Emotions report: Are mentalists and psychics for real?
Our frenetic lives today have left many of us feeling “empty”, looking for “more” – a connection with our past, perhaps, or our future. But are mentalists and psychics for real?
The wizened old man squatting in front of me chanted an incantation and shook some small bones onto a straw mat. I was yearning for some great revelation, a mystical rustle of wind and a connection with loved ones now deceased. What I got, I discovered later, was a waiter in my hotel in Zimbabwe masquerading as a sangoma to make a quick $1 from gullible tourists.
There are times in life when we feel so vulnerable, lost and helpless that we’ll look anywhere for the answers. And since almost everyone feels equally clueless, it’s natural to hope that a sangoma or a psychic might tap into some higher power to give us guidance or reassurance when our world is crumbling. The trouble is its hogwash, says mentalist Gilan Gork. Psychics and mediums who claim to bring messages from your dearly departed are charlatans at worse, or misguided at best.
As a mentalist, Gork has trained himself to hone his intuition, read body language and influence your actions, using those skills along with maths, probability and memory techniques. Spiritualists use those same tactics of “cold reading” to pick up on the signals you send out, to make educated guesses that convince you they are communing with the spirits or foreseeing the future, Gork says.
We are highly vulnerable to being bamboozled, because nobody goes to a psychic when life is hunky-dory. That makes the popular psychic opening line of “there’s been an incident” or “there’s some sort of journey going on” foolproof, since the client is almost inevitably seeking help because of turmoil in their life. Gork has written a book called Persuasion Games, which explains how anyone can use these psychological tactics to increase their influence with staff, customers, family, friends and even strangers. Mentalists and psychics both create a convincing illusion of psychic powers, he says, with mentalists openly using a broad spectrum of skills such as non-verbal communication, neuro-linguistic programming, suggestion, psychology and even hypnosis. Psychics, however, claim to have supernatural powers. “The question is whether there are real psychics,” Gork says. “I’ve never come across any psychic who did anything that I could not do myself without the use of supernatural powers. Maybe somewhere there are real psychics, but the fact is there are people out there doing their ‘psychic thing’ using really clever psychological techniques.” The psychic industry is one of the oldest in the world and is a multibillion-dollar business in the US alone. And there are good reasons for that. “Everyone craves to be able to sit with someone and have them talk about you for an entire 30 or 60 minutes, especially in a time when people have never been so ‘connected’, yet are feeling more alone than ever,” says Gork. “In such a busy world and living in times of uncertainty, we all crave that little bit of extra insight to help get us ahead.”
Our increasing reliance on technology and the frenetic pace of life can also leave us feeling a spiritual emptiness, fuelling the desire to believe there is “something more” out there. “What better way to feel ‘in touch’ than by having an experience with a psychic who seems to defy natural laws with supernatural insight,” Gork suggests.
Many so-called “psychic” powers are actually persuasion techniques that anyone can learn, he believes, and his book explains how we can use those tactics to increase our own influence.
“The more influential we are, the more effective we can be in every area of our lives. Business leaders need to influence their staff, salespeople need to persuade clients, parents need to influence children, coaches need to influence players – the list can go on. When we increase our ability to influence and persuade, we become far more effective in every area of our lives,” Gork says. Psychics and fortune-tellers have certainly tapped into a huge and lucrative niche. And it is reassuring to think that somebody in the spirit world is looking out for us. Yet there are a great many charlatans capitalising on our craving to make sense of a world that is often nonsense. I once consulted a psychic in Johannesburg while I was going through a romantic crisis and my father was at death’s door. I joined his lucrative queue of customers, and got what I later discovered was his routine spiel.
There was someone in my life with the initials K, L or M, he suggested. No, actually, there wasn’t. When he said he sensed a problem with my children, I sensed a problem with him, because I chose not to have kids. When I asked when my father would die, he looked flummoxed, then said he was picking up the number three. Three weeks, three months or three years, he thought. It took four years for my dad to die, and I know his spirit won’t be contacting this fraudster to send a message to me. Yet other people have consultations and come away absolutely convinced they have been in contact with the dead, or gained an insight into their future.
Maybe we can’t dismiss it entirely, says Michael Abrahamson, another mentalist who describes his art as using the five senses to create the illusion of a sixth. “I lost my mother seven years ago and I’ll say ‘give me a signal that you are listening’, and a bird will fly by or a cat will run past, so I’m not totally opposed to it. But I’d need firm evidence that dead people can communicate before I’d accept it, because, having studied mentalism, probability, body language and illusion, I know that psychics use a lot of those techniques,” he says.
TV shows that give people messages from the dead usually involve about eight hours of filming for a 30-minute broadcast, editing out all the misses and only showing the hits, he says. “I have a problem with people who go on TV and claim to speak to dead people, because it’s using cold reading techniques in a way that I believe is unethical.” In his stage show, Abrahamson predicts what people will say, right down to which telephone number will be the last entry on a page someone picks at random from a phone book. His answers are written down in advance and locked away before a grand dénouement, to prove he knew what you were thinking long before you did. “It’s my skill as a mentalist to get people to do what I want them to do. There’s probably some sort of telepathy in it too,” he says. As a sideline, he runs memory courses to help people to get the best out of their brain by improving their memory and retaining information.
Both Gork and Abrahamson agree that some mediums genuinely believe they are tapping into a higher power when they make predictions or talk about people’s pasts. But others are cynically using intuition and other tactics to make money by exploiting our need to believe in something bigger than ourselves. We all have a natural need to feel loved and understood, and for someone to show an interest in our future, and if we are not getting that from our personal relationships, psychics are a paid-for alternative, Abrahamson says.
“I don’t believe in psychics, but I believe it’s possible to tap into people’s subconscious thoughts by the way they conduct themselves, and to predict how they are likely to conduct themselves in events that might happen in the future. But I don’t believe it’s possible to foretell what’s going to happen months down the line,” he says. “If you make a few predictions, the probability is that some will come true and you start believing you have these powers. There are people who delude themselves into thinking they can do amazing things. Some people naturally read people very well and can tell what they are thinking by the way they conduct themselves and the questions they ask and their body language, and if you are astute enough, you can probably predict what’s going to happen in their relationships and business.” Abrahamson has given many of his students advice about relationships or career choices based on the information he picks up from them. “I can give a very convincing ‘reading’ that’s 70-80% accurate about the things you could be doing in the future or about your past,” he says. “It’s not that difficult, using the clues you have been given, to set out a likely occurrence of events.”