Ted Serios

I don’t really know a lot about Ted Serios. He was said to be able make images appear on Polaroid film by using his mind. He called them “thoughtographs.” Gaither Pratt, a scientist formerly associated with the Duke Parapsychology Lab, tried to replicate the phenomenon under controlled conditions at the University of Virginia, but ultimately was unable to do so (Exploratory Investigations of the Psychic Ted Serios, 1967).

Serios had to get a little drunk in order to function and it was funny to read Gaither write about something like this in a sober, serious and professional manner. “A session would begin with Ted imbibing a portion of alcohol in the form of a beer or dry martinis until he felt he was ready to begin ‘shooting’ … Sessions usually continued until about fifty or more trials had been made. A session ended when we felt that Ted was too intoxicated to continue …”

Serios and Pratt couldn’t be more different but they liked each other. Ian Stevenson, the co-author of the paper, described Serios as “the most lovable subject with whom we had ever worked …” and when Gaither died, “Ted wrote me a touching letter about him.” I’d love to see this letter.

There’s a wonderful video of an experiment with Ted Serios on YouTube.  The picture is a screen grab from this video.  For more information, Michael Prescott has an informative post here.

Td Serios

64 thoughts on “Ted Serios

  1. Ted Serios has always fascinated me, I felt some of his ‘thoughtographs’ changed the source (and a match to an existing picture was often found – certainly troubling) in such a way as to make cheating somewhat less likely (why take the trouble to modify the source?). I think Michael Prescott had a follow-up in the last year or so on Ted Serios, and someone posted a YouTube link from either ‘In Search of’ or ‘Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World’ that certainly seemed to show something in the ‘gizmo’ prior to him concentrating. The video had to be slowed down quite a bit to see it, but was pretty evident (I’ll look for the link). So was he an ‘always cheater’ or a ‘when needed’ cheater? Having a Denver TV film crew in your midst certainly would encourage putting on a ‘good show’, and that could have led to the cheating.

  2. The video posted at Prescott’s blog was without audio, as presented at the end of the “In Search of…” episode featuring Serios.

    Here’s the video with audio intact (under the German voice-over):


    Ted’s misdirecting grunts seem to coincide quite beautifully with his collapsing of the “gismo” and his introduction of the optical device (clear marble, small lens — it’s difficult to tell) to the camera’s view. He simply squeezes the “gismo” and moves the image and device along side it.

    “Wait! Did you see that? What’s he holding there?”

    – “Oh, that’s the just the ‘gismo’. He just uses that to focus his power or whatever.”

    “Ah, okay.”

    The idea that failed performances under scrutiny and control are simply attempts to please researchers when abilities run dry or disappear under pressure is extremely weak.

    He always cheated, and Eisenbud cheated himself because the delusion was more intoxicating than all of the liquor he ever provided to Serios combined.

    It’s incredible that this footage has been around for so long and cited as successful demonstration, but that’s suspension of disbelief for you. We’ve all been there at one time or another. Choosing to stay there when you’ve been given a good reason to leave though — that makes no sense.

  3. I meant to say “faked performances” not “failed performances” — sorry.

  4. The one photo from the book that showed a brick wall (bricks were clearly delineated on the actual building) which somehow Serios ‘changed’ to a cobble-stone effect was the one that perplexed me the most. And I recall the windows were completely ‘filled in’ with the cobblestones in the Serios photo, whereas in reality there were regular windows. I guess he could have tampered with the slide to give it that effect. I seem to recall a statement that Serios in fact worked for Polaroid or some photograph-related company. I don’t know if it was ever proven – that would certainly be (another) nail in the coffin. I must give him credit though, he came up with a unique stunt to gain the attention of the PSI world.

  5. I don’t recall ever seeing evidence that Serios was employed by Polaroid, but I’d be interested to see it. I doubt that it exists though.

    The “cobblestone” photo, I’ve long believed, is best explained by “circles of confusion” resulting from the ad hoc optical system that Serios employed.


    Jan Vermeer even included circles of confusion when he used a camera obscura as an aid in some of his paintings.

    That Eisenbud considered this particular photo greater evidence of paranormality, instead of recognizing a well-known optical artifact is more proof that he was far from rigorous with his experimental methodologies and analysis of the physical evidence. That wasn’t the only photo displaying optical distortions, either.

    I definitely give credit to Serios for being entertaining, but he was far from unique or original.


  6. I certainly appreciate the new information, I’m glad to finally learn the cobblestone effect is readily explainable, and shall no longer be amazed by it 🙂

    The airplane picture immediately bothered me due to the fact it was virtually identical to one found in a book – yet Eisenbud seemed not to be troubled by that, but instead was greatly intrigued that a strut was slightly altered. But no questioning as to how Serios’ mind could duplicate something so perfectly – when the far simpler explanation was that Serios actually *used* that same photo. I recall attempts were made to encourage Serios to produce this or that image, but they really should have made it a priority. Show him a picture, have him meditate, concentrate, or whatever he needed to do, and then reproduce it, whether it took 10 or 50 attempts. They never did, he had free reign to come up with whatever he wanted.

  7. I know it’s off topic but I think there’s a debate about whether or not Vermeer used a camera obscura, (I personally don’t think it matters) but which painting has circles of confusion? That’s interesting!

  8. Well, it’s not really off-topic if you think about it. Unlike Serios though, Vermeer was never caught “cheating” on video, so that debate is more prone to continue indefinitely. Just kidding — people will believe in Serios’s paranormal abilities forever too. I’m sure someone else will assume the mantle of Ted’s champion after Braude’s is gone, just as he did when Eisenbud died.

    I agree that it doesn’t matter, but I’ve seen strong arguments for Vermeer’s use of a camera obscura based on “A View of Delft” and “The Milkmaid” (circles of confusion) and “The Music Lesson” (perspective).

  9. Also, I found this interesting. James Randi claims:

    “I didn’t want to get into much detail in this piece, but we’ve traced several of the Serios “thoughtographs” to Viewmaster transparencies – in a day when every drug store had a stock of the disks bearing the tiny film frames…”

    From: http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/1223-those-spooky-photos-are-back.html

    I would like to see a detailed follow-up to this comment. It would certainly answer the question (in a less Freudian way than Eisenbud) as to why Serios produced so many images of buildings.

  10. It’s interesting that Randi has never been able to reproduce the effect under the same kind of controls that Serios could. Does that mean Randi isn’t a very good magician?

  11. You’re just repeating Braude’s inaccurate assertion.

    Did you watch the video? There was a time when I didn’t want to see it either, but there it is.

  12. Is there a video of Randi showing how he can replicate this under the same controlled conditions? Could Randi have fooled Braude or Eisenbud? Did he try?

    Every time I see one of those JREF debunking jobs I keep in mind that they make a living off of promoting a specific belief system. Like churches do. I don’t put my faith in either.

  13. That video isn’t very informative. I can’t see anything indicating it was done under any kind of controls. I don’t see the primary researchers being interviewed. It’s a old, out of focus TV show from the looks of things. Last I checked, TV studios and labs were two different settings.

    If it’s so simple to replicate the Serios photographs under controlled settings, then someone should do that. TV studios are for entertainment. Labs are for providing controlled settings. Learn the difference.

  14. Does JREF issue a handbook requiring that you all get the last word? Show me some evidence. Document your findings. Get it published in a peer-reviewed journal. Then we’ll have something to talk about.

  15. I’m not a member of the JREF, so I wouldn’t know. Is there something in the glassy-eyed believers handbook that instructs you to group all voices of dissent together, insinuating some grand conspiracy with Randi at the apex of the pyramid?

    Anyway, unless I’m mistaken, this “old, out of focus” footage from the Denver television station was done under Jule Eisenbud’s so-called supervision, and from every available account (Eisenbud’s included), these conditions weren’t atypical of an experimental session with Ted. Have you read Eisenbud’s book? Most of these sessions were in people’s homes or hotel rooms, and it seems they usually devolved into chaos where Ted was given free reign. The results were obtained under anything but rigorous experimental control protocols.

    These mythical sessions where Ted was bound to a chair, clad in a rubber monkey suit getting paranormal images on film at twenty paces or whatever — I’ve only seen them mentioned in regard to Eisenbud’s ludicrous proposal to Randi. I would be happy to look at a lab report where results (meaning images on film) were obtained from Ted Serios under these conditions. As far as I can tell, this is merely an anecdote.

    Ted can clearly be seen moving a small optical device, more than once, in front of the lens of the television camera in the video clip. Now, I know you probably think that Persi Diaconis must be a liar because he was observing at the request of Martin Gardner, but this is exactly what described seeing Ted clandestinely use when he was present for a session. There’s also a color “self-portrait” of Ted with a lens/marble sized distortion in front of his face (sans image) that bears a remarkable resemblance to this concealed optical device.

    Don’t fly away too far on your pinwheels, Sandy.

  16. It was out of line, but not unexpected from a skeptic. Always in keeping to attack the person and not the argument.

    If Randi can duplicate what Serios did under the same conditions that Serios did, why doesn’t he? The TV show that Randi brags about hardly counts as being under the supervision of anyone. I’d like to see Randi’s tricks stand up to years of investigation and close scrutiny while producing a comparable body of work.

    Do I think individuals connected to JREF or CSI are likely to have their opinions colored by the self proclaimed agendas of such organizations? Yes. In the same way I think the Pope is probably Catholic.

    I think it’s important to be skeptical of everything, including the skeptics.

  17. “I think it’s important to be skeptical of everything, including the skeptics.”

    I agree, but I think you’re doing that to a fault. If you can’t see that, then I don’t think you really understand what skepticism is. I used to feel the same way until I recognized that my prejudice was hurting instead of helping me.

    And you’re not really making an argument here — you’re just beating on the Randi straw man and nothing I can do will make you look away from that now. You’re biased against anything having anything to do with Randi, and that seemingly includes me because I don’t discount what he says out of hand. This is why I’m ambivalent about James Randi: he usually becomes the subject.

    If you want to discuss the clear evidence that Ted Serios cheated, let me know. I can’t force you to see it.

  18. I’ve read your arguments in the Prescott Blog, and there were plenty of counter-points to what you presented. Is this the best evidence of paranormal phenomenon? No, I don’t think it is. But I do think something of interest was going on that can’t be explained away by Randi’s tricks.

    Unfortunately, many good cases where there is legitimate phenomenon occurring get obscured by the various antics of the subject being studied. An example of this would be Uri Geller’s remote viewing work with Targ and Puthoff (as published in the journal Nature). Geller did very well at remote viewing. But so many people confuse Geller’s stage show with that study, even though the two things have nothing to do with one another.

    Randi is a poor source of information. He has often been caught just making things up as he goes along. When asked to back up his statements, he tends to change his story rather quickly. It’s no wonder that when you use his statements to back up an argument, it casts doubt on what you are saying.

    Did you watch the Stephen Braude lecture I posted? Braude isn’t exactly a naive “believer” by any stretch of the imagination. He looks into these cases with a critical eye. And as far as his statement that Randi hasn’t repeated the Serios pictures under controlled conditions, you haven’t presented any evidence that he is incorrect.

  19. Marks and Kammann also published an article in Nature which detailed the flaws in Targ and Puthoff’s experiments. Should I assume that you found their conclusions unpersuasive?

    Yes, I watched the Braude lecture. It seems that he’d rather see “research” of the paranormal conducted under whatever chaotic conditions produce the most desired “paranormal” results, and that is exactly the type of environment in which deception flourishes. Tricksters like Ted Serios depend on people’s desire to see something happen rather than nothing; the hole through which they can mold observers into an audience.

    Do you agree with Braude that so-called “PSI” functioning can’t really be studied in the lab? You seem to hold Braude’s opinions on this matter in high regard, yet you insist that someone else reproduce the tricks that Ted Serios used under tight laboratory controls when very little evidence exists that any one protocol was repeated with Ted by multiple experimenters. Maybe I’m misunderstanding your position.

    Reading Eisenbud’s book critically exposes the weaknesses in his methodologies and his deference to Ted’s demands. He wanted seemingly paranormal results, and he got them. All Ted had to do was throw a tantrum or get his friends to write letters of complaint to Eisenbud, and he eased up what little controls he played at implementing.

  20. Ted retreated from the scene after 1967, and so dramatically drew the curtains on his act (with an actual photo of curtains) because he knew that he would have a harder time fooling anyone else once his primary method of trickery was exposed.

    Watch the Arthur C. Clarke show where Eisenbud goes to visit Serios many years after their heyday. Eisenbud is rambling on about the “inverted” strut on the airplane picture. They cut to Serios, who dismissively waves his hand at Eisenbud’s theorizing while smoking a cigarette. Later, they show Ted ostensibly trying to get a paranormal photo (sans “gismo”). He says, “I’m after one thing, and that’s a person that’s holding something…” The narrator says, “But all he got — was his face.” This is a great example of Ted’s sense of humor. He did get a photo of a person that was holding something; he was holding the camera, and he got a photo of himself! A person that was holding something.

  21. I’ve read the series of articles and rebuttals published in Nature. I think Targ and Puthoff make the stronger case.

    I do think there is value in field work. Geologists certainly can’t study many of the processes they are interested in without going into the field. Anthropology places an even greater emphasis on fieldwork. You can’t take an entire culture and transport it into the lab.

    I think parapsychology, since it is in many ways a social science, needs to consider the environmental and social conditions that unusual experiences occur in. Field work is a valuable tool. I do place more value on bringing these experiences back to the lab whenever possible than Braude does. That probably has a lot to do with my own formal science training that includes field work as well as laboratory analysis.

    Whatever causes unusual experiences to occur, there certainly seems to be an important psychological component involved, not unlike musical ability or athletic ability. It’s hard to hit a home run inside the lab.

    I’m encouraged by researchers like Michael Persinger who have found ways to foster unusual experiences in a controlled setting. That being said, there is still value in going to where the events take place naturally. It can help researchers figure out what conditions might be replicated in a controlled setting.

  22. I certainly agree that social and psychological forces are at work in the field of parapsychology, but the nature of the perceived “ability” which seemingly arises from these sorts of “in the wild” settings is clearly something upon which we disagree.

    I’m comfortable with arriving at an intractable difference of opinion, but it’s frustrating that discussions like this always drift so quickly from the specific to the general.

    So, again: if you can provide something beyond anecdotal evidence that Ted Serios produced images under the “monkey suit” conditions, I would be interested to see it. If it was part of the protocol of a formal experiment, then surely it would have been documented along with the images produced during that session.

  23. I think Braude does a reasonable job of covering the Serios work in his lecture and in his book The Gold Leaf Lady:

    According to Braude, Serios produced more than 36 images when separated from the camera at distances of 1-66 ft. This was observed on 12 occasions by 14 witnesses in 9 different locations. 13 people besides Eisenbud held the Polaroid during these tests. I would say those are pretty decent controls.

    Serios also was able to produce good results in tests at the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies. They didn’t find any evidence of fraud.

  24. Braude doesn’t bother to cite any sources, as expected. Lab data produced under documented controlled protocols either matters, or doesn’t matter. He can’t have it both ways.

    Anyway, Ted’s fakery is documented right there in the video, as described by Reynolds, Eisendrath, Root, Diaconis, et al.

    Eisenbud excused the fact that Ted’s images were often discovered to be sourced from published images, e.g. Pauline Oehler asked Ted to produce a photo of the USS Nautilus, which, in Eisenbud’s words: “…seemed to have been lifted detail for detail, except possibly for one or two slight distortions, from photographs in the National Geographic of January, 1959, which it was later ascertained that Ted’s mother had in her house.”

    The infamous Queen Elizabeth photo also came from Oehler, obtained during “a subsequent session”. Eisenbud notes, after his “ESTHER – THRES HER – elizabtTHREgina” word association gymnastics, that he came across other images that Ted apparently took from National Geographic while searching for a possible source image for the Queen photo. He explains this away by suggesting that Ted was actually psychically photographing these already extant magazine images, you know — as opposed to the simpler explanation, which was clearly too painful for him to confront after investing himself so much with this particular subject.

    There’s also the caveman photo, which was sourced to an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in Chicago. I believe a View-Master reel was found (as these were popular with museums and such) containing the same image.

    Is there a report or anything available from these University of Virginia tests?

  25. Wait, are you (or Braude) referring to this?

    “Gaither Pratt, a scientist formerly associated with the Duke Parapsychology Lab, tried to replicate the phenomenon under controlled conditions at the University of Virginia, but ultimately was unable to do so (Exploratory Investigations of the Psychic Ted Serios, 1967).”

    From this very blog post of Stacy Horn’s.

  26. Braude’s book is a more recent reference than what you have mentioned. Given the fact that he was well acquainted with the primary researchers and has continued to be involved in the preservation of the work, I would take his word over that of the CSI/JREF crew.

    It may just come down to who you find credible. Randi has been caught lying far too many times to be believable. The skeptics that you’ve mentioned all have a particular agenda to put forward and haven’t always done so honestly. I don’t see what Eisenbud had to gain from perpetrating a fraud. Braude tends to be fairly critical when evaluating phenomenon and is well aware of fraudulent tricks used by magicians.

    The skeptics have more to gain by lying, if that is what this comes down to. And at least one of them has been caught in lies before.

  27. Just in case you ignored the Precott Blog post thar was linked you earlier, here are some interesting tidbits from that:

    One of the cases Pilkington explores is that of Ted Serios. And here I learned a few details that Nile Root had neglected to mention in his explanation of Serios’ phenomena.

    First, an investigator would frequently put his hand over the gismo, blocking any light from entering it, yet Serios would still produce an image.

    Second, Serios did not always use the gismo, and was able to produce images without it.

    Third, Serios produced his images while being filmed continuously by a camera crew on more than one occasion – a precaution that would seem to minimize the likelihood of sleight of hand.

    Fourth, sometimes Serios did not even hold the camera or the gismo, which were in the hands of an investigator.

    Fifth, Serios at times produced an image on a camera that was some distance away from him – as far as 66 feet in one instance.

    Sixth, Serios also produced images on a camera that was in another room altogether.

    Seventh, Serios was placed inside a Faraday cage – an electromagnetically shielded environment in a laboratory – with the camera outside the cage; he still produced an image.

  28. This exchange stands a chance of becoming a discussion if you would deign to address the content of my comments.

    Here’s the abstract from Pratt and Stevenson’s paper:


    I just want to be sure that we’re talking about the same thing, so I pasted that for clarification. Maybe Stacy can chime in about the details, as it seems that she’s had access to the paper, which I have not.

    You keep bringing up “CSI/JREF” and I find it confusing and distracting.

    I didn’t even mention Randi again. Who exactly are you calling frauds and liars?

    Braude, after the manner of Eisenbud, believes that conditions of observation should be relaxed so as to *encourage* whatever phenomenon to manifest, as opposed to implementing actual controls to limit the possibility of fraud. Both Braude and Eisenbud excuse the fraudulent activity of Eusapia Palladino (and others) as some sort of necessary evil precipitated by impossible expectations and demands. This is not a critical approach. It’s tantamount to assuming that Milli Vanilli were actually singing during all of those other performances aside from the one where the music they lip-syncing to skipped. Or maybe even more, it’s like the fans who didn’t seem to notice or care.

    So many people with alleged paranormal abilities have been caught in lies and deception, but this is so quickly dismissed. Why? Uri Geller? Seriously? So a magician who claims to have paranormal abilities is okay, but the ones who deny these abilities are malicious liars?

    How do skeptics have more to gain?

  29. And no, I didn’t ignore that Pilkington stuff. I read it when Prescott first posted it, and considered it anecdotal and unpersuasive in light of reading Eisenbud’s own writing.

    Prescott also stressed that the “gismo” was always sealed on both ends, which is demonstrably untrue when evaluating the photographic documentation. It’s definitely not closed or sealed in the incriminating television studio footage.

    For what it’s worth, Prescott said that he found the video footage damning, but this was after his other blog posts about Serios, when I pointed it out to him.

  30. It comes down to looking at the best evidence. If you can’t explain the most carefully controlled test runs, then you can’t explain away the phenomenon. There were times when Serios performed well under controlled conditions (separated from the camera, in supplied clothing, without the gizmo, etc.). How do you explain that?

    Your efforts to focus on the weaker instances seems like an avoidance of taking a close look at the best conditions under which Serios was still able to produce good results.

  31. You seem to be in the habit of confusing the behavior of the test subject with that of the researcher. Targ and Puthoff should be held accountable for their own work. Geller’s reputation has nothing to do with the study they did. He was a test participant, not the author of the paper.

    As for Braude’s approach to encouraging psi phenomenon, I don’t see it as being at odds with what I’ve seen done many times in mainstream science. I’ve seen scientists start off with loose controls in cases where they aren’t exactly sure what will quash a phenomenon. You tighten up the controls as you go along and figure out what mechanisms are in play.

  32. I am absolutely not confusing the subjects with the researchers. If flaws are found in an experiment’s protocols and those flaws aren’t addressed and the experiment repeated, then what’s the point of implementing controls in the first place?

    And now we’re back at square one about these UVA tests. Is Braude talking about the same tests from the Pratt and Stevenson paper? That’s what I was asking.

    If you notice things missing from your residence over a long period of time, but only catch your housemate stealing once — do you assume the other missing items simply dematerialized through an unknowable mechanism?

  33. Again, you are ignoring the best controlled experiments that were done.

    Are you suggesting that Braude is being inaccurate in his reporting of the Serious case? He had access to the original studies and was in contact with the primary researchers. If you think his account is inaccurate, it’s up to you to make that case.

  34. I am not ignoring them at all. I’m saying that they weren’t controlled experiments. They were inconclusive and the weren’t independently replicated. Eisenbud inextricably linked himself to Serios and functioned as a gatekeeper, often making it impossible for this to happen.

    Braude throws out the principles and demands of the scientific method as applied to research of paranormal claims, but works up anecdotes gleaned from inconclusive experimental trials (and informal demonstrations) when it suits his purpose. As I’ve said before, it seems that he adopted this attitude from Eisenbud, the primary researcher. The only thing left in the case of Serios at this late juncture is to cry that people didn’t pay attention to this “superstar” case when they had the chance, but this isn’t true at all. Eisenbud was a like a protective guard dog whenever reasonable doubts were raised.

    I believe that the “gismo” was Serios’s primary method of misdirection. He used it to introduce a surreptitious optical device that provided the “structured” photographs. Given the chaotic conditions allowed (often fostered) by Eisenbud, and obviously favored by Serios, there exists the probability that Serios used multiple means of deception depending on the conditions that prevailed during any given trial.

    Masuki Kiyota also admitted to fakery. Are you also amazed at his seemingly extraordinary powers?

  35. Again, I ask you to watch the video:


    Do you not see him moving the “gismo” aside to present the lens of an optical device containing a back-lit image to the camera? He does it more than once. Watch it several times. He even shakily tries to align the device to the lens of the camera — obviously and ineffectively eyeballing it on occasion. You can even see him inadvertently reveal the image from the device to the camera about 3 to 4 seconds in. It’s on the right side.

  36. If you notice things missing from your residence over a long period of time, but only catch your housemate stealing once — do you assume the other missing items simply dematerialized through an unknowable mechanism?

    If your housemate was being observed at a separate location by a number of witnesses while objects were disappearing, you would at least know in that one instance that he didn’t steal the objects in question.

    BTW, why would you insist that any mechanism is unknowable? Calling something PK is not the same as saying the mechanism will never be understood.


    Hmmm… this doesn’t suggest fraud, does it?

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