I first heard the claim that everyone could become psychic a popular claim among scattered factions of the New Age movement while working on an assignment in 2015. A Norse rune reader told me I possessed dark magic; a crystal ball reader told me I was very psychic; a dominatrix-slash-medium told me I was a latent witch.
I didnt believe any of them; aside from going through a Wiccan phase at 11 and having a psilocybin-induced mystical experience on a golf course at 18, Id never strayed much from a secular worldview. But I was secretly flattered until I realized that most of these psychics clients probably got similar evaluations.
According to them, most people just arent aware of their innate paranormal abilities.
I believe that 100% of us are psychic, writes Pete A Sanders Jr, in his book
You Are Psychic! I learned to be psychic, gushes Krishanti, a vlogger, in a YouTube video. If I can do it, everybody can … Its not brain science!
I wanted to know what would happen if I took these psychic evangelists at their word. Maybe the Norse rune reader was right, and my mind was infinitely more powerful than Id ever fathomed. Or, as most of my friends insisted after learning of this project, maybe all psychics are charlatans.
So from January to June of 2018, when I wasnt at my job as a factchecker, I listened to the podcast
Everyone is Psychic; read books like Your Psychic Soul and You Are Psychic!; and attended psychic development classes promising students they would speak with the dead, see the future, or know for certain whats inside others minds.
You seem like a mugwort person
On a freezing Tuesday in January, I attend a class called Herbs for Dreamwork and Opening Psychic Abilities at Catland, an occult bookshop in Brooklyn which gained minor notoriety in 2017 for organizing a
ceremony to hex US president Donald Trump.
In a black-walled room lit by a single bulb, 17 students sit before Rebecca Fey, an aerialist acrobat and tarot reader wearing skull-printed tights and feather earrings. Shes listing herbs with purported mystical benefits. Mugwort, she says, is great for opening your Third Eye; wormwood helps induce visions; cinnamon raises vibrational frequencies; catnip attracts good spirits; wild lettuce can be smoked Hopi Indians used it to induce trance states.
Students scribble notes as Fey explains how to rub herbs into a mirror to practice a form of divination called scrying.
Does it have to be so dark in here? one student asks.
How do you spell scry? asks another.
Scientific consensus regarding psychic abilities hasnt changed much since a
1988 report by the US National Research council found no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 years for the existence of parapsychological phenomena. While a few prominent physicists like Freeman Dyson and Brian Josephson have expressed heretical beliefs in the existence of telepathy, most contemporary scientists dismiss purported supernatural powers as the stuff of science fiction.
In the US, skeptics about psychic phenomena outnumber believers, but not by much.
Polls tend to show that around one-third to one-half of Americans believe in phenomena such as telepathy and precognition. These beliefs fuel a $2bn psychic services industry that has been growing steadily since the 2008 recession.
When I ask which herbs are best for beginners, Fey says: You seem like a mugwort person. Burn mugwort to hone your intuition. Stare into a candle flame. Ask what it wants you to know.
After class, students mill around the shop, sniffing bundles of juniper, inspecting ankh pendants and penis-shaped candles. I buy an ounce of mugwort for $3. One woman spends $93.73 on pre-packaged spiritual bath herb mixes.
Later, I show a friend my new mugwort stash. I dont think youd handle seeing the future very well, she says. Still, when I get home I burn mugwort in a shot glass and stare into a candle flame, silently asking what it wants me to know. The candle doesnt answer. The mugwort smells like crappy marijuana, but nothing happens when I inhale its smoke.
This is disappointing, though Fey had fairly warned me: What youre gonna experience isnt like on TV, where you touch someone and suddenly see their whole life story. Dont think of it as, like, zero to 10.
I dont think youd handle seeing the future very well
The next morning, I go to my factchecking job. Factcheckers are supposed to ensure the accuracy of every grain of information in a given article. Under a president who makes an average of
6.5 false or misleading claims a day, the often tedious business of factchecking has taken on new urgency.
While factchecking in February, I confirm that a pair of cat-shaped
Gucci earrings costs $2,390; that an average of 31 American women die from opioids every day; that 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school on Valentines Day; and that the Milky Way galaxy has a supermassive black hole at its heart.
At work, the tyranny of facts feels inescapable.
At psychic school, facts dont matter.
If its coming from spirit, then its true, says Melissa Waite Stamps, a self-described clairvoyant medium who has Morticia Addams hair. This world is totally nonlinear. Its a different universe. Its like being in a dream state.
At age 11, Melissa was inducted as a priestess by her Irish nanny into the Pagan path of goddess mysteries without the knowledge of her Upper East Side socialite mother. Now she runs a weekly psychic development Meetup group.
On a Monday evening, in a cramped, windowless room near the Empire State Building, Melissa tells six students about how spirits might convey information to channelers: through dreams, goosebumps, flashing lights, radios randomly turning on and off.
Then she guides the group on a meditative trip.
Journey now to non-ordinary reality, Melissa lilts over a recording of singing bowls playing from an iPhone. Allow your spirit guide to lead you to places where you find the missing parts of yourself. Crystal caves, star systems, universe below the ocean. Travel beyond time and human experience.
After five minutes, we describe our journeys to non-ordinary reality.
A PR professional flew through the skies with her recently deceased pet monk parrot. A tired-looking nurse met a shepherd in Biblical Jerusalem who revealed her unlimited potential. A wellness blogger drank from a Thermos full of light. I swam in a grotto with Glinda the Good Witch.
When each person speaks, the students say: Wow. Amazing. Beautiful.
I used to differentiate between imagination and reality, but now, its all real to me, says Sirne, an artist from Tokyo. Sirne is learning to speak dolphin, because, in a past life, he was a giant bipedal dolphinoid, with tiny little humans as pets. He misses that life and, when hes not painting pictures of winged muscle-gods, often returns to it during meditations.
In her book Your Psychic Soul, Judith Pennington explains how you know if a past-life memory is true: Deep inside, you will feel whether it is true or not. But in the end, it doesnt really matter. What is real in the mind is what is real in your present life.
From this perspective, the question of what is objectively true becomes irrelevant; fantasy and reality are interchangeable.
Can you read the colors in your partners aura?
Next, Melissa has us pair up to practice aura reading.
conception of auras color-changing, emotion-reflecting fields of light that supposedly surround every human, invisible to the non-clairvoyant eye was first popularized in the late 19th century by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society. Some 12 decades later, many professional psychics specialize in aura reading.
Using your clairvoyance, give your partner a message from spirit based on the colors you read in their aura, Melissa tells the Meetup group.
I sit across from the PR professional grieving her parrot. She gazes at me, takes deep breaths, and says she sees a crown of green and white light, like the Statue of Libertys, emanating from my head: Its very clear.
I stare back and see no colors surrounding the woman, save an orange glow from a lamp on her black hair. I wonder if she really sees a gleaming crown on my head. I find myself doubting it I dont feel any crown of light; I have a headache but, ultimately, I have no way of knowing what she sees or doesnt see. Psychic lessons arent working on me, and I cant telepathically inhabit her mind to discover if shes telling the truth.
Studies suggest were not as skilled at divining other peoples thoughts and emotions as we might like to think we are. According to social psychologist
William Ickes, a pioneer of empathic accuracy research, strangers read each other with an average accuracy rate of about 20% when videotaped and asked to record their moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings. Close friends and married couples are only slightly better at reading each other, with an accuracy rate of 35%. One meta-analysis found that peoples ability to distinguish truth from lies is just a few percentage points above a random coin flip.
When Melissa checks in with me and my partner, I tell her that if I were to claim I saw glowing colors, Id feel guilty of making stuff up.
Everyone feels like theyre making it up at first, Melissa tells me. Make it up.
When I squeeze my eyes shut, greenish floaters appear.
I guess Im getting a green vibe, I tell my partner, but maybe thats because youd look good in green.
What do you think it means? Melissa says.
Maybe it would help you to spend time in a green space, I try. Like a park?
My bird was green, my partner says.
There you go! says Melissa.
I deliver a message from the floaters behind my eyelids: Maybe you could visit the green monk parrots who live in [Brooklyns] Green-Wood Cemetery.
I didnt know parrots lived there, my partner says.
Like speed dating but with ghosts
The notion that every human can develop supernatural abilities has captivated Americans for centuries. It wasnt just the counterculture that was seduced: the government bought it, too.
In the 1970s, the US army and the Defense Intelligence Agency launched a secret
program that, among other things, trained intelligence professionals to become remote viewers, purportedly capable of clairvoyantly spying on events from a great distance. The army also entertained a proposal for developing a new military of psychic super-soldiers who would sense plant auras, attain the power to pass [through] walls, bend metal with their minds, [see] the future [and] be able to see and hear other peoples thoughts.
These parapsychology experiments were, in part, a cold war governments response to the
fear that Soviets were using psychoenergetic warfare. The $20m Stargate Project was declassified and shut down in 1995 after a CIA report concluded that it had not produced any actionable intelligence information. Its legacy, however, lingers.
In recent years, belief in mediumship has gained prominence in pop culture. Oprah Winfrey, Dr Phil and the
Real Housewives all feature mediums on their TV shows. Goop, Gwyneth Paltrows $250m lifestyle juggernaut, promotes mediums as well as animal communicators and Psychic Vampire Repellent on its heavily-trafficked website. At the brands recent In Goop Health conference, a medium claimed that death does not exist.
In March, I attend Montclair Psychic Schools nine-hour Unfoldment Into Mediumship class. A course description claims that, by the end of this workshop, students will have conducted spirit contact with proof of life.
When I arrive, Lee sits puffing on an e-cigarette before one man and five women, all middle-aged. Wearing sweatshirts and mom jeans, they look more like a focus group on suburban Costco shoppers than a circle of aspiring necromancers.
We are here to prove the soul survives, Lee says. A dark-haired ex-lawyer from Cape Town, she calls her students darling as she explains how, in order to channel spirits, we must learn to quiet our analytical left-brain voice.
I gave that nagging, critical voice a name, Lee says. I call her Frankie.
Throughout class, Lee refers disparagingly to Frankie Talk, personifying the voice of rational thought, which, she explains, should be silenced whenever possible.
Frankie interferes with trust in the five clairs, which are like supercharged versions of the five senses. The best known is clairvoyance, which makes symbols and images appear on a screen behind your forehead. Theres also clairaudience, clairsentience, clairalience and clairgustance.
As an example of how clairgustance, the gift of clear taste, works, Lee says: You might be sitting with someone and taste bitter lemon. Why? Well, maybe the person likes lemon, but maybe theyre feeling bitter.
Next, Lee guides us through an exercise thats like speed dating, but with ghosts.
Close your eyes and project yourself into the corner of the room, she says. There are spirit people over there. Go introduce yourself. Ask: What was your life like? How did you die? Be friendly. Some might be shy.
I close my eyes and try to summon spirit people.
Hi, guys. How did you die? I mentally whisper. No one responds.
Lee suggests icebreakers: Ask spirit people who are somehow connected to water to introduce themselves. Maybe youll meet a surfer, a fireman holding a hose, farmers watering their lands.
I wait for dead surfers and firemen and farmers to appear. Nothing happens.
Now spirit people are gonna tell you how they experienced illnesses, Lee says. She suggests summoning spirits who died of emphysema, tuberculosis, heart attacks, Alzheimers or sugar diabetes. Frankie Brain might say: Oh, shit, Im not getting anything. Make it happen.
I picture clusters of ghosts floating by the water cooler, showing me their ruptured aortas and emphysemic lungs.
When we return to the mortal realm, Lee asks: Howd that go?
One student expresses doubt that the spirit people she met were more than figments: I dont know is it just in my mind, or is it really real?
Another student brags about her spirit world networking skills.
I met a skier named Bernie, she says. And a pale woman, in a white gown, who was desperate for company, and a poor little peasant boy.
Lee looks pleased.
The thing about this work is you start to dislike living people, she says. Its much more fun to talk to dead people.
The grief vampires
After weeks spent googling terms like animal telepathy, targeted advertisements pop up in my Facebook feed soliciting me to participate in a research study about the early signs of psychosis.
BELIEVING OR HEARING THINGS THAT OTHERS DO NOT? the ads ask. LOSING CONTROL OF YOUR THOUGHTS?
Advertising algorithms are reading my mind. When I click the ads, a website explains that psychosis [makes] it difficult to know whats real and what isnt.
In the mediumship class, students nod when Lee describes how, as a shy, bullied teenager, she heard voices that others didnt. I thought I was schizo, she says. I saw the movie Sybil and thought: Oh god, theyre gonna lock me up, because Im worse than her.
It wasnt until she started attending sances with her father, also a medium, that she came to believe she was hearing spirit people.
Eventually, these voices just shut off, and she became a lawyer. But after noticing that her two-year-old daughter seemed to be talking to spirits in 2006, Lee quit her job and founded Montclair Psychic School.
When she came out, in middle age, as gay, Lees family cut off contact with her. My living family were no longer speaking to me, she says, but the dead were. I still felt like I had family who loved me, because the dead became living and the living became dead.
During my classes, I witness many total strangers cry and talk about loss. In the animal telepathy workshop, a nurse breaks down, saying: Im lonely. Everybody Ive loved has been taken away. My father, my two children, my three dogs. Every time I see the light, its like, boom. Gone.
In Melissas aura reading class, a wellness blogger moves her hands around in the air like shes miming washing windows, because, she explains, shes been going through a spiritual kundalini awakening since her father died in 2017.
In the mediumship class, a woman in a floral blouse weeps as Lee claims to be channeling the spirit of her son, who died of a drug overdose. When I feel him all around me, is that him? the woman asks. Yes, Lee says. Hes saying: Youre my best friend.
Sirne, the artist from Tokyo, tells me that, for years, he was depressed and suicidal: I felt like a sponge, absorbing everyones feelings, cursed with empathy. Now in psychic school, where teachers often frame mental illnesses as signs of undeveloped mystical gifts, he feels more at home. Hes focusing on psychopomp work the guiding of newly dead souls into the afterlife. After a close friend from childhood killed herself, he says he shepherded her spirit toward a portal in the sun: You imagine they have wings. Tell them: Theres a better place than here. Fly toward the sunlight.
As homework for his yearlong psychic certification course at the Edgar Cayce Association for Research and Enlightenment, Sirne has to give 10 readings to strangers. I offer to be his guinea pig. We sit near a sculpture called Durga Killing the Buffalo Demon at the Rubin Museum of Art.
Sirne closes his eyes. For three minutes, his eyelids twitch crazily, his mouth agape, like hes possessed. Then he draws what he saw during his REM trance: a Scandinavian man he claims Ill meet while hiking in France. With swishy blond hair, a tiny chin and a giant neck, the man in the sketch looks like a Disney cherub on steroids. We will have three children, Sirne says, and our family will be like a harmonious dolphin pod.
Sirnes yearlong course costs $2,700. I ask if he plans to charge money for his readings. He says no. If I did, Id feel like I should be paying the spirits. I dont think these messages are coming from me. Im like a telephone.
Stories of self-proclaimed psychics conning clients out of vast sums are legion. Recently, there was the Times Square fortune teller found guilty of grand larceny after bilking a recovering addict of $550,000, having promised to revive his lost love using a time machine and a golden bridge. But this industry rife with scammers attracts plenty of true believers, like Sirne, whose motives seem entirely immaterial.
Were led to believe were just this physical body, Sirne says. Right now, I happen to be Asian with black hair. But in reality, were everything. We can be a dolphin, an extraterrestrial, a reptilian, an insect. I was a dwarf in the 17th century. The psychic thing lets you know the truth, not just the material self.
Skeptics often call mediums
grief vampires. They argue that any comfort derived from paranormal belief is false, and comes at a grave cost. Some warn of the potential political ramifications of such belief.
In an age of total epistemic confusion, the mainstreaming of parapsychology and related New Age practices seems to run parallel to other anti-scientific trends: climate change denial, the anti-vaxxer movement, conspiracy theories from PizzaGate to QAnon. A recent
study found the espousal of conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and belief in the paranormal turn out to be highly correlated with one another.
After six months, I drop out of psychic school. I dont have the patience to stare into a candle flame for 15 minutes a day, and my mugwort stash has been sitting untouched in my underwear drawer for weeks. Since the animal telepathy class, I often try to read the mind of my roommates cat, but all I ever gather is that she wants food.
Over the phone, I thank Melissa for her teachings.
I hope you find your way back to your goddess roots, she says.
I think I detect a note of pity or motherly concern in her voice, like shes looking down from the astral plane, feeling sorry that I havent found my way back to my goddess roots. But I might just be projecting.
Im not sure. I cant read her mind.
Illustrations by Gabriel Alcala