SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

Brain Scans and Psychics

by Steven Novella, Dec 23 2013

In a trifecta of pseudoscience, Dr. Oz calls upon Dr. Amen to demonstrate (live on TV) how the Long Island Medium is real.

Where do I begin?

Dr. Oz has long ago abandoned any scientific legitimacy, not to mention self-respect. He has gone from giving basic medical advice, to promoting alternative quackery, and now he is just another daytime TV sellout, gushing over psychics. With Dr. Oz, however, it is all done with a patina of science.

The Medium

Theresa Caputo is just another fake psychic doing bad cold readings before audiences that have more of a desire to believe than apparent critical thinking skills. Her performance on Dr. Oz is fairly typical – she fishes with vague and high probability guesses, working multiple people at once, who then struggle to find some connection to what she is saying.

For example, she tells one mark who is trying to connect with her father, “Your father wants to talk about  the coin collection?” This is a great vague statement. First, it is one of those statements that seems very specific, but in actuality is a high probability vague statement. Anything to do with coins can seem to be a hit, and in the fairly good chance that an older gentleman had a literal coin collection it will seem like a fantastic hit.

In this case, however, the target found a nice face-saving hit. Apparently another psychic told the same person that her father sends her “pennies from heaven.” There you go.

In another segment with Caputo she demonstrates almost a parody of terrible cold reading. She senses a father figure and a daughter figure. She says to an entire audience that someone lost a father and someone lost a daughter. She also goes out on a limb and says – something to do with the chest. Shockingly, someone from the audience steps forward. Caputo then makes two clear misses. She says that she senses the person was lost suddenly. The target clearly indicates this was not the case, at which time Caputo tries to recover by saying that – even when someone is ill, we did not expect to lose them at that exact moment. Right. She then goes for the daughter, which is also a clear miss, leading to that awkward moment when an alleged psychic so thoroughly fails that they struggle to find an escape hatch.

I also found it interesting that when asked about the brain scan test she was about to have, Caputo responded by saying that no matter what the tests show, she just wants to help people. She was seemingly pre-rationalizing for possible failure. Infer from that what you will.

Dr. Daniel Amen

Dr. Amen as made millions of dollars proving SPECT scans for a long list of diagnoses.  SPECT scans use a radioisotope to track blood flow in the brain, which can be used to infer brain activity. The problem with SPECT scan is that there is a tremendous amount of noise in brain activity so you need to be very careful about interpreting the results. There is some utility in looking for dead areas of the brain following a stroke, for example. SPECT has also been used to localize seizures (increased activity during a seizure and then decreased activity following the seizure).

Clinical use of SPECT, however, has been very limited because it is just too noisy. The test often does not have good specificity. Amen is using SPECT for a wide range of indications for which it has not been validated – we do not have data to show that the results of the test can be used to predict confirming diagnostic tests or response to treatment. But SPECT is very useful for generating pretty pictures that seem scientific and can be used to imagine any result you wish.

Harriet Hall wrote an excellent take down of Dr. Amen’s use of SPECT scans at Science-Based Medicine.

Amen has now started using SPECT and other imaging to study psychic phenomena. This is a common marriage – that between noisy and poorly validated testing and pseudoscientific phenomena.

Journey to Oz

Dr. Oz now brings it all together for his audience. He insists that he started as a “skeptic” but clearly he does not understand the first thing about scientific skepticism. The “I was a skeptic” line is just showmanship. Oz calls upon Dr. Amen, whom he calls a foremost expert in brain imaging to demonstrate how the Long Island Medium is real because his BS brain scans show something (what they show is, of course, not clear).

They can’t do a SPECT scan on stage, so they use quantitative EEG instead. This also produces pretty color-added maps of the brain showing relative activity in the different areas of the brain. They show the EEG of Caputo at rest and then while she is doing a reading. Surprise, surprise – the two EEG scans are different. She has less frontal lobe activity and more temporal lobe activity during the reading.

Amen admits this could have multiple interpretations, including simple anxiety (Caputo already admitted to being anxious, and she seemed anxious about this test). I would not even use the test to conclude she was anxious. You can’t tell anything from those scans. It’s just noise. Yet Amen confidently concludes that temporal lobe activity is evidence of spirituality and psychic power. Amen, trying to sound sage, informs us that there is more that is real than scientists believe is real.

Let me rephrase that – bullshit pseudoscience has declared many things real that legitimate science indicates probably are not real.

To summarize – Dr. Oz, acting in his role as chief promoter of pseudoscience on daytime television, calls upon a pseudoscientist to abuse a noisy brain scanning test to certify that a fake psychic is real. Oz gushes, and is a skeptic no more.

Recommended Reading

7 Responses to “Brain Scans and Psychics”

  1. Mark says:

    “I started as a skeptic… but then the producers showed me my ratings…”

    • Bill T. says:

      Next you’re going to try to tell me that the editing out of her misses and concentrating on her apparent hits is evidence of lack of integrity, or some such skeptical malarky. I know it’s real because I don’t understand how she does it.

      • Keith R. says:

        Bill T.: Let me hear that again…”I know it’s real because I don’t understand how she does it.” No. It only appears real therefore you believe it to be so.

      • Carl says:

        Keith: I think you’ll find that Bill was being heavily sarcastic.

  2. RBH says:

    “He insists that he started as a “skeptic” but clearly he does not understand the first thing about scientific skepticism.”

    That’s a species of the old creationist line “I was a teenaged evolutionist.”

  3. Tribeca Mike says:

    “She also goes out on a limb and says – something to do with the chest. ”

    I suspect she was hoping an audience member was in possession of a treasure chest.

  4. Oneyearmuse says:

    I wonder whether Dr. Oz has health insurance or does he use finely split water to cure all his ills?

    People say they want to believe I’d prefer to know. Out of all the words in the English language I really dislike the word ‘believe’ and all its various connotations.