Jean Marie Ward

fiction, nonfiction and all points in between

Excerpt: Jedi Mind Tricks, from the Reel to the Real

Stormtroopers at Mos Eisley spaceport detain a speeder carrying a pair of fugitive droids. The speeder’s shabbily dressed human passenger, the Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi, informs them, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. . . . They can go on their way.” The stormtroopers parrot his words and wave the speeder away.

An Imperial officer on the Death Star mocks the futility of Darth Vader’s “sorcerer’s ways.” Vader, standing some two yards away, makes a small hand gesture. The officer starts choking as if being strangled by invisible hands.

In the swamps of Dagobah, aspiring Jedi Luke Skywalker practices psychokinesis by lifting large rocks with his mind. His abilities seem remarkable until his teacher, the small, green-skinned Jedi master Yoda, challenges him to raise his crashed X-wing fighter from the swamp. Luke fails. Yoda closes his eyes. The ship rises, along with a sizeable chunk of water-logged real estate.

The mental powers of the Jedi may be the single most fantastic element in the whole Star Wars universe. Sure, faster-than-light travel, cities in the clouds, and planet-killing Death Stars are impossible based on today’s science, but their technological trappings let them appear plausible, as long as no one looks too closely. Jedi mind tricks, as well as the training and mental discipline that make them possible, read too much like magic. Everyone knows magic is not real. The laws of physics do not bend to the power of the mind.

The historical record is unanimous on this point. Greek philosophers, Daoist alchemists, Elizabethan secret agents, dedicated materialists, and countless others have spent millennia seeking the real-world equivalent of Jedi mental abilities. Yet none of them have successfully replicated Anakin Skywalker’s party trick of floating fruit over a banquet table. But people—and nations—keep trying.

From the 1920s through the 1970s, Soviet scientists spent millions exploring the military applications of telepathy, telekinesis, and other parapsychological phenomena in countless experiments at roughly twenty centers throughout the Soviet Union. Finally, in the late 1960s researchers thought they had found a person capable of moving objects using only the power of her mind. A Leningrad psychic named Nina Kulagina allegedly separated the yolk from the white of a raw egg at a distance of six feet, as well as moving objects such as a crystal bowl, clock pendulums, and bread across the surface of a table via psychokinesis. However, shifting objects on tables without appearing to touch them is standard sleight of hand, the stock-in-trade of fraudulent mediums everywhere. Although no one openly accused Ms. Kulagina of being a fraud, later events suggest her mental powers were far less than advertised. In 1971 she and the scientist in charge of her experiments abruptly disappeared.

Determined not to be outmatched in a psychic arms race, the United States spent another twenty years and around $20 million researching remote viewing, automatic writing, and other forms of paranormal activity. The results were at best inconclusive. What was worse (much worse in the eyes of the Department of Defense, which funded most of the research), they were laughable. After all, The Men Who Stare at Goats, the Jon Ronson book that inspired the George Clooney movie, was a nonfiction account of the army’s adventures into parapsychology.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish to dismiss the notion of Jedi mind tricks and the mental discipline that makes them possible out of hand. Some of those so-called tricks are things people do every day…

Read more in Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict (Potomac Books, 2018).