Is Your Doctor Psychic? Probably not. Or is She?…..
How is a doctor like a psychic? The answer is surprisingly simple. Despite sounding like the introduction for a bad joke, along the lines of “What is the difference between a doctor and a chiropractor?”, the comparison of physicians to those individuals claiming to call upon supernatural powers to gain access to previously unknown information holds true……sort of.
Like psychics, doctors make use of a particular set of unique skills to extract personal information from their patients. This is often done in such a way that patients are unaware of just how much they have revealed about themselves. This always involves simple and direct questioning, such as when the doctor asks a patient about their symptoms or whether they have had any surgeries in the past. But many of the questions asked by physicians do not intuitively have any connection to a patient’s concerns, such as when I recently asked the parent of a child with bloody diarrhea if they owned any turtles. Or when I asked the parent of a jaundiced infant if gallstones run in their family. A good doctor often must read between the lines and connect seemingly disparate lines of evidence to arrive at a conclusion which may not be obvious to the patient or family. And though the doctor is able to figure things out that they didn’t directly ask about, and had no foreknowledge of, no psychic powers are necessary.
The psychic, when performing a reading for a client, also probes or fishes for information. Sometimes they ask obvious questions, such as if the client has been having problems at work. Sometimes they make statements, such as when a psychic senses a problem in client’s chest or feels that someone from beyond the grave, whose name starts with an M, is present. Both physicians and psychics also make use of a visual examination to add to their impression about the patient or client, with hopefully only the doctor putting any physical examination skills into use. They both play the odds, making assumptions based on how likely something is to be true. A physician, for example, may look at a 5-day-old severely jaundiced infant at their newborn follow-up visit and, with a fair amount of confidence, focus the initial discussion on interventions for breastfeeding difficulty. Similarly, a psychic may look at a tearful young woman with no wedding ring on and bags under her eyes from a lack of sleep and make a high-yield assumption that she is having a relationship problem. But such indirect techniques are not necessary to be a highly successful psychic.
I’ll go ahead and reveal, not that it will come as a surprise to regular readers, that the evidence supporting the existence of psychic abilities is weak and doesn’t support acceptance. But it is accepted by large percentages of the American public despite a lack of both plausibility and of supporting research. It is easy to understand why, once reason has been set aside and a belief in psychic powers initiated, this belief is resistant to the assault of rational explanations. As with other similarly implausible notions, such as the proposed impact of the full moon on psychiatric symptoms or birth rates, confirmation bias serves as a powerful means of protection. Because of confirmation bias, we only seek out or remember information that confirms our beliefs. And we selectively interpret new information in such a way that our beliefs are not negatively impacted, thus avoiding the dreaded entity known as cognitive dissonance. When confronted, believers will generally offer up anecdotes and, in some instances, poorly designed pseudo-research but these primarily serve as means to prevent loss of belief. The big question is why do we believe in the first place?
It would be easy for me to chalk belief in psychic powers up to mental illness, or to gullibility. I could assume that all psychics are frauds and that they use trickery to convince us (1). I’m sure that many believers are nuts, and that many psychics are intentionally manipulating people for potential fame and fortune, but I’d wager these are in the minority. Most folks, psychic are psychic friend, are simply deluded, having fallen victim to what essentially are glitches in the otherwise pretty effective functionality of the human brain.
The human brain, magnificent though it may be, is perfectly suited for belief in the supernatural. Among the many traits that make humans successful as a species is our ability, if not our uncontrollable drive, to connect the dots. Our ability and urge to put two and two together, or however else you want to describe this uniquely human(2) capability, is a direct result of the evolutionary path we have stumbled onto. And it has always been at the heart of humanity wide improvement projects. But having a plump neocortex isn’t all vaccines and moon landings, unfortunately. With great brainpower comes an equally great ability to fool ourselves, and it has led to a vast array of irrational convictions and superstitious beliefs.
The reason for this is that, as good as we are finding meaning where it exists, we are equally adept at finding meaning where it doesn’t. We force patterns in random stimuli. We strive to piece together unrelated data points. Only humans, for example, can look at the pattern in a pine door and see the face of Jesus or hear discernible and meaningful words amongst the gibberish of a Beatles’ song played in reverse. And, because we just can’t help it, we absolutely love to make everything about us. The entire universe was created with us in mind, after all. At least it was according to the majority of humans alive today. But we are even better at this when it comes to making sense out of the world on a personal level. This is the very essence of superstition, isn’t it? The absurd belief that not only my life can be negatively or positively effected by meaningless actions such as walking under a ladder or carrying around a lucky rabbit’s foot, but the lives of others as well. The egotism involved in believing that forgetting to wear a pair of lucky socks might result in a football team losing a game is staggering. It is the assignment of personal significance to meaningless information that sets us up to fall for the primary means of being fooled, or fooling ourselves, into believing that some people, including ourselves, have psychic abilities. This fundamental method of deception is known as cold reading.
Cold reading is a method of manipulation that can be purposefully put into use by a trained charlatan to give the impression that they possess abilities beyond the natural world. It involves a variety of techniques that lead to the offering up of information, not by the psychic but by the person who has sought out the psychic(3) for guidance, or that take advantage of the human drive to find personal meaning in vague or random data. The general approach of the psychic is to throw out vague statements or questions and allow the client to either give visual cues that they have found meaning in something, perhaps with a slight smile or a change in body positioning, or to give verbal feedback which helps guide the reading down a certain path.
The following is an example of how a typical cold reading session might go:
Psychic Jim (PJ): I’m sensing a disturbance in your chest. Have you had problems with your heart, or your lungs, or anything in the chest?
Subject Sally (SS): Well, I cracked a rib once during a fight.
PJ: The spirits are telling me there has been conflict in your past, but no resolution. You should find this person and seek to make peace in order to find true happiness.
SS: It was during a kickboxing class and my partner accidentally kicked me in the side too hard. There weren’t any hard feelings.
PJ: Great! The spirits were unclear whether this conflict was in the past or if it was a current issue in your life. They are telling me that you have an easy-going nature. You are capable of forgiveness when others might become bound up in negativity. That shows great strength as a person!
Or like this:
Psychic Jim (PJ): There is someone here with us today Sally. The mist is heavy around them but I’m sensing a male figure who passed on recently.
Subject Sally (SS): One of the guys at the office died last week. A heart attack. We weren’t close. He was a hard worker though, and a nice guy. His name was Tim.
PJ: I’m sensing regret. Tim is telling me that he didn’t feel close to you and he wished he would have made an effort to get to know you. He’s saying that you were always such a positive presence at work. He says that you deserve a promotion!
SS: It’s my company. How could I be promoted?
PJ: The mist is heavy around Tim, I’m barely sensing him. He says that you were wonderful to work for.
Do you think that Psychic Jim demonstrated mysterious supernatural abilities? Subject Sally most likely does. Psychic Jim knows he doesn’t have to be right every time, or even very often. Or at all. He just had to make vague statements or questions and she filled in the details. He also skillfully was able to change directions when a path hit a dead-end, as it did when Sally revealed that Tim was an employee of hers and not a co-worker. Sally will very likely misremember that the information she gave, the cracked rib and the deceased man at work, was provided by the psychic. She will remember those pseudohits and forget the blatant misses. People want to believe, they want there to be meaning in the psychics statements, so they will force it and their brain will warp the memory. The positive nature of the psychics claims, that Tim was telling him how wonderful she is, only increases the likelihood of this happening. Psychics know that telling clients what they want to hear is the surest way to insure repeat business (4). This is why their readings consist of vague yet positive statements, along the lines of newspaper astrology sections, that almost anyone would feel fit them well. After all, don’t we all wish to be strong, capable of forgiveness and a positive presence at work!
Cold reading isn’t just a tool of charlatans, however. These techniques come into play unintentionally all the time. Some so-called psychics hone the skill over time with study and practice but many people are also naturally good at them. They are the people who consider themselves intuitive and really good at reading people. Rarely do these people believe that they are using psychic powers though but they also rarely understand that their ability isn’t all that special. Anyone can learn to convincingly cold read. Anyone can be a psychic. So it is easy to see how some professional mediums may actually believe that they have a special gift unexplainable by science, and that they are truly helping people. I disagree. Regardless of the intention, deception is very rarely justified.
So is your doctor a psychic? He or she is no more or no less psychic than that Tarot card reader in the local strip mall or even famous psychics like Sylvia Brown. As a doctor, I can promise you that if I were truly psychic it would make my job and my life much easier.
For a more humorous (in my opinion) take on the subject of cold reading, check out this satirical news story.
(1). They do use trickery in many instances of course. This post is about the practice of cold reading but there also exists what is known as hot reading. If you visit a psychic, or see one on television, who makes very specific claims be skeptical. There are innumerable cases of psychics and faith healers being busted using a variety of techniques to obtain information from a client or audience member without their knowledge. Infamous faith healer Peter Popov’s wife would mingle with a crowd before a show and then relay information she picked up to him via a hidden earpiece microphone. An episode of Penn and Teller’s Bullshit showed how a famous psychic invited friends of her publicist to a showing which was to be filmed for the program, and visited with the group prior to the reading. The episode showed how she clearly regurgitated information she had acquired during the informal pre-show chat as if she had obtained it using her psychic intuition. Also, use of the internet has made life much easier for so-called psychics looking for info on future clients.
(2). I know, I know. Simmer down all you animal lovers. I fully realize that there are myriad examples of problem solving in other species, even perhaps a limited grasp of the concept of time. I argue, however, that it is uniquely human to have a true understanding of cause and effect and an ability to make sense out of our environment to the degree that we do, for better or for worse. Although sometimes I think my cat Molly might be smarter than she looks. My dog Sock is just plain dumb though.
(3). I don’t mean to just pick on psychics here. Cold reading is a technique that is put into use by astrologers, faith healers, salesman, psychologists, and yes even well-meaning physicians.
(4). A psychic who likes to tell clients that their dead uncle thinks they were a douchebag will have short sessions.