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Bending the spoon, and other secrets of ESP

Can psychics and rationalists get along? I went to a parapsychology center to find out.

By Glenn McDonald

The Rhine Research Center in Durham, N.C., is one of the last institutions in the world dedicated to parapsychology, or the study of psi phenomena, the fun and spooky stuff at the fringes of science — telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, apparitions, and hauntings.

On a recent Friday night, the Rhine hosted one of its semi-annual community outreach events, Psi Games, in which the curious can spend an evening getting tested for latent psychic powers. I signed up, because why not?

I am neither skeptic nor believer. I do have one undisputed psychic talent — the uncanny ability to predict future celebrity couples. You think I’m joking, but I’m totally not. It goes all the way back to the 1980s: Depp and Ryder, Pitt and Aniston, Kidman and Cruise, DeGeneres and de Rossi, a dozen others. My psychic gift is extremely specific, but essentially useless. Maybe the Rhine could at least help me monetize it.

For the majority of scientists worldwide, parapsychology is…hmm, unfashionable is perhaps the polite term. The discipline enjoyed a brief period of expansion in the mid-20th century as science started feeling out its own borders, but ultimately collapsed due to a fundamental evidence problem. These days, parapsychology has a fervent core of defenders, but is largely dismissed as pseudoscience by the scientific establishment.

That’s never particularly bothered folks at the Rhine, who have been conducting paranormal research since founder J.B. Rhine established the Parapsychology Lab at Duke University in 1935. Initially trained as a biologist, Rhine was a legitimate man of science and is credited with more-or-less inventing the methodologies and laboratory protocols for ESP testing. But his research drew attacks from skeptics, and he eventually left Duke to set up his own independent lab off-campus — literally across the street. Remember that scene from “Ghostbusters” when Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd get kicked out of their university lab? That scene was loosely based on Rhine’s adventures in academia.

Though the Rhine Research Center is no longer affiliated with the university, it still draws independent researchers and rogue academics from around the world, hosting conferences and presentations, and publishing the peer-reviewed Journal of Parapsychology, in publication since 1937. Parapsychology may no longer be fashionable, but it’s still an active discipline, says Rhine’s executive director, John Kruth.

“Peer reviewed articles have been published for decades on these topics, and they are summarily ignored by most of the popular skeptics — some of whom admit to never reviewing the data or being out of date related to current research,” Kruth says.

The Friday night testing program is held at Rhine’s modest two-story offices near the Duke campus. Around 30 people show up, a mix of curious locals, date-night couples, college kids, and a few True Believers. You can tell the True Believers by their intensity. One of these is a tiny little Southern woman — let’s call her Alice — whom I learn is a regular at Rhine public events.

Alice knows for sure — for sure — that she is psychic, and it is her burden in life to be surrounded by unbelievers. “I knew the minute you walked in the door that you were a firefighter,” she tells another man in our group, after he had just introduced himself as a firefighter. Neat trick, that. You get the feeling Alice initiates exchanges like this about a dozen times a day.

Our first stop on the evening tour is a brief presentation in the Rhine’s research library, which is filled with books from the history of parapsychology research. I pluck a title off the shelf and am amazed to see that it’s an early-edition printing of The Case for Spirit Photography, an obscure 1922 book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The creator of Sherlock Holmes was famously involved in the Spiritualism movement of the late Victorian period, but I didn’t know he’d published on the topic. I show the book to Alice. She smiles knowingly.

Alice knows for sure that she is psychic. “I knew the minute you walked in the door that you were a firefighter,” she tells an man in our group, after he had just introduced himself as a firefighter.

At the other end of the library, the ESP testing session is facilitated by Steve Barrell, research fellow with the Rhine and lead investigator with Haunted North Carolina, Inc. Barrell looks like the actor Liam Neeson, except somehow even more intense. He shuffles up a stack of the Zener cards used to test ESP: the star, the square, the squiggly lines.

Barrell stares at each card for five seconds as we try to read his mind, scribbling our guesses onto standardized printout sheets. “If Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance is right, you’ll do better than the last group,” Barrell tells us. “They’ve already added to the collective consciousness to which you now have access.”

We finish the test, but my numbers are discouraging. They’re below the range of pure chance, actually. Barrell says that if I were to score really bad — like, consistently and mathematically-significant-bad — that would be flagged as a phenomenon known as psi missing. It can indicate an unconscious desire to suppress my own psychic abilities. Won’t my therapist be surprised!

In the next room, Kruth shows off some of the Rhine’s most prized artifacts, including an electronic psychic testing apparatus invented by the German parapsychologist Helmut Schmidt. In the 1970s, Schmidt’s random-number generators were used in experiments concerning precognition and micro-psychokinesis, the ability to influence matter on the atomic level — like scrambling the photons in a cathode tube TV display.

Kruth runs us through a battery of tests, in which we try to either predict the outcome or influence the result of a random-number occurrence. Schmidt’s main randomizing device is charmingly low-tech: a chunk of 1970s analog electronics housed in a wooden box with big red lights and clunky levers. The idea is to predict which randomized light will flash next (precognition) or mentally try to trigger the next light (micro-psychokinesis).

It’s surprisingly fun in a B-movie sort of way, and Kruth is good at keeping the party going, hustling everyone through four separate testing stations. Once again, however, my numbers fall within the range of pure chance. Our psychic friend Alice tests poorly too, but she is determined to make the best of the situation. “I knew this was going to happen,” she says.

The physics professor leads us in a communal shout: “Bend! Bend! Bend!” Sure enough, within a few moments, a cascade of bent spoons are clinking down onto the tables.

Next up is a session on remote viewing, hosted by Rhine researcher Benton Bogel, who specializes in this particular variant of extrasensory perception. Remote viewing is just that, Bogel says: the ability to see or otherwise perceive a distant or unseen target image. He tells us that during the Cold War, the U.S. government operated several classified projects on mind reading and remote viewing. “Some say they still do,” Bogel adds.

For our demonstration purposes, Bogel has the 10 or so people in our sub-group concentrate on an envelope across the room, inside of which is a randomly selected photograph. We are instructed to write down any descriptors that come to mind as we focus on the envelope. I close my eyes and get a series of vivid impressions that include a rusted-out farm vehicle and beams of light in a dusty barn. (In the interest of full disclosure: I also kept getting flash images of The Bangles’ 1986 Manic Monday video, for some reason.)

The physics professor leads us in a communal shout: “Bend! Bend! Bend!” Sure enough, within a few moments, a cascade of bent spoons are clinking down onto the tables.

The photo is revealed to be a randomly selected Associated Press wire photo of kids in a snowball fight near the Colosseum in Rome. No cars. No dusty barn. Sigh.

“I kept seeing water!” Alice says. “That explains the snow!”

The evening ends with a brief presentation on spoon bending, the notorious psychic scam popularized by Uri Geller and other show business professionals. As a pop-culture punch line, spoon bending is too well known to be considered a legitimate paranormal phenomenon. It would seem to present a dilemma for the Rhine team — who takes this stuff seriously?

Half the audience, evidently. Kruth’s presentation is a delightful study in nudge-nudge, wink-wink ambiguity. He never says spoon bending is real. But he never says it’s fake, either. In fact, he brings out a Duke physics professor, who provides some notional misdirection about atoms and magnetic fields and energy transfer matrices. A plastic bucket full of metal spoons is passed around. Sitting in groups around a half-dozen library tables, we’re instructed to hold our spoons by the narrowest part, rub gently, concentrate severely, and see what happens. The physics professor leads us in a communal shout: “Bend! Bend! Bend!”

Sure enough, within a few moments, a cascade of bent spoons are clinking down onto the tables. Because we’re all concentrating on our spoons, as specifically instructed, no one actually witnesses others’ spoons spontaneously bending. Still, several of the participants look startled, even a little freaked out. How did that happen?

The secrets of spoon bending are practically public domain in the information age. Google can provide you with 6,920 videos in 0.37 seconds. The quick explanation: Test subjects simply bend the spoons with their thumbs, either deliberately or — if you’re feeling charitable — unconsciously through repetition and pressure. Professional spoon-benders mix in basic stage magic tricks like misdirection and forced perspective, but the only phenomenon manifesting at the Rhine this evening is cheerful self-deception.

Our hosts at the Rhine know this, but part of the job is to keep the conversation light and confine all conclusions to the designated gray areas of parapsychology. The Rhine is privately funded, after all — kept afloat by individual donations, membership programs, workshops, weekend classes and events like tonight’s gathering. Psychic testing is a little J.B. Rhine, sure. But it’s a little bit P.T. Barnum, too.

As if on cue, Kruth wraps up the spoon bending party with an announcement about the Rhine’s latest membership drive. Ten dollars a month, $120 for the year. “Help us buy more spoons!” someone yells. The line sounds a little rehearsed, but it gets a big laugh.

To be fair, the Psi Games event is not intended to be all that serious or scientific, and the subject matter is intrinsically intriguing. It’s a fun time. “The purpose of Psi Games isn’t to show people their ESP abilities, but rather to show people how ESP was tested in the past,” Kruth says. “It’s a night of entertainment and education.”

At the end of the evening, everyone is happy. The Psi Games at the Rhine Research Center is a carefully calibrated event. It’s not science, but it’s not a swindle, either. It’s science-adjacent. (Parapsychology means “besides psychology.”) Anyway, I think we can all agree that, these days, righteous rationalists can be every bit as exhausting as goofball Believers. It’s fun to hang out in the gray area for a while; to point the healthy skepticism of science right back at itself; to let poor Alice do her thing.

Speaking of, as you may have foreseen, Alice turns out to be a world-class spoon bender. She’s deliriously happy, looking down at her three bent spoons. “Wow!” she says, looking genuinely surprised. “I never saw that coming.”

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Illustration by Jack Richardson

This article was updated on July 26, 2019.


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