Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Psychic Caricaturists?

Those that know me know I'm a skeptic. I try, in my little way, to research claims, to fight pseudoscience, and to warn my friends when they're falling for it. Psychics are definitely in that "enemy" category for skeptics. So-called mediums and fortune-tellers have bilked tons of money off the less skeptical populace, and in between the 15-minute phone readings she offered for $700, Sylvia Browne was repeatedly called out for making false claims that, sadly, ended police searches for kids that were (against Sylvia's "visions"of their demise) still alive and in need of rescue. There are often psychics working alongside me at parties, plying a far less dangerous version of their arts with that little sign "for entertainment purposes only," giving tarot readings or palmistry or just standard cold readings. While I don't subscribe to actual psychic powers existing, I do fully appreciate the power of observation. Sometimes observing just one detail can give you an edge. And in that regard, many caricature artists have that power. Sometimes we are accused of having a tinge of the supernatural about us.

My college fortune-teller costume was WAY hotter than
this. At least I'm going to tell myself that. 
In college once I was handed an opportunity that I just couldn't resist. I was at a frat house dressed as a gypsy fortune-teller (no, this is not the start of a bad joke; it was a Halloween party and that was a pretty simple Halloween costume to throw together between mid-terms). I was introduced to a guy, I said hello, and then pretended to get a premonition: I told him that his mother was thinking of him, I could see her, in the kitchen, her name was Jeannie. He FAH-REAKED. How could I possibly know that? He didn't know me, never met me before! No one at the party knew his mother's name! The poor guy was really getting stressed about this "power" I had displayed, so I finally let him off the hook later on that night. Two weeks prior, I had overheard him hitting on my friend Jeannie at a different party. He'd been drunk and prattling on about how it would never work because his mom was named Jeannie, and things would be weird, blah blah blah, drunk stuff, etc. One little tidbit of remembered information is all I'd used. He shook my hand and thanked me for the best Halloween freak-out he'd ever had.

People seem eager to ascribe something more mystical to regular old memory and observation. Especially to artists, I notice. We do something that most people do not understand. We "capture essence" and have a special way of "seeing" that transcends normal vision (according to the mystified, easily impressed tourists who talk to me at the booth, anyway). 

I had never dated a caricature artist before Robert (he's my husband and partner at Two Heads Studios, but I think all of you know that). Ten or eleven years ago, early in our relationship, we attended a wedding together and were seated amid a bunch of other folks around our age. Not knowing anyone at the table, we made small talk and the conversation turned to jobs; to the medical students and young business professionals, we were certainly the object of curiosity.

"Can you tell a lot about a person as you draw them? Like, can you 'read' people?" one young lady asked.

"Sort of," Robert said. He told them you could indeed guess things about a person based on their facial muscles and how they used them. And then, with a mix of charm and observation, he went around the table and pointed out a few little things. "Like your date, he is young but has a furrowed brow, with some lines forming already. It looks like he has engaged in a lot of intense concentration over the years. I'll bet he's studious and quite serious about what he's studying, like a brain surgeon or something."

"OH MY GOD, yes! That's crazy, how did you know!? He's studying to be a neurosurgeon! And he IS very serious! TOO serious!" his date squealed. The surgeon-to-be nodded. Rob had hit the mark, and even had the luck to guess the young man's specialty.

"And you, you smile a lot," Rob went on. "I can tell by the muscles around your smile that it seems to come naturally to you, you're not straining or trying to be social, it's just who you are. And your eyes have been all around the room in the short time we've been sitting here. I'll bet you are a bit of a social butterfly, and maybe your friends even accuse you of being--dare I say--nosy from time to time?"

The old pseudoscience of physiognomy (matching character traits with
facial features) was likely launched by the same sort of observations Rob
was making at this wedding--but boy did physignomists get out of control,
categorizing everything from sensual appetite to "Aquasorbitiveness" (affinity
for water) based on facial traits. Maybe that whole topic is
 for another blogpost . . . 
Her friends erupted into laughter. "Yes! That is SO HER!" She looked amazed.

The table of wedding guests delighted at Robert's "powers" of observation--and I was impressed too. He went around the table and made vague but surprisingly applicable "predictions" about what each person was like, and they reacted like typical customers at a psychic cold reading . . . feeding him clues without realizing it, emphasizing whatever was correct in Robert's statements while shoving aside anything that might be wrong. And they truly seemed to feel like he had taken a look into their very soul that evening. He hadn't. He was observing facial, behavioral, and verbal cues. More Sherlock than Sylvia. I cannot say whether what Rob was doing could be considered a "hot reading" (like my story about the frat boy, where a piece of information is known beforehand), or a "cold reading" (where one fishes around to get vague predictions that are then confirmed by an eager recipient), or some mixture of both. He was observing, though, and that's what made it work.

These are the same "powers" that amaze and delight our patrons when they say "you captured his personality!" No, we didn't. We captured his expression. The subject's loved ones just read his expression as his "personality" and think we have some tricky way of knowing him, as a person, from sitting in front of us. And I guess we do. We look at expressions and behavioral cues! A kid folds his arms and pouts, we draw them that way, and the mom says "how did you KNOW he does that all the time??!" Uh, because he's doing it now. And he was doing it for 75% of the time he's been sitting in front of me. It doesn't take a psychic.

These "powers" of observation are in operation all the time, even subconsciously. When an overt douchebag approaches the booth, don't we all get that Sherlock Holmes thing going on as we assess whether we really want to draw this person or not? Don't we summarize the visual and behavioral cues and come to a prediction of what kind of pain in the ass we will be dealing with? I know I do.

Over the years, drawing so many people and chatting with them while you draw, you DO get a feel for reading people, and you also get a feel for numbers. I sometimes go out on a limb and ask if someone is a teacher or a police officer. Both those professions are pretty ubiquitous, there are a LOT of teachers and a LOT of cops. So you have a high chance of guessing right just because of the numbers. But guys who have short haircuts, no facial hair, are in shape, and have that "serious" look . . . trust me, ask guys like that if they're cops and more often than not, you'll be right. And if the cop is with a sweet gal who doesn't have visible tattoos and looks conservative, ask if she's a teacher. If you get BOTH guesses right, they will really think you're psychic. I've done that before, it's pretty awesome. And if you are wrong, no harm done, just say "you look so trustworthy, I was just guessing."

Sometimes things--really uncanny things--just end up making you look psychic by chance. I was drawing once at a holiday breakfast event at some department store, and my instructions were to draw in black and white with a color stripe (I had some primary color markers with me to throw that "splash" of colored line in), and I also had to draw each kid with a toy. I didn't have to ask WHAT toy, I was going fast and just threw in teddy bears and toy trucks and dollies, whatever I saw fit. Well, I drew this three-year-old and threw in a toy airplane, and then I grabbed my red & blue marker and threw stripes on his shirt and then a red and blue stripe on the airplane.

His mother gasped and said "OH MY GOD HOW DID YOU KNOW?"

"How did I know what?" I was a little taken off guard, she was really kind of loud and seemed shaken. She explained that the youngster's father was a pilot for American Airlines (you know, the planes with the red and blue stripes across the side). How could I possibly have just drawn an airplane--an American Airlines airplane--by chance??? She was stunned. I just shrugged and said it was a wild coincidence, he kinda looked like a kid who would like planes (who doesn't?) and I had red and blue markers with me. She told me I was psychic, and would NOT be told otherwise. It could not have been a coincidence.

Well, after drawing hundreds of thousands of these things, I'm pretty sure it was a coincidence. One-in-a-million things do indeed happen, especially if you do a thing a million times. Oh well, at least I know she probably still has that drawing, and has probably told a bunch of people her story about "the psychic artist" who drew her son.

Mind you, this is a power we should be using, all the time. If you can capture a kid (or an adult, or anyone) better by throwing in something you can just tell about their personality, do it! If you can make small talk with a couple by guessing their professions, do it! It's our job to be charming and show people a side of themselves they might get a kick out of seeing reflected back at them.

I could see some caricature artists, or just some observant people, falling into the trap of letting themselves believe they do have some kind of special power. The human mind is prone to remembering hits far better than misses (that's why I keep golfing . . . I remember the ONE good shot and easily forget the eighty-seven lousy ones I made over the course of a game). It takes careful consideration to not let the lure of feeling special get to you, but it does no one favors to start thinking that way.

Randi is a very accessible hero. I've met him several times,
 and he's so gracious about posing for photos with fans.
Or worse, there are observant people who sometimes become psychics by trade and, knowing full well they are conning people, bilk them out of money or thoughtlessly ply their emotions or even their health. Magician and MacArthur Genius James Randi is one of my heroes, and he has made a career--a very long and storied career--out of investigating and exposing frauds like Sylvia Browne. He has taken down Uri Geller, Peter Popoff and many more . . . but always in the interest of being an investigator over simply a "debunker." The James Randi Educational Foundation has offered (and still offers) a million-dollar reward for any testable proof of the supernatural. Psychics have tried for decades and failed year after year. No knowing con-artists ever try for it (Sylvia was invited, and accepted the invitation on live TV, then failed to show up). The hopeful folks who do show up are always stymied as to how their powers just seem to disappear when certain parameters are set up. When things are being observed, even unconsciously, and you blind for that in a test, the effect goes away.

If Randi were to test me and see if I could guess, at a rate substantially above chance, whether someone was a teacher or a cop, he'd find out I had no special power to do so.

But if you ever meet someone who thinks they do have that special something, direct them to the JREF, and tell them to get that prize. If they really have something never before demonstrated, there would be a couple Nobel prizes to follow, no doubt.


  1. Didn't realize guitar-shaped drinks were a thing, heh.

  2. Very true - it's not psychic ability, just observation at a higher level.

    After some 100 thousand caricatures, I have definitely increased my powers of observation and hopefully that practiced ability continues to improve, bit by bit, just like my art skills. Just recently at a wedding I opined that a fellow looked every bit the athlete and perhaps played some sport requiring sturdiness, uh, rugby, maybe? And sure enough, he used to be a rugby player a decade or so ago... Observing details that others might miss is definitely a fun perk of drawing for a living - I'm sure that is one reason I never worry about "burning out" of drawing caricatures, because I enjoy games of logic and guessing and I always have... It was a singular "London" pronunciation that gave me the idea.

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