The Psychic Project
The Psychic Project is a mind-reading show based on the true story of America’s psychic spying programme from the Cold War. It tells the story of the programme and attempts the CIA’s experiments, seeing if the audience can achieve the same results; i.e. whether the audience can become psychic spies.
The show is unusual in that the performer, David Narayan, does not demonstrate any psychic powers. Instead, every experiment is attempted by audience members, using the techniques from the CIA’s archives. After sold out shows in 2017 and 2018, The Psychic Project comes to The Vaults Theatre for eight performances.
“As disturbing as it is astonishing” – The Oxford Times
In 1972, the CIA was worried about Russian investment in mind-control research. They feared that the Russians were ‘weaponising’ psychic powers, with one report stating that the Soviets had the ability to collect intelligence using paranormal means, and another that they may be able to mould the thoughts of key US military and civilian leaders, even causing the instant death of any US official.
Taking these reports seriously, America started a 20 year psychic research programme of their own. The research began as lab studies, but became operational, with projects including tracking drugs and locating hostages. The research was made public in 1995, with scientists divided over whether psychic spying was a genuine phenomena.
The Psychic Project draws upon 100,000 pages of CIA documents in order to attempt the experiments with a live audience. Previously only available via US Freedom of Information Act requests, the declassified documents were made available via the CIA’s website in 2017. Some parts are still redacted – in particular the sections on causing changes to human cells.
“Narayan presents this story with intrigue & suspense… impressive and inexplicable” – Daily Info
Q&A with David Narayan (writer and performer)
What can the audience expect?
It’s an unusual show. Essentially, it’s mind-reading, but it’s different from most mind-reading shows in that I don’t actually do any of the mind-reading – the audience does.
The show covers the story of the CIA’s psychic spy research from the Cold War – which is a true story. I’ll be exploring the research and getting the audience to attempt some of the experiments.
It follows the research programme from its fairly innocent beginnings through to the later stages of the research – when scientists were seeing if they could use the power of the mind to cause physical harm.
Psychic spy research?!
Yes, the show’s based on the true story of the CIA’s psychic spy research, which ran from 1972 to 1995 – it was mostly done by a contract research company called SRI (Stanford Research Institute).
The Americans heard that the Russians were conducting research into mind control – apparently the Russians had developed a machine that you could plug five psychics into. It had an antenna which would would focus a beam of psychic energy and, if a fly flew into the beam, it would drop down dead.
It sounds ridiculous, but at the time the US took it very seriously and the they talked about the risk of a growing ‘psychic gap’ between east and west (like the ‘missile gap’ before it).
So the CIA started doing research of their own, recruiting civilians to train as psychic spies. They developed various techniques to hone the skills of this team, to make the team useful for actual military operations.
This carried on, getting increasingly sophisticated, until 1995, when the program was stopped. Since then, all the research has been declassified.
The documents (hundreds of thousands of them) outline the experiments that they did, the results they achieved and – most interestingly for me – the techniques that they developed to make the psychics more effective.
It’s those techniques that I ask the audience to try during the show.
We start with relatively basic psychic tests, before moving on to type of techniques they used in actual operations and in some of the later experiments (which touched on how to cause physical harm).
And can the audience really become psychic spies?
Well, you’ll have to come to the show to find out, but the some of the results we’ve got in the past have been amazing. For example, audience members have drawn, very accurately, a target that’s at a location that they know nothing about.
And they really are genuine audience members, nothing’s been set up in advance.
What’s the most interesting thing that the CIA’s psychic spies managed to do?
Well, there’s a large part of the research that’s still redacted in the declassified documents – that’s to do with altering animal cells (and human cells) with the power of the psychics’ minds. Unfortunately we don’t know much about it because it’s redacted, but it sounded pretty dark…
Apart from that, out of the results that are fully published, some of the search tasks stand out. For example, the psychics would describe in detail where hostages were being held. And they would draw, correctly and in great detail, schematics of military installations that they’d never seen.
Is it real?
That’s something I talk about in the show. It’s very hard to say for sure. I think some cheating did happen, but I also think that a lot of the so-called psychics in the research programme actually believed they had psychic powers.
Whether they did or not is a different question. In the show, I don’t try to convince people that psychic powers exist, but just to allow them to experience what the scientists at the time actually experienced.
I think it’s very easy to look back on historic research like this and to just say that the scientists were being idiots and that we’d never be fooled by something similar. But there are a lot of reasons why the results they saw were so convincing – and I think it’s interesting to think about whether our own beliefs are being affected by similar things.
But, really, I just want people to have an incredible experience – and maybe to question things a bit more afterwards.
How can I know if I’m psychic?
The person who created the programme for the CIA (his name was Ingo Swann) believed that most people have some sort of innate psychic talent, and that they just needed to follow a particular process to get great results.
And that’s what got the CIA so excited. They thought, if it was just a case of following a technique, they could perfect that technique and build up a large team of trained psychics.
When did you become psychic?
I’m not psychic, I should stress that. In the show, I don’t do any of the demonstrations that we see, it’s always audience members who try the techniques.
So I don’t claim to be psychic, I’m just seeing if the audience can use the same techniques that the CIA used at the time.
What got you interested in all this?
I read an article about the College of Policing, which is the UK organisation that gives guidelines to police forces. They said that leads offered by psychics deserved attention.
I was surprised as I didn’t realise any organisation would actually take this kind of thing seriously, but when I looked into it further I realised that many organisations had taken it seriously – and the CIA’s Cold War research stood out in particular.
I realised I could get hold of the original research documents via the Freedom of Information Act and so I decided to build a show around it.
You’ve been doing the show for a couple of years now – do you still find it interesting?
I love it. The show really is unpredictable. Different things work to different extents each time and I’m always trying new things in the show, so that keeps me on my toes.
Also, as it’s the audience doing everything, it’s different every time.
And the audience tends to get really invested in it. There’s a bit towards the end of the show where I give one particular member of the audience the ability to over-rule someone else’s decision. The stakes are quite high and it once caused a full-on argument between audience members!