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What is Psychic Surgery?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Psychic surgery is the process of a person performing surgery on a patient without the use of surgical tools and apparently removing harmful biological matter with his or her bare hands. The operation is considered to be performed through miraculous abilities of the psychic surgeon, who often claims to perform such operations under the directions of a divine entity or spirits. Though the practice rose to prominence in the Philippines and Brazil in the mid 1900s, it has since been criticized as a form of fraud, and several stage magicians have decried psychic surgery as nothing more than a sleight of hand trick.

Practiced by residents of small communities in the Philippines and Brazil, often with ties to local religious movements or ancestral shamanistic practices, psychic surgery came into worldwide view due to its depiction in several movies and television programs. A psychic surgeon claims to use divine abilities to miraculously push his or her hands into another person’s body, and physically remove the tissue causing the patient’s illness. In some situations, the surgeon may claim that what is removed is instead a physical manifestation of the illness or a foreign substance placed there by malicious spirits.

Critics of the practice, and numerous stage magicians, have instead suggested that psychic surgery is performed through a little preparation and sleight of hand. A psychic surgeon, critics claim, simply prepares a small packet of animal parts and blood and palms the packet in his or her hand. While performing surgery, the surgeon rubs the area of the patient’s body, then pinches or folds the skin in the area slightly, before pushing his or her hand against the area.

By bending his or her hand, the psychic surgeon makes it appear like the hand has entered the patient’s body, and the pressure makes a patient feel as though the fingers are penetrating the skin. The illusion is completed by the surgeon breaking the small pouch, releasing the animal blood, and seemingly pulling the animal parts out of the patient, though the surgeon is actually just pulling it from his or her own hand. In this way, psychic surgery is simply a matter of misdirection, and opponents of the procedure claim that any physical benefits received are little more than a placebo effect.

The United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has condemned the practice of psychic surgery and declared it a hoax perpetrated upon the sick and desperate. The FTC similarly granted an injunction against travel agencies that sold packages to customers promoting psychic surgery and the performances of surgeons. Psychic surgery has been similarly disparaged by the American Cancer Society and British Columbia Cancer Society. Both organizations have criticized the practice for taking people away from treatments that could help them and providing false hope and defrauding those who are ill.

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