Talking With the Dead

The Secrets of 'Cold Reading'

Primetime gathered a panel of volunteers to test Ian Rowland's "cold reading" technique. ( Primetime)

Communicating with the dead has found a growing television audience in recent years, with nationally syndicated shows like Crossing Over With John Edward and Beyond With James Van Praagh.

The show's hosts claim to be able to connect with the deceased relatives or friends of audience members, and often reveal family stories and details with startling accuracy. In many cases, the audience members believe they have just received a message from their loved one beyond the grave. But, according to Briton Ian Rowland, you may not need psychic powers to convince people they are communicating with the dead just some well-chosen questions and a sensitivity to the audience's reaction.

Rowland says he can produce a similar effect to the TV mediums' shows by using a technique known as "cold reading." He shows how the technique works in a demonstration he has performed around the world.

To test Rowland's claims, Primetime hired him to give his demonstration to an audience of 20 volunteers who had indicated they were open to the possibility of communication with the dead. The volunteers were told it was an experiment to test Rowland's psychic abilities.

Rowland was given no personal information about the audience and had no contact with them beforehand. Nevertheless, he was confident he would be able to convince some of them he was in touch with the dead. "We should be able to come up with information that people connect with which seems to describe people who have died and moved on to the afterlife," he told Primetime's producers.

Common Names, Common Ailments

Rowland started out by saying he was feeling the spirit of an older man with a heart or chest condition. He said the man had a message for somebody: "I'm being shown Michael or M," he told the audience. Sure enough, an audience member called Michael said he had a connection with an older man with a heart or chest condition: his father.

"This is what we call the Russian doll statement," Rowland explained to Primetime afterward. "I start with something as vague as possible, and I'm looking for who will bite. It's a lot like fishing ... If it's not you, your immediate family, your extended family, then it's someone you work with, a friend, used to know, someone you're going to know."

"I know the kind of medical symptoms that are most likely to get people to agree," he went on. "I have lists in my head of the 18 commonest male names, 18 commonest female names that have been registered in the United States for the last 45 years."

Casting a Wide Net

When Rowland brought up the name Karen later in the session, it resonated with an audience member whose cousin had had a granddaughter named Karen. He also predicted accurately that the audience member knew someone who was in the process of moving.

Both connections were pretty general, but then, seemingly out of nowhere, Rowland asked the audience member if she had a calendar or a wall chart at home that was out of date. Astonished, the woman confessed that her relative had given her a fabric calendar that she still had.

But Rowland later explained that it is not uncommon for families to have an out-of-date calendar in the house. "There are certain things and I have a list of about 18 of them in my head that tend to come up in most people's families," he said, such as a box of old photos or a broken appliance that has still not been thrown out.

Another technique Rowland uses is to throw out many questions and possibilities, in the hope that one will make a hit. "It's not necessarily about getting right, right, right, hit, hit, hit.... You capitalize off the things that are working. And the others, you let them wither gently to one side," he said.

Audience Members Say It's Real for Them

At the end of the session, Rowland told the audience he does not believe he has any psychic ability, and that he was doing a cold reading to convince them they were in touch with their relatives. "What I was doing tonight, if ... a link was achieved, I think that's real for you. And I'm not going to say otherwise," he said, adding, "I'm not sure it was real for me."

Some of the audience members said Rowland's display did not diminish their faith in the readings he had just given them, or in psychic communication in general. "To me it doesn't matter, because I believe we get the signs we need in the way we need them," said one man. "And if you're cold reading or really talking to the other side, as long as I got a sign to me that made it feel real, my hope that it was real will make it real."

Rowland says his mission is to educate people about techniques like cold reading so they can make a more informed decision on whether to believe claims of psychic ability. "If they read about it, find out about it, it just might change their whole view of this psychic industry," he said.