Whether or not you’ve heard of it before, by the time you’re done reading this, you’ll have learned more about mentalism. Mentalism is an old art that has been in practice ever since mankind developed an interest in the occult, magical, and spiritual worlds.
Mentalist practices like clairvoyance, precognition, and divination have examples rooted in many ancient religions, both defunct and still surviving today. Other mentalism skills like mind control, telepathy, and psycho-kinesis can be found in many fictional works.
A prominent example of this is Charles Xavier from the X-Men series who could read minds, communicate telepathically, and move objects with his mind.
Mentalism or Magic?
These may sound like unbelievable claims to you and you may have a bad perception of mentalism as a fraud but it isn’t. Something can only be fraudulent if it makes false claims and mentalism doesn’t do that. Mentalists, at least contemporary ones, do not claim that what they do is ‘real magic’.
In fact, mentalists like Derren Brown say that their skills aren’t magic. Instead, they explain that they just know how to read body language well. They use this, along with misdirection and suggestion, to perform mentalism.
Other mentalists leave it up to the audience to decide. They never say outright what they attribute their skills to and this helps them keep an air of mystery around mentalism.
Though some mentalists may employ techniques typical to what we normally think of when we say ‘magic’, many mentalists distance themselves from the reputation of the usual magic trick by rarely employing props.
By doing this, they make mentalism appear more credible and less like a gimmick. These make mentalism more believable and fun because the audience is more apt to suspend their disbelief.
Still, depending on what source you look at, Googling ‘mentalism’ can lead you to many, if at times confusing, results. Wikipedia calls it a ‘performing art’ while for the Oxford dictionary, mentalism is a philosophical theory. To avoid confusion, let’s first explore what mentalism is an isn’t.
Mentalism can be called a performing art because of its execution. Performing arts are creative activities and skills performed for an audience. Some mentalists perform live on the streets, dazzling not just passersby but also compelling crowds to stop and watch what seems to be a real mind-reader.
Mentalism is also performed on stage during live shows, usually with the help of a confederate, a person who pretends to be a regular audience member but is actually in on the act. Mentalists like Katherine Mills have also performed on television. This is the kind of mentalism we’re talking about. This mentalism has nothing to do with philosophy or psychology.
Or does it?
In a way, it helps to think of mentalism as psychology with smoke and mirrors. Notable mentalist tricks like spoon bending employ the use of misdirection. By leading other people’s attention away from the spoon you are sneakily bending physically, a mentalist uses basic human psychology to create the illusion of having a special power. Ultimately, what the trick boils down to isn’t about bending spoons at all but rather bending a participant’s or viewer’s perception.
(Derren Brown for TED)
In the video above, you can see Derren Brown not only perform a mentalism trick with the envelopes but also explain his line of reasoning. He doesn’t ‘divine’ anything about who the audience member is. He simply reads the initials outside of the envelope and, based on the handwriting, makes a guess on the gender and age of the writer. This is similar to a graphology, the study of handwriting and how it reflects a person’s inner psychology.
The look of the audience member’s handwriting gives away her identity. Note that Derren Brown said that the handwriting had waving and undulating lines. Female handwriting is easily distinguishable from male handwriting due to this.
Women develop fine motor skills earlier than men and the age this develops at usually coincides with the age at which children are taught to write in school.
This extra advantage is part of why the stereotype of female handwriting being cleaner than male handwriting exists. A knowledgeable mentalist then takes full advantage of this situation and claims that the writer is female.
Once she stands up, he guesses what her initials mean but notably only makes a guess on her first name- the letter ‘J’. The suggested names, Jane and Jessica, are very common female names.
Derren Brown gets it right on the second try with the audience member nodding at the mention of ‘Jessica’. He doesn’t really figure out what her name is but rather she confirms it herself, essentially putting a stop to the guesswork by providing an answer.
Let’s try another video, shall we?
(Keith Barry for TED)
At the very beginning of the show, Keith Barry carefully asks his audience to follow his instructions on how to guide their hands into a locked position. He uses the power of suggestion to get audience members to follow his instructions until they are rendered vulnerable, their hands locked into place.
This trick uses basic principles of what would be seen as mind control by the unobservant. It isn’t. Keith Barry simply takes a willing audience along for a ride, lulling them into a false sense of security with him.
By doing so, he makes the audience vulnerable to suggestion. This is further emphasized by how, in the second trick with the car, he tells the woman, “You’re fine, take it off. You’re okay. You’re safe.”
Though he does not explain directly how he was able to drive the car while blind-folded, he does give a clue as to how. He tells skeptical audience members that their explanations would be off-base because they aren’t skilled in the art of deception.
That key tool in a mentalist’s belt tells us exactly why he kept telling the woman to keep her eyes on the road, going so far as to pointedly tell her to look to it again when she tries to glance in his direction.
(Apollo Robins for TED)
Apollo Robins explains the art of mentalism elegantly and concisely by saying, “Attention is a powerful thing…If you could control somebody’s attention, what would you do with it?”
In mentalism, skilled practitioners direct people’s attention in order to alter their perception and lead them to believe, even for just a moment, that powers usually constrained to fiction may just be possible in reality.
But since a mentalist can perform such tricks in the real world and do it in a way that is effective and believable, isn’t that, in a way, real ‘magic’?