A Skeptic goes to a Medium

It’s 7:00 p.m. on a March evening, Friday the 13th, and I’m in a small hotel function room without about 60 or so other people and my sister-in-law to see Joanne Gerber, a Boston-area based medium. This wasn’t really my idea; my sister-in-law (let’s call her “Delilah”) wanted some company in attending this session, and I’m happy to oblige. Besides, it will give me the chance to see something that I would never see on my own, and I’m very curious about how this will succeed.

About Mediumship

Mediumship is the practice of communicating with the dead. The person in the middle — the person between the dead and their loved ones — is the medium. There are essentially two types of mediumship: those where spirits take control of the medium’s body (and where the medium essentially “incorporates” the spirit), and those where the medium simply “hears” the message and passes it on.

Mediumship has been co-located with the senses, so that, for example:

  • clairvoyance is the ability to “see” things that are not physically present;
  • clairaudience is the ability to hear the voices or thoughts of spirits;
  • clairsentience or “clear sensing,” is the ability to have an impression of what a spirit wants to communicate;
  • clairsentinence or “clear feeling” is a condition in which the medium takes on the ailments of a spirit, feeling the same physical problem which the spirit person had before death; and,
  • claircognizance or “clear knowing”, is the ability to know something without receiving it through normal senses.

J.Z. Knight, who channels “Ramtha“, allegedly a Lemurian warrior who fought the Atlanteans over 35,000 years ago, would be a well-known example of the first kind of medium, the kind that channels another entity. Joanne Gerber is the second kind.

About Joanne Gerber

Joanne Gerber is a self-described psychic medium. According to her own website, Gerber is a clairaudient, clairvoyant and clairsentient.1 Her website also informs us that in February 2007, Gerber was “welcomed as an Integrative Research Medium with The University of Arizona Veritas research program directed by Dr. Gary Schwartz, Ph.D. and Julie Beischel, Ph.D.” This program is a “scientific integrative research program dedicated to discovering the truth about the survival of consciousness and the continuity of life.” As of January of 2008, “the post-doctoral fellowship position of Veritas Research Program Co-Director Julie Beischel, PhD, was completed, bringing the Veritas Research Program to a close.” However, in January of 2008, Gerber “was invited to continue to participate as a Certified Research Medium in the new mediumship research program, under the direction of Dr. Julie Beischel at the Windbridge Institute for Applied Research in Human Potential, located in Tucson Arizona.” At the Windbridge Institute, Gerber is one of seventeen mediums who participates in the research.2

Gerber related that she was a “sensitive child” growing up, and that she realized that she had “the gift” at about the age of eight, when she first began to “see” spirit. Not surprisingly, her reports of seeing spirits were initially dismissed as her “imagination” by her family. Yet, Gerber claims that the “imaginary friend” she had during childhood turned out to be an identifiable “actual child” who had passed more than thirty years previously.

At the age of twelve, just months after her maternal grandmother had passed, Gerber reports that she “was able to see her standing at the foot of my bed, and I could hear her talking to me.” At the age of thirteen, she had a near death experience. After that she began “to see and hear more.” The impressions that she was receiving became stronger.

It was not until she was an adult, however, that Gerber claims that she went on a program of self-education about what she had been experiencing. She attended “spiritual development and meditation classes three to four nights a week,” and during the course of those classes “it was discovered” that she was “a naturally gifted psychic medium.” In addition, her studies embraced Spiritualism, Kabbalah, and healing and energy work. Gerber also reports that she is Reiki Certified, and holds certification in both Clinical and Metaphysical Hypnosis.

About the Experience

So that we can get good seats in what turns out to be a crowded room, my Delilah and I arrive about 20 minutes early. It’s good, because the room is filling up fast. This event is taking place at the Marriott Courtyard in Waltham, right at the corner of Totten Pond Road with Route 128. Gerber looks to be in her late 50s or early 60s, and is heavily made up. Before beginning the session she experiments with turning down the lights, but evidently the results are not to her liking.

Gerber begins her session by telling us a little about what to expect.3 She begins by explaining that she’s been receiving messages from some of our loved ones since this morning, and she has written a number of them down.4 There will be various spirits who will be wanting to talk to us, and they will essentially be “competing” for who has the loudest voice and the most urgent message.

Pacing the front of the room, Gerber begins by describing a spirit who wants to connect. She throws out the description to see who finds it familiar. This is an “Italian” woman, about “the same height” as Gerber herself, who loved her family very much (naturally). At first, perhaps a dozen people see the possibility, but as the description goes on the field winnows, until there is only one person left. Once she has her “target” — in other words, the person with whom the spirit who is currently communicating wants to talk — the conversation begins. It’s a grandmother that we have on the line, and it’s her grand-daughter that she wants to talk to. Gerber throws out certain questions. I note that many of her initial questions lead down down-ends. So, for example:

  • I’m getting something about a fire. Was there a fire?
    • Yes, but before I was born.
  • Was there a piano in the house?
    • No.
  • Was your grandmother a singer?
    • No.
  • Was there someone in the house who loved to sing?
    • Also no.

Unperturbed, Gerber sallies forth until she hits upon a vein, and when she does, recognition seems to flood in. I can feel the movement in the audience. Some people are laughing with recognition. Somebody else’s eyes are moistening up. Gerber spends about 15 minutes with the Italian grandmother, who has (naturally) messages of support and unconditional love for her granddaughter.

We then move on to a male spirit. The same scenario unfolds. There are very general descriptions of the spirit, and the repeated question of whether people in the audience recognize the description. Gerber keeps asking, “do you understand?”

For a while my sister-in-law is in the hunt — she’s hoping to hear from her deceased parents, but there are too many misses. Her father was 79 when he passed away, and this spirit was early 60s. An important name in this person’s life is “Ed,” but there isn’t really an Ed in my sister-in-law’s family. After a few minutes another target has been identified. I keep being fascinated by the number of misses:

  • Did your Dad smoke Lucky Strikes?
    • No, Camels.
  • I keep seeing red poppies? Was your Dad a veteran?
    • No.

Eventually, Gerber does hit on this intriguing particular:

  • Did you break a table or chip a table?
    • Yes.
  • Well, your Dad forgives you.

And we’re off and running.

One of the things that I observe as this process unfolds, is that I don’t have any sense of Gerber listening to anyone, to any spirit, while she is throwing questions out. I would imagine that this process is a little bit like what happens to you while you’re hosting a television show: you have to talk but at the same time there may be a producer talking in your ear. As these spirits are pressing in on Gerber, trying to get across whatever messages they’ve been waiting to release, I would imagine that there is a lot of chatter in Gerber’s brain. I would imagine that she might want to pause now and then to listen to the messages coming in before sallying forth again. But that doesn’t seem to happen. Just like John of God before her, there is no sense of the interaction involved with communicating with the spirit world while also communicating with us.

What keeps fascinating me, I confess, is the number of misses. Gerber asks if there is someone in the room named Jean or Joan. No one.

  • How about Janine?, one woman pops up.
  • Close enough.

At one point Gerber is asking about a connection to an “Adeline” or an “Adelia” or an “Adele?”

No takers on this one.

No matter for Gerber.

And no matter, it seems, for anyone else in the room.

While I keep being impressed by the number of misses, Delilah keeps being impressed by the number of hits. And it is true that Gerber gets some intriguing things right. So, for example, with one audience member that she’s zeroed in on for communicating with, she asks:

  • Are you going to San Francisco?
    • Yes, in the next few months.
  • Well, your grandmother is going to be with because she’s always wanted to go.

Now, that could obviously be a lucky guess. Since misses don’t slow down Gerber or, it seems, anyone in her audience — and San Francisco is certainly a place that people like to go to — if no one had responded to that, it wouldn’t have slowed her down. But it galvanizes the audience.

Moving on from people, Gerber now passes on some messages from deceased animals to their former owners. These messages aren’t that specific, naturally enough, since animals don’t speak English. They’re not specifically verbal. The message to one former owner of a Golden Retriever is that, “he’s okay.” Simple as that.

Gerber now reports to us that there is “someone” (as in a spirit) who has been “trying to come in.” She describes this spirit a little bit and finds someone who thinks they know the deceased. But then, more misses:

  • Is there someone Irish in the family?
    • No.
  • Traveling to Ireland?
    • No.
  • Maybe Italy, because I keep seeing red, white and green (the colors of the Italian flag; Ireland’s colors are orange, white and green).
  • Is there any connection with someone named Nancy?
    • No.
  • Okay, just remember that I said that.

So this occurs several times, that Gerber strikes out and says to an audience member, okay, just remember that I said that. However, she never comes back to whatever item was left in the parking lot.

On another occasion:

  • Is there a connection to someone named Scotty?
    • No.
  • Well, how about to a Scottish Terrier?


At one point Gerber tells us about someone who loved to gamble that they’re “still playing cards on the other side.”


People play cards when they’re dead?

Or on another occasion:

  • Did your Dad have issues with his heart before he passed?
    • But my Dad hasn’t passed yet, but he does have issues with his heart.
  • Well, maybe it’s a grandfather trying to get in.

Or on another occasion:

  • Is someone in your life getting married or engaged?
    • No.
  • Well, there will be an engagement soon. Just remember that I said that.

On another occasion:

  • Is there a Charlotte or Charlene here?
    • Shirley.
  • Okay, close enough.

Seriously, close enough?

While I’m focusing on what seem to me to be the extraordinary number of misses, my sister-in-law is focused on what Gerber has gotten correct. Which isn’t much, as far as I can tell. But she’s been making a lot of people happy and feel connected.

About Cold Readings and the Forer Effect

In 1948, Bertram R. Forer conducted an experiment on the fallacy of personal validation. In his study, he wanted to see if he could convince a group of his undergraduate psychology students at the Universithy of California that a generic personality profile, most of which was taken from a newsstand astrology book, was really about them. The students all received the same personality profile, which said the following:

  • You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
  • You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
  • You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
  • While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
  • Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.
  • Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
  • At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
  • You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
  • You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
  • You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
  • At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
  • Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
  • Security is one of your major goals in life.

The students were asked to evaluate the description on a scale of zero through five, with five being the most accurate. The average evaluation was given 4.26.

This is known as the “Forer effect” (also sometimes the P.T. Barnum effect), which is the tendency for people to accept generalized descriptions of their personalities as being especially about them. The experiment has been repeated dozens of times since 1948, and the average evaluation remains about 4.2.

Several things are important in producing the effect. So, for example:

  • The subject must trust the person giving the feedback as a credible source for an honest assessment;
  • The ratio of positive to negative assessments must be weighted in favor of positive assessments;
  • The subject must believe that the analysis applies only to him or her;
  • The assessment statements must be vague enough to fit a number of scenarios.

From where I sit, Joanne Gerber is hitting the mark quite precisely. People here clearly trust her, they want to believe her, and her misses are of no consequence whatsoever. The “relatives” who want to communicate with the living all have kind things to say. Not a one of them has come back to say that they are disappointed in one of their relatives behavior, or warning a relative about someone they were about to marry.


As things come and go, this exercise seemed pretty silly to me. I think any impartial observer would have seen through this exercise and how it was designed to play on the most gullible and vulnerable aspects of people. Count me as a non-believer.

  1. The website tells us nothing about how Gerber became a medium but it does tell us that Gerber holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration and Marketing, is Reiki Certified, and is certified in both Clinical and Metaphysical Hypnotherapy.
  2. In an interview with Bob Olson from the Best Psychic Mediums Website, Gerber explains that she is an “evidential” psychic medium, and the evidence that she attunes to may include “a physical description of the person being contacted, a description of their personality, how they passed, names, significant dates, shared memories, things they might have said, descriptions of a home where they lived, or objects that have been gifted to the sitter prior or after the passing.” Gerber further explained that when she gives a psychic reading, she reads “a person’s energy field, or the aura, and connect to their soul vibration.”
  3. It turns out that about two-thirds of us have never been to a medium before, so we’re a relatively untutored group.
  4. Apparently some of our loved ones knew in advance that we would be attending.