Spoon bending is the apparent deformation of objects, especially metal cutlery, either without physical force, or with less force than normally necessary. It is a common form of stage magic, and a variety of methods are used to produce the illusion.
Spoon bending attracted considerable media attention in the 1970s when some people claimed to have the ability to cause such events by paranormal psychic means. The most notable was Uri Geller, who performed by bending metal spoons as well as metal keys and several other objects and materials. Geller's performances were attributed to stage magic by critics such as James Randi and Martin Gardner.
Causing spoons, keys, and other items to appear to bend without any physical force is a common stage magic trick that has many variants. An article in The New York Times profiled the neuroscience connections of stage magic and perception. In the article, science reporter Benedict Carey explained what experts who authored a paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience on the neuroscience of magic tricks had to say about spoon bending:
Any 7-year-old can fool her younger brother by holding the neck of a spoon and rapidly tilting it back and forth, like a mini teeter-totter gone haywire. The spoon appears curved, because of cells in the visual cortex called end-stopped neurons, which perceive both motion and the boundaries of objects, the authors write. The end-stopped neurons respond differently from other motion-sensing cells, and this slight differential warps the estimation of where the edges of the spoon are.
When the result is a single bend or break, it is usually at the point where the object would be easiest to bend by hand. In many cases, the trick uses misdirection, a basic tool of the stage magician. The performer draws the audience's attention away from the spoon during the brief moment while the spoon is being physically bent. The typical bend, where the bowl meets the handle, requires relatively little force. The magician then gradually reveals the bend.
Other methods use a metal spoon that has been prepared so that a simple flick will cause it to bend or break. This can be done, for instance, by repeatedly bending the spoon at the desired spot, until the metal cracks and weakens. If the spoon breaks, the magician holds together the two halves of the spoon as if it were unbroken, then slowly relaxes the grip, making the spoon appear to bend before splitting in two.
If a magician has control over the viewing angle, the trick can be done by using a spoon that is already bent at the start of the trick. The spoon is initially held with the bend along the viewing angle, making it invisible. The magician then turns the spoon slowly to reveal the bend. The magician Ben Harris author of the book Gellerism Revealed: The Psychology and Methodology Behind the Geller Effect (1985) revealed step-by-step photographs and text showing how to bend keys and cutlery by trick methods.
Some novelty or magic shops sell self-bending spoons (utilizing the physical properties of a nickel titanium alloy) which can be used by amateur and stage magicians to demonstrate "psychic" powers or as a practical joke. Such "self-bending" spoons will bend themselves when used to stir tea, coffee, or any other warm liquid, or even when warmed by body heat.
In an experimental study (Wiseman and Greening, 2005) two groups of participants were shown a videotape in which a fake psychic placed a bent key on a table. Participants in the first group heard the fake psychic suggest that the key was continuing to bend when it had remained stationary, whilst those in the second group did not. The results revealed that participants from the first group reported significantly more movement of the key than the second group. The findings were replicated in another study. The experiments had demonstrated that "testimony for PKMB after effects can be created by verbal suggestion, and therefore the testimony from individuals who have observed allegedly genuine demonstrations of such effects should not be seen as strong evidence in support of the paranormal".
Spoon bending and the paranormal
Due partly to the publicity surrounding Uri Geller in the 1970s, bent spoons have become a common visual symbol of the paranormal. It is shown, for example, in The Matrix, when a young boy bends a spoon to demonstrate the unreality of a computer simulation.
While many individuals have claimed the paranormal or psychokinetic ability to bend spoons or manipulate other objects, spoon bending by mental powers alone has not been demonstrated to the satisfaction of the scientific community. Magician and skeptic James Randi has offered a prize of one million dollars to any person who is able to demonstrate paranormal abilities such as spoon bending.
I looked down. My spoon had begun to bend. I hadn't even realized. The metal was completely pliable, like soft plastic. It wasn't particularly hot, either, just slightly warm. ... I had bent a spoon, and I knew it wasn't a trick. I looked around the room and saw little children, eight or nine years old, bending large metal bars. They weren't trying to trick anybody.— Michael Crichton, Travels, 1988, pages 319–320
Parapsychologist and author Dean Radin has reported that he was able to bend the bowl of a spoon over with unexplained ease of force with witnesses present at an informal PK experiment gathering in 2000.
I was much more skeptical about such claims until one day I personally folded the bowl of a large, heavy soup spoon in half with a gentle touch, and with half a dozen witnesses present. I later tested to see if I could do this again with a similar spoon using ordinary force. I couldn't budge the bowl without the assistance of two pairs of pliars and some serious leverage.— Dean Radin, Entangled Minds, page 331
The physicist John Hasted believed that children could paranormally bend paperclips inside a glass sphere, provided the sphere had a hole in it and were allowed to take the sphere into a room unobserved. Martin Gardner wrote Hasted was incapable of devising simple controls such as videotaping the children secretly. Stephen North a British psychic was tested by Hasted in the late 1970s. Hasted claimed North had the psychokinetic ability to bend spoons and teleport objects in and out of sealed containers. North was tested in Grenoble on 19 December, 1977 in scientific conditions and the results were negative. According to James Randi during a test at Birkbeck College North was observed to have bent a metal sample with his bare hands. Randi wrote "I find it unfortunate that [Hasted] never had an epiphany in which he was able to recognize just how thoughtless, cruel, and predatory were the acts perpetrated on him by fakers who took advantage of his naivety and trust."
Jean-Pierre Girard a French psychic has claimed he can bend metal bars by PK. Girard was tested in the 1970s but failed to produce any paranormal effects in scientifically controlled conditions. He was tested on January 19th, 1977 during a two-hour experiment in a Paris laboratory. The experiment was directed by the physicist Yves Farge with a magician also present. All of the experiments were negative as Girard failed to make any of the objects move paranormally. He failed two tests in Grenoble in June 1977 with James Randi. He was also tested on September 24, 1977 at a laboratory at the Nuclear Research Centre. Girard failed to bend any bars or change the structure of the metals. Other experiments into spoon bending were also negative and witnesses described his feats as fraudulent. Girard later admitted that he would sometimes cheat to avoid disappointing the public but insisted he still had genuine psychic power. Magicians and scientists have written that he produced all his alleged psychokinetic feats through fraudulent means.
Between 1979 and 1981, the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research at Washington University reported a series of experiments they named Project Alpha, in which two teenaged male subjects had demonstrated PK phenomena (including metal-bending and causing images to appear on film) under less than stringent laboratory conditions. James Randi eventually revealed that the subjects were two of his associates, amateur conjurers Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards. The pair had created the effects by standard trickery, but the researchers, being unfamiliar with magic techniques, interpreted them as proof of PK.
John Taylor had tested children in metal bending. According to Martin Gardner the controls were inadequate as the children would put paper clips in their pockets and later take one out twisted or be left with metal rods unobserved. James Randi managed to bend an aluminum bar when Taylor was not looking and scratch on it "Bent by Randi". In other experiments two scientists from Bath University examined metal bending with children in a room which was secretly being videotaped through a one-way mirror. The film revealed that the children bent the objects with their hands and feet. Due to the evidence of trickery, Taylor concluded metal bending had no paranormal basis.
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