Mentalism is a performing art in which its practitioners, appear to demonstrate highly developed mental or intuitive abilities.
Performances may appear to include hypnosis, telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis, mind control, memory feats and rapid mathematics.
The performance of mentalism may utilize these principles along with sleights, feints, misdirection and other skills of street or stage magic.
Mentalists are sometimes categorised as psychic entertainers, although that category also contains non-mentalist performers such as psychic readers.
Styles of presentation can vary greatly. Traditional performers attributed their results to supernatural or psychic skills.
Other contemporary performers, attribute their results to natural skills, such as the ability to read body language or to manipulate the subject subliminally through psychological suggestion.
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 their supernatural powers.
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 they are not really ‘having their mind read’.
In recent years, many other mentalists and allied performers have also begun to promote themselves as mystery entertainers or theorists.
MENTALIST OR MAGICIAN
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’ whilst others think that it is morally wrong to lie to a spectator.
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. Sleight of hand, mechanical devices and staging, including misdirection, are all too often shunned by the ‘pure’ mentalist.
There are some mentalists who believe that magicians shouldn’t even do anything in the mentalism area as part of an otherwise strictly ‘magical’ show.
The argument is that mentalism invokes belief and when presented properly, is offered as being ‘real’. Be it a claim of psychic ability, or proof that supports other claims such as a photographic memory, being a ‘human calculator’, the power of suggestion, etc..
Magicians ask the audience to suspend their belief and allow their imagination to play with the various tricks they present. They admit that they are tricksters and entertainers, and know the audience understands it’s an illusion.
The magician cannot really achieve the impossible feats shown, such as sawing a person in half and putting them back together. However, many magicians mix mentally-themed performance with magic illusions.
Generally, short-term memory has a capacity of seven items. However, in order to memorize long strings of unrelated information, this constraint must be overcome.
Skilled memory therefore involves three steps: meaningful encoding, retrieval structure, and speed-up.
In encoding, information is encoded in terms of knowledge structures through meaningful associations. This may initially involve breaking down long lists into more manageable chunks that fall within the capacity of short term memory.
Verbal reports of memory experts show a consistent grouping of three or four. A digit sequence 1-9-4-5, for example, can then be remembered as “the year World War Two ended”.
The title mnemonist refers to an individual with the ability to remember and recall unusually long lists of data, such as unfamiliar names, lists of numbers, entries in books, etc..
Currently, all memory champions at the World Memory Championships have said that they use two prominent methods of retrieving information mnemonic strategies. These are the method of loci and hierarchical nodes, to perform their memory feats.
The method of loci is “the use of an orderly arrangement of locations into which one could place the images of things or people that are to be remembered”. The encoding process happens in three steps.
First, an architectural area, such as the houses on a street, must be memorized. Second, each item to be remembered must be associated with a separate image. Finally, this set of images can be distributed in a ‘locus’, or place within the architectural area, in a pre-determined order.
The next stage is to create a retrieval structure by which the associations can be recalled. It serves the function of storing retrieval cues without having to use short term memory and is used to preserve the order of items to be remembered.
As one tries to recall the information, the mnemonists simply has to ‘walk’ down the street, see each symbol, and recall the associated information.
The most common method that “psychics” during their performances is “cold reading.” This technique depends heavily on basic statistics. Specifically, a psychic, medium, or similar mentalist must lean on the likelihood of guesses to be correct and for there to inevitably be someone who relates to a given question, like “Does someone connect with a J or G name?”
While there is no possible way to definitively state that a mentalist cannot read minds, there has not yet been a mainstream “psychic” figure who has not been debunked or exposed for fraud or trickery. Magician Derren Brown attributes this to the human mind’s tendency to heavily “edit” someone’s perceptions to create a story.
Every moment of every day, you make a series of subconscious decisions to notice or overlook specific parts of your environment. This is all in an effort to make sense of the happenings around you in the easiest, most straightforward way possible. This prevents the mind from having to face too many unnecessary cognitive challenges.
Unfortunately, the brain’s made-up stories are often wrong, meaning you essentially “trick” yourself into believing certain things are true or not quite regularly. It makes you vulnerable or, in a more positive sense, more accepting to the idea that the supernatural really can exist.
Magicians capitalize on your brain’s eagerness to ‘delete’ certain details from your perception. By intentionally misdirecting your attention or omitting information, the mentalist encourages your mind to make up a story about how something occurred. All this ultimately works to make them seem as if they possess unnatural abilities.
Mentalists operate on their observance of human behavior to then appear as if they can read minds or have supernatural abilities. In this case, the theory would be known as ‘descriptive mentalism’.
It is possible to learn mentalism. However, you must understand that these techniques aren’t as straightforward to learn as popular parlor tricks, that only require sleight of hand. Instead, a successful mentalist has typically dedicated years to familiarizing themselves with human behavior and cognition.
Still, if you’re dedicated to allotting the time, energy, and resources to learn these techniques, you’ll surely get the hang of it and can become a great practitioner. In fact, even some psychologists can give you tips on how to ‘read minds’. It all starts with ‘sensory awareness’ and how to use it in your interpersonal interactions.
Cognitive awareness is how your mind interprets others’ behaviors and the situations you experience. It homes in on specific details in the environment or someone’s behaviors, to make sense of what you’re seeing and hearing.
Sensory awareness is a functional awareness of your actions and how they might affect your interactions or environment. For example, in a conversation with someone, this level of awareness will clue you in to how your behaviors or expressions affect the other person.
BECOME A MENTALIST
Enhancing your sensory awareness depends on your understanding of the two factors described above. You’ll first need to get familiar with recognizing these elements and how they play into a conversation, then you can begin consciously building your ability to use them for mentalism techniques.
In addition to the awareness types discussed above, mentalism requires that you master the art of reading people’s non-verbal communication, not just body language. This practice depends on several behavioral aspects that take quite a bit of time and dedication to learn, such as reading micro-expressions.
You’ll also need to learn force and misdirection. ‘Force’ comes in many forms, but essentially, it’s the process of pushing your participant into making certain decisions, based on your suggestion or ‘magician’s choice’.
The latter seems to leave several options for the onlooker, but really, all paths lead to the same outcome. On the other hand, misdirection is a blatant manipulation of what the participant sees. It is arguably the central component of deceptive magic’s foundation, as it allows you to maintain control over what others’ perceive.
WHERE ARE WE NOW
Mentalism represents a collection of psychological tricks and manipulations that practitioners, known as ‘mentalists’, use to create the illusion that they have supernatural abilities. Depending on the act, this can involve guessing the name of someone’s loved one, a card they chose out of a deck, or ‘connecting’ to people that have died.
Most mentalists are honest about what they’re doing and acknowledge that there’s nothing supernatural involved. Others, like Uri Geller and the Long Island Medium, have capitalized on people’s willingness to suspend all disbelief, and positioned themselves as individuals with spiritual abilities.
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