Sometime in 2010, as we were wrapping up our book Sleights of Mind for publication, our co-author Sandy Blakeslee—the science writer of New York Times fame—said we should consider attending a psychic fair. That's not the kind of thing a neuroscientist hears daily, especially from one of the world's most famous science communicators. She explained: whereas we had studied performance magic and theatrical mentalism, we hadn’t experienced first-hand how self-styled mind-readers and psychics ply on the public. We didn't know how it felt to be a mark for real. Indeed.

So we attended the Sedona Psychic Fair in Arizona, and we learned more than we could have possibly predicted about psychics, their customers, and ourselves.

We recently recounted our adventure at The Story Collider in New York City, a live event that brings scientists and science enthusiasts to the stage to tell their all-too-human personal stories about science in and out of the lab. You can listen to us tell our story on The Science Collider’s podcast, or read our original script below.

To foreshadow a bit: our psychic fair adventure included professed psychics, an Elvis, gadgets bestowed with mystical crystal-driven powers, quantum magnetism, reincarnation, and a double-heaped serving of false hope. But also, a newfound understanding of our fellow visitors’ plight. We hope you enjoy reading or listening to our story as much as we did sharing it.

STEVE: Some years ago, we were writing a book about the neuroscience of magic tricks, and what they teach us about the brain. We found ourselves fascinated by “psychics.” Did psychics rely on the same methods as magicians to seem to read their customers’ minds?

SUSANA: Something you need to understand is that, as neuroscientists who study magic and illusions, we are hardcore skeptics. We did not get how psychics can fool customers into believing that they are witnessing actual supernatural feats. So we wanted to see, with our own eyes, how it was done. 

STEVE: So we registered for a psychic fair in Sedona, Arizona. Paranormal believers say that Sedona is one of fourteen power points on earth that can “ground the vibrational frequencies” coming in from extraterrestrial sources; it was the perfect location for our little experiment.

SUSANA: We didn’t know what might be in store for us, so we did some advance preparations. I did some reading and learned that psychics at the fair might offer something called “psychometry,” which is not quite as scientific as it sounds. Basically, you bring with you an item that you feel connected to, and the psychic provides a reading of that object’s history and significance. After some consideration, I settled on a little metal toy soldier that I found inside a Kinder egg as a child in the 1980s.

STEVE: I dug out a couple of far-out tie-dye t-shirts from the bottom of our closet. You know, so we could blend in.

SUSANA: And with that, we were good to go.

STEVE: We arrived at the event, which turned out was a ballroom in a Resort hotel: not exactly the drumming circle in the desert that we had expected. There were vendor tables and chairs lining the walls, just like every other conference we’d been to. A closer look revealed that things differed somewhat: there were creams and ointments to pull the negative energy from wounds and cancers. Other vendors provided psychic massages to rid the body of negative frequencies. But we saw no sign of the new-age, free-love, hippy-dippy group we’d expected. Instead, this was an older crowd that would have fit right in at any mall.

SUSANA: We were literally the only two people in tie-dye in sight. 

STEVE: I had envisioned incense-filled tents, marijuana clouds, and Grateful Dead music. Now I realized that our efforts at camouflage had failed completely.

SUSANA: We decided to split ways so we wouldn’t stand out so much.

STEVE: So I headed for a table offering psychic pictures.

SUSANA: And I went to get psychic advice on whether I should get back to school or remain a stay-at-home mom (which I’ve actually never been). This character I made up for myself was quite different from the person that I am in real life. I was interested to find out if I could get away with it, or whether the psychics would “see” through my facade.  The first two psychics I visited said I should go back to school. But I noticed that their stories changed depending on my body language and facial expressions. For instance, when I smiled and nodded, they stayed the course, but if I frowned they reversed themselves. They told me exactly what they thought I wanted to hear.  

STEVE: Meanwhile, I had a conversation with a vendor named Elvis. He had a Polaroid camera in a box that had a spinning color-wheeled lamp inside. Elvis took my photo, and explained that the various multicolored blobs around my face and body were my guardian angels, spirits, and energies. Then he asked me for $33. 

SUSANA: When the third psychic told me that she saw “success” in my future, I tried my best puzzled expression. She then corrected herself: “not professional success,” she said, “but successful, meaningful personal relationships.” She advised that I stayed home with the kids. I had proven my point, but it didn’t feel as satisfying as I thought it would. Instead, I had the uneasy, irrational feeling that I was being a bit unfair to the psychics.   

STEVE: At a different table, a man had “quantum accelerated” flashlights, pendants, and laser pointers that could shield you from the negative frequencies of cell phones, laptop computers, and radio waves. You could acquire a silicone bracelet to bring you balance, health, and power by “aligning the protons of your body” (which, if true, would turn you into a magnet).

SUSANA: I was feeling a bit out of sorts after the psychic readings, so I went to check on Steve.

STEVE: Susana arrived just at the time I found myself speechless concerning the many varied explanation and uses of this pseudoscience, so I welcomed her into the conversation. I said: “Susana, would you believe that this gentleman here has quantum accelerated this laser pointer, and he’s been using it to remove cysts from his wife’s breasts?”

SUSANA: I couldn’t think of any suitable reply to that statement. All I managed to do was turn around 180 degrees and convulse in silent laughter.

STEVE: Susana literally ran away!

SUSANA: It was time to get some psychometric readings of my little soldier. But it worried me that no psychics would take the exercise seriously if I said that I found the toy inside a Kinder egg. So I told them instead that I had found the soldier lodged between two planks of wood in my old rented apartment in Boston, and that I felt especially connected to it.

STEVE: By then I was starting to feel depressed. We had previously traveled to Las Vegas to watch magic shows, and being at this psychic fair felt a bit like going into a casino. I had noticed that gamblers don’t look like happy-go-lucky vacationers enjoying themselves. Many seem worried and desperate to win. You can’t help but wonder if some of the people standing next to you are having the worst day of their lives. The psychic fair had a similar feeling of desperation. The customers walking around the psychic fair appeared either frantic or deeply pensive. They looked the opposite of happy, smiling shoppers.

SUSANA: I handed the Kinder egg-soldier to the first psychometrist with some trepidation. Then I waited to hear the verdict. It turns out that the reason I felt connected to the toy was that it represented me in a previous life. “It’s you when you were Caesar,” the psychic said. That made me feel pretty good, even though I didn’t believe a word of it. But throughout the whole experience, I found myself bizarrely of two minds: intensely skeptical, as it is my nature, but also wanting to know more. Then the psychic said, “Wait, no, not Caesar himself, but one of his most trusted generals.” Which was still impressive, I thought, until she asked me, “Hold on, who was Caesar again? Was he some sort of king?”

STEVE: For the record, the soldier is a British infantryman from the 1760s, with a musket on his shoulder.

SUSANA: During my last psychometric reading I learned that the soldier was not a toy, but a chess piece from the 1940s, which belonged to an old gentleman named Aiken. The reason for the connection I felt was that I used to live in live in the same place in Germany that the soldier was from, when I was a scullery maid in a past life.

STEVE: In her current life, I have not been able to let her forget about the whole scullery maid thing.

SUSANA: I don’t even know what a scullery maid is. But the psychic did say that my life as a scullery maid was mostly joyful. I had good friends who cared for me and a husband who loved me. My only sorrow was that, though I had wanted very much to have children, I never had any. “That’s sad,” I told the psychic, and I must have left my face unguarded for a second or two, because she asked me, “Is that something that you’re struggling with, in this life?” And I said “No, I have two little boys.” But I didn’t mention the two pregnancy losses between my first and my second child. And I realized, right then and there, what comfort it would have been, two years earlier, to have been able to believe in the concept of having “this life,” right now. One single life, out of many lives that came before and just as many lives that will come after. 

STEVE: People all around us were clinging to the wispiest of false evidence.  We they were the ultimate consumers of false hope. They were seeking somebody who was willing to say, with authority, that everything was going to be ok. That their cancer would go away. That their family members in the military would be safe. That they would reincarnate—perhaps next time into a better life—just as they had previously when they were once a scullery maid, and yet another time a senior general for Caesar. We saw no families or groups at the event, just lonely individuals longing for reassurance and connection. 

The so-called psychics at the fair were taking advantage of people who desperately wanted to believe in psychic powers. These customers were cheated of their money or worse: sometimes they rejected actual medical treatments in favor of various sorts of psychic interventions. Of course, it was all an illusion.

SUSANA: And, as a staunch skeptic, I was startled to experience a couple of “There but for the grace of God go I” moments. Believing can be much easier than disbelieving, and it can feel a lot better. That’s both the beauty, and the danger, of the stories that we tell ourselves.

STEVE: We drove back home in a thoughtful mood. We left the fair as skeptical of psychic phenomena as we arrived, but we felt a lot more sympathetic towards our fellow attendees, and realized that they bring an important component—the need to believe—to the success of the entire enterprise. Thank you.

SUSANA: Thank you.