The psychic industrial complex
The big business of intuition.
In the middle of a row of buildings, including a Subway and a Chase bank, is a sign that reads “PSYCHIC.” Palm tree silhouettes loom against the purples and pinks of a twilight sky background. I live right on Sunset Boulevard. This is about five years ago.
There are those occult-looking hands on the sides of the door, along with crystal balls. The “Open” sign is flashing neon. There is a folding board out on the sidewalk. It says, “psychic reading, only $5.”
“Five dollars?” I mutter. I’m walking my dog. I shrug. You know, I don’t believe in that kind of thing. But, what the hell. It’ll be a laugh.
I walk in. The middle-aged psychic greets me in a knowing, motherly way, taking my dog to the back through some of those hanging beads. I wait for her, looking at her dusty monkey-paw-like collection of objects: crystals, statues, carvings of hands.
She walks back into the room, hiking up her purple flowing dress to sit on the cushion on the floor, the many beads on her neck and wrists clicking. She gestures for me to sit. I lumber my inflexible body into a semi-legs-crossed seat – propped up with both arms on the floor. “What brings you in today?”
“I always walk by,” I say, gesturing with my thumb like she knows where I live. “I figured, ‘what the hell.’”
She smiles, gazing at me for an uncomfortably long beat. “Who is she?”
“Who?” I say.
“The girl you’re thinking about.”
I repress a smile. Is it wise to let this person know about my life? “Um,” I say. “There are two I was thinking about.”
“It’s over with the tall one,” she says, making a dismissive gesture with her hand. “The other one still has a part to play in your life.”
“Oh…” I say, obviously looking suspicious. The girl I just broke up with is 6 feet tall.
She seems to size me up. “You are very confident. But, you will be known for your work – not your face.”
This time I can’t help but smile. “OK,” I say. “That works out nicely for me, anyway.”
We keep chatting – she asks me about my life and gives me some vague – but pretty wise – advice.
She pressures me to buy a $900 follow-up session to “clear my energy.” I peel her off me, get my dog, and get the hell out of there.
In all, well worth the $5, though. An experience.
Years later, I have to admit everything she said was correct. Mostly vague, but correct.
Most people (98% according to this one survey from 1991) will tell you the paranormal is horseshit. If no one believes in it, why the hell is this profession booming (at least 2.2 billion) despite entering the age of information?
Of course, this causes endless frustration to scientists, who love to shout, “It’s not real!” as if that’s all people needed to hear. “It’s not real, you say? What a fool I’ve been!”
There is something much deeper going on that neither the psychics nor the scientists understand.
The ancient history of fortunetelling
In ancient Greece, Oracles were said to be able to channel the voice of Apollo.
Smoke would rise from the ground, they would chant, they would sing, and they would predict the future. People would travel to see them (they usually lived on the edge of town, which is symbolically significant – they are literally on the fringe of the “known”).
The Oracle of Delphi lived during the time of Socrates. She was particularly admired for her ability to “see.” Because she’s relying on intuition and not her analytical mind, she often gives vague proclamations. “You will receive a great favor.” Classic cold-reading technique. Is it nothing but a con job?
Probably not. It’s vagueness, sure, plus the very real power of intuition. Think about how you get a “first impression” of people that’s usually pretty spot on. Now imagine you were a genius at that. More on this effect later.
The smoke, the chicken bones, the Tarot cards — they all allow a phenomenon called Pareidolia. That’s when your brain projects its own patterns on randomness. This is also what makes the Rorschach test work. The projections from the mind of the seer are not random. They are the reader’s subconscious. They allow the reader access to a deeper “vibe” than she otherwise would have.
So, people came from all over to ask the oracle questions. Again, she usually gives non-committal answers. Until one day, she answers something very specific:
“Is Socrates the wisest man in Athens?”
“Yes,” she says, unequivocally.
Famously, when asked about this, Socrates says, “I’m the wisest man in Athens because I know that I know nothing.”
This might feel like a detour, but we will return to this idea later.
Socrates has landed on the answer we’re looking for. It’s hidden in his response. That will become clear, but for now…
The occult business in America
Americans have a unique guilty pleasure for the occult.
We love to hate our snake oil salesmen. We have a secret love affair with our psychics. We cringe-watch reality TV about mediums.
We refuse to leave money on the table. We’re businesspeople. If people crave oracles, then dammit, we will give the people what they want. This is how America slips under the growing rationalization of the rest of the world.
In the book “On Bullshit,” Harry Frankfurt breaks down an important distinction between bullshit and lies. Lies aim to hide the truth. Bullshit doesn’t care if it’s true or not – it seeks to persuade. America, for better or worse, loves bullshit.
You see, for the last couple hundred years, scientific rationalism became the dominant player. And science can’t make sense of the Oracle of Delphi. So, she must be unnecessary. A bullshitter, even.
That’s how intuitive people – like oracles of old – get put in the same category as snake-oil salesmen. Eventually, you get psychics in strip malls using high-pressure sales techniques.
But, that doesn’t stop people from wanting what she has to offer. And, in the land of the free, you can have anything you desire – for a price. So, we shunt our desire for intuition into the slot of “guilty pleasure” along with reality TV and ice cream.
That’s actually a huge loss.
To me, this is not an indication of the unstoppable irrationality of people. It’s an indication that science doesn’t understand what’s really going on here, because it keeps trying to measure the wrong things.
Bullshit, for all its ways of misleading us, often points to a less obvious truth.
Specifically, rationalism tends to take at face value what the occult practitioners say they offer and tries to measure that. That’s like madly rushing to calculate the air-speed velocity of Santa after talking to a 6-year-old.
And I’m not calling psychics 6-year-olds. I’m saying that they are pointing to things, in some sense, that are more “real” than objects in the physical world. Namely, patterns.
The pattern of Santa is real, obviously. We sing about him, tell stories about him, and his “spirit” can even possess you when you wear his suit. Think about it – if you started talking about your divorce while dressed as Santa, you’d freak the kids at the mall out. You know perfectly well how to “channel” the spirit of Saint Nick.
Does that mean a fat guy lives at the magnetic north pole of the earth? No, obviously. That’s trying to measure the wrong thing.
To show how this relates to psychics, let’s look at a famous study on psychic abilities:
How to sense patterns and predict the future
In an (in)famous study, blindfolded people are asked to guess if they are being watched or not.
They appear to have psychic abilities…
What is going on? Well, the participants are subconsciously picking up on the patterns of the researchers when they “randomly” choose to have the subject be watched.
As soon as you get a computer randomizer, the psychic abilities go away. Bummer?
But this actually points to something much deeper and more interesting. The subjects had no idea they were picking up on this pattern. And the researchers had no idea they were offering one. Let’s expand that out.
You are picking up on subconscious patterns all the time in the real world. Much more deeply and complexly than in the setting of a scientific study. We don’t even know the depths of how much we do this.
For example, think about how much you can guess about a person on a first impression. You get a “vibe,” often most clearly in the first few minutes. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Talking to Strangers,” he makes exactly this claim. We sometimes know strangers better than best friends. This is the work of your intuition.
What you’re picking up with first impressions is the patterns of being. If you just glance at a tragic person, you can often guess how their whole life will play out, roughly. Does that make you psychic? In a fun way, yeah, kinda.
Now, let’s take this to the extreme in two ways:
How big are these patterns?
How good can you get at sensing them?
At the extreme end, these patterns are the myths at the bottom of reality. Overly logical people are often lost at this point of the conversation. If you’re really curious about what I’m talking about, try taking a heroic dose of mushrooms and tell me if reality isn’t made of hidden patterns (don’t actually do this).
That’s why if you have access to these patterns, you can access “the future.” This isn’t spooky information. Genius artists and writers like Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, for example, have predicted the centuries ahead of them with eerie accuracy (but not scientific accuracy. That’s a whole different tool than intuition, remember).
So, at the extreme end, the patterns intuitive people can gain access to are huge. They aren’t “scientific,” but they are clearly predictive. Or another way to think about it is this: intuitive pattern recognition is the way to generate a hypothesis to be tested by the more logical mind.
How good can you get at this?
Some people are genius at intuition.
Who are these people?
Bring back oracles
2 kinds of people have this kind of role in the modern world:
Tarot readers, psychics, artists, and mystics
We need to welcome intuition into our common understanding so they don’t have to go underground and “bullshit” us. If we realize we need to feel the “truth” of something beyond mere “facts,” we should feel free to go to an oracle.
And, if you’re a more “rational” type of person, maybe you can enjoy a psychic reading easier after this.
This brings us back to Socrates. The rational father of all rational men, who, famously, knew he knew nothing. In other words, he left room for the mysterious. Symbolically, he allows the fringe to exist on the edge of town because he knows order should never try to encompass nature.
The rational mind is a great gift, but it should never become our entire personality.
You may be able to prove that Santa isn’t at the magnetic north pole of the earth, but that doesn’t mean you know anything about what Santa means or the role he plays in the imaginations of millions.
Carl Jung, the great psychologist, studied astrology – not because he believed it was scientific or predictive – but because he understood patterns. The stars at night are a place for people to project their unconscious imagination. You can see it as depth psychology at scale, if it helps. It’s thousands of years of our collective imagination.
These “illogical” practices aren’t going away — we aren’t even curious enough to get to the bottom of them.
As another example, the placebo effect helps us gain access to the part of us that has the power to heal. It’s an invitation of the imagination. We need the mystical just as much as the pharmaceutical. People heal faster in a hospital with a painting. Snake oil really does cure diseases.
There is so much more going on than you can make sense of, and that’s why we used to allow for people who made no sense.
We need to respect the oracles living in caves on the edge of town.
Thanks for reading,
What’s moving me:
Yes and no...I don't have all the answers and the answers I have may not right. In the 70s I studied how to do past life regression, no drugs, no hypnosis, just helping others to learn memory techniques and helping them using them. Past life regression may be the wrong word because reaching and remembering past lives was not the goal. The goal was to help people change the effects of earlier decisions and actions. Occasionally stumbling onto a past life was just a not really looked for side effect, but when they came up we would deal with and explore it. When past life regression came into vogue, I focused on that with interesting results. Thise results called into question a lot of what history and science in the west accept. If we lived before, that seems to mean that we may live again and if we don't die when our body dies, maybe that lends credence to ghosts and spirits. As a psychic channel, that was where I'd get my information for my readings, from spirit, guides and the akashic records.
Once upon a time, people in authority proclaimed that if someone traveled over ten miles an hour, they would die, they proclaimed that the earth was flat and human flight was impossible. Science may in time have answers for nearly every question, but I down think that will happen for a long, long time. As a Reiki Master Teacher and Qigong practitioner, I learned to sense and move energy and help people reduce mental and physical pain. The first time I had a reading, I wasn't impressed, but the next time, I was told specific things that there was no way anyone who didn't actually know me could know. The psychic you encountered may have "known" stuff about you and your life or maybe she was really good at getting information and feeding it back. That second psychic I saw told me that I was an artist and that I should do stump carvings. The week before I had just done my first chainsaw stump carving. Talk about a huge flag. I had made it a point to share no information other than name and birthday. Physics tells us that the multiverse and other dimensions, and dark matter exist. Yes, there is something deeper going on, but I'm not really sure what and I have to proof I can wave in front of you.
After being struck in the head by a heavy piece of shrapnel from an exploding cannon I became much more spiritually focused. (true story) I hunted for found and attended a spiritualist church north of State Street in Milwaukee. They had a psychic development class which I took. I was the one getting the right answers. As a psychic channel, I ended up giving readings for over twenty years.
While occasionally meeting cons, for the most part, the psychics I met and hung with for all those years were honest and sincere and, for the most past, scary accurate, as was I. I gave a reading to a girl I was dating. She accused me of spying on her. I the winter of 2001, while attending a spiritual gathering of 30 or more people, I went into a trance (not faked) and proclaimed in front of the group that a horrendous event would happen in New York on November 11. I was off by two months. I'd forgotten about it but several people reminded me of that night. I only worked part time as a psychic, never pushed it or made much money, intent on helping whoever needed. I and my fellow psychics believed sincerely in what we were doing. I, for one, never tried to fake it. I'd say what was coming through no matter how wrong it sounded to me. It was like walking a tightrope without a net. I suffered from burnout eventually and quit giving readings. My experiences in the New Age and as a psychic, became the basis and inspiration for my first novel, "Intrusion"