Bob Brier is an associate professor at C.W. Post College in New York. He is also on the faculty of the New School for Social Research, where he teaches a course in experimental parapsychology. Prior to teaching, Dr. Brier was on the research staff of the Institute of Parapsychology (Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man), in Durham, North Carolina, from 1966 to 1970. Among his nonprofessional achievements, Dr. Brier is a long distance runner, and he completed the Boston Marathon in 1974.
Uri Geller is undoubtedly the hottest topic in parapsychology.
Many in the field are convinced he is a fraud, others are certain he is a gifted
psychic, and the remainder simply don't know what to think. The reason there is
so much disagreement about Geller is that the few parapsychologists who have
worked with him have not given him the standard tests - ESP cards, dice tests,
etc. - that other parapsychologists would readily accept. With few exceptions,
all they've done is watch him draw doodles, bend spoons, and materialize and
I first heard about Geller when a colleague describede him as an Israeli magician who faked psychic ability. Parapsychology has more than its quota of fakes, and I simply assumed at that time that Geller was another one. However, when he was brought to the United Staes by Andrija Puharich and the stories of his amazing performances began to spread, I became interested.
In February 1973, Allan Angoff, of the Parasychology Foundation in New York, called and invited me to see a film that Russel Targ and Hal Puthoff had brought from California. The film was a record of their six-week investigation of Uri Geller, done at Stanford Research Institute. It was in color, about twenty-five minutes long, and narrated by Puthoff.
One of the most impressive experiments on the film was the opening one, in which Geller was given a sealed envelope containing a drawing he was to reproduce. On a pad he drew a square with straight lines within. The envelope was then opened. When Uri's doodle was then compared to the actual drawing, it was almost identical. Puthoff held up to the camera the logbook of all similar experiments, and all were as impressive as the one on film.
There were also statistical experiments in which twelve identical 35-mm film canisters were placed upright ina box. One was filled with water; the remaining eleven were empty. Geller entered the room and, without touching the canisters, pointed to one he felt did not have water. The canister was opened and indeed had no water. He repeated this without error until there were about three canisters remaining. He then told the experimenters which of the remaining ones had water. He was right, and the experiment was repeated five times without an error. The same thing was done with a large steel ball bearing placed in one of a set of twelve film canisters. Again, a flawless performance.
An interesting sequence was Uri bending metal. He was given a tablespoon which he held between his thumb and forefinger and rubbed near the neck. The photography was superb. There was a mirror beneath his hand, so the viewer could simultaneously watch the top and bottom of the spoon. After a few minutes the spoon was out of shape - as if it had been subjected to extreme heat and drooped. The photography was good, too, but one still couldn't tell what really happened, or precisely when. The film ended with a summary of what had been shown in the previous twenty-five minutes.
When the film was over, Targ, Puthoff, Angoff, Mrs. Eileen Coly, president of the Parapsychology Foundation, Robert Coly, its administrative secretary, and I went out to lunch. No one was quite sure what to do next. Puthoff and Targ wanted more money than the foundation was able to give, though all agreed that the film was interesting. Angoff seemed very skeptical, and I felt that I was more interested in following it up than anyone else. Targ mentioned that Geller was living in Ossining with Puharich, and I suggested to Mrs. Coly that we all go up there, or meet in my house, and observe Geller first hand. She thought it was a good idea and said she would think about calling Puharich. Nothing happened for a few weeks. I wrote to Allan Angoff and learned that everyone there was too busy, but they thought I should go ahead on my own.
Martin Ebon knew Puharich, so I asked him if he would make a phone call to see if he could get us invited to test Geller. He said he would, but before he did, Alexander Imich, a member of the Prometheus Project (a small group investigating paranormal phenomena), called and invited Ebon to a session with his group and Uri Geller. Martin then arranged an invitation for me.
At eight P.M. on Wednesday, February 28th, we arrived at a Central Park West address. Dr. Gertrude Schmeidler and her husband, Robert, were sitting in the Lobby. Dr. Schmeidler, ofthe College of the City of New York, is an authority on the psychological aspects of extrasensory perception (ESP). They, too, were invited, but had arrived early and were waiting for eight o'clock. We all went up together. The session was held in the home of an elderly couple. The husband was a retired anthropologist, and the apartment was furnished with a considerable number of artifacts from various American Indian tribes.
Quite a few people had arrived, but not nearly the full fifty-two that I counted later in the evening. There were the usual types: little old ladies who "just love" ESP; middle-aged matrons with gold dangling from every extremity; skeptical husbands dragged along for the evening; and lots of academic types. Gertrude, Bob, and I went over to a couch where we thought we would have ringside seats. After we'd spent about twenty minutes greeting people we knew, the guest of honor entered.
ESP Superstar, Uri Geller, was quite good-looking and fashionably dressed. He is in his late twenties, and starting to get a little heavy. He was accompanied by Puharich. Everyone settled in the large living room, which was set up with numerous directors chairs. A Brillo-topped Roger Price-type placed a compass on a coffee table in the front of the room and explained who he was - Gary Feinberg, a physicist at Columbia University and a member of the Prometheus Project, which seeks to "convince the world to consider its long-range goals." He asked that everyone state his name and what he did. There was a proponderance of academicians from Columbia and middle-aged women who said they did nothing.
Next, Puharich began to introduce Uri Geller. A very smooth introduction: "Uri is a nice Jewish kid interested in fast cars and girls. To Uri, this is life." He described some of the experiments conducted with Geller. One claim was that Uri had once psychically cracked a gold wedding band. The ring was sent to a laboratory for analysis, and the report stated that such a fracture in gold had never been seen before. After about ten minutes of introduction, Puharich explained that Uri had been in Philadelphia for the past two days, working with scientists, and was quite tired. Then, from the back of the room, Geller made his reentrance. He explained what he would try to do, but said that Puharich made everything sound too easy and sometimes he couldn't do anything. He was a charmer.
Uri had been given several pads of paper, and these were passed out. He said he would begin with some telepathy. He pointed to a fellow in the back of the room and asked if he had a pad. He did. He asked him to leave the room and write a two-digit number on his pad. He turned to me and said, "You're with me. I'll try to get the number and send it to you." While the fellow was out of the room he asked Lawrence LeShan, a New York psychologist, to write a two-digit number on his pad. Before Larry did, Uri turned his head away. I was glad to see he wasn't "pencil reading," a standard magicians trick, and I was pretty sure he couldn't hear the scratching of the pencil on the pad. The fellow from the back of the room returned, and Uri told him to send the number, first the first digit and then the second. Uri didn't get anything. He asked the fellow his name and occupation. "Joel Pincus, mathematician." Uri replied, "No wonder I keep getting so many numbers." Everybobdy laughed happily. It had been a fast comeback.
Uri then turned to Larry LeShan and asked him to send the two digits. "Is the first one three?" "Yes." "And the second one four?" "Yes." LeShan held the paper up for all to see.
Back to Joel Pincus. "Is the first number five?" "No, not the first one." "Is the second number five?" "Yes."
Next, Uri said he would draw a figure and send it to a man in the back. Uri drew a house with smoke coming out of the chimney and showed it to some of us in front while the man closed his eyes. The man just couldn't get any message. uri asked if anyone did. No takers.
He would now try for some physical effects. He asked for people to pass up to him metal objects, perhaps a fork. Everyone fell over himself trying to get Uri to use his object. (There was clearly a demand for Uri Geller souvenirs.)
Geller selected a woman's barrette and asked a pretty young thing in the audience to come up to the coffee table and place her hand over the barrette. He asked her if she felt a force "like a field." She did. I was about ten feet from the barrette but couldn't see it under the girl's hand. Geller placed his hands over the girl's, but didn't touch it. They removed their hands but no bending of the metal was evident. Geller decided to try it with a not-so-pretty, not-so-young thing. Again it was a dud.
A fork was requested, and Ebon passed up one he had brought. Another fork and a spoon were brought from the kitchen. Uri asked for yet another fork or spoon which would match one of those he had. He wanted a control against which a bent one could be compared. Ebon's fork was eliminated, and the host's fork was used instead. Uri asked for a fellow from the back to come up. It was Sidney Morgenbesser, a Columbia philosopher. He asked Morgenbesser to place his hand over the spoon. He then placed his hand over, but not touching, Morgenbesser's. I was about five feet away and could see daylight beneath Morgenbesser's cupped hand. The front and back tips of the spoon were just visible. They both removed their hands. Another dud. They tried again, and I could see a bit more of the spoon. Again they removed their hands. A winner.
The spoon was bent! Ooohs and aahs. The spoon was placed on the coffee table for all to see. Uri asked if we could still see it bending. Most said yes. I lined up my eye, the spoon, and the corner of a picture hanging on the far wall. I didn't see the spoon bend and I'm pretty sure it didn't. But had a vote been taken, I would have lost. Uri asked that the spoon be put away somewhere where no one could see it. Then, perhaps, it would really bend more. A watched spoon never bends, and all that.
At this point Judith Skutch, one of Geller's backers, produced a trophy from a session with Uri in her home. A heavy silver spoon bent into a right angle by Uri. She was the envy of all the women present.
Uri asked for some more metal objects. I gave him two metal keys from my office at C.W. Post College. The keys were especially thick, and both were on a ring from my key case. He picked up several objects and tried to psychically bend them, but with no luck. Then he tried my keys under Morgenbesser's hand. No luck. Then he put them on the coffee table, and about ten seconds later he said, "They're bent." One was. I didn't have the keys constantly in sight, but they were in my field of vision. I believe that when Uri put them down both were straight, and before he picked them up, one was bent. The keys were passed around. Geller mentioned to me that maybe in a couple of days the bent one would straighten out. (It didn't.)
The next demonstration was one I had never heard of, Uri asked for broken watches that had all the pieces intact. Obviously several people knew about this, as they had brought broken watches with them. Uri touches the watch with his forefinger, and it starts running. He tried one watch with no success. Then he took one from Alexander Imich, touched it, and it started ticking! He said that even if the watch is unwound it will run for three days. (I later checked with Imich, and he said it ran for about a day.)
Uri was tired, but tried several other things without success. I left the room to get a Coke from a table in the hall. I left several physicists and Uri huddled over the compass. Since I heard no roars of approval, I assumed they didn't have any results of interest. Puharich came in and told his charge it was time to go.
Ebon and I daid our farewells and were about to go. Just before we left, Judith Skutch came over to me and said that Uri would be at her place in about a week, and just the three of us would get together with him. I said, "Great." The meeting never happened, and that night was the last I saw of Uri Geller.
After my encounter with Geller I realized why there is so much controversy over him: what he does seems very much like a magician's act, but no magician can duplicate it under the same conditions. That is, it fails to meet scientific standards, but is not a clear case of fraud.
What is puzzling about Geller is that although he has not been formally tested, he claims he cannot succeed with standard psi tests. If he can really clairvoyantly perceive drawings in envelopes, why won't he do a standard ESP card test and clairvoyantly perceive the five ESP symbols?
It would be a relatively simple matter to administer a DT (down-through) clairvoyance test. The ESP deck consists of twenty-five cards, each having one of five symbols on it's face (star, circle, plus, square, and waves). The cards are shuffled by the experimenter out of sight of the person to be tested and are then placed in their box. The subject then guesses the order in which he believes the cards are stacked. By chance, he should average five hits for each run through the deck, and if the experiment is repeated often enough, the odds against chance can be worked out to see just how well he did. In such a test Geller would not be allowed to handle the cards before the test, nor would he be permitted to touch the cards until after the checkup was completed by the experimenter. Here there would be little chance of fraud, and if he succeeded on a test like this, there would almost certainly be a considerable increase in the number of parapsychologists who take him seriously. In the past quite a few people have scored quite well on tests like these, and if Geller has clairvoyant ability, there is no reason he shouldn't succeed also.
Frequently Geller mentions that he works best with large numbers of people around him. This, of course, is not the best condition under which serious experiments can be conducted. As soon as I walked into the apartment where the session with Uri was to be held and saw all those people, I knew that there could be no serious testing. However, if Geller needs someone to think of a number, there are standard tests for this also, but they would not be done as loosley as at the session described. In a GESP test (general ESP) there is a sender and a receiver in seperate rooms, and no sensory communication between them is permitted. The sender is given a number or symbol randomly selected by the experimenter and is told to try to send it to the receiver. There is no sensory communication until the receiver has indicated his guess. Thus there are no possibilities for watching the tip of a pencil to figure out what the number is. Also there are no possibilities of unconsciously tipping the receiver off, as there was when Joel Pincus said, "No, not the first one," when Geller asked if the first digit was a five. There is no reason these standard, experimentally tight tests couldn't be administered to Geller. It is even surprising that they haven't been. Geller seemingly wants endorsement of the scientific community. Doing well on standard tests is a sure way of getting it.
But Geller's ESP demonstrations aren't the most interesting things he does, and for this reason parapsychologists rarely mention his ESP claims when they discuss him. The ESP demonstrations he gives are too much like routine magic tricks, and the possibility of trickery is great. We have all seen magicians disclose the contents of a sealed envelope, but the don't bend metal the way Uri does.
This apparent PK ability has yet to be conclusively demonstrated under carefully controlled conditions. Why does someone's hand have to be over the object when it is bending? If it is PK, why does Uri have to hold the objects for them to bend? For a conclusive test, the object to be bent would have to be enclosed in a Plexiglass cage or some similar protective covering with no one touching it. Then it would be a simple matter to film the stationary object before, during, and after bending. This has not been done. In any conclusive experiment, Geller should not be permitted to handle the object before testing, as he did in the session I attended. It is suspicious that a duplicate fork was requested (since this allows for the possibility of quickly bending the duplicate and substituting forks), while a duplicate key was not needed. Indeed, just as in a magic show, Geller pretty well calls the shots. He tells people what to hold, when to hold it, and so on. Also, as in a magician's show, Geller seems to carefully manipulate the audiences attention: while we were watching Geller attempt something else, the key bent. Geller then pointed out the amazing fact to us. From what I've heard of other sessions, this is something of a trend. Another pattern that emerges is that often Geller suggests that absolutely fantastic things will occur, but they don't. However, because other interesting things did occur, these claims are forgotten or it is assumed that in other meetings things like that happened. For example, in the session I attended, Geller started the telepathy demonstration by saying that he would perceive the number someone had written and was thinking of, then send it to me, and I would receive it. Had he done this I would have been impressed. But when the demonstration finally got under way, I was completely forgotten (by all but me!). After my key bent, he told me that in a few days it might straighten out. I traced an outline of the key on a piece of paper so that if it did straighten I could compare it with the tracing. I locked both the tracing and the key in my desk drawer. If it straightened, Geller would have had a convert. It didn't. The general trend is that Geller suggests that phenomena will occur under rather tight conditions, but they actually do occur only under looser conditions.
What is needed are experiments in which the experimenters are in control and are sure there is no possibility of fraud. Until then, the controversey will go on.
My bent key had an interesting, if brief, history. One of the students in my parapsychology course at C.W. Post asked about Geller. I told the class of my session with him and the next day brought in the bent key. I passed the key around the class but forgot to collect it at the end of the period. The next day I asked the class if someone had the key. One of the students mentioned that he thought it had been left on the movie projector in the back of the room. The student suggested I check with the audiovisual department to see if they had picked up the key when they collected the projector. I called, and the audiovisual man told me not to worry. He had found the bent key and straightened it for me!
People who have worked with psychics say that it is almost inevitable that any psychics personality should contain some kind of unholy self-regard, areas of confusion, or self-delusion about what they actually did or didn't do, and that the reason psychics usually eke out their unreliable powers by cheating is not merely to keep the audience, but because of their own need to reassure themselves that they've really got the powers. Many of Uri's antics could be read equally well as either pure showbiz or as the behavior of someone who is genuinely freaked by what it seems he can do and by the weird things happening unpredictably around him.
Elsa First, in Changes (June 1973)