In Search Of… S01E13 Teaching ESP

Teaching ESP

It's a logical day in the neighbourhood...
It's a logical day in the neighborhood...

We open with Apollo astronauts on the Moon, because of course we do. We're told that the lunar astronauts experienced unusual perceptions during their journeys, and that astronaut Edgar Mitchel tried to send telepathic images from the Moon to the Earth in 1971. We are told that the chance of his results being accidental are quite low.

Cut to Nimoy at a table with a bunch of kids using Zenner cards, for testing telepathic powers. All of a sudden, I find myself switching from scepticism to jealousy. Why didn't I get to play 'psychic guess the card' with Nimoy? I'm not much younger than the kids in the story would have been.

Then it hits me: Nimoy has broken the fourth wall. In a documentary. He's no longer standing back and pontificating about his subject, he's actually out there with it! It's a desperately weird thing, and I don't think that its something this series does often.

Oh, and there was some stuff there about testing ESP and it being real and teachable, but I saw that coming. Nimoy actually interacting is what gets me.

And then there's an adorable scene where Nimoy, out of his suit and in a kid-friendly sweater, sitting at this table with a bunch of kids and playing question-and-answer about ESP with them. Why wasn't this a show? Psychic School with Leonard Nimoy? I would have watched the hell out of it! He explains senses, and extrasensory perception.  We're told that the kids came from LA public schools and were selected on the basis of their enthusiasm for the experiment.

Lucky sods!

And then he gets out the testing cards and these lucky brats get to try to mind-meld with friggin' Spock.

Yeah, he explains the use of the cards in testing ESP, but I don't care. The green-eyed monster is clawing at my inner child. Some of the kids did ok in the tests, blah blah. The test seems like a wash. Some of the kids who did ok on the first run through did less well on the second and vice versa, just what you'd expect from chance. A third test was improvised (!) to see if these trends would continue.

It doesn't seem very scientific or convincing to me, but Nimoy is so goddamn charming I just don't care. One of the kids does get a bunch of correct guesses in a row, Nimoy declares that a psychic connection exists.

I've often wondered how much Nimoy actually believes in the premises of these shows. From his unscripted interaction with the kids, it does he does like he has some belief in ESP. He claims that the one kid's increasing successes show that he was learning as he went. He compares learning ESP to learning music – something some people are prodigies at while others have to practice hard.

We go to what I guess is a psychic convention? It's not clear. It is clear that there are a lot of wing collars and safari suits on show. We're shown this guy with a beard, long hair and a white suit open at the collar, like '70s Jesus. His son bends a spoon. If I live to be a million, I will never know why that trick is supposed to be impressive. Even if it's real, the take away message is 'mystical psychic powers let you do some completely trivial nonsense' but it still gets a round of applause.

We go to a farm in Virginia, where a science experiment is performed by trained scientists… Ha ha, no, the massive bank of old-timey electronics is being operated by the 'retired businessman' who owns the place. He and his assistant are attempting to teach people to have out-of-body experiences. We cut away from this quickly, without having learned much.

We're assured that similar work is being done at the University of Virginia, but before we can as 'what work?' we're in New York at the American Institute for Psychical Research. A guy who looks like he got lost on his way to the disco is put in an 'insulated cage' which looks a lot like a normal looking room to me.  He attempts to use clairvoyance to see into another room. We are shown one correct guess on his part, and told that his powers come from years of training at a number of institutions.

And then the University of California's Davis campus. A psychologist, Dr Charles Tart, tells us that we don't know anything about ESP except that it is the transfer of information in a way that doesn't seem to follow the known laws of physics. All we can do, he says, is observe it and hope it starts to make sense.

Tart attempts to teach a young woman in a bell-bottom pantsuit, a film blouse and cork soled sandals to pick up ESP impressions, using something that looks like… Uh, if you were around in the '80s, it looks like a bigger, more boring version of the game 'Simon'. If you weren't, it’s a circle with a bunch of lights on it. One light is chosen randomly by machine, and as the woman moves her hand around the circle, Dr Tart tries to psychically get her to stop on the selected one.

The woman seems a little underwhelmed by the process. Anyway, she moves her hand around the circle while Dr Tart tries to tell her when to stop. It's a little creepy, honestly. It's almost like he's trying to operate her hand by remote control. Then he gives a little speech, while sitting in an office chair, holding a model of a brain, about whether ESP suggests something spiritual about the brain, but I'm a little distracted by his greasy mullet and pocket protector.

And now stone heads in Bolivia. Because it's In Search Of... That's why. A psychic has come here from the campus (and the faculty? Not clear) of Duke University. An explorer sent for her, apparently. She believes that the architects of the Bolivian ruins had psychic powers. She blathers a little about energy lines, then Nimoy explains that she believes that the civilization died out because the people turned their psychic powers against each other, a weird and irrelevant ending.

It's a fairly typical In Search Of… episode. Some weird ideas are raised, not explored very well, and dropped as we run on to the next thing. Having said that, I kind of like the premise this week. I'm not a believer in psychic powers. I think people like the idea as a quick way to being something special and exotic. But this episode takes that rather selfish view and democratises it. Of course you could be psychic, it says. Couldn't everyone?

No, not really. But it's a lovely thought.

Best line:

Not many standout lines this time.

Nimoy: "How could a civilization with advanced psychic skill have vanished without a trace?"

Many years later, Nimoy would watch 2009's Star Trek, and that question would be answered.

Summing up:

Sticking with subject long enough to learn something: 2/10. Awesome premise for children's show: 10/10.  Tangenial ending: 10/10. '70s fashion: 8/10. Slightest proof any of these tests established anything: 1/10.

Overall: 31/50. Pass.

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