The Weiler Psi

Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics

Psychics in Sci-Fi: A Quick Look at Three Examples


Science fiction is one of the few areas of mainstream literature where psychic ability regularly plays a role.  As I have gotten to be somewhat of an expert about psychics and their relationship with their abilities, I find the mainstream versions to be mostly incorrect, but also kind of interesting as it tends to reflect on what our society values.  Psychics are treated in a number of different ways based on the universe that they’re operating in. We’ll start with THE most common theme:

Psychic people are perceived as being more vulnerable to psychic attack and control than other characters in the story who are not psychic.  In Star Trek, The Next Generation, Deanna Troy:

In addition to the alien impregnation, she has suffered two incidents of telepathic mental violations.[7] She was used as a dumping ground for dark thoughts by a diplomat travelling on the Enterprise, causing her to age extremely rapidly[8]. She has also been possessed by alien energy beings on multiple occasions[9]. Together, these incidents constitute essentially being raped at least half a dozen different times.

You. Can't. Control. Me! You need to make an appointment.

This reflects a deeper social belief in many societies that people who are more open and more vulnerable emotionally are somehow weaker than other people.  This perception is somewhat less true for women than for men, but it holds true nonetheless.  In reality, this perception is a complete falsehood.  It is the exact opposite of what actually happens.  In western societies, people tend to perceive intellectual prowess and a minimal display of emotions as being strong and you can see this in just about any action movie whether the hero is male or female.

But psychic ability is strongly tied to emotions and affects us on deep subconscious levels; intellect does not come into play and would be useless in a psychic attack.  To fend off such an attack, you need to be able to first recognize that you are being attacked.  While this might seem to be obvious, it isn’t.  People who have minimal to no psychic ability are very much inclined to view all the thoughts in their heads as their own and all their pain to be originating from themselves.  Psychic people on the other hand, learn very quickly to differentiate their emotions from the swirl around them and they learn to defend themselves from the kind of low grade attacks that happen all the time.  Otherwise they can have no peace of mind.  A psychic attack is really nothing more than someone else trying to get you to be fearful, which distorts your thinking.

A sophisticated psychic attack would do the obvious thing: use your own fears and suppressed emotions against you.  The more awareness you have of your own fears and the fewer suppressed emotions you have, the less vulnerable you will be to psychic attack and control.  Captain Picard’s personality would be easier to suppress because he is already in a condition of suppression.  Deanna in contrast, having had her psychic abilities professionally trained on a planet full of psychic people and by extension, fully aware of her inner emotional landscape, would have had years of training in dealing with psychic intrusions and would be well prepared for the fight.  She would be the last, not the first, to succumb to such a thing.

Somewhat more ridiculous is the X-Files movie “I Want to Believe”, which features a pedophile psychic priest, Joseph “Father Joe” Crissman.  Leaving aside the ridiculous notion that Fox Mulder is called in because he has “experience with psychics” the whole notion of notion of a pedophile psychic is absurd.

"I didn't do it. Nobody saw me do it. You can't prove anything."

What part of empathy don’t you understand?  Psychic ability is strongly tied to empathy and this in turn produces tremendous compassion.  It is pretty hard to imagine a psychic person committing such a terrible act of harm to a child.  To be a pedophile, you have to suppress your natural empathy and if you didn’t, you would be experiencing the emotional trauma of the child as it was happening and this would, in turn, elicit tremendous compassion and a desire to stop the pain.  It would be a bit of a mood killer to say the least.

At least these psychics were portrayed with a more realistic set of abilities, but frequently psychics are portrayed as having super powers, -but without the emotional personality that comes with the talent.-  To wit:

"Who says psychics can't be tough guys?"

The problem with Professor X from the X-Men, is that as psychic ability grows stronger, so do the personality traits associated with it.  Pretty much without exception, the highly psychic people I’ve run into over the years were also very emotional and struggled to deal with those emotions in a world where people don’t understand.  You simply cannot be open to everyone around you and not feel what they’re feeling.  Given that Professor X is one of the most powerful of the mutants, he would be a borderline basket case.  In the comics and movies of course, he has perfect control and isn’t at all affected by the emotions of other people except when he wants to be.  In reality, life is just not that simple.

Professor X, who strives for peace between humans and mutants is ironically hurting the case for real psychic people.  Wherever psychic people are portrayed as having superpowers it raises unrealistic expectations in young impressionable minds about what psychic ability is and what it is capable of.  It isn’t just the mind control and perfect telepathy, it’s also the idea that somehow psychic ability is divorced from emotions, which is certainly not the case.

You can see in the picture that Professor X has a stern, foreboding look that is typical of people suppressing their emotions; yet he can’t possibly be doing this and be such an extraordinarily powerful psychic.

What to make of all this?  I think that the world has a long ways to go in understanding psychic ability and psychic people.  So many of the portrayals are wildly inaccurate and this does affect people’s perceptions of us.  While I think that psychics are portrayed incorrectly in sci-fi for the most part, it was encouraging for me to see a film recently that got it right, even though it wasn’t sci-fi.  The Hereafter, with Matt Damon, directed by Clint Eastwood.  The combination of writing and acting absolutely nailed the role.  I was shocked more than anything else.

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4 comments on “Psychics in Sci-Fi: A Quick Look at Three Examples

  1. craigweiler
    December 11, 2011

    There are more example than I can count. I just picked three and went with it. We could all do a blog solely on that subject alone.

    • Don Salmon
      December 11, 2011

      Hey Craig, wonder if you ever watched Dead Zone (the TV show, not the movie). It’s the usual Hollywood distorted view in some respects, but it seems to me like they get some things right. What do you think?

      • craigweiler
        December 11, 2011

        I haven’t seen that show so I can’t comment on it. I don’t normally watch TV but I will look out for that one. If it’s at the library I’ll check out the DVD version.

        As I told Monica, there are more example than I can count.

  2. Monica
    December 11, 2011

    Dude, someday I will introduce you to Star Wars. :p More seriously, yes, there’s a lot of bad portrayals of psychics in sci-fi, but at the same time, there’s two main things I end up noticing: First, the portrayals of psychics are a bit off, yes, but there’s a highly instinctive knowledge of how psychic powers actually *work* (for example, they never say psychics can shoot lasers from their eyes). Second, the way they portray psychics is actually an attempt at *flattery*; they’re either the immortal, stoic warriors who are the emblem of the side of good, or healing, loving characters who would never hurt a soul.

    So yes, it’s inane, slightly insulting, and more than a bit wrong, but hey–they’re trying. 🙂

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