A FEW years ago I watched a series of ‘specials’ on Channel 4 starring psychological illusionist Derren Brown.

The particular shows I have in mind were a lot less showbiz than his usual work and took place in America where, certainly at the time, his remarkable mind control skills were unknown.

According to the Channel 4 website, he set out to demonstrate just how easy it is to dupe people into believing five impossible things.

He tries to convince five leading figures that he has powers in their particular field of expertise: Christian evangelism, alien abduction, psychic powers, New Age theories and contacting the dead.

The aim of the shows was to demonstrates his unique and almost uncanny ability to misdirect, manipulate and mesmerise.

The programme that had the greatest impact on me was the one in which he ‘contacted the dead’.

We, the viewers, were in on the secret. Brown told us from the off that he was going to use his abilities to misdirect and manipulate members of his audience to the degree that they actually believed he was in contact with a deceased relative. And so they did.

I don’t know how Derren Brown works his psychological magic but it was breathtaking.

These musings were prompted after I drove past a local social club recently and noticed a sign proudly advertising a ‘psychic evening’.

At this point, one has to ask Just who goes to events such as this? What do they hope to gain from them? I really, truly hope everyone is going for a good laugh and that no one takes them seriously.

I thought that in the 21st century all the myths had been stripped away from such evenings. I thought that by now that everyone was aware of medium’s skills in cold reading — the use of likely guesses and the quickness in picking up of cues that steer them in the right direction.

When they are a little wide of the mark with a specific, they quickly widen it out to something more general.

And then there is the skill of the so-called Barnum effect — the use of statements which could apply to many people but which the individual feels applies to them.

And most telling of all is the ‘lucky guess’ where the psychic or medium does get something right amidst a lot of off-target guesses, perhaps getting a name right.

According to The Guardian, Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist and magician, says there is a powerful — and typical — response to a lucky guess. People tend to remember the correct details in a seance but overlook statements or events that provide no evidence of paranormal powers.

Professor Wiseman’s work has also shown that we are all extremely susceptible to the power of suggestion. With colleague Andy Nyman, co-creator of Derren Brown’s television illusions, Wiseman used contemporary descriptions of Victorian seances to re-create an encounter with spirits in a disused prison.

Over eight seances involving 152 people, volunteers sat around a table in the dark holding hands while luminous painted bells, balls and maracas moved before their eyes.

Surveyed afterwards, a fifth of the volunteers believed they had witnessed the paranormal. People are strange, but I once sat at the dinner table in a hotel with a group of my peers.

We all belonged to the same company but had only met each other that day.

Now these were senior people within the organisation, respected, educated and intelligent, and I was astounded when one of them started to tell us that he regularly attended seances where ectoplasm was often visible.

The fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, says: “Ectoplasm is said to be formed by physical mediums when in a trance state. This material is excreted as a gauze-like substance from orifices on the medium’s body and spiritual entities are said to drape this substance over their nonphysical body, enabling them to interact in the physical and real universe.”


I was so uncomfortable with the conversation, I had to make my excuses and leave.

Now he was a believer, and while I don’t share his belief – I contend there is a logical, scientific explanation for all of these so-called psychic manifestations – I am happy that he is content with his beliefs. live and let live, I say.

But I am uncomfortable when such psychic matters are reduced to the modern-day equivalent of a travelling fair sideshow. One thing you can be certain of: you will never, ever find me at one of these shows.