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Psychic surgery is a procedure typically involving the apparent creation of an incision using only the bare hands, the apparent removal of pathological matter, and the seemingly spontaneous healing of the incision.

Psychic surgery has been condemned in many countries as a form of medical fraud. It has been denounced by the USmarker Federal Trade Commission as a "total hoax", and the American Cancer Society maintains that psychic surgery may cause needless death by keeping the ill away from life-saving medical care. Medical professionals and skeptics consider it sleight of hand and any positive results a placebo effect.

It first appeared in the Spiritualist communities of the Philippinesmarker and Brazilmarker in the mid-1900s, and it has taken different paths in those two countries.


Although psychic surgery varies by region and practitioner, it usually follows some common lines. Without the use of a surgical instrument, a practitioner will press the tips of his/her fingers against the patient's skin in the area to be treated. The practitioner's hands appear to penetrate into the patient's body painlessly and blood seems to flow. The practitioner will then show organic matter or foreign objects apparently removed from the patient's body, clean the area, and then end the procedure with the patient's skin showing no wounds or scars.

Most cases do not involve actual surgery although some practitioners make real incisions. The practitioners are using sleight of hand techniques to produce blood or blood-like fluids, animal tissue or substitutes, and/or various foreign objects from folds of skin of the patient as part of a confidence game for financial benefit of the practitioner.

Two psychic surgery practitioners provided testimony in an Federal Trade Commission trial that, to their knowledge, the organic matter apparently removed from the patients usually consists of animal tissue and clotted blood. In regions of the world where belief in evil spirits is prevalent, practitioners will sometimes exhibit objects, such as glass, explaining that the foreign bodies were placed in the patient's body by evil spirits.


Accounts of psychic surgery started to appear in the Spiritualist communities of the Philippinesmarker and Brazilmarker in the mid-1900s.


In the Philippines, the procedure was first noticed in the 1940s, when performed routinely by Eleuterio Terte. Terte and his pupil Tony Agpaoa, who was apparently associated with the Union Espiritista Christiana de Filipinas (The Christian Spiritist Union of the Philippines), trained others in this procedure.

In 1959, the procedure came to the attention of the U. S. public after the publication of Into the Strange Unknown by Ron Ormond and Ormond McGill. The authors called the practice "fourth dimensional surgery," and wrote "[we] still don’t know what to think; but we have motion pictures to show it wasn’t the work of any normal magician, and could very well be just what the Filipinos said it was — a miracle of God performed by a fourth dimensional surgeon."

Alex Orbito, who became well-known in the U. S. through his association with actress Shirley MacLaine was one said practitioner of the procedure. On June 14, 2005, Orbito was arrested by Canadian authorities and indicted for fraud.

Psychic surgery made U.S. tabloid headlines in March 1984 when comedian Andy Kaufman, diagnosed with large cell carcinoma (a rare lung cancer), traveled to the Philippines for a six-week course of psychic surgery. Practitioner Jun Labo claimed to have removed large cancerous tumors and Kaufman declared to believe the cancer had been removed. Kaufman died from renal failure as consequence of a metastatic lung cancer, on May 16, 1984.


The origins of the practice in Brazil are obscure; but by the late 1950s several "spiritual healers" were practicing in the country. Many of them were associated with Kardecism, a major spiritualistic movement in Brazilmarker , and claimed to be performing their operations merely as channels for spirits of deceased medical doctors. Others were following practices and rituals known as "Umbanda", a shamanic ritualistic religion with mediumistic overtones inherited from the African slaves brought to the country in colonial times.

A known Brazilian psychic healer who routinely practiced psychic surgery was Zé Arigó, who claimed to be channeling for a deceased medical doctor of name Dr. Fritz. Unlike most other psychic healers, who work bare-handed, Arigó used a non surgical blade. Other psychic healers who claimed to channel for Dr. Fritz were Edson Queiroz and Rubens Farias Jr.. Popular today (especially abroad) is João de Deus, a psychic healer in Abadiânia, state of Goiásmarker.

According to the descriptions of Yoshiaki Omura, Brazilian psychic surgery appears to be different from that practiced in the Philippines. Omura calls attention to the fact that practitioners in Brazil use techniques resembling Qi Gong, Shiatsu massage, and chiropractic manipulation. Some patients are also injected with a brown liquid, and alleged minor surgery was performed in about 20% of the cases observed . While Arigó performed his procedures using kitchen knives in improvised settings, Omura reports that the clamping of blood vessels and the closing of the surgical wounds are now performed by licensed surgeons or licensed nurses.

Reports and studies

Russell Targ & Jane Katra reported cases, which they said might be genuine, for example an American official who had a growth on his arm.

Medical and legal criticism

In 1975, the Federal Trade Commission declared that "'psychic surgery' "is nothing but a total hoax"." 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 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.

The British Columbia Cancer Agency "strongly urges individuals who are ill not to seek treatment by psychic surgeon."

While not directly hazardous to the patient, the belief in the alleged benefits of psychic surgery may carry considerable risk for individuals with diagnosed medical conditions, as they may delay or forgo conventional medical help, sometimes with fatal consequences.

Accusations of fraud

According to stage magician James Randi, psychic surgery is a sleight-of-hand confidence trick. He has said that in personal observations of the procedure, and in movies showing the procedures, he can spot sleight-of-hand moves that are evident to experienced stage magicians, but might deceive a casual observer. Randi has replicated the appearance of psychic surgery himself through the use of sleight-of-hand. Professional magicians Milbourne Christopher and Robert Gurtler have also observed psychic surgeons at work, and claimed to have spotted the use of sleight-of-hand. On his A&E show Mindfreak in the episode "Sucker," illusionist Criss Angel performed "Psychic Surgery," showing first-hand how it may be done (fake blood, plastic bags and chicken livers were used).

In Randi's view, the healer would slightly roll or pinch 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. However, some "psychic surgery" procedures do not rely solely on the "sleight of hand" described, as at least one Brazilian performer also cuts his victims' skin to heighten the illusion.

In popular culture

  • In the 1989 film Penn & Teller Get Killed, comedic magicians Penn and Teller demonstrate how to perform the illusion of psychic surgery.
  • A 1989 episode of Unsolved Mysteries featured a police officer whose mother claimed to have been cured by psychic surgery, only to pass away shortly thereafter and her autopsy revealed several tumors. The policeman described himself going undercover to feign illness and desiring psychic surgery, and having the feeling of the practicioner using sleight of hand to supposedly dig into his tissue, as well suspecting that the "cysts" and "tumors" being removed from his body were in actuality ready made chicken parts.
  • In the TV show Criss Angel Mindfreak, Season 2 Episode "Sucker", Criss explains psychic surgery as a deception.
  • In the BBC documentary Full Circle with Michael Palin, Michael Palin visits two psychic surgeons while venturing through the Philippinesmarker and even assists one of them on a procedure.
  • In the 1999 movie Man on the Moon, a movie based on the life of Andy Kaufman, Kaufman receives psychic surgery and notices the "sleight of hand".
  • In "Milagro", a sixth season episode of The X Files, a man is shown to be able to remove hearts of people with no incisions.
  • In a 1999 episode of Angel, "I Fall to Pieces", the antagonist of the episode terrorizes a young woman by detaching and reattaching his own limbs by means of psychic surgery.
  • In a 2008 episode of a Turkish talk show, "Brian Brushwood", bizarre magician and host of Revision3's Scam School, demonstrated the practice on someone with appendicitis, exposing the fraudulent practices.

See also


  1. David Vernon in Skeptical - a Handbook of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, ed Donald Laycock, David Vernon, Colin Groves, Simon Brown, Imagecraft, Canberra, 1989, ISBN 0731657942, p47
  2. California Death Index
  3. Omura Y. Impression on observing psychic surgery and healing in Brazil which appear to incorporate (+) qi gong energy & the use of acupuncture points. Acupunct Electrother Res. 1997;22(1):17-33. PMID: 9188913
  4. "Miracles of Mind";Russell Targ & Jane Katra ISBN 1-57731-097-7
  5. "F.T.C. Curbs Philippines Flights For Cures by 'Psychic Surgery'"; New York Times March 15, 1975, p. 11 (Judge Hanscom: "pure and unmitigated fakery... simply phony")
  6. The following images are of Randi demonstrating "psychic surgery": * prepare * go in * come out
  7. Commentary, February 18, 2005, A Special Analysis

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