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.
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.
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 academic-backed media figures who are 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
- Randi, James (1982). The Truth About Uri Geller. Prometheus Books. ISBN 978-0879751999.
- Gardner, Martin (1981). Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus. Prometheus Books. ISBN 0-87975-573-3.
- Benedict Carey (August 11, 2008). "While a Magician Works, the Mind Does the Tricks". The New York Times.
- Emery, C. Eugene, Jr. (1987). "Catching Geller in the Act" (Reprint, hosted by permission). The Providence Sunday Journal. Retrieved 2007-05-30.
- James Randi (October 19, 1993). Secrets of the Psychics (Documentary). NOVA. Event occurs at 5:15. "Of course, it does take a little preparation. In fact, it takes a lot of preparation... Isn't this a more reasonable explanation?"
- "Skeptic Revamps $1M Psychic Prize". Wired. Retrieved June 18, 2008
- Maureen Caudill, 2006: Suddenly Psychic: A Skeptic's Journey, Chapter 7. ISBN 978-1-57174-501-9.