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How Do Shawn Spencer's 'Powers' Work On 'Psych'?

Shawn Spencer fakes supernatural abilities on "Psych," but are his powers of deduction also a fiction? 

By Tyler McCarthy
Shawn Spencer touching his temples

The TV show “Psych” spent eight seasons and three movies following the adventures of Shawn Spencer (James Roday), a brilliant mind who has the entire world believing he is a gifted, supernatural psychic. This may lead novice viewers to ask questions like “why?” and “how?” Fortunately, we have the answers. 

The first question — "why?" — dates back to the pilot episode of “Psych,” in which Shawn uses his highly honed skills of observation as well as his trained photographic memory to call in a tip about a crime based on a news report. His details are too accurate and he becomes the prime suspect in the case. He cleverly lies his way out of the situation by pretending his powers of deduction came from supernatural psychic abilities as he helped the Santa Barbara Police Department crack the case. 

RELATED: Everything You Need To Know About The 'Psych' Movies

Once it was over, though, he was told in no uncertain terms there would be dire consequences if he was a fraud. 

That’s the why. 

As for how he’s able to keep this ruse going for so long, that dates back to his childhood. Growing up as the son of a police detective, Shawn was taught at an early age to utilize his memory and always be collecting data on his surroundings. It worked, and Shawn approaches the world much differently than the average slacker. As soon as he walks into a room, he’s collecting data that he’s able to recall with stunning clarity by way of his photographic memory. He then pretends to have a psychic episode in which he reveals everything he’s deduced. 

This may have some people wondering if this kind of mind training can actually make someone into a crack detective (and, let’s face it, grifter) like Shawn. Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to that question. 

According to "Scientific American," there is absolutely no concrete evidence that anyone with a legitimate photographic memory exists. Although people claim to have them and are indeed able to recall images with great detail after only being exposed to them briefly, this recall typically doesn’t last. Instead, it is much more commonly understood that these people have a more active eidetic memory, which is something every human being has. 

While the two terms are often used interchangeably, eidetic memory is simply the ability to maintain an image in your mind’s eye. According to studies, most people can do it for a few seconds, while others can do it for up to a month depending on whether or not the image has a reason to make its way into one’s long-term memory. However, the ability to just do that by default and recall the image with perfect detail (i.e. a photographic memory) has not been scientifically proven. That said, it’s difficult to prove given all the evidence exists within an individual’s head. So, while it’s not proven, it’s not impossible either. 

Most scientists agree, though, that someone like Shawn would indeed be able to develop a more acute eidetic memory if they started at a young age and did the kind of exercises that his father, Henry (Corbin Bernsen), coached him to do. 

Healthline notes that the best way to improve one’s built-in eidetic memory is simply to strengthen their general memory. Exercise, mindfulness, keeping your brain active through puzzles, good sleep patterns, and regular reading of complex materials can all help strengthen a human being’s memory. This is particularly true if they start doing these things at a young age like Shawn.

So, while the character's powers in the show may be fake, there’s some evidence to support that a person with his kind of hyper-observant mind and near “photographic” memory can exist through sheer training. As for the odd showmanship and propensity to chase danger to incredibly stupid lengths — that’s uniquely Shawn. 

Watch “Psych” and all its movies on Peacock right now.

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