Tricks of the trade: debunking psychic abilities



Forensic anthropologist and mind illusionist, Dr Matteo Borrini, demonstrates the techniques that psychics use to make people believe in paranormal powers.

Matteo Borrini

It seems fitting that an autographed poster of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark hangs in Dr Matteo Borrini’s office since Dr Jones and Dr Borrini have so many things in common. Both are charismatic, unconventional scientists/lecturers seeking answers to some of life’s mysteries. They share a penchant for holy relics; for Indy it’s the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail, for Matteo, it’s the Shroud of Turin. Neither seem to mind physical pain when it comes to the pursuit of their passions either – Matteo has walked on coals; Indy, well, he’s always up for a fight with any Nazi that gets in between him and shiny, gold, museum-bound artefacts.

Similar to Indy, Matteo manages to compartmentalise his two worlds. He’s a forensic anthropologist by day and a magician by night. Occasionally, however, the two worlds meet and things get really interesting.

A recent study conducted by one of his MSc Forensic Anthropology students, Natalie Conlan, has provided Matteo with an opportunity to perform his mind illusionist skills, all for the benefit of science.

Watch the videos in the playlist above. In the first video, Matteo and Natalie discuss the study. The second video features Matteo's enthralling performance in full. Watch to see just how easy it is for people to get drawn in by alleged psychic abilities.


As a member of the Magic Circle, Matteo took to the stage to demonstrate psychic abilities such as psychometry, dowsing, reading and mediumship in front of an audience of test subjects. Unknown to the audience at the time, the study was set up to analyse people’s perception of psychic detectives and how faith in the abilities of psychics encourages their involvement in forensic investigations. Dr Borrini explains:

“Being a magician helps me to debunk alleged psychic detectives, exposing their methods and demonstrating that I can replicate their stunts…It is important that people understand how psychics use the tricks of conjurers not to entertain people, but to milk personal drama, such as a recent loss, which can sometimes be emotionally distressing.”

The audience was surveyed before the demonstration to determine if they believed in psychic abilities. Following the performance, another questionnaire recorded if their perceptions had changed after watching Matteo. Subjects were then asked what they believed after he explained the clever techniques and showmanship skills that psychics use to convince audiences of their authenticity.

The study showed that the number of people who believed in paranormal abilities before the performance had increased six times following the demonstration and those who thought that psychic powers may be possible increased by 30%. The performance was so compelling that even some sceptics changed their mind. Dr Borrini later revealed to the audience how he replicated the stunts and tricks used by psychics, the data collected at this point showed an increase towards scepticism.

While these results were expected, Natalie and Matteo were surprised by how significant the increases were following the demonstration. Matteo explains that the experience is powerful enough for people to change their beliefs; it’s easy for people to believe what they see with their own eyes.

Indiana Jones went from sceptic to believer after witnessing the power of the Ark of the Covenant. But could Matteo follow suit and one day believe in psychic phenomena? Is that in his future? “I’m keeping an open mind,” he says. In other words, the crystal ball is hazy.


If you’re interested in pursuing forensic anthropology or similar fields, find out what courses are available to study at LJMU.

Dr Borrini has recently taken part in a new series, Secrets of the Paranormal World, alongside Derren Brown and Uri Geller, so keep an eye out for the programme.

*The performance in the video consists of an internal audience of LJMU students and staff. Other performances included audience members external to LJMU.



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