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The comments here are mostly from readers who think they have had psychic or paranormal experiences. I do not believe that everything can be explained, nor do I believe that whatever alternative explanations I give for these experiences must be true. Nor do I feel that it is the skeptic's duty to "prove" that these experiences either never happened as described or did happen but there is a naturalistic explanation for them. I offer these only as an example of how easy it is for people to have an unusual experience, seek out a paranormal explanation for it, and delude themselves into thinking they have experienced something special that sets them apart from the rest of us and which makes life more interesting and mysterious.

From Abracadabra to Zombies

reader comments: psi

30 March 2009
I can understand why one would be skeptical concerning these matters, but I know for a fact that the human brain is capable of doing such things.

In 1984, I was living in Denver Colorado, and I began having what they call premonitions (seeing things happen before they actually do). I had three of them, and when they began I thought I was losing my mind.

I don't know how it works, but I know it is something that one cannot control. It just happens on its own.

There was a time when I laughed at people who made these claims, but I don't laugh anymore.

I assure you these things do indeed happen.


reply: You don't think there's any possibility you could be wrong?

Larry's reply:

ABSOLUTELY NOT! I've only told a couple people about this experience, and I don't really know why I told you.

reply to Larry's reply:

You could be the first infallible human ever, but I doubt it. Everybody has apparent premonitions and everybody's prone to error in perception and interpretation of perception. Maybe you're the exception. Anyway, I'm not laughing at you, Larry. But you're not as exceptional as you might think.

Larry's reply:

I don't know what happened; it wasn't a dream; it wasn't a thought, and it wasn't a guess, period... It really happened, and as I said earlier, I thought I was losing my mind....

The first event.... I saw a vision of my daughter and her friend behind a fence, and the fence was on fire. I called my wife and told her to be sure and watch the kids because there was going to be a fire. At the time there was a severe drought in Denver. On the weekend my wife and I were sitting in front of the house when my daughter came running and yelling there was a fire. I went around the house and the fence was on fire just as I had seen in the vision.

The second was a vision of my aunt dying in Kansas, and a couple of days later I received a call that she he died.

The last was a vision of a cop murdering a women with a flashlight in her home. This one was not verified.

With all these visions I had a feeling come over me, it was a feeling of absolute certainty that what I was looking at was going to happen.

I know you don't believe me and I know you're a skeptic, but it does happen. But it is not something you can control. It is like a seizure ( you can't control a seizure and you don't know when they are going to happen, but they do.)

reply to Larry's reply: Feelings can be very powerful motivators of belief, and worrisome thoughts can manifest themselves as premonitions. But if you stop and analyze what you've written, I think you'll see that you reacted a bit too strongly given the evidence you provide. I'm not suggesting that you could have felt otherwise than you did, but I think that upon reflection you might be able to view your strong presentiments a bit differently.

Worrying about a fire during a time of severe drought would be common, not exceptional. Fires during droughts would be common, not exceptional. Wooden fences are especially susceptible to burning if a fire erupts nearby. Worrying about harm coming to one's children is common. The only thing the least bit interesting about your vision (excluding your strong emotional response which you characterize as one of subjective certainty) is the fence. In your vision, your daughter and her friend were behind a fence, creating a barrier to your being able to help them. All parents have felt helpless at times when it comes to being able to protect our children. Such feelings are not mysterious. In reality, your daughter and her friend were not behind the fence and you didn't have to rescue them. The fact that the fence actually caught fire enhanced your strong emotional response. It is understandable that you would feel the way you do, but I don't think there is anything here that calls for a paranormal explanation.

Dreams, thoughts, and visions of relatives dying are quite common. That occasionally some of these visions are followed rather closely by an actual death of the one envisioned is not as unusual as you might think. Tens of thousands of people around the world are likely to have thoughts or dreams of a person dying followed soon thereafter by the death of the person they were thinking about. Here is what I wrote in an article called "Why Do People Believe in the Palpably Untrue?":

Christopher Scott, a British statistician, has calculated how often death dreams should come true by chance. He assumes that each person has one death dream in their lifetime and works out how often that should coincide with the death of the person dreamed about. Allowing for how many people die each night, even in a small country like England, he concluded that this startling coincidence will happen to someone once every two weeks. Now, each of these events is pure chance, but the people involved will almost certainly think it was psychic. (Think about it: if there are 6.5 billion people on earth and just 100 things happen to each of them each day, then there will be over half a million things that happen each day whose odds are 1,000,000 to 1!) Apparently precognitive or clairvoyant dreams are impressive to those who lack understanding of the law of truly large numbers. If the odds are a million to one that any given dream is truly prophetic, then, given the number of people on earth and the average number of dreams people have during each sleep period (250 dream themes a night, according to Hines, p. 50, but I don't think I've ever had more than five or six dream themes a night), we should expect that every single day of our lives there will be from 30,000 to 1.5 million dreams that seem clairvoyant or precognitive.

I realize that yours was not a dream, but a vision. Yet, the same principle applies. In fact, if you add the number of people who have strong feelings or visions of the imminent death of someone, the odds increase significantly that there will be many apparent precognitions of death that seem validated.

 Finally, you say your last "vision" wasn't verified. So, why call it a "vision"? But, if somewhere, sometime, some cop kills some woman with a flashlight, I don't think you should jump to the conclusion that you saw it coming. Unfortunately, in this world that kind of thing happens all too often.


17 May 2001 
Perhaps you can help me. I have always considered myself a skeptical, intelligent person. I have grounded my analysis of experience in solid science as much as possible and have attempted to cultivate critical thinking. James Randi is somewhat of a role model for me. Given this, you can understand why I find the following experiences particularly disturbing.

Sometime ago I was ruminating idly, when a thought of my grandfather crossed my mind. It was an inconsequential thought, perhaps of him in his garden, but it had the tone -- for want of a better way to put it -- of someone who was deceased. Nothing blatant, mind you, but inescapable. Despite a lifelong pooh-poohing the validity of such phenomena, I could not help but wonder if my grandfather had indeed died. At that time, I had very little interaction with my mother, and had not heard from her in eight or nine months. There had been no information it all about any deterioration in my grandfather's health. He was almost never mentioned in our sparse communication. When I had heard nothing from her in a week, I put the experience out of mind. Then, about three weeks later, I did receive a letter. I wondered uneasily to the woman I was with if there was some news of my grandfather's passing. When the first page held only the usual chatter, I dismissed the idea. Then, on the second page, was inconceivable information that my grandfather had indeed died in hospital, about a week before receiving my impression!

Then, just last summer, I was in my bedroom when the thought, very strong, came, "Call Dad, he is not going to live forever!" In those exact words. I ignored it, saying to myself that we Edwards' live well into our nineties, which is quite true. From the direction of my letter, you may guess what happened. The following day, in the late afternoon or early evening, my brother called to say that our dad had died while resting and reading a newspaper, of an apparent heart attack. It turns out he suffered from arrhythmia, of which I had no knowledge -- for two reasons: one, our relationship was just coming to the point where communication, sorely disrupted in my teenage years, was being re-established; two, he was an extremely taciturn man, particularly when it came to his health.

Mr. Carroll, I have not spoken of these instances to anyone out of embarrassment, as everyone knows my position. I am hoping that you may be able to give me some way to rationally account for my experiences. It seems that the level of coincidence for two such events bearing fruit must be more than astronomical. And, they were subjectively dissimilar.

High Regards, Bruce

reply: Dear Bruce,

Here's another coincidence for you: you caught me on a good day...I'm up early and because it is final exam week I don't have to go to work until 10 am today. In short, I have time to reply.

The uncanny are uncanny! The first thought that came to mind regarding your story is how little most of us understand chance, probability, odds, etc. This leads us to give significance to the insignificant....not that these events are insignificant...the deaths of a father and grandfather (I am both!) are significant....it is the sense of "astronomical odds" that I am referring to: these events seem significant in the sense that they seem to defy the laws of chance. But they don't.

You can see, however, why so many people believe in the psychic realm. Humans don't have an intuitive sense for what is statistically significant. Hence, many coincidences seem to us to be connected in some mysterious way. I've written about this on several occasions.

Also at work in giving these experiences their sense of being special is selective thinking: we remember such events and don't remember the times we feared for dad or mom or uncle, etc. and nothing happened. When this happens twice in a relatively short period of time, the odds seem even more astronomical, like somebody winning the lottery twice (which also seems more unlikely than it really is, by the way).

I don't suppose I need mention that thoughts of the death of loved ones are quite common, especially elderly loved ones. 

26 Jan 2001
Dear Bob, I was wondering if you could put my question to the skeptics below on some experiences with psychics that my dad told me about, in your reader's comments section of psychic experiences, and then respond to it there? I think I have some pretty irrefutable cases here. Your readers who are paranormal sympathizers would love this one! Here it is. You can change the "Dear Skeptics" part to "Dear Bob."

Skeptics, 2 mysteries from my dad for you to explain

Dear Skeptics,

I've got two new psychic mysteries from reliable sources for you to ponder! Recently I talked to my dad and explained to him the whole skeptic vs. paranormal/psychic debate we've been having, and he related to me some amazing firsthand stories (meaning that he was there at the time!) involving psychics that are so inexplicable but true that I just had to share them with you too. One of these stories was from a long time ago, the other was more recent. Don't worry, these are short are simple.

The first one involves a psychic that he, my mom, and her friend saw a long time ago back in Taiwan (I think it was during the early 70's, before I was born). There was this blind psychic who gave readings based on voices he heard. And my mom went to see him at the spur of the moment. One of the first things that he told her was that when she was little, her mom tried to give her away for adoption to another family, but she later ran away from that family back to her own mom, which was TRUE! My mom was so amazed at the time, that it got her attention. He also told her other things that were true too. Now guys, something like being given away for adoption and then running back home are NOT things that would fit most people, only a very few! My dad and my mom's friend was there too. All three of them can confirm this story! In fact, my mom's friend was so amazed that she tried to push her aside to get a reading herself! Skeptics, how do you explain something like this? But before you do, please keep these things in mind:

1. My dad does NOT make up things. He is one of the most down to earth people I know, and he has almost no imagination either! It's unlikely that he is remembering this wrong, especially since the two people with him at the time can confirm this.

2. This psychic reading was NOT prearranged. The blind psychic didn't know my mom and didn't know that she was coming. It was a spur of the moment thing. So no record checking was possible.

3. This took place in Taiwan during the early 70's, which was a very poor country at the time, and the record keeping system there was terrible and sloppy, so it is unlikely for a person, especially a blind one, to look up records on someone's childhood. Plus, like I said in # 2, the reading was not prearranged, but spur of the moment. (Or are you going to say that he has millions of people's records in Taiwan memorized? lol [chat room talk for "lots of luck"?])

4. Also, remember that the notion of "being given away for adoption by your mother and then running back to her" is NOT something general that applies to most people, but SPECIFIC and only applies to a few.

So how do you guys explain this? How is this possible? What if this happened to you and there was no logical explanation?

reply: I doubt if Winston will like my response, but here goes. One possibility, of course, is that the "psychic" really is psychic and somehow tapped into some mysterious realm like your mother's mind (telepathy) or the Akashic record. One wonders, though, if the psychic had this ability why would he only tell your mother what she already knew? In other words, if this man was truly psychic, he was not very useful. He might as well have told her that she was a woman and was married. However, there may be another explanation. Perhaps this psychic said the same thing to many of the women of your mother's age in those days. If so, I would guess that he said it because he knew the practice was not rare at the time your mother would have been a child. And it would not have been unusual for children to have run away from the home they were put into...or at least to have wanted to. Had she not run away, her desire to run would probably have been counted by all as a "psychic hit." One way to have tested this "psychic" would have been to have sent about ten different women of your mother's age to see him at intervals of two or three months and see if the adoption tale came up again.

Of course, there is another possibility. The psychic may have overheard your parents in conversation and picked something up. Or he may have actually gotten the information from your parents during the reading, but they simply don't recall that it was they who told the psychic about the adoption and running away. This happens often in "psychic" readings and people are often amazed when they see a video tape of the reading that it really was the subject who told the psychic the "amazing" items, rather than the other way around.

Ok here's the second story that happened more recently. My dad said that a few years ago, he and a co-worker, Eileen, went to a psychic fair once. When Eileen picked one of the psychics there for a reading, she sat down. Immediately the psychic said that she was in the process of moving. This was true because at the time, Eileen had ALREADY sold her house and was in the process of moving! She was very amazed, and my dad was too. They both arranged for a personal reading later on. Skeptics, what do you make of this? Again, keep the following in mind:

1. This was NOT prearranged. This was at a psychic fair open to the public, where anybody could have showed up, so there was no way the psychic could have checked her records beforehand.

2. Also, again my dad is not someone who makes up things or has a wild imagination. Plus, the other coworker, Eileen, can confirm this story. Plus, it was more recent too.

3. Also, keep in mind that most people are not in the process of moving at any given point in time, therefore this is not something that would have been true for most people.

4. Finally, keep in mind that the "you are in the process of moving" thing was the FIRST thing that the psychic said WITHOUT any cold reading or fishing for clues!

I dare you to explain this one!

(:::::grinning:::::: right now because I know that your backs are against the wall and every legal move you have on the "chessboard" is legally blocked. It looks like there is no escape this time for our skeptical heroes! :))

reply: This one is a little easier, Winston. "You are in the process of moving" is vague and ambiguous. The client interpreted it to mean moving from one house to another home. At any given time, the statement "you are in the process of moving" could be made to be a true statement by relating it some aspect of your life. Literally, hundreds of events could count as "hits" and it is not the psychic who creates the hit; it is the subject who does so by putting an interpretation on the psychic's statement that "fits."

Your stories remind me of one sent to me by another reader (one who is a bit more critical and skeptical than you are, Winston). Melody McGowan worked as a telephone psychic but got caught plying her trade while at her real job as a civilian career advisor at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. She was asked to resign from her post. She is also accused of using a government credit card to charge some $2,000 in calls she made last year to the psychic hot line she now works for. Her comment on her troubles was: "I had a premonition of something, but I didn't know what."

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