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I told you that I was a psychic abilities sceptic.

Byline: Karen Wilson

'DO you believe in psychic abilities?' When this intriguing email question about The Alpha Project landed in my inbox, it immediately piqued my interest.

Billed as part theatre part psychological experiment, it promised a 35 minute experience for two that would blur the boundary between the physical and the extrasensory. As the sender was Newcastle Science Fest, I guessed it might be an expose of cold reading. But there was no Derren Brown type fake psychic. It turned out the show was entirely in our hands.

My friend and I were led into a suitably cold spooky room in Newcastle's Black Gate and greeted by a lab-coated official to take part in a psychic experiment.

Greeted reverentially as Professor Wilson, I was the tester and my friend Rich the subject. Ominously we were asked to sign a disclaimer and wear rubber soled sandshoes for safety, conjuring up images of the famous Stanford University electric shock experiments.

As Rich was sent upstairs to pick a photo from nine on the wall, I was asked to scrawl someone's last words on a piece of paper and chose Spike Milligan's classic 'I told you I was ill.' With just the two of us in the testing room, I was in charge (a nice, powerful feeling), reading out instructions from a projector while Rich's psychic abilities were tested with electrodes strapped to his head. Tasks ranged from ESP zenner cards, fork bending and moving a pendant with the power of telekineses, to a game of scissors, paper, stone. Would they rig it so that one of us 'appeared' to have psychic abilities? Well, no. Rich failed to show any psychic powers whatsoever, unless you count picking a photo which matched the one in my envelope. However with a video camera in the room, it wasn't hard to work out how this trick could be done.

At the end I was prompted to ask "what's the message?" at which point a malevolent spirit entered the room, broke a lightbulb and whispered "I told you I was ill" into Rich's ear. Unfortunately he misheard this as "I was the killer!". It was supposed to be unsettling, but ended up quite funny.

The experience was devised by theatre company Simply Told and the UK's most quoted psychology professor Richard Wiseman. He's the man behind best sellers Quirkology and 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot.

It takes its inspiration from Project Alpha, an elaborate hoax in 1980 by the stage magician and sceptic James Randi who planted two fake psychics into a paranormal research project to fool the testers. Afterwards Randi used the same technique to expose TV evangelist and faith healer Peter Popoff by planting a man in the audience posing as a woman with uterine cancer. Popoff happily 'cured' the man of his affliction, ending his TV career in the process.

As one of the UK testers for The James Randi Paranormal Challenge, Prof Wiseman has spent years debunking psychic phenomena. The challenge was set up 47 years ago and now offers a $1m prize to anyone who can prove under rigorous scientific conditions that they possess psychic abilities. Unsurprisingly, the money's still unclaimed.

"It's very rare they get all the way through to the test," says Wiseman, who claims 40-50% of people (most of them women) believe in ESP and psychic mediums. "They usually drop out before, making excuses."

He cites the example of medium Patricia Putt who wrote down readings for 10 subjects covered in black cloth. None of them could pick the reading that best described them afterwards. After a few days Putt started criticising the test which is "very common" according to Wiseman who thinks 5 to 10% of psychic mediums are "out and out charlatans". The rest "genuinely convince themselves they have these powers."

"I think it's dangerous," he says. "Very few people go to psychics just for fun. Most people go along because they've got a problem."

So why do so many of us believe? "A lot of people find the notion that the future is certain, particularly if the past hasn't been much fun, a very reassuring one," says Wiseman. "For me it's a bizarre thought that you hand your life over to someone else."

So will rationality ever win out? Wiseman thinks not. "It's always going to be around - it'll just take different forms," he says. "Ghostly experiences are higher now and that could be to do with the decline in traditional religious belief. There's a hole there and the paranormal is very good at filling that hole."

Karen Wilson


ESP OR BUNKUM? Sceptic Karen Wilson tests her psychic abilities during Newcastle Science Fest
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Mar 15, 2011
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