Heg Robinson has been a martial artist and Tai Chi teacher for four decades. He has surely taught legions of willing participants to relax and “find their inner flow.” Through his practice of this ancient art, Robinson claims “that a self-health practice such as T'ai Chi heals the mind/ body /spirit and prevents common ailments.”
It’s the boilerplate alternative medicine pitch. I was expecting that. Traditional Chinese Medicine has made that claim based on the supposed power of Chi forever. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was how extraordinary his demonstration of telekinesis was.
I have to be honest (and laugh). Even if skeptics unduly assume that many of those who claim to have supernatural powers are knowingly faking it, this demonstration does seem like an impression of an impression of a fake. It could be a Poe. I have seen spoon-benders and page-turners and other martial artists who can “knock out” an attacker without touching them. This is something else.
The flailing student is quite shocking. It’s reminiscent of the dances of trance-induced ecstasy cultures like the Amazonian Yanomami practice. Though “kinetic” implies some force being transferred, we get this imparted dance instead of an otherworldly punch or kick. But as bizarre as the reaction to Robinson’s “energy” is, it’s still no different from other feats of Chi. Reality always hits it hard.
A demonstration like in the video above, I will claim, can only be done with a student or willing participant. Like stage hypnosis, Robinson’s feat is a performance piece between two believing parties. Choose anyone else, and the supposed power will immediately evaporate.
Sam Harris gives a great example of the student-master delusion on his blog. A martial arts master, supposedly able to defeat multiple opponents (his own students) with unseen Chi-based attacks, meets reality rather violently. Outside of his own school, facing an unfamiliar opponent, the master is punched in the face multiple times. It’s rather sad. When he needed it most, his powers vanished. Of course, the die-hard practitioners will claim this or that condition was not met or this or that life force was not in line, but nothing can substitute for the empirical test. He put his money where is mouth was, as did the opponent his fist.
Robinson resides within the same bubble. The flailing, the shouting, the stomping; it’s an act, a play. He and his student have presumably practiced for years together, falling deeper and deeper into delusion. They probably both believe that these powers exist. You might start believing it too, if you developed a close relationship with a teacher who has the authority to tell you what is right and what is wrong about an activity.
Imagine that you are a student in a Chi master’s class. Your teacher is renowned for being able to throw other students with only his mind. You take your seat next to the others and wait for the teacher to call you up for sparring. When it’s your turn, you go through the motions—probably not as theatrically as the seasoned students—wanting to get through the lesson and please the teacher. Over time, the routine becomes unconscious. When rules are consistently enforced, everyone picks up on the game.
Think of chicken sexers who separate the indistinguishable yellow peepers into male and female bins. It’s a talent that apparently can’t be taught. Master sexers simply sit behind a rookie and tell them if they make a mistake. Over time, there is a subconscious knowledge that develops. You can’t exactly express what a boy chick and girl chick look like, you just know. Similarly, of course the martial arts teacher has a “power”; of course Robinson can transfer “tele-kinetic” energy to you.
I could put my money where my mouth is too. I will bet Robinson any amount that he couldn’t turn a complete stranger into a deliriously dancing dervish. It’s not Chi, it’s not telekinesis; it’s the bond between teacher and student. That in itself is kind of amazing—that two people can develop such an act without explicitly choreographing it. Call it a quirk of human psychology. But when the show is over, reality sets in again. Like a magic show, we abandon the agreed-upon rules that only exist in that space once we leave. Outside of the Robinson dojo reality reigns. But what a show that was.
Kyle Hill is a freelance science writer who writes the Scientific American Overthinking It. Hill also contributes to Slate, Wired, Nature Education, Popular Science, Skeptical Inquirer, and io9. He manages Nature Education's Student Voices blog, is a research fellow with the James Randi Educational Foundation, and you can follow him on Twitter under @Sci_Phile