Often I hear a defense of huxters like TV psychics that goes something like this: “She must be psychic. There’s no way she could have known my father was a door-to-door peanut butter salesman.” People assume the psychic is gifted enough to speak to the dead, but not gifted enough to read the subtle cues of the living. Clever Hans, the amazing adding horse, got similar flack — it was assumed that he was smart enough to add numbers, but not smart enough to pick up on the cues of his trainer and audience.
This entertaining article in the Washington Post describes a theory of how humans interact with one another using a sort of “mirroring” system. For instance, if you see someone wince, your brain may mirror that same reaction, sending you clues to what they’re thinking by imagining what you may be thinking were you to wince. New studies are showing that this reaction may be related to our feelings of empathy, to which I say, er, duh.
Empathy is a key trait of psychic frauds. When Sylvia Browne tells a woman that she sees a man and the letter “M,” she watches for the woman’s reaction — does the woman wince? How does she move? Does her brow furrow? By understanding that a furrowed brow might mean the woman is confused, Sylvia can quickly switch gears. By understanding exactly what it means when the woman’s hand shoots to cover her mouth, Sylvia knows to go in for the kill.
Empathy is an odd trait to associate with psychics, since we can only assume they must lack that characteristic if they are to continue fleecing grieving people. I can only guess that years of practice have allowed them to switch their little brain mirrors off at the end of the day when they cash their checks.
Special thanks to Rav for sending me the article.