The Fraud of Psychic Surgery


The paranormal has long been accepted by prominent thinkers and philosophers of humanity as existing alongside with material reality. And yet sometimes concepts and activities associated with the paranormal can go to absurd and clearly impossible lengths – one such is the idea of psychic surgery which is now constitutes medical fraud in many countries.

What is psychic surgery?

Psychic surgery is the use of paranormal means to conduct an alleged invasive medical procedure. The process involves the alleged creation of an incision using only the bare hands, the removal of pathological matter, and the spontaneous healing of the incision.

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Though the exact procedure of psychic surgery would differ according to the tradition and practitioner, the basic premise is that this kind of surgery is performed without the use of any surgical instruments. The practitioner begins by pressing the tips of his/her fingers against the patient's skin in the area to be treated; the practitioner's hands then appear to penetrate into the patient's body painlessly and blood seems to flow. This is followed by the practitioner showing organic matter or foreign objects apparently removed from the patient's body,  cleaning the area and the procedure ends with the patient's skin showing no wounds or scars.

History of Psychic Surgery

Psychic surgery first appeared in the middle of the 20th century in the Spiritualist communities of the Philippines and Brazil. In the latter, psychic surgery was either associated with Kardecism in which the practitioner claimed to be performing their operations merely as channels for spirits of deceased medical doctors or with Umbanda, a shamanic ritualistic religion with mediumistic overtones inherited from the African slaves brought to the country in colonial times.

In the Philippines, the earliest mention of the procedure is from the 1940s, when it was performed by Eleuterio Terte. Terte and his pupil Tony Agpaoa who were associated with The Christian Spiritist Union of the Philippines. Yet another name associated with psychic surgery in the Philippines was that of Alex Orbito, who became famous in America through his association with actress Shirley McLain. The procedure received even wider press when in March 1984 entertainer Andy Kaufman, diagnosed with large cell carcinoma, traveled to the Philippines for a course of psychic surgery which was performed by practitioner Jun Labo. However only two months later, in May 1984, Kaufman died from renal failure as consequence of a metastatic lung cancer.

Psychic Surgery as Fraud

The above incident of Andy Kaufman confirmed a long-standing belief of the rationalists – that psychic surgery is nothing but fraud. Canadian skeptic and stage magician James Randi has declared that psychic surgery is a confidence trick. In fact Randi has himself replicated the appearance of psychic surgery through the use of sleight-of-hand deception method. According to Randi, in psychic surgical procedure, the healer begins by slightly rolling or pinching the skin over the area to be treated. When his flattened hand reaches under the roll of skin, it looks and feels as if the practitioner is actually entering into the patient's body. The healer would have prepared in advance small pellets or bags of animal entrails which would be palmed in his hand or hidden beneath the table within easy reach. This organic matter would simulate the "diseased" tissue that the healer would claim to be removing. If the healer wants to simulate bleeding, he might squeeze a bladder of animal blood or an impregnated sponge. If done properly, this procedure may deceive patients and observers, alike.

Other professional magicians like Milbourne Christopher and Robert Gurtler have also corroborated the use of sleight of hand in psychic surgery. Also illusionist Criss Angel performed "Psychic Surgery,"  on his A&E show Mindfreak in the episode "Sucker," showing first-hand how it may be done. In fact, according to a 1990 publication of the CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians1 Two "psychic surgeons" provided testimony in a Federal Trade Commission trial that, to their knowledge, the organic matter supposedly removed from the patients usually consists of animal tissue and clotted blood.

Many societies in the world have outlawed psychic surgery or at least have issued official announcements underlining the fraudulent nature of the procedure. In 1975, the Federal Trade Commission of the US government declared that "'psychic surgery' "is nothing but a total hoax"2 Judge Daniel H. Hanscom, when granting the FTC an injunction against travel agencies promoting psychic surgery tours, declared: "Psychic surgery is pure and unmitigated fakery. The 'surgical operations' of psychic surgeons ... With their bare hands are simply phony”. In 1990, the American Cancer Society stated in the above-mentioned CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians that “it found no evidence that "psychic surgery" results in objective benefit in the treatment of any medical condition, and strongly urged individuals who are ill not to seek treatment by psychic surgery”.

at its most extreme, some practitioners of psychic surgery may actually perform incisions in the patient to create an element of authenticity. One incident relates to well-known Brazilian "surgeon" João de Faria who has featured in the Oprah Winfrey Show, “Do you believe in Miracles?”3 and has been reported to cut his victims' skin with an unsterilized scalpel to heighten the illusion. Another Brazilian psychic healer who routinely practiced psychic surgery with surgical instruments was Zé Arigó. He claimed to be channeling for a deceased medical doctor of name Dr. Fritz and unlike most other psychic healers, who work bare-handed, Arigó used a non surgical blade. Psychic surgeries involving real incisions is especially common in regions of the world where belief in evil spirits is prevalent in which case, practitioners will sometimes exhibit objects, such as glass, explaining that the foreign bodies were placed in the patient's body by evil spirits. Even though most instances of psychic surgery may not be directly hazardous to a patient since they are not actually surgery at all, the real danger lies in the patient delaying or foregoing delaying conventional medical help, sometimes even with fatal consequences.


  1. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, Volume 40, Issue 3, pages 184–188, May/June 1990
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