Mentalism is a form of magic that simulates super-natural phenomena such as mind reading, psychokinesis, predictions, clairvoyance, and thought control.
A mentalist uses esentially the same techniques as more traditional magicians and illusionists. Mentalists, however, often claim to use hypnosis, body language, intuition, subliminal influence, NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) or the like.
This is almost never true, but should be seen as part of the performance, a kind of “fakelore” created to enhance the ambience and boost the artist's reputation.
Compare with artists who come “directly from Las Vegas.” This usually means that they’ve been to Las Vegas at least once. If they did some karaoke singing as well, the international career is a fact in the press release.
The techniques actually used by mentalists are rarely more exciting than peeking at a piece of paper. This is not mean to belittle the art. On the contrary, it takes a lot to present such a simple scam as a supposed miracle, and turn it into good entertainment.
For those who are interested in the techniques used by mentalists, I can recommend 13 Steps to Mentalism (Corinda 1958). The book is old but the principles are still basically the same, just minor details have changed.
Truth and lies in marketing
Is mentalism entertainment or is it fraud? Where is the boundary between make-believe and deception? Let me give an example.
The British mentalist Derren Brown presented mentalism in a partly new way in the TV series Mind Control. The production company, Objective Productions, utilized the television medium’s full potential and mixed entertainment with alleged documentary.
In many scenes it was suggested that Brown made use of subliminal influence and body language to read minds and influence people to do things against their will. Although the program was meant as entertainment, many were fooled into believing in a false model of explanation.
The author Simon Singh thought enough was enough when Channel Four promoted the show on their science site, and wrote an article (Singh 2003) where he revealed some of the secrets. Singh’s article gives a balanced picture of how mentalism works and he poses interesting questions about the contract between a mentalist and his audience.
In Objective Production’s more recent TV shows a new path has been chosen and now mentalism is presented in a manner reminiscent of Randi’s performances – a demonstration of the techniques that scammers use to trick us.
I find it interesting that this type of fictional documentary can affect us so strongly. I’ve met people with a good knowledge of both magic and media who do not fully understand that Derren Brown is a character in a TV show and not a real person.
Also in stage performances mentalism is presented in very different ways.
Some mentalists, for example Max Maven, Banachek, and Richard Osterlind, have a clear contract with the audience, which shows that this is entertainment.
Other mentalists choose to express themselves ambiguously and doesn’t seem to mind that the audience interprets their performance as an example of psychological techniques or supernatural abilities.
In the U.S. there are a large number of mentalists who push the ethical boundaries. It’s not uncommon for a “motivational speaker” to spice up his presentation with mentalism.
Many performers have raised their fees and prestige considerably by selling their act as a serious talk. They claim to use psychological techniques that the participants could learn themselves. Many companies are willing to pay much higher amounts of money for this type of presentation than for the same entertainment.
Mentalism is clearly used for purely fraudulent purposes. Uri Geller, for example, managed to deceive a large part of the English speaking world of his supernatural abilities by using mentalism techniques.
One particularly nasty variant of mentalism is called readings. Here, the mentalist plays the role of a psychic and provides answers and advice on sensitive issues, often in private. Sometimes pure conjuring techniques are used, but also a form of insidious questions and statements known as cold reading. Ian Rowland gives a detailed and insightful discussion of this in The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading (Rowland 2002).
False psychics who use conjuring techniques sometimes call themselves “open eye”, as opposed to “shut eye”, those who themselves believe in their abilities.
I have read several of the books and booklets circulating among “open eye” psychics. They sometimes describe their activities as a form of therapy. The texts, however, are exclusively about how to keep your back covered and avoid being caught, never about the risks you might expose your clients to.
However, most psychics do not use conjuring techniques and many probably believe in their own ability.
There are a plenty of performers who present mentalism in a lecture format and the boundary between make-believe and deception is often hard to draw. Maybe that's part of the fascination. ♦
- Corinda, Tony. 1958. 13 Steps to Mentalism. New York. (Republished 1968.)
- Rowland, Ian. 2002. The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading, 3rd ed., for sale at www.ianrowland.com.
- Singh, Simon. 2003. Spectacular Psychology or Silly Psycho-babble? The Daily Telegraph 2003-06-05. Available at simonsingh.net.
The article was originally published in Folkvett nr 3/2006.