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Revealed at last: My Secret Power

College students amazed at scientists's ability to read their minds.

Published: Thursday, September 30, 1997


Page: 13A

By DANIEL B. CATON, Special to The Observer

First day of class. I do the ususal, spending the first half of the meeting discussing the mechanics of the course--exams, grading, attendance, etc. After a brief caffeine break we gather again to discuss the loftier goals of an introductory science course. An appreciation of scientific methodology, an ability to discriminate between science and pseudoscience.

At the latter, I balk. I turn and break eye contact--a sign of the discomfort with what I am about to address. I confess: "I am a bit embarrassed each year when I talk about this subject--I myself, interestingly enough, seem to have the ability, in some cases, to perceive others' thoughts."


Searching for some validation of my abilities, I tell them of Carl Sagan's three paranormal topics he considered worthy of further study--skewing computer statistics with thought, children remembering verifiable past lives, and some people being able to receive thoughts projected at them (The Demon-Haunted World, p.302).

Everyone became still. I bury my head in my hands, rubbing my face. "Nashville...... somebody here is from Nashville? ... No--that's not it ... someone knows someone from Nashville?..."

"A ... Randall? ... Brian? ..."

A trembling voice in the back of the room: "Ryan!?"

Me (rubbing my face hard...), "Yes! Ryan! Who said that?"

A girl in the back of the class says she knows a Ryan in Nashville. I begin to stare hard at her....."But you no longer know this person?...or...you've lost contact or ...?"

She: "We broke up!" -- she is clearly unnerved.

Me: "BROKE! .... you also broke something else!? ..... let's see ........ "

Squirming ... face-rubbing ....

"you broke a ..... musical instrument?.... no ... a car? "

She did not react--I was perplexed and said, "... maybe your thoughts are being mixed with others' ..."

After a long pause I said, " a little black car ...."

"YES! -- someone backed into my car and hit the door -- It is BROKE!"

Rattled, she made some comment that indicated an actual fear of my being able to read her mind.

Round two. I bury my face again. .... "Some kind of art institute.... Maryland ... is it in Maryland?..."

A new voice: "I am from an art institute, in Maryland ..."

"I see an accident .. an emergency room ..."

"I just came from the emergency room!"

"I see other visits .... your Dad there, too ... was he there?"

"Sometimes he took me when I was a kid!"

I can't go on. I confess, "This is all garbage-- I called your parents last night!"

Interestingly, neither student showed any embarrassment, and the first was seemingly disappointed.

I then showed a few minutes of the Wizard of Oz, where "Professor" Marvel looks into a crystal ball to tell Dorothy's fortune. The Professor tells her to close her eyes to "get in tune with the infinite" -- actually to give him an opportunity to look into her basket, where he finds a picture of her and her Aunt Em, in front of their house. He now has the data he needs.

Next I explained how some "psychic hot lines" similarly work their magic. Caller ID reveals your phone number before they even answer. Banks of PCs with CD data bases and connections to the Internet reveal your name and where you live. Street address programs reveal the nature of your neighborhood. Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore!

Technology has changed since Oz was filmed 60 years ago. My two targets were selected from a computer data base of our students--I chose potentially naive freshmen from Charlotte, Lyndsey Denlinger and Jessica Reupp. The night before, I called their parents for some anecdotes as well as implicit approval (both thought it was a great idea). The trap was set–I would be a charlatan to these Charlotteans.

We had a good laugh afterward, but the results were nonetheless disturbing: a third of the class publicly admitted being snookered into it (meaning probably half or more really took the bait.) Lindsey confirmed my guess: she was not embarrassed by the event but disappointed that it wasn't real. She wanted to "hear more about herself". Wouldn't we all?

In her trip to Oz, Dorothy learned more about herself--the real world was a lot better than she had thought. I hope that my students will learn, too--that lessons about ourselves are not served up so simply by the pseudoscience of soothsayers. That real science is one tool that may be used to help figure out life

And, how to tell the difference.

Return to Caton's columns.

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