Meet the woman who fooled the world with her 'X-Ray vision'
Most of us, at some point or another in our lives, have fantasized about what it would be like to have superhuman powers. Whether it be flying, invisibility, or Hulk-like strength, there's just something so tantalizing about being able to go above and beyond the normal limits of human capability.
Every now and then, of course, we do come across people who seem like they have extreme or even magical abilities. There are individuals who can hold their breath for prolonged periods of time, for example, or withstand extreme temperatures without any apparent damage. But nobody has come as close to convincing the world that supernatural abilities exist as Natasha Demkina, a woman from Saransk, Russia.
Ever since she was 10 years old, Demkina has claimed to have X-Ray vision.
"I was at home with my mother and suddenly I had a vision," she once said, recalling her first experience with the phenomenon. "I could see inside my mother's body and I started telling her about the organs I could see. Now, I have to switch from my regular vision to what I call medical vision. For a fraction of a second, I see a colorful picture inside the person and then I start to analyze it."
Initially, people thought that the young girl simply had an overactive imagination; that she was just a child playing a game. However, before long, it became clear that - quite often - what she "saw" was fairly accurate. Soon after that, she began performing "readings" for people in Russia, with many individuals relying on her medical judgement alongside (or even instead of) opinions from trained professionals.
She did not shoot to fame until 2004, however, when she was 17 years old.
14 years ago, Demkina achieved a certain degree of international notoriety after being invited on a British TV show to exhibit her abilities. While on the show, she definitely gave the impression that she could see beneath people's skin (to a "cellular level", she once claimed), and was able to tell that one of the hosts had a bad ankle.
After that, she was featured on a Discovery Channel show, The Girl With X-Ray Eyes. The show endeavoured to get to the bottom of Demkina's powers, and the then-teenager seemed only happy to oblige. She, it appeared, was utterly convinced of her X-Ray vision.
And, sure enough, when asked to prove her skills, Demkina faired rather well. She was asked to analyse a group of people and tell them what she thought (if anything) was wrong with them, and the majority said that she was correct. She was able to pick up on a migraine condition in one woman, endometriosis in another, and a heart defect in a man.
But how was she doing it?
Richard Wiseman, a professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology, observed Demkina as she analysed people, and noticed something very peculiar about how they reacted to her diagnoses.
"When I saw her do her usual readings, I couldn't believe the discrepancy between what I was hearing and how impressed the individuals were," he said. "I thought they were going to walk away saying it was embarrassing, but time and again, they said it was amazing."
This was particularly surprising, Wiseman explained, because, "Before each reading, I asked the people what was the main medical problem and Natasha never got one of those right."
The thing is, Demkina was correctly identifying some medical ailments; however, she often diagnosed a lot more that weren't there. Plus, the ones she did get right were always vague and easily interpreted in a number of ways. Because of this, scientists began to believe that Demkina was simply very good at reading outward signs of illness, and would adapt what she was saying to what she was told by patients.
In order to prove that the girl did not have any extraordinary abilities, Wiseman and a team of sceptics devised an experiment.
"We designed a simple test that would eliminate the possibility of using cold reading to fish for correct information and to prevent Natasha from making diagnoses that could not be disproved without an autopsy," wrote Andrew A. Skolnick, a researcher who took part in judging Demkina's abilities.
"We recruited six volunteers, who each had a different medical condition visible on X-rays, plus a 'normal' subject who had none of the six target conditions.
"Natasha was handed six test cards, each with a description of a target medical condition, in English and Russian. We also provided her with anatomical drawings to make sure she understood exactly what to look for and where to look."
It took her more than four hours to complete the test, and even then she only matched four conditions to seven people correctly. Some have argued that this is actually a very high score, and suggests that Demkina possesses at least some psychic ability. However, considering that - amongst other mistakes - she failed to notice a large metal plate in the skull of a man who had formerly had a brain tumour, it appeared that her high score was simply down to lucky guesswork.
Despite this, Demkina is still regarded by many as having psychic abilities even today, and continues to aid patients who are looking for a medical diagnosis.
So, ultimately, this leaves us with three possibilities about what's going on: either Demkina is convinced of her own ability enough to blag her way through life, or she knows it's fake and she's a very good liar, or - the one we all want to believe - she really does have some kind of special insight into people's bodies.
Either way, it's probably best for all of us to rely on tried and tested medical methods before paying Demkina a visit - no matter how accurate she claims to be.