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Just 12 hours after writing Tuesday's blog post about the neuroscience of psychics, mediums, and clairvoyants, I was contacted by psychic medium John Edward's media coordinator asking if I would be interested in interviewing him.
It was about an hour ago right now that my phone was ringing: "Hi, is this Jordan? This is John Edward."
A New York native, John is best known for his shows Crossing Over with John Edward (1999-2004) and John Edward Cross Country (2006). He has also authored several New York Timesbestselling books and has appeared on many talk shows. It was his appearance on Anderson with Anderson Cooper (admittedly a skeptic) last fall that really drew me in to his abilities. Is this for real?
Unfortunately, I am not a professional interviewer, and my transcript is comprised of hastily-scrawled ink on paper. Below, you will see my questions in bold followed by his translated answers (not word-for-word) from my chicken scratch. Enjoy!
What was your first psychic experience like? How old were you, and did you know what was happening?
During his childhood, John asserts that he experienced unknown psychic moments here and there, though nothing "earth-shattering." When he was around 15, he began studying metaphysics, which has evolved into parapsychology and now "new-age" parapsychology. From then on, he became more aware of his experiences and what was happening to him.
You describe your interactions with the deceased as short ideas that enter your head, like an interrupted conversation. How do you handle a studio audience with hundreds of people—are they all vying for your attention? Is there a sense of urgency from some? Do you tune it out?
John answered, "You kinda just listen." He described it as entering a cafeteria, where all you hear is noise—then suddenly, if you just focus a little, the people who are meant to come through can begin a conversation with him. He feels that their family and friends brought them to him, and that it's simply meant to be that they interact. I asked if it was like the cocktail effect—the psychological term referring to when you hear your name in a crowded room, you'll immediately turn to the direction of the speaker and try to determine who wants your attention. He said that was exactly it—when it happens, he feels tethered to the deceased person.
You describe the use of symbols, such as different colored roses. Are the deceased making these symbols for you, or is this something you're subconsciously translating?
John says these symbols are translated himself. He described a drive where he found himself next to a truck depicting white roses. Somehow, the roses stuck out to him. When he later did a reading of a woman referring to her daughter, he kept seeing the white roses, followed by the number 16. Eventually, they parsed out that it was referring to the girl's 16th birthday—thus, white roses meant "congratulations" or "celebration." Other colors have other meanings.
Do you have any other psychic abilities? Does it run in the family?
He describes mediums as being a specialized psychic, like how a gastroenterologist is a specialized type of doctor. He sees the ability in his kids already—they "know stuff." When I asked him exactly what he noticed, he spoke of his 5-year old daughter Olivia. When she was 3, he was putting her to bed one night when she said, "Daddy, remember when I died?" "No," he said, "do you remember when you died?" They continued to have a normal, mature conversation about her past life, including her former name. He was impressed that she was not "freaking out," because he says he was!
Have you ever undergone any type of brain imaging or electrical activity recording (like EEG)? Would you?
Yes, he said, he would, especially because he is a big "science geek." Around 10 years ago, he was examined by Dr. Gary Schwartz at the University of Arizona, a psychologist and researcher in the field of parapsychology, where they administered a series of tests. For the HBO show Life After Life, he was also subjected to a series of tests to rule out mind reading, prompting by visual cues, and was hooked up to an EEG and heart monitor. He described an experiment performed with another psychic in which the researchers examined whether gamma radiation was expelled during a psychic reading. Five minutes into making a psychic connection, she "blew out the machine."
Do you have a background in neuroscience? What do you think is happening?
No, he has no formal education of the brain, but he reads science books and subscribes to science magazines to learn as much as he can. He speculates that he may have some overdeveloped brain structure that accounts for his ability—but what, he has no idea. He can explain how it feels when it happens, though, and spoke fondly of how his ears go bright red. During tapings of Crossing Over, his makeup artist would have them stop the camera so they could apply makeup to his ears, because "it looked weird." He believes a number of "biochemical changes" must be at work, brain and body alike.
Many studies have shown that certain personality types are more prone to psychic ability, such as creative, imaginative, and having a strong sense of fantasy. How would you describe your personality?
"Well, I have a Superman tattoo. Does that answer your question?"
What do you want scientists and skeptics to know about what you do?
John likes skeptical people, not cynical people. He asserts that scientists should be explorers, forming questions and seeking discoveries—not turning their backs simply because there isn't already existing evidence.
Do we all have psychic abilities? As a researcher, I am interested in sleep. When we dream about deceased loved ones, is that us missing them, or is it something more?
John says we are indeed more open to unconscious awareness as we sleep, as our brains are functioning differently than our awake, conscious minds. Most dreams, he says, are just us missing our loved ones. On rare occasions, however, he says that visits can occur—and you know they're visits because the dream stands out to you. Something "profound" or "detailed" happens, and the dream doesn't fade over time.
I spent a solid 20 minutes on the phone with John. He was very amicable, candid, and invested in the conversation. At the end, he told me he enjoyed the interview and was interested in my neuroscience studies, appreciating that it was a "forward-thinking" field. He encouraged me to continue being open while seeking answers to these mysterious questions.
Am I a skeptic? I'll always be a skeptic. I love magicians and illusionists, and I love finding out how they do their tricks. But I've also always been hopeful—and for me, lack of proof doesn't deny its existence.
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Psychic abilities have been making some returns to the mainstream recently (while being disproved in replication studies http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1699970 and http://richardwiseman.wordpress.com/2010/11/18/bems-esp-research/)
I wish you would have had more time to prepare, and read some background literature about John Edward and the most probable other explanations (which do not require extra explanations), so you could address the more difficult questions in this stellar opportunity.
Starting with the practice of cold reading (and an example of Mr. Edwards doing it http://www.randi.org/jr/2006-04/042106edward.html , http://www.csicop.org/si/show/john_edward_hustling_the_bereaved/ ) and how our impressions of them may not be maintained under testing (http://www.richardwiseman.com/research/psychics.html)
The difference between cynics and skeptics, and why Mr. Edwards seems not to like real skeptics either (http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/02/08/im-a-skeptic-not-a-cynic/ and http://gothamskeptic.org/skepticism-and-cynicism/ )
Your interview was clearly biased towards Mr. Edward's point (you do accept his assertions without questioning), but I wouldn't expect you to do differently as it is very difficult to be in the situation you were in and be a strict questioner without being "rude". Sadly in most interviews, psychic take advantage of this "defect" to avoid being pressured into the side where they should be, which is to prove their assertions, and they are able to give all their assertions without direct refutal (while refusing to attend meetings where people are "rude" enough to ask questions.
Also your last statement is very interesting.
From the philosophical standpoint it has been discussed by a lot of people, mostly defined as the Demarcation problem.
My main issue is that the standard view of both the skeptic and the scientist should be towards the null hypothesis (although we always wish it was different), for different reasons (better defined here http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2009/09/logic-of-skepticism.html or here http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2012/05/in-defense-of-criticism-and-skepticism.html).
As you are saying, there are no proofs for...but there are against. And science does not advances by proving that things are right. It advances by proving that some things are wrong.
I know that you know this.
But human beliefs can be compartamentalized.
I hesitated posting my interview here for my more "sciencey" readers—I originally did the interview for my local news (as Edward is bringing his show here in late June), but I thought it'd be interesting to post here as a follow-up to see what everyone has to say. So you're right—the questions are a bit biased toward him.
I've spent the week reading up on Edward: everything from his book "Crossing Over" (which is mostly biographical) to watching the Penn & Teller "Bullsh*t!" episode debunking mediums (here if interested:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zb39htpY6dU). And as a lover of illusionists, I realize how easy it is to make it all a big trick. And if it is all a trick, the HUMAN in me is angered that the needy and bereaved are being preyed upon. It's a lot to take in (from a lot of different angles) and I don't quite know what to think, still.
Beyond the focus of John Edward and mediums, it's really the notion of any psychic-type abilities that grips me (John's 3-year-old daughter talking about her past life, as an example) and even some strange, visitation-type dreams that my friends and family have had. And I've had some strange, strange Ouija board experiences. The scientist in me says, "That's impossible," but the skeptic in me wonders, "What the heck is going on, and why do so many different people have such similar experiences?" I suppose I have a spiritual side that I haven't really explored yet.
Thanks for all the links—I checked them all out. And I appreciate the reminder that "the standard view of both the skeptic and the scientist should be towards the null hypothesis." I agree that science advances by proving that some things are wrong, but I think it also advances by going down the path of things that SEEM to be right and integrating what we do know to make conclusions.
Thanks for the thoughtful post Yannis.
Nice job and really cool that John reached out to you for an interview. I find this subject area fascinating as well.
Google "Proof of Life After Death Yorktown" to read about my experience with medium John Edward.