told it, the psychic told them that they had come about a robbery and that the thief was a domestic servant. But that alone is not surprising. Servants are often the first to be accused of domestic robberies in Sri Lanka because they have the motive (they are poor), they have opportunity (they live in the house), and because they are powerless they can be terrorized by the police into giving confessions, even false oens. What impressed both sets of parents was the level of detail that Hendo Hamy had been able to give about them, the servants, their homes, where the stolen items had been stored, and so on, which they said was all accurate and which he could not possibly have known except by some supernatural power. All of them were impressed by the simplicity of the man who lived in an extremely modest home. I believe he did not charge a fee for his services (though donations were accepted) and did not seem to be doing this for money or as part of some scam.
One of my friends is slightly more credulous and felt that there is something ‘out there’ that we do not understand and that enables some people to have psychic powers. My other friend is a hard-headed atheist and rationalist but even he was puzzled as to how Hendo Hamy could have known all that he had told his parents. So he paid a return visit with some friends of his and, as he told me in the latest conversation, the psychic had told him the same things he had told his parents though he could not have known that they were from the same family and had come about the same thing. He said that he had been careful not to reveal anything to the psychic and so was puzzled by what he was told.
So how could this happen?
This conversation prompted me to look into this question of how these things work and this article describes some of the techniques that are used by mediums to persuade people that the medium has special abilities that include the ability to communicate with the dead.
[The techniques] can be divided into three categories (with some overlap): basic techniques that almost all psychics use, techniques used to increase the probability of getting a hit and techniques used to salvage a miss. When combined, they constitute a powerful method for deception, especially if the victim is in an emotionally vulnerable state or if he or she already has an inclination to believe.
Miklos Jako has a video where he had a session with self-proclaimed medium James van Praagh where he points out all the techniques that van Praagh uses that are discussed in the above article.
Interestingly, at the end of the video where debunks van Praagh’s claims pretty thoroughly, Jako says that he himself is not an atheist but believes in a god and thinks that the ultimate reality is spiritual and not physical. It is just that he thinks that the dead people who live in the other world can get information from our world but cannot communicate to us. In other words, the information flow is just one way.
By using the techniques described in the article and observing carefully the verbal and non-verbal reactions of people, the mediums can make it look as if they are deducing things they could not have possibly known. One of the biggest advantages that psychics and magicians have is the fact that the audience is often unwittingly complicit in adding to the mystique. If you can impress them in any way, they will later embellish the story or the trick to make it seem more remarkable than it really was. People do this by remembering only some details that increase the impressiveness and forgetting all the other ones. As they play these events over in their minds over the years, it gets more and more incredible.
It should be noted that in one friend’s case, the events happened when he was a young boy and he heard the story from his parents. In the second case of the atheist, it happened when he was in college and again he first heard the story from his parents. Interestingly, when the second friend was telling me this story again last month, another friend who had been with him during the second visit said that he was surprised at how much more positive he was now than he had been originally. This other observer recalled the original event as being much less impressive than my friend was now recounting and that the details that my friend was now saying that he had been told by the medium had actually been told to him by his parents. I too recalled my friend telling me about this incident while in college and it was not as dramatic as his more recent recounting. The moral is that memories are notoriously unreliable and so one must be very wary of second hand accounts of such events, especially if they happened a long time ago and are not accompanied by a visual or audio record or detailed notes taken during or immediately after the event.
People also have an exaggerated sense of how well they can hide their reactions to prevent the psychic from picking up cues. Most people, even if they are trained actors or sociopaths, cannot completely help involuntary flickers of the eyes or mouth or other body gestures that tell the psychic whether they are on the right track or not when they throw out feelers. This was the premise of TV shows like Lie to Me and The Mentalist, where people with highly trained powers of acute observation seem almost magical because they can deduce things that others completely miss. In the second show, the protagonist is a former con-man who uses the skills that he developed to pass himself off as at psychic to help law enforcement catch criminals. Although those shows were fictional and exaggerated the abilities, there is no doubt that you can learn a lot about other people from seemingly casual interactions
In an interview with Adam Savage, Penn Jillette says that he got a friend of his, an improvisational actor, to have brief conversations with some magicians to learn some of the methods used by psychics and set her up with people who came to her for readings. She turned out to be so good at it that she herself became very upset because she felt that she was tricking people into thinking that they were communicating with their dead friends and relatives.
Jillette says that most people do not really pay attention to the other person they are talking to because they are thinking about what they themselves are going to say next. If you forget about yourself and completely focus on the other person during the interaction and try to get as much information as you can about the person, it is remarkable how much you can pick up from all manner of cues and make it appear as if you have miraculous abilities. He said that you do not actually need any training except to learn to closely listen and observe with all your attention.