On campus (thanks to my advising of the UCO Skeptics) I am known as the resident skeptic of the paranormal/alt-med/psi/all things kooky. This means that I get funneled quite a few folks with, shall we say, unconventional beliefs and personal experiences. This past week, I had a really interesting encounter that I thought might prove instructional to some of you.
It started with an email to my campus address from a fellow we’ll call Jim. Jim had been given my email by one of the administrative assistants in my college when he inquired about any professors who knew about psychic powers. Jim’s email to me started off quite appropriately, giving basically the information you just read. Then, however, things started to get a bit odd. Jim wrote that “I had to contact someone to try and find help. I am not sure how much longer I will be able to hide my abilities from my commanding officers. Can we meet in person?”
Some of you may be surprised by my response, which was essentially “Certainly, when and where?” Part of my job description is to perform service and outreach in the community, and I think this certainly would count as that. Also, I’m a naturally curious person, so I wanted to hear the rest of this fellow’s story.
We met for breakfast the middle of last week. Jim appeared quite nervous initially, although he calmed down a bit once we began talking and I showed I wasn’t there to just call him “crazy” or make fun of him. Turns out, I didn’t even have a chance to think or do either because of how fascinating his story was.
Being in clinical psychology, I tend to be sympathetic towards people suffering from mental illness, be it a mild depressive episode or severe psychosis. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a very wide variety of experiences with people who would qualify for almost every disorder in the DSM, and am quite good at diagnostic work. Although I rely on evidence-based methods to help pin down proper diagnoses, I have enough experience doing structured observations and interviews that I can reliably place people in a broad diagnostic category (e.g., mood or psychotic disorders) fairly easily.
The reason I say this is to forestall any incredulousness you may have when you read the rest of this story. I would stake my reputation on the fact that Jim was not suffering from any mental illness when we met, and did not appear to have suffered from any form of it in the past either. His interactions with me and story did not display any characteristics of paranoia, delusional thinking, or hallucinations. Jim was as sane as you or I (well, as me at least. I’m not sure about you….).
As he began telling me a bit about himself, I learned more and more about what an amazing individual Jim is. An active officer in a branch of the US military, Jim has been a career, top-notch solider for the better part of 30 years. He is a decorated veteran of both Gulf Wars and Afghanistan. He is also, reportedly, “gifted” with both healing and precognitive powers. During our breakfast, Jim described several instances where he had sped up the healing process for one of his fellow combatants or had even stopped someone from bleeding out on the battlefield by applying basic combat medicine plus using his “gifts.” He also gave several examples of his ability to get “glimpses” (his word) into the future, including avoiding certain roads while in Iraq that later turned out to have had IEDs in them.
Obviously, as a scientific skeptic, I was able to discuss with him why I would be doubtful that these were truly psychic powers. We talked about intuition, the confirmation bias, and how people who had their “powers” tested under controlled conditions failed to do any better than chance at various precognitive tasks. Jim asked me what evidence that I personally would have to see to come to believe in psychics, a question I hear somewhat frequently. So, I discussed what it means for me to be a skeptic (keeping an open mind, but not so open that my brain falls out), why we as humans can’t just trust our brains, and how I rely on empiricism and evidence to guide my beliefs and actions.
Jim nodded, seem satisfied, and we chatted for just a few more minutes while the waitress brought us our check. I paid for both meals, and we got up to leave. As we shook hands goodbye, Jim thanked me for being open-minded and willing to discuss these things with him in a frank, honest manner. I did the same and prepared to hop into my truck to go back to the university to teach. Just as I opened my door, Jim called to me. “Dr. Lack! Next week, you are going to have a major life change! Be ready to do something you’ve not had to do in a long, long time!” He smiled and walked to his car.
I smiled as well, recognizing how ridiculous such a statement is and shaking my head. It could mean anything and be interpreted in hundreds or thousands of different ways. For instance, just this past week, I had both a death and a birth in my extended family. I hadn’t had to go to a funeral or attend a birth in quite a while, so those would fit. But, neither was really a “major life change” for me, since they impacted my extended family more than me.
I didn’t really think much more about Jim’s “fortune” for me until I got up this morning. When I stumbled into the bathroom for my morning commune with nature, I felt…different. Something was obviously changed. My head felt heavy, out of balance. I couldn’t see quite as well. It wasn’t until I looked into the mirror that I realized what it was. See, I began shaving my head at age 16 (thanks, early male pattern baldness!) and have kept it shaved ever since (usually cutting it every two-three weeks). Waking up today, though, I saw this:
Jim was right! I had to comb my hair, something I’ve not done in 18 years! Where did this come from? Why now? Personally, I am convinced that Jim’s psychic healing powers allowed him to restore life to my dead follicles, and that allowed him to use his precognitive powers to see that, while it took a few days, my hair would start to regrow. This is indeed a major life change for me! I now have the rock star-like hair of a Steven Pinker! THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING!!!!! CONSEQUENCES WILL NEVER BE THE SAME!!!!!!