Psychic Abilities and How to Fake Them

Lisa R. Parker

Some people say that they’re “psychic,” but what do they mean? The label encompasses a diverse mix of talents and abilities–and there are so many ways to fake them.


Telepathy, a.k.a., “mind-reading,” is hearing other people’s thoughts. The term telempathy sounds too close to telepathy, so the people usually use the term “empaths” for people who pick up the emotions of others. Someone skilled at reading nonverbal cues in facial expression and body language may seem like a mind-reader to people who don’t pick up on these tiny muscle twitches–which may only last a fraction of a second. Interestingly, these “mind-readers” might not consciously know how they receive this information, so they might really believe they have psychic talents. A variant of this is “psychometry”–reading “vibrations” or other impressions from objects. Again, the bulk of the true information may come from the people watching and reacting to the statements of the “psychic.”

Remote Viewing and Clairvoyance

Contrary to popular usage, the term “clairvoyant” doesn’t mean all forms of psychic ability or the ability to predict the future. More properly, seeing distant objects can be classified as ESP (Extra Sensory Perception), Second Sight, or a “Sixth Sense,” because the information is not coming through the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. The easiest way to fake this is with a partner who gives clues. For example, a stage act might have the “seer” blindfolded up on stage. The partner will move through the audience and hold up an object from one of the spectators. The partner then uses words that contain codewords for each type of item. “Oh seer, tell me what object of this woman’s I have in my clutches!” “Woman’s” and “clutches” may be code for “woman’s purse.” If the gender is different, then the object might be a man’s wallet.

Astral Projection

Astral projection describes out-of-body experiences in which the person either travels somewhere else on the planet or into the “spirit world.” Again, the hoaxster can provide information to the audience from an accomplice.


You’ll know the person isn’t faking being able to see the future after he or she wins the lottery a few times. Most people who claim to have this ability rely on very general predictions, e.g., “A man with dark hair will play an important role in your life in the coming year.” This phenomenon is also subject to what psychologists call the “confirmation bias”–people remember the ones that “come true” but forget the many other predictions that the person made that didn’t happen. Again, the person may believe that they truly have this ability–they don’t recognize that they are reading the person’s reactions to their more general predictions to make the more specific ones.


Mediums and spiritualists claim to talk to the dead. Charlatans pretend to have information “only the dead person would know” by playing on their mark’s strong emotions toward the dead person and their desperation for contact. Reading the body language as they make general observations, “I sense the letter G is important.”

The mark might exclaim, “Grandma!”

Possession is acting as a vessel for a spirit or other non-corporeal being. Many people find this easy to fake with a little acting, some flailing and eye-rolling, and a creepy voice. Consider trying it next time you find yourself in a boring class or business meeting.


Wouldn’t it be cool to move things without touching them? Telekinesis (sometimes called “psychokinesis”) is one of the best “parlor tricks” for fakers and stage magicians–magnets under a table can make an object move across it; thin wires can lift objects; mirrors or CGI can create the visual illusion. C’mon, you know you tried to “Use the Force” to make things move like a Jedi at least once when you were a kid. A popular trick was in the last century was “spoon-bending”–holding up a metal spoon by the handle and having the bowl twist out of position without being physically touched (remember seeing that in the Matrix?). The secret in real life is to rub the thinnest part of the neck of the spoon vigorously prior to holding it up–the friction warms and weakens the metal, which then bends under the weight of the top portion.


Firestarting, or control of fire, also looks impressive in a stage act. Stephen King coined the term “pyrokinesis,” but the phenomenon was first documented in the nineteenth century, when a man named William Underwood generated fire “with his breath.” Most people think he had a piece of phosphorus hidden in his cheek, which would ignite when it came in contact with the air.

Psychic Healing

Can “laying on of hands”–or other use of mental energy–stop bleeding, heal wounds, or cure illnesses? There are examples of “faith healing” in many religious traditions, including the Christian New Testament. A strong placebo effect may occur if the patient believes in the cure. The movie Man on the Moon showed a disturbing example of the type of hoax someone can perpetuate with slight-of-hand and a piece of animal liver.


Some people claim to see auras or energy fields surrounding living things and gain information about the individual’s emotions or health from the colors. Again, this information can often be picked up by someone skilled at reading body language.

But Is Some Of It Real?

Despite the obvious ways that people can perpetuate hoaxes or tricks, the scientific data in the field doesn’t completely dismiss psychic abilities. Parapsychology researchers have conducted controlled experiments for nearly a century, and even the U.S. Government had a program designed to develop psychic spies–Project Star Gate–which they declassified in the 1990s. The results haven’t conclusively demonstrated the existence of these abilities–but they also weren’t clear proof that the abilities didn’t exist. Personally, I’d love to see them verified–the world would be an even more interesting place if people could do some of this stuff. As Shakespeare wrote, ” There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

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