Throughout history, and probably before, the belief in ‘mind over matter’ has been widespread. It refers to the belief that we can move objects, bend metal bars etc. by the power of our minds alone.

‘Verily, I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.’ (Matthew 17: 20; John 14: 12) The Bible has many other references to the power of ‘mind over matter’, including such miracles as the walking on water, the healing of the sick through touch and so on.

In India and other parts of the world there is a common belief that certain holy men can perform amazing mental feats, such as lying on a bed of nails with heavy weights on them, or walking across a bed of burning hot coals (see section on fire-walking), simply by achieving the right state of mind and by exercising their mystical powers. The Indian Rope Trick is another example at which we shall take a brief look.


"What is matter? Never mind.

What is mind? No matter!"




Greek: psyche = mind or soul, kinesis = movement.

This is probably the best example of ‘mind over matter’. Psychokinesis includes the ability to move objects, bend spoons, keys or metal bars, make things fall over, defy gravity - e.g. levitation (floating in air), fly through the air and so on, by the power of our minds alone. Thus we can perform these feats, it is believed, purely by concentrating our mind in the right way, or by using our will-power or faith.

In 1982 two boys, Michael Edwards and Steve Shaw were tested in the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research in Missouri, USA. The psychologist Michael Thalbourne became convinced that the boys could bend metal, move objects and use ESP (extrasensory perception).

The following year the two boys confessed that they were magicians and had been sent in to show that simple conjuring tricks could deceive even intelligent, scientifically trained people! The parapsychologists had not been dishonest, simply unaware of the extraordinary ways in which conjuring tricks could deceive us.

Uri Geller
The most famous person to have claimed the power of psychokinesis is undoubtedly Uri Geller. He is very well known throughout the world and has devoted followers in almost every country. His major claim to fame is spoon bending which he has done on TV for all to see. He has also claimed the ability to know the contents of sealed envelopes and to see while blind-folded, amongst various other supernatural powers.

Psychic or conjuror?
Geller has insisted that his powers are genuine and has denied that he cheats. He has in fact denied being a conjuror. In 1974 he travelled the world putting out that his powers had been given to him through a distant planet called Hoova in another star system, and a UFO called IS or Intelligence in the Sky. This is strongly reminiscent of the origins of the Raelian movement and of the Church of Scientology (see chapter on cults). I wonder if Uri was trying to start up a cult of his own?

Geller also claims to have made millions by helping companies find oil and gold using his dowsing abilities (see section on dowsing), though he is careful, of course, not to say who his clients were. He has also offered to use psychokinesis to recover a camera left on the moon by one of the astronauts. Other claims have been to have created gold from base metals, using the ancient arts of alchemy, and to have discovered the lost Ark of the Covenant. (1)

Geller’s famous ‘eight out of ten’ achievement. Near the height of his fame Geller was tested by parapsychologists Puthoff and Targ in a laboratory in California. They said they had videotape of him stating correctly eight out of ten times which numbers were on dice inside a box. This was a truly amazing feat. Magicians saw the tape and agreed that they could not see how Geller could have cheated.


But then the cameraman who had filmed the tests, Zev Pressman, announced that he had serious problems with the accuracy of the tape. These are just two of his examples:

  • Dr. Targ said that at no time had Geller touched the box. Pressman stated that in fact Geller had not only shaken the box, but had opened it.
  • Targ and Puthoff said that Pressman was present the whole time the tests were going on. But the famous eight-in-a-row trial was done after Pressman had gone home for the day.
Hear about the levitator who broke the law of gravity?

He got a suspended sentence!

Speaker asks audience:
‘Would all those who believe in psychokinesis
please raise my right hand?’
It turned out that the film was not of a live experiment (as the video had claimed) but of a cleaned up re-enactment. Finally, in 1981 Puthoff admitted that no film had ever been made of Geller’s successful eight out of ten guesses. The video was a fake, and the world had been well and truly conned! (2)

It is significant that Geller refuses to perform in front of professional magicians. His reason? - his mystical powers cannot work properly in front of sceptical, unsympathetic observers. In 1985 Australian conjuror Ben Harris published a book on metal bending, and in his books James Randi tells how he and other observers have witnessed Geller’s trickery from close-up. Moreover, all Geller’s so-called feats of the mind have in fact been performed by different conjurors. (3)

This is also known as ‘divining’ and is used to find things such as water, oil, mineral deposits, treasure or even unmarked graves. It is an ancient technique which, like astrology, goes back thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians evidently used divining rods, but more to foretell the future than to find things.    
Most commonly using a forked stick (an inverted Y shape) the dowser holds the two forked parts, one in each hand. For the purist, green sticks from hazel or willow trees are preferred, but almost anything, including whale bone can be used. The dowsers try to keep the stick parallel to the ground, and walk about waiting for the stem of the stick to either rise or lower as they come near to what they’re looking for.  
Another popular method is to hold two pieces of wire, or thin rods, one in each hand, pointing out horizontally and parallel to each other, in front of the dowser. A ‘dowsing reaction’ occurs when the two rods diverge or cross each other. Pendulums may also be used - long pieces of string with weights attached.  
What all the instruments have in common is that they are long and light, so that the slightest (involuntary) muscle twitch can have a sudden, exaggerated and striking reaction. The dowsing stick seems to have a mind of its own, swinging about suddenly and dramatically without visible cause.

What could be happening?

The Ideomotor Effect
This may also explain the movement of the dowsing rods. It refers to the influence of suggestion or expectation on involuntary movements of the body, or the involuntary actions of the muscles. Thus if you are expecting a muscle to contract ever so slightly, or to twitch, then it may do just that. The term was coined by William Benjamin Carpenter in 1852, to explain the movement of dowsing rods or pendulums, but it could also explain the movement of a glass on a ouija board.

The ideomotor effect has been supported by a number of scientific studies (e.g. Easton and Shor, 1975), which show that muscular movements can be initiated by the mind without the person realising it. Not everyone appears to be susceptible to the effect.

Boy or girl?
Some dowsers also claim to be able to predict the sex of babies in the womb, by holding a pendulum over the pregnant mother. A circular motion means a girl, and a back and forth motion means a boy - or is it the other way round? Some clever dowsers have spotted a ‘nice little earner’ here. If you charge, say, £10 a go, with money-back guarantee if you’re wrong, you’ll make an average of £10 with every second customer.

Most dowsers, however, are honest and genuinely believe that it works. They don’t usually do it for money, but out of interest or to help others. Some have offered scientific explanations as to how it could work, including a number of physical ‘fields’ or forces. These include gravitational, magnetic, electric, radioactive, seismic and geothermal fields.

Several questions are, however, left unanswered. How for example do these ‘fields’ generate their signals? And how does the dowsing rod or the human body detect these signals?


Dowsing put to the test
Fortunately for the scientist dowsing is one of those pseudo-sciences which is very easy to test. To give just one example, Paul Sevigny, president of the American Association of Dowsers, was tested in 1981. He had to say, using his divining rod, which of four hose-pipes had water running through it. He agreed beforehand that it was a fair test. There were 40 trials, which means that Mr. Sevigny could have expected to get about 10 correct guesses by chance alone. 20 out of 40 would have been highly significant, but he scored only 9 out of 40. (4)

Test your own skills
What’s the verdict on dowsing? A genuine skill which sometimes works, or a load of baloney? Why not make your own dowsing stick or wire rods and try out your skills? Get two or more buckets, both with lids. Get a friend to put water in one of the buckets (e.g. in a jug placed in one of the buckets) at random, and then use the dowsing stick to make your guess. Repeat at least ten times. Make sure your friend does not give any clues as to which bucket has the water. Better still, ask someone who does not know which bucket has the water in to monitor the test. (see Double Blind testing in the Glossary)
Other well controlled tests have been carried out, most showing no more hits than would have been expected by chance. You won’t be surprised to learn that James Randi has offered his famous $1,000,000 prize to anyone who can demonstrate that dowsing is genuine. Hundreds have tried, but all have failed. Each one agreed beforehand what the criteria for success would be, so they could not complain afterwards that the standards had been set too high.    
This is a good example of apparent ‘mind over matter’. Fire walking is an ancient Asian practice which has amazed and mystified many people. There are few sights more riveting. We know from early childhood that fire causes terrible injury and pain, and that we must not let it anywhere near our bare flesh. Yet here we have people striding out confidently with bare feet over burning coals, without fear or pain. Some will do this several times, without so much as a blister.

The trench can be between three and six metres long. Anyone sitting too near is forced back by the intense heat, which can be as high as 700° C (1,300° F), and pieces of wood thrown on it are burned up in seconds. The feat has every appearance of being a miracle.

The explanations
Fire walkers often claim that it requires mystical powers, and the performance is usually accompanied by religious ritual and meditation. How can this evident miracle be explained?
  • One theory was that people who walked on fire had extremely tough feet - from walking daily without shoes.
  • Another theory was that walkers were able to get themselves into a trance, which made them resistant to pain or burning. Many, even in the West, especially of a ‘New Age’ persuasion, believe that you can make yourself resistant to burning simply by using the right kind of concentration or meditation - in other words ‘mind over matter’.
  • Some believed that a very thin layer of vapour on our feet could protect us from the burning coals, but Bernard Leikind, who is an authority on fire-walking, believes that water vapour has no effect.
Question: A drop of water on a warming frying pan quickly evaporates. Why then when the frying pan is much hotter does the drop ‘dance’ around for much longer before evaporating?   Answer: The drop turns to vapour in the hot pan; and vapour, being a gas, is a poor conductor of heat, and so protects the drop from the heat.
Mystical explanations not needed
The truth is more down to earth and to be found in elementary physics. Firstly, wood does not conduct heat well. Even if the temperature is as high as 700°C, the half second that the wood is in contact with the foot does not allow the transfer of enough heat to do damage. (By contrast it would not be possible to walk on metal heated to the same degree without severe burning. This is because metal is a good conductor of heat.)

Another factor is the length of the walk. Experiments have shown that it is possible to do a short walk over very hot coals, or a longer walk over cooler coals. (Most of us have discovered that we can draw a finger quickly through the flame of a candle, but if we move too slowly we get burned.)

Thus, although fire-walking can be dangerous without proper instruction, it needs no theory of mystical or magical forces to explain it.

Not surprisingly fire-walking has been taken up by charlatans who have found it an easy way to make money. A number have grown rich offering to teach people to walk on fire using the ancient and mystical techniques of mind control. Customers are promised that this will increase their selfesteem, reduce their anxieties, and also open up limitless opportunities in their lives.

Neuro-linguistic programming or psycho-babble?
Bill McCarthy, a researcher in the field, attended such a seminar in California.(5) With 80 customers at $125 a head, it was clearly a lucrative enterprise. The session began with the dredging up of deep personal fears and anxieties and exercises in positive thinking. The mental preparation was referred to as ‘neuro-linguistic programming’, but sceptics would more likely refer to it as ‘psycho-babble’. In addition tumours, impotence, drug addiction and other ailments could be ‘cured’.

Like some other ceremonies of the East, it was accompanied by loud music and dancing and the chanting of certain mantras, over and over again.

Mike Hutchinson and Simon Hoggart both performed the fire-walk, with over 100 others, at a charity event - without the aid of any ‘neuro-linguistic programming’, special mantras, loud noise or trances. Although a little nervous, all they needed was some basic instruction and a little reassurance.




What did one mind-reader say to the other?

‘You’re fine, how am I?’

ESP is sometimes referred to as telepathy or simply mind-reading. It refers to the supposed ability to perceive things (including the thoughts of others) without using the usual five senses of touch, smell, taste, seeing and hearing. [ESP overlaps with the sections on psychics and of course psychokinesis (see above), so we won’t dwell long on it.]

ESP is thought to happen in the following three ways:

  • Telepathy: mind-to-mind communication that doesn’t require speech or any of the usual means of communication.
  • Clairvoyance: the ability to see things in faraway places.
  • Precognition: being able to see and anticipate things which will happen in the future.

ESP experiences appear to be rather common, and most of us have had experiences which have seemed to be extra-sensory in one way or another. A friend or relative phones us at the very moment we were thinking about them, or vice versa; we dream someone is ill and it turns out to be true, and so on. (We don’t of course remember the many times we think of someone and they don’t ring!)

Does ESP really exist? Can such a welter of anecdotal evidence all be wrong? It would certainly improve our exam results if we could read other people’s minds!

Among the first scientific studies of ESP in a laboratory were those done by Dr. Joseph Rhine in 1927. Over a span of fifty years he claimed to have discovered many instances of the phenomenon. He even found a horse called ‘Lady Wonder’ (a male despite the name) who could answer questions using his hoof. It was discovered later, however, that Lady Wonder was simply following cues given to him by his owner. (6) This was beyond dispute and was a major embarrassment to Dr. Rhine. It was also a very good example of ‘experimenter bias’. (See also ‘Clever Hans’ below)

Unfortunately Dr. Rhine’s results with human subjects were also suspect, and none could be reproduced when the laboratory controls were tightened. This has been the general pattern in ESP research: what appears to be a break-through in poorly controlled tests usually turns out to be a blind alley when proper experimental procedures are followed.

In 1983 the famous Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler committed suicide jointly with his wife. (He had advanced Parkinson’s disease and terminal leukaemia, but his wife was healthy.) He was a strong believer in such things as ESP, and in his will he left a large amount of money to set up a department of parapsychology at Edinburgh University.

Sometimes the results at Edinburgh seemed encouraging and appeared to favour the existence of ESP. Unfortunately these promising results proved impossible to reproduce. Professor Robert Morris, who headed the parapsychology department until he died in 2004, was of the opinion that ESP did exist, although he also confessed to having nagging doubts about it.

Susan Blackmore, a prominent researcher in ESP, describes how for a long time she had been a believer in telepathy, but that after ten years of research without any significant results, she began to question her beliefs. (7)

More research is needed before any definite conclusions can be drawn. The tests will need to be rigorously controlled, however, and any possibilities of experimenter bias eliminated.



Controlled testing of ESP: an example of the shapes (on Zener cards, named after the person who invented them) that subjects try to transmit to each other using their minds alone and sitting in different rooms.
Clever Hans: another example of ‘experimenter bias’
Clever Hans the horse lived in Germany in the early 1900s. His owner, Wilhelm von Osten, claimed that his horse was so intelligent that he could answer questions, such as adding and subtracting, telling the time, and giving the names of people he knew. Clever Hans communicated by tapping his hoof: one tap for A, two taps for B, etc. Prominent German scientists tested Clever Hans and most were convinced that the horse's accurate responses were not the result of trickery. His fame was short lived, however. It turned out that the owner was, perhaps unwittingly, giving the horse his cue by straightening up his body slightly when the hoof had tapped the right number of times. Clever Hans was able to pick up on this signal, and stopped tapping at the right time. When he couldn’t see his owner or any other signals, he failed each time.
Belief in the Indian rope trick was very widespread in the late 19thC and into the 20thC, and is still accepted by some people today as a genuinely paranormal feat. Some simply see it as a very good conjuring trick.

A young Indian throws a rope up into the air which does not fall back to the ground, but seems to mysteriously disappear into thin air, or into the darkness or the mist. The boy climbs the unsupported rope until he also disappears into the sky! According to some versions a second boy also climbs up, dagger drawn, and also disappears. Then body parts start to fall from the sky into a basket at the foot of the rope. Then the boy with the knife comes back, throws a cloth over the body parts and out pops the other boy, with all his parts miraculously in the right place. What an incredible trick!

Never let facts get in the way of a good story
A good conjuror probably could carry out the Indian rope trick, using mirrors, shaved monkey limbs and other techniques. However, we don’t even need to resort to conjuring tricks to explain the rope trick. It has simply never happened; or rather, I should say that there is no reliable evidence of it happening. The Chicago Tribune (newspaper) admitted inventing the story in 1890 as a joke, or to increase circulation, and later confessed to being astonished that so many people had believed the story. Inevitably, further graphic reports of the trick followed, consolidating upon the myth. (8) No reliable witness has ever seen the trick performed outside the theatre.

The interesting point about the rope trick is how easy it is for a story to get a hold on the public imagination, which nothing can shake, not even a well-publicised confession of the hoax!

“Miracles” today
We’ve heard about the miracles of ancient times, such as Jesus walking on water, the feeding of the 5,000, the parting of the red sea, the crumbling of the walls of Jericho at the sound of a trumpet and hundreds of others down through the ages. Most happened (or not) so long ago, however, that they can be neither proved nor disproved.

More recent miracles, on the other hand can more easily be investigated. But it is a risky business. Sanal Edamaruku, a prominent Indian rationalist, has spent much of his career exposing so-called miracles, such as the late Sai Baba, Indian guru, who conjured up watches from thin air, to give to his credulous devotees. In March 2012 Edamaruku investigated the case of a ‘bleeding statue’ outside a Mumbai church. The phenomenon was hailed as a miracle, and some people started to collect and drink the droplets in the belief that they had special properties.

Sanal pointed out on a television programme that the blood or water apparently dripping from the statue was in fact sewage leaking from a nearby drain. Legal proceedings were then brought against him by the church under India’s blasphemy laws (for “deliberately hurting religious feelings”), which could result in his arrest and imprisonment for three years.