In the late 1960s, a young Israeli man named Uri Geller gained a substantial amount of attention and fame following a collection of remarkable demonstrations on US and British television. In full view of astonished audiences, Uri was seemingly able to manipulate metal with his mind. Spoons softened in his hands, keys curled at the gentle stroke of his fingers, and he was able to cause compasses to wobble at his cajoling. He was also known to restart stopped wristwatches by merely holding them in his hands. According to Geller, these feats were the products of sheer will, a phenomenon known as psychokinesis.
In addition to his mental metallurgy and magnetism, the dashing young Israeli demonstrated potent psychic abilities, most notably in his ability to reproduce drawings which he had never seen. A volunteer would draw a picture while Uri was not watching, and Geller would use his gifts to attempt to reproduce the image. Although his recreations were not always completely accurate, they were sufficiently similar as to provoke astonishment from onlookers.
Geller’s high-profile exploits in the 1970s significantly raised awareness of “paranormal science” worldwide, and since that time many have gone on to mimic his feats. Though there are throngs of skeptics who have reproduced his handiwork under the harsh light of reality, there are still a handful of yet-to-be-explained effects exhibited by Geller and his spoon-bending contemporaries.
Most Americans became acquainted with the charismatic Uri Geller following a series of high-profile television and magazine appearances in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As the cameras looked on, spoons softened and became almost taffy-like in his fingers. Often his audiences were awestruck when a spoon’s head separated from its body and clattered to the floor.
When he reanimated wristwatches on television, he further dumbfounded observers by urging viewers to each hold their own broken wristwatch if they had one, allowing him to act as the psychic conduit. Much to their amazement, some of the viewer’s watches reportedly started ticking again.
By 1972, the media frenzy surrounding Geller finally drew serious attention from the scientific community as supporters and skeptics began to polarize. In order to better understand Uri’s methods, the scientists at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) asked him to participate in a series of impartial experiments. Uri eagerly agreed. For five weeks, researchers Harold E. Puthoff and Russell Targ made the controversial character the target of their scientific scrutiny as he was subjected to a host of laboratory adventures.
Following some informal demonstrations by Geller, Stanford’s first test revolved around a number of drawings which had been made prior to the experiments and placed in nested envelopes. Uri was asked to recreate each selected image on his own paper. Some of the drawings had been examined by the researchers before entering the experiment room with Uri; some were double-blind, where not even the researchers knew what was within each envelope before it was opened; and some of the images were brought in by outside consultants, sealed in their envelopes before arriving at the facility. Before most of these experiments Geller expressed a measure of insecurity about his abilities, and in fact he declined to respond about 20% of the time due to lack of confidence in his response. But for those he did complete, he displayed a shocking level of accuracy. His representations were crude, but they frequently bore an unmistakable resemblance to the original, though sometimes reversed.
The Stanford researchers also conducted tests to measure Geller’s ability to detect materials without seeing them, a skill known as dowsing. In each of these experiments, he was presented with a box of ten numbered aluminum canisters and asked to determine which one of them contained an object. Before they were presented to Uri a third party placed the object in a random canister and then shuffled the cans’ positions. The objects used were ball bearings, magnets, room-temperature water, and sugar cubes. Geller was not allowed to touch the cans or the box, otherwise the experiment would be listed as a failure. The protocol indicated that he was to eliminate the cans one by one by pointing to them or calling out their number until only two remained, then he was required to guess which of the remaining two held the contents by calling out its number and writing it down. Later this method was criticized as needlessly complex, leaving too many gaps where trickery might be used.
At first Uri spent a lot of time waving his hands over the canisters before selecting each one for removal, but as as the tests progressed he seemed to gain confidence until he eventually would simply call out the number of the correct canister upon entering the room. In fourteen tests, there were two occasions that he declined to guess, but in all of the other twelve trials he made the correct selection. Puthoff and Targ were understandably intrigued by their subject’s performance. There were no detectable signs of deception, yet the odds of correctly guessing in all twelve tests was one in 10^12, or one in a trillion.
Another test where Geller showed startling accuracy was one which made use of a standard six-sided die in a metal box, both of which were provided by SRI. The die was placed in the box and shaken, and Uri was asked to state which face would be showing when the lid was opened. During the ten tests he declined to respond on twice, but in the other eight he was 100% accurate in his predictions.
Uri’s metal manipulation demonstrations were somewhat less impressive. Though he had previously claimed the ability to bend metal objects without making physical contact, he was unable to demonstrate this in the laboratory. When allowed to lightly touch the spoons, forks, and rods with his hands, they did indeed bend; but such evidence was useless due to the inability to determine the amount of force Geller was using. Another of the psychokinetic tests proved moderately successful, this one involving a one gram steel weight on an electric scale. Without touching the weight or scale— which were both covered by a glass dome— Uri was able to cause measurable changes in a scale’s reading.
The resulting SRI report was published in the science journal Nature in 1974. The researchers weren’t quick to draw conclusions, and they largely dismissed the psychokinesis results as inconclusive, but they felt that he had performed successfully enough that the phenomenon warranted further scientific study. Puthoff and Targ coined the term “Geller-effect” to describe his remarkable displays of apparently paranormal powers.
Geller’s charisma and talents won him regular appearances on television and in the print media over the next few years, and he was soon celebrated as a supernatural superstar. With the Stanford research seemingly corroborating his claims, the skepticism surrounding him began to erode.
Soon another man appeared who could also demonstrate these remarkable feats before audiences of his own. His name was James Randi, otherwise known as The Amazing Randi. He, too, appeared to possess the astonishing ability to soften spoons with a gentle touch. But Randi made no claims to supernatural powers. In fact, he was a stage magician and a scientific skeptic. He prepared the spoons in advance by bending them back and forth until the neck was sufficiently weakened. He also convincingly tweaked keys and cutlery, quickly bending them with his hands as he directed the viewers’ attention elsewhere. After performing each trick he explained to his audience how he accomplished the simple illusions. Randi was careful to point out that his demonstrations were not proof positive that Geller was a fraud, but rather that trickery was a more reasonable explanation than supernatural powers.
In 1973 The Amazing Randi received a telephone call from the producers of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson who had booked Geller as an upcoming guest. Johnny Carson himself had spent some time as a stage magician, so he was skeptical of Geller’s claims and he wanted Randi’s assistance in sidestepping any shenanigans. Randi suggested that the producers present Geller with an assortment of their own unprepared spoons, aluminum cans, and sealed drawings. When Uri walked out on stage, he was uncharacteristically nervous as his gaze fell on the collection of objects. When prompted to demonstrate his skills later in the show, he was unable to proceed, complaining that he was not feeling “strong” on that particular evening.
The incident had little effect on Uri’s popularity, and over the next few years Geller amassed a fortune. He claimed that his wealth was largely the result of dowsing services performed for major oil, gold and mineral mining companies, but at least a portion of his riches were the fruit of his fame. He remained a fixture of the popular media, and he continued to astonish audiences. Others people around the world began to claim similar abilities, and spoon-bending shortly became a staple of psychic demonstrations.
In the late 1970s, the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research in St. Louis began an organized effort to locate and study individuals who could convincingly demonstrate the Geller effect. James Randi contacted the researchers and gave them advice on how to avoid being duped, but the scientists did not welcome his skeptical input. During the early phases of the testing many of the applicants were disqualified for failing to demonstrate their skills in the lab, but two young men— Mike Edwards and Steve Shaw— appeared to be authentic. In a series of publicized experiments the two men contorted an assortment of cutlery, caused objects to levitate, coaxed compasses to quiver, and recreated drawings which were provided in sealed envelopes. It seemed that science had vindicated Uri Geller and his contemporaries yet again.
In 1981, after four years of testing at the McDonnell labs, Edwards and Shaw held a press conference in New York City with Discover magazine. The pair of famous psychics made an announcement which left their audience agape. Mike Edwards told the crowd, “The truth is, we are not psychics. We are magicians.” Steve Shaw added amidst the murmuring, “Yes, for the past four years we’ve been fooling people.” They went on to explain that they were participating in Project Alpha, an effort launched by James Randi to illustrate that modern paranormal research was so blinded by bias that it was incapable of detecting deception.
Edwards and Shaw demonstrated many of their methods to the assembled press, mostly consisting of basic sleight of hand. In some of the laboratory spoon-bending tests, they explained how they secretly switched the tags between various spoons so the researchers’ angular measurements before and after the experiments would show detectable changes in each spoon’s shape. In others, they handled one spoon in plain sight to direct the experimenters’ attention away from their other hand, which was manually bending another spoon in concealment. Later, the bent spoon would be presented as evidence of success. They also employed small magnets for many of their illusions, and they even used their breath to make certain objects move. In nearly every instance, the recommendations Randi had made to McDonnell labs at the outset would have caught the deception.
Some of the paranormal researchers were so desperate to reject these confessions that they accused Edwards and Shaw of being real psychics who were lying about their true abilities. The field of parapsychology was crippled by the news of the ruse, and many of the researchers involved were discredited by Project Alpha. Its goal had not been to embarrass anyone, but rather it was a social experiment used to demonstrate that parapsychologists are susceptible to deception and self-deception, regardless of their intelligence and training. Project Alpha beautifully illustrated the human tendency to seek only that evidence which supports one’s preconceptions, a phenomenon known to psychology as confirmation bias.
Though he was not directly discredited by the events, Uri Geller’s fame faded over the following years. In 1988 a British businessman named Gerald Fleming offered to donate £250,000 to charity if Geller could execute a spoon-bend under controlled laboratory conditions, but Geller never responded to the invitation. Geller maintains to this day that his talents are genuinely supernatural, though he acknowledges that some of his feats can be mimicked using simple stage magic or natural phenomena. For instance, a stopped watch will often become temporarily reanimated after being held in the hands for several minutes due to movements and body heat. However not all of Geller’s SRI demonstrations have been fully explained, such as his double-blind remote drawing tests, or the die-in-a-box.
The James Randi Education Foundation (JREF) currently offers a reward of one million US dollars to any psychic who can convincingly demonstrate their paranormal powers under controlled conditions. According to the rules, both he and the party accepting the challenge must agree in advance regarding what constitutes a success or a failure. Though over one thousand applicants have made the attempt, none have successfully collected the reward. So far Uri Geller has not taken this opportunity to prove himself, nor have the other high-profile self-proclaimed psychics such as Sylvia Browne or John Edward.
These days Geller can occasionally be coaxed into contorting some tableware or wobbling a compass, but he seldom performs for crowds. Recently some video evidence has appeared which seems to show Uri utilizing magicians’ tricks— such as his use of what appears to be a false thumb— but no concrete evidence of fraud has yet been uncovered.
Today Geller directs much of his energy into his family and creative pursuits. He is an accomplished artist, and his creative juices have been wrung out upon the pages of newspapers and magazines for years. He also designs clothing and jewelry. He gives occasional interviews, and he can sometimes be seen driving around in his 1976 Cadillac he calls the “Geller effect.” Its outer surfaces are bristling with bent tableware, each of which came from the mouth of a celebrity or historical figure. He has stated that he intends to drive it around the Middle East in an effort to bring peace to the region.
Given their unwillingness to subject themselves to controlled laboratory testing, Geller and his spoon-bending colleagues are likely to remain filed in the interesting-but-unlikely drawer for some time to come. Were it not for the handful of as-yet-inexplicable demonstrations, it would be easy to disregard such illusionists entirely. Whether Geller’s gifts spring from an inner well of creative deception or from the the realm of magic, unicorns and fairies, it is certain that he is a highly talented and charismatic individual. His exploits have demonstrated beyond a doubt that the human mind possesses incredible powers of manipulation. All of this assumes, of course, that there is indeed a spoon.