Friday, August 1, 2008

How does Uri Geller do it?

Uri Geller is the Israeli metal bender and psychic illusionist who became a sensation in the early 1970s. Geller has convinced many people, including several scientists who have tested his abilities, that he possesses genuine psychic powers. Skeptics point out that skilled conjurors can replicate all of Geller's feats using trickery and that nonpsychic explanations must be eliminated before one assumes that the laws of nature have been broken.

Uri Geller is chiefly known for being able to bend or break small metallic objects such as spoons. His reputation also rests on his ability to read the contents of sealed envelopes (which usually contain drawings allegedly prepared out of his sight) and restarting watches that appear to have stopped working. Geller maintains that he has never used trickery to achieve his effects. However, conjurors have produced similar feats using sleight-of-hand and misdirection techniques. In addition, some observers claim to have caught Geller in the act of bending cutlery with his hands

The Spoon Bend

A conjuror can create the appearance of a spoon bending while it is gently stroked. A momentary misdirection by the conjuror, such as moving position to show the spoon to other people, allows the conjuror to bend the spoon physically. He or she can then disguise the bend with a hand and slowly reveal it at the appropriate moment. The effect is so convincing to most observers that they believe the spoon is bending before their eyes. There are many ways by which an observer can be misdirected. For instance, when Geller performs metal bending, he often moves the item toward other metallic objects in the room, which he claims enhances the effect. He also frequently fails in his initial attempts to bend the metal but returns to the object a short time later (after trying other psychic effects) and achieves the bend. This again provides the opportunity for misdirection.

An alternative nonpsychic technique, which often causes the spoon to break, requires the conjuror or an accomplice to have prior access to the cutlery. The conjuror or another individual prestresses the spoon by carefully bending it back and forth until it reaches the point of breakage. The stress point is not readily visible. The conjuror then picks this item apparently at random and subjects it to gentle rubbing, causing "plasticity" followed by complete fracture. Prior to some of his television appearances, Geller has been known to have had access to the cutlery that he later broke in front of the cameras. Some critics have accused Geller of using chemicals on his hands to soften the metal, but since there is no such chemical that could be used safely, this explanation can be discounted.

Reproducing a Drawing in a Sealed Envelope

Over the years, magicians have developed many different techniques for divining the contents of a sealed envelope. Some of these techniques (such as gimmicked notepads on which the drawing or message is made) are available on the market; others are still used by professional magicians. The methods can be as simple as peeking through one's fingers to see the drawing being made, holding the envelope up to the light, or even opening the envelope when the viewer's attention is distracted. A confederate may also be able to assist by conveying information about the drawing. Skeptics allege that Geller's manager and brother-in-law, Shipi Shtrang, has acted as a confederate, and Shtrang has been present at many of Geller's successful demonstrations. Observers often forget the presence of an accomplice, particularly if that person appears to have no active role in the proceedings.

Restarting "Broken" Watches

The restarting of apparently broken watches has persuaded many observers of the reality of psychic phenomena. However, neither trickery nor psychic powers are required to achieve this effect. According to researchers David Marks and Richard Kammann (1977), jewelers estimate that "over 50 per cent of watches brought in for repair are not mechanically broken, but have stopped because of dust, dirt, gummed oil, or badly distributed oil". When such a watch is bumped or held between one's hands to warm up the oil, it may start working for a short period. Marks and Kammann have demonstrated this effect in more than half of a random selection of "broken" watches. In his appearances on television and radio, Geller can also rely on the statistics of a large pool of viewers or listeners. Among such a sizable group, there will inevitably be a few people who claim to find their watches and clocks working after years of apparent inactivity. Skeptics have demonstrated that this effect can be produced by nonpsychics in the same circumstances.

Testing by Scientists

Uri Geller has repeatedly claimed that science has proven the existence of his alleged psychic powers. The principal experiments on which he bases his assertion are those conducted at the Stanford Research Institute in California. The results of these experiments were published in the science journal Nature in 1974, where it was suggested that under controlled laboratory conditions, Geller had demonstrated extrasensory perception but not paranormal metal bending. The paper was accompanied by an extensive editorial that explained that the paper's referees had expressed serious reservations about its scientific merit. Others have also condemned the protocols used in these experiments as lax and unscientific. Moreover, Geller has never participated in repeatable experiments under conditions that would preclude fraud. Magicians have also pointed out that scientists are rarely experienced in detecting legerdemain.


Skeptics argue that Uri Geller's personality is a powerful factor in his ability to convince people that he has genuine psychic powers. Those who have met him have attested to his engaging warmth and youthful enthusiasm at the effects he produces. However, Geller's charm is not extended to skeptics, and he has threatened or pursued numerous legal actions against his detractors. In 1991, he filed a $15 million lawsuit against magician James Randi and the skeptics organization Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) after Randi told a newspaper that Geller had "tricked even reputable scientists" with tricks that "are the kind that used to be on the back of cereal boxes when I was a kid" (interview in the International Herald Tribune, April 9, 1991). The court found against Geller, who eventually settled the case at a cost of $120,000.