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Testing for X-Ray Vision

Notes on a Strange World

Massimo Polidoro

Volume 34.4, July / August 2010

Some time ago, we received a letter from a woman, R.G., who claimed she can peer inside sealed boxes with some sort of X-ray vision and describe what is inside with a 60 to 70 percent rate of success.

At CICAP, the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, every year we receive a few dozen requests from people claiming to possess some kind of psychic power. Many disappear after we ask for more details. Of those who remain, we almost always find that they are sincere and honest people who really believe they possess the powers they claim. Very rarely does someone try to deceive or cheat us.

Some time ago, we received a letter from a woman, R.G., who claimed she can peer inside sealed boxes with some sort of X-ray vision and describe what is inside with a 60 to 70 percent rate of success. She wanted us to test and verify her powers. In letters and phone calls she explained that we could use any kind of box and any object we liked.

We gladly accepted her proposal and invited her to the University of Pavia, where, with the help of colleagues such as chemist Luigi Garlaschelli and physicist Adalberto Piazzoli, we have often tested psychics.

Once in Pavia, she agreed that the testing situation was ideal, that the people there were not hostile, and that she was confident she would succeed. It is very important to establish this beforehand to prevent excuses if the test fails. She read the protocol for the experiment that we had prepared in advance according to her claims, and she signed it.

No ‘Fitting’ Allowed

We had previously selected twelve objects, each one different from the others in shape, color, and material. These objects were taken to a different room from the one where the test was taking place and randomly numbered from 1 to 12. An experimenter then chose a random number, picked up the corresponding object, wrapped it in paper in order to avoid any clues from sound (the psychic confirmed beforehand that paper didn’t block her visions), put it in a wooden box kept firm by two rubber bands, and finally brought the box within view of R.G. (The experimenter who placed the objects inside the box had to stay away from R.G. in order to avoid any involuntary nonverbal communication.) This procedure took place for each object, and each object was chosen only once.

When R.G. saw the box for the first time, she asked us to remove the rubber bands around it because they could confuse her images. We agreed on the condition that nobody could touch or get close to the box after it was placed on a table.

We then gave R.G. a list of the twelve objects in order to help her decide. She had to concentrate on the box and then indicate on the list the object that best matched her visions. This was done to av­oid “fitting” a general description to more than one object; her vision could match one, and only one, object on the list. If she wished, she could switch one guess for another before the end of the test.

The correct answers would be given only at the end of the session. As usual, we videotaped the whole test.

‘I See Something Square....’

Sitting six feet away from the box with her husband beside her, R.G. concentrated for a few seconds and then described her perceptions: “I see something square... a bit thick... something dark... straight...” She then pointed to the rubber stamp on the list.

The test went on until she reached the last object: “It’s something rigid,” she said. “Straight but... not a cube. It has only one color... looks like a pen, a tube... could be the key.”

At the end of the test, we compared R.G.’s guesses to a list of the objects in the order in which they were presented. Out of twelve objects, she got only one match—exactly what one would expect by chance.

R.G. tried to justify her unsuccessful performance by saying that the conditions (to which she had previously agreed) were not the ones she was accustomed to. She then tried to accommodate her descriptions to the objects actually presented. For example, the object that she had indicated was a key turned out to be a mirror. “Well, I was right after all,” she said. “It was something straight, not a cube and only had one color.” The lady seemed to have forgotten that she also had said the object looked “like a pen, a tube.”

There’s No Place Like Home

We had designed our protocol on the basis of what R.G. said she could do (and in conditions under which she said she could succeed). We had tried to accommodate her needs. However, the failure bothered her, and she insisted that this was not the procedure she used at home. Usually, she said, she needed two series of objects: one for the test, the other to be kept in front of her so that she could compare her visions with a replica of the actual object and not with a word on a list. This was the first time she said something of the kind to us.

So, even though the official test was over, we agreed to perform an informal trial. We looked for twelve double objects in the laboratory and proceeded as before. Again, the result was quite clear: one hit in twelve trials.

Still, R.G. was unconvinced and repeated that, at home, she would usually get six or seven objects out of ten and proceeded to indicate two more differences with our test. At home, her husband could use the same object more than once, and this gave her more freedom of choice. Furthermore, she needed some encouragement; she needed to know if she was right or wrong immediately after her guess.

Some of us were against the idea of performing a new test and changing the protocol again. However, after clearly stating on camera that the test was not to be considered a proper, scientific test and that it was done only as another informal trial, in view of future tests, we decided to try.

Since this demonstration proved to be very quick to prepare, we did twenty-eight trials with a choice of the same seven objects for each trial. R.G. was right on six cases. Even this demonstration was not considered significant (in order to have a minimum of significance, p=0.02, with seven objects and twenty-eight trials, nine to ten hits are re­quired).

At the end of our meeting, we suggested that R.G. repeat the test as we had performed it that day at home. This way, we thought, maybe she would realize that once the possibility of adapting one’s “visions” to the correct object in the box is ruled out, the results can be only random (unless she really possessed psychic powers, obviously). We said that we would invite her back if, following this procedure, she could still obtain a 60 to 70 percent success rate.

A few years have passed now, but we have never heard from her again.

Massimo Polidoro

Massimo Polidoro's photo

Massimo Polidoro is an investigator of the paranormal, author, lecturer, and co-founder and head of CICAP, the Italian skeptics group. His website is at www.massimopolidoro.com.