5 Skeptical Explanations of Psychic Experience (and How They Fail)

5 Skeptical Explanations of Psychic Experience (and How They Fail)

When I was first taught how to do a psychic reading by holding my hand over a picture and describing the images that came into my head, I was doubtful. I’d been a skeptic my whole life and didn’t have any particular interest in changing that position. However, as I began to experiment, the process seemed to work with shocking precision. When I would close my eyes and meditate, I would so consistently see images that corresponded with real, tangible things in the world that it quickly became a matter of pressing practical importance to decide how to understand what was happening to me.

Imagine trying to decide whether or not to use your sense of vision. Whether you believe that seeing a car speeding towards you is a genuine piece of information about the world matters greatly. If you believe your sense of vision is mere hallucination, you will navigate the world in tangibly different ways. In much the same way, whether to believe in psychic information was not a theoretical question for me. I had to decide if I was convinced enough by the experiential evidence to incorporate psychic information into my life or not.

As a skeptic at the time, my immediate assumption was that there was some alternative explanation for what I was experiencing. “The skeptics must know about this,” I thought, “it feels compelling, but I’m sure they can explain this congruence.” So I started Googling skeptical explanations of psychic experiences.

To my surprise, it turned out none of the skeptical explanations I could find seemed to even bother to try to explain away the ways psychic information lines up with the world. They just found a way to cast doubt on whether it did line up and discredit the people who took it seriously. This was personally very disappointing because it meant that I had to begin an extremely painful process of dismantling and reconstructing my entire worldview.

To understand how I got there, here are some of the most common skeptical explanations and why I find them unconvincing

1. Psychics hot or cold read their subjects.

What it means:

To “hot read” is to gather information by googling people or otherwise researching them in advance of the reading. To “cold read” is to gather details from people’s appearances, signals, body language and other material details and use that information as the basis of a reading. The idea here is that there is no actual psychic process, just people doing normal noticing and passing it off as something else.

Why it’s not a good explanation:

This is often the first explanation given, but it is essentially a made-up story designed to fit psychic work into a skeptical paradigm. It’s easy to discount from the perspective of someone having a psychic experience, because it requires doing extra things. If you aren’t doing those things, the explanation doesn’t offer any insight.

In my early readings I would hold my hand over a picture, meditate and record what I saw. I didn’t know who I was reading and didn’t look at their pictures before reading them. These days, I often read the friends of strangers who approach me over the internet. I don’t know the names or even see a picture of the person who approaches me, much less the person I am reading. There is simply no opportunity in these cases for hot or cold reading.

Since psychic processes can look a bit mysterious from the outside, it can be hard for outsiders to feel certain about what is actually happening. However, if you look at how psychics teach and learn, it becomes clear that this is not what people are practicing. There are numerous sources available to support psychic development. I myself teach people to work with their own process by relaxing and noticing what comes to them. They try the process and then they have psychic experiences. Some people might find themselves more psychic than others, but there is no secret phase in the teaching where we all run behind a curtain and practice decoding body language or googling. Those are entirely distinct and irrelevant skills.

Sure, there are probably people posing as psychics who use these processes, but the vast majority of people practicing as psychics are not cold or hot reading. Therefore this doesn’t qualify as an “explanation.” In no other field would the behaviour of frauds be used to “explain” the whole category. You wouldn’t say that the existence of a fraudulent Picasso painting proves Picasso didn’t exist or claim that blood tests don’t work because Theranos machines were a scam.

2. Psychics are lying.

What it means:

Psychics are being deliberately dishonest. Usually this is only used to explain some psychics, since it’s generally accepted that the majority of psychics are “true believers.”

Forms of lying might include people claiming experiences that they didn’t have or being a successful confidence artist who is able to convince unsuspecting people that they are telling the truth, when they are not actually providing useful or accurate information. Hot and cold readings are basically a subcategory of lying, but there are many other ways one could lie as well.

Why it’s not a good explanation:

This explanation was easy for me to discount for obvious reasons. I wasn’t lying. I wasn’t even trying to convince anyone I had abilities. I was simply experiencing an uncanny congruence that I wanted to understand better. Of course, from an outside perspective I can see why this explanation seems convincing. I mean, while, I may know I’m not lying, how can you be sure?

It’s a fair question, but if you think about the sheer number of people who have had convincing psychic experiences, going back millennia, it becomes difficult difficult to sustain the story that they are all lying. Furthermore, since nobody even makes the case that everyone is lying, it just doesn’t have much value as an explanation.

It may be easy for bystanders at a distance to maintain a state of uncertainty on this point, but I would argue that it’s not happening at any scale worth discussing. At best, lying can only serve to explain a certain number of the cases and therefore, as an account of what psychic phenomena is, it doesn’t accomplish much. Dishonesty exists in many contexts and fields. As I pointed out above, this does not, as a rule, discredit the whole field.

Of course, the real power of this explanation comes when you combine it with others into a general narrative characterizing psychics and those who believe in them as always either dishonest, naive, irrational or delusional. When you do this, the people who have these experiences are, by definition, not to be trusted. If an experience seems vague or not rational then you can write it off as delusion or error. If it’s clear and specific, you can call the person a liar. Rhetorically, if not logically, it’s brilliant. With this system in place, you don’t even need to look too closely at the experiences people have, because you’ve already discredited the people who have them.

3. Everyone involved is delusional.

What it means:

Psychics think they are doing something real, but they are just hallucinating or making stuff up and believing in it.

Why it’s not a good explanation:

Let me first give credit where credit is due. This is the very best explanation on offer. It doesn’t rely on a false story about what psychics actually do and it’s basically plausible, if only because it tends to be too vague to entirely disprove. It is possible that there is some form of delusion or thinking error that makes these practices seem convincing when they shouldn’t. The question is what?

The main issue here is that psychic insight doesn’t function like delusion. The classic distinction between a psychic experience and a delusion is that the psychic experience provides information that corresponds to the real world and a delusion does not. When I began to take my psychic experience seriously, I was not seeing things in my head and then just assuming these things to be true. I was seeing things in my head and then noticing how these things matched the external world. The match between the internal and external information was the convincing part.

For my psychic experiences to be a delusion, I would have to be repeatedly not just having the original “hallucination,” but somehow misconstruing external confirmation. Yet, aside from my skeptical beliefs, there was never reason to believe I was mistaken or hallucinating. I showed no other signs of delusion. Furthermore, it wasn’t just me confirming these experiences. I would have an experience, tell someone about it, and they would confirm the accuracy.

When this happens over and over, it becomes very difficult to identify the mistake at play. Why would there be this narrow, but not entirely isolated area of delusion? The delusion would have to be both specific enough to apply only to the psychic experiences and yet widespread enough to include the assessment of information and somehow also work across different people getting information through different channels. If there’s an inability to perceive and explain reality going on, why wouldn’t that spread to other areas of life. Why would other people be involved? And why would the information turn out to be so practically helpful?

In general, when a specific thinking error or sensory mistake is brought to my attention and I can see what the error is, it’s easy to accept that I’ve made mistake. If I think a black spot is a spider but it turns out to be a speck of dirt, I can accommodate this new information. It’s more difficult to pinpoint the delusion if my experience is that I think a black spot is a spider and then it runs off looking very mush like a spider and then there appears to be a spider living in the same spot for weeks to come.

Presumably, if there is an error or delusion at play, it should be discernible and it should not work out well to assume the information is accurate. As Paul Bloom writes on his book Psych,

Failures of reasoning reveal two things about our minds. Most obviously, they illustrate irrationality, how we mess up. This is the conclusion that psychologists usually draw. But what’s sometimes missed is that they also show how intelligent we are. After all, we know that they are mistakes....Every demonstration of our irrationality, then, is also a demonstration of how smart we are, because without our smarts we wouldn’t be able to appreciate that it’s a demonstration of irrationality in the first place.”

If I see a lion coming down the street and mistake it for a dog, one doesn’t get better results by persisting in the delusion and treating the lion as a dog. But, my experience with psychic information is the opposite. The more I use it and rely on it, the better. If the insight was delusional, you shouldn’t, in theory, get the same benefits. I am open to being shown what I’m missing, but so far I have looked and looked for the error, and I simply cannot find it.

4. Subjects Create the Meaning .

What it means:

Skeptics seem to think a psychic reading involves the listing of random things like “there is a cat” and “a tall man” and then the subject fills in the details from there. The idea here is that psychic information is metaphorical, vague, or scattershot and that the subject interprets general information as meaningful.

Why it’s not a good explanation:

This is what I expected when I first started experimenting with psychic readings. It’s what I was told would happen and I had no reason to doubt skeptical narratives. However, I quickly started to find that this account did not adequately describe the experiences I was having.

For example, in one particular early reading requested by a friend, I saw a clear image of a baby lizard. I didn’t know the person I was reading so this meant nothing to me. I assumed that the friend who had asked for the reading would have to resort to symbolic interpretation to make sense of it. Instead, she nodded knowingly and told me that the person I was reading had a pet lizard who had died and that he was thinking of getting another lizard.

Every time I did a reading, I would get similar results. The images were literal and direct. I would describe the exact layout of someone’s grandfather’s living room. I would describe the red lining of the guitar case someone else had inherited from her father. These days, I regularly talk about the personalities of people I’ve never met as if I’ve met them.

That said, this explanation is at least dealing with the way psychic information presents itself. Psychic insight can come across as general for a few reasons. For one thing, it does not always show up in specific language. Some of the ways it comes through might feel somewhat unformed and the psychic might be trying to translate feelings into something more tangible. Precision depends greatly on the vocabulary of the psychic. Some people may not have the language skills to precisely describe what they are experiencing.

Furthermore, even when very specific images come, like the baby lizard or the guitar case, these can feel random. It can be hard to rationalize why these particular images pop out, which can make them seem like scattershot information. This effect is often emphasized in skeptical accounts by describing psychics standing in front of a group and asking “does anyone know someone whose name starts with an M?” Or “who died of a common cause of death?” and then finding anyone in the crowd these fairly general details relate to.

However, the idea that psychic information is scattershot doesn’t really line up with the actual process either. First of all, while details may come in fragments or images, a good psychic should be able to fill in the gaps and give an accurate sense of why the image is important. The overall picture should be familiar, not just a couple random details. Psychic information doesn’t have to be vague or general and, if it is, the psychic should probably train for precision.

This explanation also misses something very fundamental about actual psychic work. Anyone having one knows that psychic experience do not exist in the space between a psychic and their clients. When people have psychic experiences, they are feeling and sensing things internally. The experience exists inside the psychic (or whoever is having the experience) and then is communicated (or not). Meaning is not created by the subject’s interpretation.

While it may be challenging to verify the internal part empirically, that doesn’t make it any less central to the process.

Finally, on a side note, if I could speak to the skeptics for one moment, I would suggest no longer using that favourite story about psychics standing in front of groups throwing out details that will surely apply to someone. This is just such a rare context that constantly referring to it makes you sound a bit like you went to one event, sat in the back with your arms crossed and didn’t bother to learn anything more about psychics.

5. People believe because they are desperate to believe.

What it means:

It’s a classic case of wishful thinking. People are convinced by psychic phenomena because they want to be. They either long to believe in something beyond material reality or they are desperate for the comfort that psychic insight provides them with.

Why it’s not a good explanation:

This one is superficially convincing. It’s certainly true that people long for truth and clarity, and psychic readings seem to promise a way of getting past the superficial and into the core of a thing. It’s also true that studies do show that people’s beliefs and experiences are influenced by what they want to believe.

This explanation does at least attempt to offer an explanation for why the experiences seem convincing. The problem is that the general fact that desire shapes belief is bearing too heavy a load here. It suggests that the apparent congruency is not happening, it just seems to be there because there is so much desire for it to be real. However, when you try to make this explanation work at a more specific level, it doesn’t.

First of all, it mischaracterizes the actual structure of the process. The idea that emotion makes these experiences seem convincing runs contrary to how the experiences actually work. In practice, intuitive and psychic experiences tend to be more accurate, the less emotions are involved. Practicing detachment is a key part of developing one’s abilities.

The other, and more significant issue is that what people feel and believe is not how psychic insight is judged. The test of a reading is not in the feelings or belief inspired by it, but in the factual accuracy of the content. Psychic readings make claims about the world. They are not mere social interactions.

Bias doesn’t always favour believing in the reading. People get psychic information they don’t like all the time. People who like a psychic insight reading might be more likely to believe in it and people who don’t might be more likely not to. Reality, unfortunately, persists. I have told people their mother has cancer, their partner has heart disease, and that they are about to suffer a loss in court that will have serious negative effects on their life. Some of the people involved in these readings were skeptical and did not believe in my work. None of them particularly wanted this information to be true. Their feelings did not however change the fact that the readings were accurate.

6. People overestimate statistically insignificant information.

What it means:

Psychic experiences might seem uncanny and accurate, but psychics and their supporters are overestimating the statistical significance of the congruence and the results are not more impressive that might happen by chance.

Why it’s not a good explanation:

All you need to do to discount this one is count. Over time, continued and reliable accuracy makes this explanation seem less and less likely. In practice, the belief in psychic experiences emerges the same way that that belief in sensory information does. People continue to have internal experiences that seem to correspond to external reality. If I see a table with my eyes and then bang into it with my body I am getting consistent sensory information across channels. Because that happens consistently we accept sensory information as generally, but not always, reliable.

In the same way, if I can regularly describe the quality of a person’s stress before I meet them and then confirm that in conversation or if a certain type of mental image consistently corresponds with actual occurrences, one tends to naturally build trust in those faculties. If it was happening at a statistically insignificant rate, it wouldn’t be very useful. As with my senses, there may be the occasional misapprehension, but generally my psychic map aligns fairly well with my experiential map. In practice, if psychic information wasn’t reliably informative, the practice wouldn’t provide much value.

I suspect the idea of statistical significance being a great way to discredit the work has taken hold because looking for statistically significant results is what scientists need to do in order to determine whether the phenomena is valid. But science is limited in how to study these questions because of the challenges of studying internal experiences. To test for statistical significance, scientists need to isolate something external that can be tested and counted. This greatly narrows the range of psychic experiences that can be studied. For example you can’t easily do a controlled study of spontaneous premonitions. But this doesn’t mean that people are for some reason unable to recognize what information is useful in this narrowly defined context.

Finally, on the subject of statistics, the common claim that no scientific study has provided evidence for psychic abilities is simply false. A number of studies have shown statistically significant results. These are controversial, but not so uncommon as is often suggested.

Final Thoughts

When I started looking closely at skeptical explanations, I was hoping for an explanation to help me understand what I was experiencing in terms that made sense to my skepticism. Some of these explanations I was able to discard immediately. Others required a bit more exploration, but none offered satisfactory explanation when applied to my specific experiences.

My goal here is not to prove once and for all that psychic abilities exist. This piece is written from the perspective of having experiences so convincing that I felt they must be accounted for. It is therefore unlikely to convince those who are already convinced such experiences simply do not happen. It’s very difficult to prove an internal experience happened, but I hope I have explained why, given such experiences, rational people often find skeptical narratives insufficient and unconvincing.

Skeptics often like to portray psychics and those who believe in them as “resistant to evidence,” but that’s wholly unfair. The explanations on offer only make sense if you are looking at the process from outside, and ideally from quite a distance. They rely on contorting and mischaracterizing the work. It’s true that personal experimentation is not the same as scientific inquiry, but that doesn’t mean that the conclusions drawn are not based on a form of evidence and testing.

These days, I don’t find skeptical accounts particularly logically convincing, but I do continue to find them rhetorically very powerful. Painting psychics as always either mistaken or dishonest effectively serves to engender a general lack of trust and broadly paint a picture of them as being liars or crazy. For this reason, I am uncomfortable even writing this. I know it will be dismissed without serious consideration by many people I would otherwise respect. The mere act of taking this work seriously seems to discredit a person.

In spite of this, I feel the need to explain my logic because I strongly believe that insulting people who simply don’t accept logically insufficient explanations doesn’t do much for one’s rational high ground. If you were told electricity isn’t real, but the lights still turned on every time you flicked the switch, what would you do? To me, continuing to practice is the more sensible and evidence-based approach.