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There are dozens of television shows and movies based on the idea of mentalism and how hyperawareness can trick others into believing in psychic abilities. The art of mentalism is a form of entertainment, but it can become so much more than mere parlor tricks. Mentalism can change your view of the way the world works. Want to know how mentalism tricks work?

Mentalists can make you believe that they are clairvoyant, have telekinetic powers, and that they have the ability to read your mind. With their strengths in misdirection and technical skill, plus the power of suggestion, it can be easy to get swept into a display of what appears magical.

This article will focus on the ins and outs of mentalism and how a mentalist can do their convincing tricks. You might be surprised to learn that mentalists can use their skills for entertainment and unscrupulous purposes alike. Read on to discover more about the sometimes magical and always misleading world of misdirection and mentalism. 

How Does Mentalism Work?

A mentalist almost always has to rely on the powers of suggestion and illusion to give the audience the idea that he or she can really read minds or has mind control powers. Unfortunately for the believers out there, mentalism is every bit an illusion as a magician’s performance magic. 

However similar the two may seem, mentalism and magic are not exactly the same practice. Mentalism has been called a branch of magic, which some illusionists use in their magic show. Although both involve illusions and misdirecting the audience, magic and mentalism can use different methods.

MentalismMagic
Makes people wonder “How could you know that?”Makes people ask “How did you do that?”
Deals in mental and social probabilitiesIs a visual illusion or sleight of hand
Audience is left wondering if the mentalist is really telekinetic or clairvoyantAudience knows the “magic wand” is not really a charmed object

Mentalism works because mentalists are such dedicated students of psychology and human behavior. Oftentimes a mentalist can use multiple tricks without appearing to have swindled anyone at all. Even the skeptics in the audience likely end up baffled because of the improbability of a mentalist to know what they appear to know.

Mentalists hone their abilities to be hyper observant to body language and other physical or verbal cues and store the information away so they can appear to have “discerned” the facts later in the act. The result is the performer appearing to read minds and guess names, numbers, and a myriad of other seemingly impossible things.

How Do Mentalism Tricks Work?

Human beings love to believe that they are more complex and mysterious than they really are. However, since the beginning of time and sales associate positions, people have studied up on human behavior. Many people desire to know more about the way a human brain works to help people, while others use that knowledge for their own gain.

The success of mentalism is based on the audience’s belief that if the ability to read someone’s mind exists, surely no one would be able to read their mind. While clairvoyance and mindreading are not actually part of mentalism, the appearance of such things ensure the success of the mentalist and make the tricks work.

Probability plays a big role in the art of mentalism too. For example, the next time you ask someone to think of a number between one and ten, it is most likely that they will think of the number seven, then eight is the next most likely, and then three. Mentalism works on people because of a few different reasons:

  • Without realizing, an audience member may divulge personal information that the mentalist can pretend to “divine” later
  • Certain features, mannerisms, physical appearances and other factors speak a lot about a person and can aid the mentalist to make an accurate assumption about a person
  • The mentalist can feed the thought or answer he wants to “guess” from an audience member later on

The good news is that since mentalism is a skill, finely honed by those who have mastered it, it can be taught and learned to practically anyone willing to put in the work. The knowledge of such can also help protect you against mentalist tricks should someone be trying to use them against you.

How Does the Mentalist Do It?

Watching a mentalist perform his seemingly impossible feats of knowledge and imagination can be even more impressive and appreciated when you understand the skill behind the act. Sometimes mentalists have to practice and study for years before they can even have a successful, albeit short, thirty minute show that may include:

  • Appearing to read the mind of an audience member
  • Appearing to move things on stage with the power of their mind
  • Predicting the future (under controlled circumstances, of course)

The mentalist uses their mental agility to appear to divine facts and bits of knowledge that the audience may have already let slip. Physical appearances also help to convey facts to the mentalist. The whole trick is to not let the audience know that the mentalist is actually much more observant than most people, rather than mystical or magical.

For example, if you have ever had a cat or dog, it is likely that you remember how easy it is for you to make a collection of their hair on your clothing. A mentalist may take note of the animal hair on your clothing and depending on the appearance of the hair, “divine” that you love animals or have a favorite pet at home. 

Another example of mentalism is how a mentalist could predict if you are left or right handed. If you wear a watch on your left hand, it is likely that you are right-handed. The wear of your shoes, tiny calluses on your hands, and other physical factors in your appearance also speak volumes to a mentalist trying to deceive you.

Are Mentalist Tricks Hard to Do?

A mentalist often uses mathematical probability to guess what the audience participant is thinking. By giving the participant a choice to pick a random number, it appears to the rest of the audience that the trick is not being controlled by the mentalist, but by the audience member, which only adds to the illusion that the artist can read minds.

For example, there is a popular trick called “The Gray Elephant From Denmark” that is so simple, you can use it to baffle your loved ones. The trick requires the participant to think of a number between 1 and 10 and then multiply that number by 9. After adding up the two digits of that resulting number, the audience member needs to subtract five.

Little known to the audience, the resulting number is always going to be four. The mentalist then asks the other person to think of a country that starts with the letter of the alphabet that corresponds with the number that they received. The mentalist also asks them to think of the color of an animal that starts with the second letter of the country.

In the case of this trick, the number 4 matches up with the letter D. Most people think of the country of Denmark for the letter D and an elephant for the second letter of that country, which is E. Elephants are gray in color, so this trick just allowed you to seemingly guess the number, country, and color the participant was thinking of!

Can Anyone Be a Mentalist?

As is evidenced by that simple but impressive trick that is exemplified above, mentalism does not have to be a difficult thing to do to convince someone else that you have mind reading powers. If you are willing to put in the work, the practice, and the time to become good at mentalism, it can turn from a hobby to a profession for you!

Unfortunately for the aspiring mentalist, learning these masterful mental tricks is not as easy as picking up a beginner magician’s set, complete with magic wand and top hat. Professional mentalists are known to be very secretive about their tricks and do not share the methods of use to anyone.

It makes sense as these tricks likely took years of study and research to perfect. After all, we are not exactly talking about a series of parlor tricks here! Mentalists have to study many things to be successful in this deceptive art, some of which are:

  • Human behavior
  • Probability
  • Mathematics 
  • Psychology

While this list is not exhaustive of all the things a mentalist might want to be proficient in, it does give you an idea of the work that could be ahead of you if you do decide to pursue this art form. Illusions are almost always a question of showmanship though, so no matter how much you pour yourself into the books, be prepared to put on a show!

Steps to Take to Become a Mentalist

Once you have established your interest in mentalism, you still have plenty to do to become a master of the art of illusion and deception. It is easy enough to buy a book and practice a few tricks on your friends and family, but there is still more you can actively do to pursue this passion.

One of the first things you will want to do is to determine if you are interested in mentalism as a hobby or as a potential career choice. Obviously for the first bit you will not be qualified to charge anyone money to see your novice show, but keep in mind that your skills will improve, and should you desire, you could become a professional.

Once you have decided how far you want to go in the pursuit of the ultimate bamboozle, you can try a little bit of everything under the vast umbrella that is mentalism. You might find that you are more interested in the art of faking divination or telepathy than pursuing clairvoyance or medium work. Find your passion and your focus.

If nothing else, make sure you practice as much as you can and meet up with other mentalists that can teach you a thing or two. Learn everything they are willing to share with you. It will take plenty of time and experience, but if you are dedicated, there is no reason you should not be successful.

Can Mentalism Be Used Against Someone?

Sadly, not everyone proficient in the art of mentalism chooses to use it for fun and entertainment. There are people that would love to make others believe they are psychic or can speak with the dead to profit off of the lonely or grief-stricken. These days it is not too difficult to find a TV show with this same subject material.

Picture yourself grieving over a close friend or relative. Maybe you spent the last earthly conversation you shared with this loved one arguing or speaking to them carelessly. If someone could purportedly prove to you that they had the ability to converse with that family member, it would likely be difficult for you to deny yourself that experience.

Because mentalists are so adept at convincing their audience that they are “the real deal,” even the most skeptic individuals can be sucked into the illusion. This makes for an excellent and entertaining show for audiences, but can unfortunately also cause a lot of heartache and even money loss when the mentalist is an opportunist as well.

These examples just prove that even when it seems obvious that someone has the ability to see the unseen, you should keep in mind that mentalism, like magic, is derived from a series of illusions. If you are careful and always take a mentalist show with several grains of salt, you should be safe and able to enjoy it for what it is.

What Are Some Tactics Used By Mentalists?

Mentalists are excellent at showmanship and can make the revelation of a particular fact seem magical. Keep in mind of course, magical does not necessarily mean derived from literal magic. In any case, mentalists focus a lot of their study on three main tactics to be able to work a crowd:

  • Cold reading 
  • Psychology
  • Hypnosis or suggestion

Mentalism, with a good deal of charisma and showmanship, can turn an ordinary street or stage act into a truly mystifying event! Mentalists know the ins and outs of these three tactics and are able to use them to convince both skeptics and believers alike that they have any and all sorts of magical, mental abilities.

When used right, it can be hard for even the most cynical person to deny being impressed with a mentalist’s tricks. Mentalism gives the performer the ability to answer the question, “How could you know that?” with a series of very practiced and clever methods, tricks, and precise verbal devices. 

There is a book called 13 Steps to Mentalism that most professionals consider to be the mentalist bible. Along with reading this book, and perhaps a few others, these three skills above really help to show the mentalist the specific limitations of their abilities. Mentalists can do many things, but even they have limits to what they can do!

Cold Reading

 Cold reading is something that a lot of mentalists and other “clairvoyants” like mediums and psychics use to appear to know certain aspects about a person. Mediums use this tactic to appear to speak to people beyond the grave. The interesting thing about cold reading is how obviously fake it can seem when you are not caught up in the show.

As an example, one thing you will hear mediums say a lot is, “Who here had a father figure pass on?” Most people over a certain age have lost a father, uncle, or even a grandfather or family friend they were close to. The odds for the mentalist working in a room of people that at least one individual will fit into this particular box is very likely.

Just to give you an idea of how in depth a mentalist has to study and practice to be successful, take a look at some factors that you would have to be well-versed in to understand the small section of mentalism that is cold reading:

  • Speaking with broad communication
  • Carefully crafted sentences and language
  • Highly likely guesses

Those best at the art of cold reading are good listeners and practice attentive observation of others. They can easily take your physical appearance like your clothing or hairstyle and add the way you talk or sit and can apply that to a few clever statements and questions and make you believe they have special powers.

Psychology

As any mental health doctor worth their salt will tell you, perception is reality. In regards to mentalism, this more or less means that if you can make someone think you have the ability to read minds, in their understanding, you might as well actually have that ability. Mentalism can make others second guess reality, which is worth keeping in mind.

A lot of mentalists will base their show around the appearance of “free choice.” However, these apparently free choices are always anything but. A mentalist has to maintain control of the situation as they are not really magical and do not have any special powers. Free choice questions should feel random to the audience.

There are also other free choice questions that always come with an “if/then” qualifier for the mentalist. The artist may ask an audience participant if they prefer cats or dogs. In order for the mentalist to maintain complete control of the situation, the mentalist would not ask the participant their favorite animal as there are too many questions.

If the audience likes cats more, the mentalist can move his act in accordance with that answer and ask follow up questions that are appropriate for the situation. Because the question only has three possible answers; cats, dogs, and neither, the audience does not realize that the free choice question was being so controlled.

Hypnosis and Suggestion

The power of suggestion, otherwise known as hypnosis, can be very powerful. It has been said, however, that complete mind control is not possible, and no hypnotist, no matter how good, could make someone do something under the power of suggestion that the person would not be willing to do in other circumstances, hopefully such as:

  • Kill another person
  • Commit suicide
  • Anything that would violate the individual’s personal ethics

But hypnotism still needs to be treated with a certain amount of human empathy and respect. Because most people understand that in order to be put under hypnosis into this state of suggestion requires desire on the part of the participant and a certain comfort level, only those that are open to this sort of thing will be able to participate.

This immediately weeds out the skeptics. A good mentalist will explain that if a person is fighting the urge to be hypnotized, the hypnosis will not work. This is a solid back-up plan and excuse in hand should the act go awry. This also helps the act develop a certain amount of authenticity for the audience. 

Like any other mental tool, hypnosis can be used for entertainment and harmless fun, but it can also be abused to hurt people. Hypnosis is an unstable science and there have been instances where a show can and has gone wrong. Many professional mentalists steer clear from using hypnosis in their acts specifically for this reason. 

How Can Mentalism Help You?

Mentalism obviously has its high and low points, but mentalism could help benefit you personally, if you are interested in developing this particular set of skills. Even if you are not interested in making a career out of tricks like these, mentalism can still help you improve your communication, problem solving, and can even help your relationships.

A mentalist has to be prepared, confident, and in control of the conversation to make his act successful. All three of these factors could at the very least help you in a job interview, and could likely benefit you in many other instances as well! 

For instance, imagine you are on a first date with someone. Would you prefer to talk to someone that was engaging, charismatic, and a good conversationalist? Or would you like to date a human potato? Now the two things are not mutually exclusive, but learning a mentalist trick or two would be an excellent ice breaker on a first date.

Communication, as you likely already know, has to go both ways to be successful. If one person is doing all the talking and none of the listening, the conversation will go nowhere. Mentalism requires the mentalist to be an entertaining orator, but also a dedicated listener, which is easy to apply in your everyday life.

Where to Start?

Oftentimes in movies and other media, magic seems to be performed by the nerdy young kid. The nice thing about mentalism is that it is a sort of branch off of mental magic, but the connotation is a lot more positive. Hypnotists, mediums, and psychics, permitting they are believable of course, have a mystical and magical quality to them.

If you have a desire to get started in mentalism, be prepared for the process that it takes to become decently successful. There are so many books out there that can teach you the basics of where to start in your mentalist journey. That being said, you will eventually want to create your own material and stop borrowing off of other acts.

That being said, it is best to start practicing with some well known tricks first, and then move on to studying human behavior and probability. It is convenient to start with members of your friends and family. Really pay attention to the words they are saying, but also their body language and think about why they act or say things a certain way.

Ultimately, finding another, more experienced mentalist to take you under their wing is going to help you more than anything. Do not be offended if they do not want to share the secrets of their own best tricks with you, as they likely poured years into them. If nothing else, you can ask them to help you with their endless wealth of knowledge.

Final Thoughts

Mentalism is a complicated beast. On the one hand, it can be fun, entertaining, and harmless. It can teach you many things about human behavior and can even give you a solid career option. More than anything, mentalism can be a lighthearted and mystical art form that is sure to blow audiences away.

However, for as many benefits as there are to learning mentalism, this form of illusion can also be used to deceive and harm people. Unfortunately, mentalism is one of the easier ways opportunists can manipulate even the most skeptical observer. This is why it is so important that to truly enjoy mentalism, you have to remember that it is not real.

Magicians have said: the hand is quicker than the eye. Our brains want things to make sense and follow a specific pattern of prediction and actuality. Therefore, if a mentalist can learn that pattern and “create” the future, they are able to use that. Even if you do not become a professional mentalist, hopefully you learned a few impressive tricks. 

Sources:

https://www.finchmagician.com/blog/how-mentalists-read-minds/#mentalist-definition
https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/this-mentalist-teaches-you-how-to-read-minds/article31444899.ece
https://medium.com/@factsaboutmagic/how-do-mentalists-do-their-tricks-70a37de5a142
https://www.vanishingincmagic.com/mentalism/articles/how-does-cold-reading-work/
https://improvemagic.com/what-is-a-mentalist/
https://physics.aps.org/story/v14/st16