There are several claimed types of psychic powers, including precognition (knowing future events before they happen); pyrokinesis (creating fire with the mind, popularized in Stephen King's novel and film "Firestarter"); and telepathy (describing things at a remote location). Among the most dramatic of these is telekinesis (also called psychokinesis, or PK), the ability to move objects through mind power. Though many Americans believe in psychic ability (about 15 percent of us, according to a 2005 Baylor Religion Survey), scientific evidence for its existence remains elusive.
History of telekinesis
The idea of people being able to move objects through mind power alone has intrigued people for centuries, though only in the late 1800s was it seen as an ability that might be scientifically demonstrated. This occurred during the heyday of the early religion Spiritualism, when psychic mediums claimed to contact the dead during séances, and objects would suddenly and mysteriously move, float, or fly by themselves across the darkened room, seemingly untouched by human hands. Sometimes small tables would tip or levitate, disturbed either by unseen spirits or the psychic's mind.
Though many people were convinced — including, ironically, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes — it was all a hoax. Fraudulent psychics resorted to trickery, using everything from hidden wires to black-clad accomplices to make objects appear to move untouched. Magician Harry Houdini investigated and exposed many fake mediums, and even wrote a book about it titled "Miracle Mongers and Their Methods."
As the public slowly grew wise to the faked telekinesis, the phenomenon faded from view. It was revived again in the 1930s and 1940s, when a researcher at Duke University named J.B. Rhine became interested in the idea that people could affect the outcome of random events using their minds. Rhine began with tests of dice rolls, asking subjects to influence the outcome through the power of their minds. Though his results were mixed and the effects were small, they were enough to convince him that there was something mysterious going on. Unfortunately for Rhine, other researchers failed to duplicate his findings, and many errors were found in his methods.
A few decades later, in the 1970s, a man named Uri Geller became the world's best-known psychic and made millions traveling the world demonstrating his claimed psychokinetic abilities including starting broken watches and bending spoons. Though he denied using magic tricks, many skeptical researchers observed that all of Geller's amazing feats could be — and have been — duplicated by magicians. In 1976, several children who claimed to be able to bend spoons with their minds were tested in controlled experiments at the University of Bath in England. At first the results seemed promising, and experimenters believed they might finally have found real scientific evidence of psychokinesis. However the children were caught cheating on hidden cameras, physically bending spoons with their hands when they thought no one was watching.
The "mind over matter" phenomenon faded away, only to be briefly revived in the mid-1980s when "PK parties" (in which groups of believers in the phenomenon would become emotionally and physically worked up, sometimes shouting and jumping around while trying to bend spoons) became a popular fad. Some claimed that a few spoons bent slightly, though skeptics suspected that they might have been accidentally bent amid all the excitement and jumping.
Biological basis for telekinesis?
Many people believe that there is physiological or psychological evidence for the human brain's capacity to do far more than we imagine: after all, they say, we only use 10 percent of our brains. They claim that psychic powers, including telekinesis, are merely the result of psychics being able to use more of their brains than others. After all, they ask, what wonders could we accomplish by tapping the other 90 percent of our brains?
As tantalizing as the idea sounds, is only a myth. The fact is that we use all of our brains. Researchers have found that brain imaging research techniques such as PET scans (positron emission tomography) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) clearly show that the vast majority of the brain does not lie unused. In the book "50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology," psychologist Scott Lilienfeld explains, "The last century has witnessed the advent of increasingly sophisticated technologies for snooping in the brain's traffic. ... Despite this detailed mapping, no quiet areas awaiting new assignments have emerged. In fact, even simple tasks generally require contributions of processing areas spread throughout virtually the whole brain."
The history of telekinesis is a history of frauds and fakery, both proven and suspected. Even many researchers studying psychokinesis admit that the data fall far short of scientific standards of proof. But they face an even bigger problem: there is no known mechanism by which the human mind could move or bend material objects. Even if our brain waves could somehow influence objects, the laws of physics demonstrate that the waves don't extend beyond a few millimeters from the skull.
People who claim to have telekinesis are mostly a thing of the past. Of course, if people really did have the ability to move objects with their minds, they would likely not waste their time being tested in laboratories but instead becoming rich in Las Vegas altering dice rolls at craps, or as top sports stars fixing golf shots.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of six books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries." His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.