There are plenty of odd pseudoscientific health practices out there, but psychic surgery kicks it up to a whole new level of weird.
Psychic surgery isn’t like what happens in an operating room; it’s more like what happens on a magician’s stage. Sleight of hand, fake blood, and animal parts are used to make the patient think that they’ve had surgery. Sometimes other foreign bodies are “removed” from the patient to demonstrate the presence of evil spirits.
The practice first turned up in the mid-1900s in Spiritualist communities in Brazil and the Philippines. The basic premise of Spiritualism is that the spirits of the dead are able to communicate with the living, including providing guidance (including surgical advice, apparently).
In 1971, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission sought an injunction against travel agencies that were booking psychic surgery tours. The FTC described psychic surgery as a “total hoax.” The judge concluded that the practice was “pure fakery” and an “egregious fraud.”
An article by my local Cancer Agency states:
“The legitimacy of psychic surgery operations is irrelevant to the surgeons. They say the dramatic operations give patients more confidence and faith in the healing, and is no different, or more morally wrong than a western doctor prescribing a placebo.”
The American Cancer Society has concluded psychic surgery involves trickery and sleight of hand, and has been never shown to cure or otherwise treat a patient with cancer, and strongly advises against it.
Comedian Andy Kaufman underwent a series of psychic surgeries in the Philippines to try to treat his metastatic lung cancer. It didn’t work out so well for him, and he died a short time later from cancer-related complications.
A Brazilian man calling himself John of God claimed to be a medium and performed psychic surgeries along with his spirit guides. If patients wished, he would perform “visible” surgeries, which involved things like inserting scissors deep into the patient’s nose (sounds kind of like lobotomy lite). Instead of anaesthetic, the patient was given “energized water” and spiritual energy provided by volunteers meditating in another room.
John of God appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show, and he was featured on Oprah’s Next Chapter. In 2018, the sexual abuse allegations began rolling in, and he’ll be spending the rest of his life in prison.
How powerful is placebo?
Placebo is a powerful thing. Exactly how it works is unclear, but what is known is that the patient needs to believe that they’re getting something that’s reasonably likely to work in order for them to benefit from the placebo effect. My guess is that out in the rural areas of the Philippines and Brazil, the level of education isn’t particularly high, and if psychic surgery is consistent with people’s spiritual beliefs, people may be able to get some placebo effect benefit.
But the placebo effect has limitations. For people with cancer, the placebo effect may have some symptomatic benefits, but the tumour’s still there. And if the cancer is metastatic, it’s gone well beyond just a tumour. No fake surgery or other placebo is going to change that. And if psychic surgery practitioners are claiming to be taking out tumours, that starts to cross the line from quacky to dangerous.
And if you want chicken livers pulled out of your belly button, you’re probably better off just doing it at home.
- Unproven methods of cancer management: “Psychic surgery”. (1990). CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 40: 184-188.
- BC Cancer Agency (1990): Psychic surgery
- Wikipedia: João Teixeira de Faria
- Wikipedia: Psychic surgery
The Science Corner has info on media & research literacy, fake news, public health, and debunking pseudoscience.