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Theatrical poster for a mind-reading performance, 1900

Mentalism is a performing art in which its practitioners, known as mentalists, appear to demonstrate highly developed mental or intuitive abilities. Performances may appear to include hypnosis, telepathy, clairvoyance, divination, precognition, psychokinesis, mediumship, mind control, memory feats, deduction, and rapid mathematics. Mentalists perform a theatrical act that includes special effects that may appear to employ psychic or supernatural forces but that are actually achieved by "ordinary conjuring means",[1] natural human abilities (i.e. reading body language, refined intuition, subliminal communication, emotional intelligence), and an in-depth understanding of key principles from human psychology or other behavioral sciences.[2][3][4]

Mentalism is commonly classified as a subcategory of magic and, when performed by a stage magician, may also be referred to as mental magic. However, many professional mentalists today may generally distinguish themselves from magicians, insisting that their art form leverages a distinct skillset.[5] Instead of doing "magic tricks", mentalists argue that they produce psychological experiences for the mind and imagination, and expand reality with explorations of psychology, suggestion, and influence.[6] Mentalists are also often considered psychic entertainers,[6][7][8] although that category also contains non-mentalist performers such as psychic readers and bizarrists.

Some well-known magicians, such as Penn & Teller, and James Randi, argue that a key differentiation between a mentalist and someone who purports to be an actual psychic is that the former is open about being a skilled artist or entertainer who accomplishes their feats through practice, study, and natural means, while the latter may claim to actually possess genuine supernatural, psychic, or extrasensory powers and, thus, operates unethically.[1][9][10]

Renowned mentalist Joseph Dunninger, who also worked to debunk fraudulent mediums,[11] captured this key sentiment when he explained his impressive abilities in the following way: "Any child of ten could do this – with forty years of experience."[5] Like any performing art, mentalism requires years of dedication, extensive study, practice, and skill to perform well and perfect.

Background

Much of what modern mentalists perform in their acts can be traced back directly to "tests" of supernatural power that were carried out by mediums, spiritualists, and psychics in the 19th century.[12] However, the history of mentalism goes back even further. Accounts of seers and oracles can be found in the Old Testament[13] of the Bible and in works about ancient Greece.[14] Paracelsus reiterated the theme, so reminiscent of the ancient Greeks, that three principias were incorporated into humanity: the spiritual, the physical, and mentalistic phenomena.[15] The mentalist act generally cited as one of the earliest on record in the modern era was performed by diplomat and pioneering sleight-of-hand magician Girolamo Scotto in 1572.[5] The performance of mentalism may utilize conjuring principles including sleights, feints, misdirection, and other skills of street or stage magic.[16] Nonetheless, modern mentalists also now increasingly incorporate insights from human psychology and behavioral sciences to produce unexplainable experiences and effects for their audiences.

Mentalism Techniques

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Suggestion: This technique involves implanting an idea, thought, or impression in the mind of the spectator or participant. The mentalist does this by using subtle verbal cues, gestures, body language, and sometimes visual aids to influence their thoughts. For instance, asking someone to "think of any card in a normal deck" automatically plants the general idea of a playing card in their mind. Similarly, asking them to "visualize the card clearly in your mind" can put the image of a particular card in their imagination.

Misdirection: Also known as diversion, this technique aims to divert the audience's attention away from the secret method or process behind a mentalism effect. Magicians and mentalists frequently use grand gestures, animated movement, music, and chatter to distract attention from a sneaky maneuver that sets up the trick. For example, a mentalist may engage in lively conversation while secretly writing something on his palm. Or he may dramatically throw his jacket on a chair to cover up a hidden assistant in the audience.

Cold Reading: This technique involves making calculated guesses and drawing logical conclusions about a person by carefully observing their appearance, responses, mannerisms, vocal tones, and other unconscious reactions. Mentalists leverage these cues along with high probability assumptions about human nature to come up with surprisingly accurate character insights and details about someone. They can then present this as if they magically knew the information through psychic powers.

Hot Reading: This refers to the practice of gathering background information about the audience or participants before doing a mentalism act or seance. Mentalists can then astonish spectators by revealing something they could not possibly have known otherwise. However, doing hot readings without informing the audience is considered unethical. Ethical mentalists only do hot readings if they explicitly disclose it, or do it for entertainment with the participant's consent.

Psychological Manipulation: Master mentalists have an in-depth understanding of human psychology which allows them to subtly manipulate thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. They use verbal suggestion, social pressure, visual cues and mental framing to influence perceptions and reactions. This lets them guide participants towards the responses, outcomes or choices they want. For instance, a mentalist may hint that choosing a certain number will lead to something positive.

Dual Reality: This principle involves structuring a routine to present different experiences to the observer versus the participant. For example, a mentalist may have an audience member pick a "random" card that is actually forced by the mentalist's assistant. The participant believes they freely chose any card, while the audience knows it's manipulated.

Subtle Artistry: The most skilled mentalists ensure their performances seem completely natural, organic and unrehearsed even though they are carefully planned. They structure their acts, patter and effects to come across as pure luck, coincidence or chance rather than as clever illusions or tricks. This 'invisible' artistry maintains the mystique around mentalist performances.[17]

Performance approaches

Styles of mentalist presentation can vary greatly. In this vein, Penn & Teller explain that "[m]entalism is a genre of magic that exists across a spectrum of morality."[9] In the past, at times, some performers such as Alexander[18] and Uri Geller[19][20][21] have promoted themselves as genuine psychics. Other famous mentalists, such as Joseph Dunninger and Michael Gutenplan, have stated that their skills were human, but the result of extensive practice and study.[5] The style of Theodore Annemann has been described as "that of an ordinary person, with extraordinary powers."[22]

Some contemporary performers, such as Derren Brown, explain that their results and effects are from using natural skills, including the ability to master magic techniques and showmanship, read body language, and influence audiences with psychological principles, such as suggestion.[3] In this vein, Brown explains that he presents and stages "psychological experiments" through his performances.[23] Mentalist and psychic entertainer Banachek also rejects that he possesses any supernatural or actual psychic powers,[24] having worked with the James Randi Educational Foundation for many years to investigate and debunk fake psychics.[25] He is clear with the public that the effects and experiences he creates through his stage performance are the result of his highly developed performance skills and magic techniques, combined with psychological principles and tactics.[24][26]

Max Maven often presents his performances as creating interactive mysteries and explorations of the mysterious dimensions of the human mind.[27] He is described as a "mentalist and master magician"[28] as well as a "mystery theorist."[29] Other mentalists and allied performers also promote themselves as "mystery entertainers".[30]

There are mentalists, including Maurice Fogel, Kreskin, Chan Canasta, and David Berglas, who make no specific claims about how effects are achieved and may leave it up to the audience to decide, creating what has been described as "a wonderful sense of ambiguity about whether they possess true psychic ability or not."[31]

Contemporary mentalists often take their shows onto the streets and perform tricks to a live, unsuspecting audience. They do this by approaching random members of the public and ask to demonstrate so-called supernatural powers. However, some performers such as Derren Brown who often adopt this method of performance tell their audience before the trick starts that everything they see is an illusion and that they are not really "having their mind read." This has been the cause of a lot of controversy in the sphere of magic as some mentalists want their audience to believe that this type of magic is "real" while others think that it is morally wrong to lie to a spectator.[32]

Distinction from magicians

Professional mentalists generally do not mix "standard" magic tricks with their mental feats. Doing so associates mentalism too closely with the theatrical trickery employed by stage magicians. Many mentalists claim not to be magicians at all, arguing that it is a different art form altogether.[6][5] The argument is that mentalism invokes belief and imagination that, when presented properly, may allow the audience to interpret a given effect as "real" or may at least provide enough ambiguity that it is unclear whether it is actually possible to somehow achieve.[33][2] This lack of certainty about the limits of what is real may lead individuals in an audience to reach different conclusions and beliefs about mentalist performers' claims – be they about their various so-called psychic abilities, photographic memory, being a "human calculator", power of suggestion, NLP, or other skills. In this way, mentalism may play on the senses and a spectator's perception or understanding of reality in a different way than conjuring techniques utilized in stage magic.[34][2]

Magicians often ask the audience to suspend their disbelief, ignore natural laws, and allow their imagination to play with the various tricks they present. They admit that they are tricksters from the outset, and they know that the audience understands that everything is an illusion.[35][2] Everyone knows that the magician cannot really achieve the impossible feats shown, such as sawing a person in half and putting them back together without injury, but that level of certainty does not generally exist among the mentalist's audience. Still, other mentalists believe it is unethical to portray their powers as real, adopting the same presentation philosophy as most magicians. These mentalists are honest about their deceptions, with some referring to this as "theatrical mentalism".[36]

However, some magicians do still mix mentally-themed performance with magic illusions. For example, a mind-reading stunt might also involve the magical transposition of two different objects. Such hybrid feats of magic are often called mental magic by performers. Magicians who routinely mix magic with mental magic include David Copperfield, David Blaine, The Amazing Kreskin, and Dynamo.[citation needed]

Notable mentalists

Historical figures

Mentalism techniques have, on occasion, been allegedly used outside the entertainment industry to influence the actions of prominent people for personal and/or political gain. Famous examples of accused practitioners include:

In Albert Einstein's preface to Upton Sinclair's 1930 book on telepathy, Mental Radio, he supported his friend's endeavor to test the abilities of purported psychics and skeptically suggested: "So if somehow the facts here set forth rest not upon telepathy, but upon some unconscious hypnotic influence from person to person, this also would be of high psychological interest."[40] As such, Einstein here alluded to techniques of modern mentalism.

See also

References

  1. ^ a b "Mentalism – Encyclopedia of Claims". JREF. Retrieved January 10, 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d "What's the difference between magic and mentalism?". CW Magic. 2021. Retrieved January 10, 2021.
  3. ^ a b Brown, Derren (2007). Tricks of the Mind. United Kingdom: Transworld Publishers.
  4. ^ "What is Mentalism?". Brut. Retrieved January 11, 2021.
  5. ^ a b c d e Brennan, John T. (2007). Ghosts of Newport: Spirits, Scoundres, Legends and Lore. History Press.
  6. ^ a b c Vanishing, Inc. (2021). What is Mentalism?.
  7. ^ "Psychic Entertainers Association : Application". www.p-e-a.org. Retrieved January 11, 2021.
  8. ^ "Bio". Banachek. Retrieved January 11, 2021.
  9. ^ a b Penn & Teller (2021). Arts and Entertainment: Mentalist or Crook?. MasterClass.
  10. ^ Roeper, Richard (March 19, 2015). "'An Honest Liar': How the Amazing Randi debunked psychic frauds". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved January 10, 2021.
  11. ^ Green, Adam (September 26, 2019). "How Derren Brown Remade Mind Reading for Skeptics". The New Yorker. Retrieved January 10, 2021.
  12. ^ Cassidy, Bob: "Fundamentals of Professional Mentalism". Lybrary, 2007. pp. 7–9.
  13. ^ Grant, Elihu (1923). "Oracle in the Old Testament". The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures. 39 (4): 257–281. doi:10.1086/369998. ISSN 1062-0516. JSTOR 528285. S2CID 170460547.
  14. ^ Flower, Michael Attyah (2008). The Seer in Ancient Greece (PDF). Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.
  15. ^ Achterberg, J. (2002). Imagery in Healing: Shamanism and Modern Medicine. Shambhala. p. 71. ISBN 978-0-8348-2629-8. Retrieved June 1, 2023.
  16. ^ Randi, James (1995). "An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural". St. Martin's Press. Retrieved March 28, 2008.
  17. ^ 'Mentalism Techniques': Techniques to master mentalism, retrieved March 30, 2024
  18. ^ "Alexander – The man who knows". ForzoniMagic. Retrieved January 10, 2021.
  19. ^ "The Psychic ... and the Skeptic : Uri Geller and James Randi have fought each other for nearly 20 years. Now they're at it again". Los Angeles Times. July 27, 2020. Archived from the original on July 27, 2020. Retrieved January 10, 2021.
  20. ^ AFP. "Uri Geller offers UK his 'psychic powers' in job bid". www.timesofisrael.com. Retrieved January 10, 2021.
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  22. ^ "Theodore Annemenn". ForzoniMagic. Retrieved January 10, 2021.
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  25. ^ Cerrado, Derrick (November 13, 2009). "Banachek – Mentalism and Skepticism | Point of Inquiry". Retrieved January 10, 2021.
  26. ^ Measom, Tyler; Weinstein, Justin (November 2, 2014), An Honest Liar (Documentary, Biography, Comedy, History), James Randi, José Alvarez, Penn Jillette, Teller, Left Turn Films, Pure Mutt Productions, BBC Storyville, retrieved January 10, 2021
  27. ^ "All About Max ~ MaxMaven.com". www.maxmaven.com. Retrieved January 10, 2021.
  28. ^ "Magician Max Maven's Thinking in Person Set for Off-Broadway Run | TheaterMania". www.theatermania.com. Retrieved January 10, 2021.
  29. ^ "Max Maven, Mystery Theorist & Magician (EG8)". EG Conference. October 30, 2019. Retrieved January 10, 2021.
  30. ^ "PSYCRETS British Society of Mystery Entertainers". PSYCRETS British Society of Mystery Entertainers. Retrieved January 11, 2021.
  31. ^ Landman, Todd (March 18, 2016). "Magic professor: magicians tap into what it means to be human". The Conversation. Retrieved January 10, 2021.
  32. ^ "Is it wrong to work Magic?". Archived from the original on April 26, 2015. Retrieved April 12, 2015.
  33. ^ Mio (March 22, 2016). "Key Differences Between Mentalism and Magic". Magic by Mio. Retrieved January 10, 2021.
  34. ^ Mio (March 22, 2016). "Key Differences Between Mentalism and Magic". Magic by Mio. Retrieved January 10, 2021.
  35. ^ Mio (March 22, 2016). "Key Differences Between Mentalism and Magic". Magic by Mio. Retrieved January 10, 2021.
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  37. ^ Gordon, Mel: "Hanussen: Hitler's Jewish Clairvoyant". Feral House, 2001
  38. ^ George King, The Last Empress: The Life and Times of Alexandra Feodorovna, Tsarina of Russia. Replica Books, 2001. ISBN 978-0735101043
  39. ^ Hamilton-Parker, Craig (December 1, 1996). "Medium with a message". Scotland on Sunday. p. 5.
  40. ^ Halpern, Paul (August 30, 2020). "Einstein and the Mentalists". Medium. Retrieved January 11, 2021.

Further reading