Most people will attempt to learn some sort of magic in their life, but few actually stick with it. If you’re one of those few who has mastered a few card tricks and you’re itching to try something more challenging, then it is a perfect time to start learning mentalism.
Learning mentalism can be a challenge, but it can be a ton of fun too. Like any new skill, it will require diligence, patience, and a lot of practice. But, if you follow the five steps we lay out below, you will be mystifying your friends and family in no time!
What Is Mentalism and How Do You Do It?
Mentalism is the illusion of having extrasensory mind powers. Common forms of mentalism include mind reading, hypnosis, clairvoyance, divination, mind control, memory tricks, precognition, and mediumship. These are all different astonishing feats of mental “superpowers.”
So, learning “mentalism” as a broad category really involves learning specific acts of mentalism.
There is no shortcut to mastering a mentalism technique. The only way to get there is to practice, practice, and practice. Thankfully, once you’ve familiarized yourself with some basics, learning new tricks later should come along a little bit easier.
Think of learning mentalism like learning an instrument or really any other new skill. There are no quick ways to the top. Trying to jump past earlier steps just makes things more difficult later on. The steps we lay out below should set you on the path to mastering the basics and applying them to new tricks.
Start by Learning the Basic Parts of Mentalism
Let’s begin by breaking mentalism down into smaller components. This makes learning a little simpler and then also allows you to construct mentalist tricks using each of the components. There are four main basic components to understand as you step into the mentalism pool.
- Effects: The “effects” are the thing the audience member perceives to be happening, i.e. reading a mind, bending a spoon, etc.
- Techniques: The “techniques” are the different ways you might work in order to achieve the effect.
- Devices: These would be any props or tools you use to achieve the effect. Devices aren’t as crucial to mentalism as they are to some other magic tricks, but there are some useful pieces.
- Performatives: Think of these of the presentation or how you are acting as you present the illusion.
Every mentalism trick you learn will in some way make use of these components so having a strong grasp of them is a crucial foundation. It is impossible to build the “mentalism house” without this work. Let’s take a closer look at each of these pieces.
Learn the Effects of Mentalism
As stated above in the introduction, there are several different types of mentalism. Each of these different types of mentalism is really a difference of effect. The classic and most obvious mentalism effect would be telepathy, also known as mind reading, though many serious mentalists don’t like to use the words “mind reading” to describe it.
Telepathy is the effect of knowing what someone is thinking without them telling you. This is an exciting effect that can be expected to please most crowds. Perhaps you’ve learned how to tell what they are thinking at this moment, a number or color on their mind, a specific memory they are concentrating on, or any number of other possibilities.
Another stunning and common effect is telekinesis. This is the appearance of moving objects using only the power of your mind. You could levitate something, bend a spoon, or move an object across the room without touching it. Telekinesis requires a different set of skills than telepathy, as do most forms of mentalism.
The list of mentalism effects goes on and on. Without going into too much detail into each one, several common ones include:
- Hypnosis: This is the ability to seemingly control another person, also known as mind control.
- Divination: This is the ability to pull insight or knowledge from an object.
- Precognition: Also known as future sight or seeing into the future.
- Mediumship: The ability to connect and converse with spirits or people who have died.
Understanding the desired effect of any mentalism act is the first place to start. Once you know what effect you are trying to achieve, you can move on to learning the technique.
Learn the Techniques of Mentalism
As mentioned above, different mentalism effects require different techniques to achieve. There are some common techniques that can be applied to different acts. Below we’ll go over several different common techniques and some different effects you could use them to achieve.
What is a Force Technique?
A force is a very common technique that could be applied to a lot of different mentalism acts. Simply put, a force is when a mentalist manipulates a situation to achieve a desired outcome. The best mentalists can accomplish this while still allowing the participants to believe they have complete free will in any situation.
It may be that you use psychological tactics to force the participant to think of a specific thing or you are using physical force tactics to manipulate them into making a particular choice through subtle suggestions. Forces are a key fundamental to a long list of mentalist acts. It is definitely worth your time to study them thoroughly.
What is a Peek Technique?
Peeking is exactly what it sounds like. You secretly glimpse hidden information that the spectator believes you can’t possibly see. As an example, maybe you’ve asked a participant to write down a loved one’s name on a piece of paper. You could use a peek technique to see this information and then present it as if you pulled it out of thin air.
One standard and common peek technique is called the “center tear.” This is a simple peek that would help you successfully learn a secret your participant wrote on a piece of paper.
What is a Cold Read?
Cold reading is often cited as one of the first major techniques to work on in your mentalism journey. This is a method of knowing nothing about your audience members, but using observational tools to gain insight and appear to know more about your audience members. It’s a combination of close observation and auditory cues.
As an example, perhaps you tell a story about a pet. As you tell the story, you scan the audience and look for specific reactions. A twitch in the eye, a sincere smile. These usually indicate that this person relates to the story and is thinking about their own pet. You can then jump off and make an insight about this person and their pet.
Cold reading is an important beginning technique, but it takes a lot of practice to know what you are looking for. A reaction could mean a million different things, but if you get accustomed to the slight variations in human behavior, you can start to infer a lot from the slightest difference in behavior.
What is a Hot Read?
A hot read also involves gathering information about your participants, seemingly by magic. This one's a bit sneakier and involves some more prep work. Perhaps you are standing by and overhear a conversation with some information you can use later or you have researched an attendee without their knowledge.
Hot reads can be combined with cold reads to really achieve exceptional effects. Consider the hot read like your homework and you can use it to hook the person in. Once you’ve enticed them with this knowledge, you can then start to bump things up and include some cold reads to really impress them.
The above is by no means a comprehensive list of mentalism techniques. We’ll talk a little further down about some valuable resources with information for practicing these techniques. For now, let’s move on and talk about some devices that you might use in your mentalism work.
Learn the Devices of Mentalism
Mentalism differs from many traditional magic acts in that it doesn’t generally require a lot of complicated props. Just a lot of hard work and practice. You shouldn’t go and spend a ton of money right away, but if you do want to add a few helpful mentalism devices to your toolkit then consider some of the ones mentioned below.
What is a Magic Wallet and Should You Get One?
A magic wallet is a device that could be used to accomplish any number of mentalism effects. Think of it like the Swiss Army Knife of props. The right magic wallet could help you accomplish any number of different effects. It’s got all the little secrets you need in order to peek, sneak, and read your participants.
Investing in a magic wallet isn’t something you need to do right away. We’d advise getting started with some other mentalism techniques first, because they are largely free. But if you are looking to bump things up a notch, then consider buying the infinity wallet and experimenting with some different kinds of tricks.
What is a Nail Writer?
A nail writer, also known as a swami or vernet writer, is a secret little nail device that allows you to secretly write something down without the audience’s knowledge, making it appear as if something has been written for long before the participant arrived.
Check out this one on Amazon. These can really help you get out of a situation that you may have misread. If you made a mistake and need to course correct, then having a nail writer can allow you to secretly reveal that you had planned to get it wrong the first time on purpose because this was the real secret all along.
What are Loops?
Loops, like these ones from Yigal Mesika, are tools to help you accomplish telekinesis effects. These are invisible thread loops that you wear around your wrists and then use them to levitate or move objects across space. They are tremendously stretchy and durable, so they should last you for a good while.
Working with loops requires practice like anything else. But fortunately, these tricks may come a little bit easier than some of the others since the loops do most of the work. To really master the illusion of this, you should be sure to practice the before, middle, and after carefully.
Learn the Performative Techniques of Mentalism
A strong sense of communication is the most valuable tool in any mentalists tool belt. You don’t have the luxury of relying on large scale flashy stage magic acts to entertain the crowd. The way you communicate with the audience is everything when it comes to mentalism. There are four chief elements of communication to focus on mastering.
- Body Language: The way you hold yourself physically says a lot to your audience. They will in effect communicate visually with you just as much as they do audibly. Stand tall and present a strong person.
- Eloquence: Being eloquent doesn’t mean that you are only using big words. It is more important that you are using fluid speech without interruptions or stutters. A fancy word every now again doesn’t hurt either.
- Expertise: Whether you have been practicing for one week or ten years, you need to convince the audience that you are an expert. They want to believe you know more about this than they do, and you should act like you do.
- Confidence: This goes right along with the expertise. Audiences need to trust you and people are more likely to trust a confident person. This doesn’t mean you have to be loud and boisterous, you just need to command attention.
These are not exclusive to mentalism. These are all tools of any effective performer or public speaker. The more you practice communicating with an audience then the more comfortable you will become in each of these areas. It is a bit tough to practice these ones independently, but if you gig regularly enough, you should build up strength in each area.
The Importance of Storytelling
The storytelling is the “why” on mentalism. It is impressive to read someone’s mind or know what they wrote on a piece of paper, but the story creates emotional investment from the participant. Humans are emotional storytellers at our core. Creating a sense of meaning heightens a mentalism act leagues above just a simple bar trick.
Even simple tricks can really become incredible effects if you include a compelling story. A narrative is something a person can relate. Magical acts on their own are impressive, but if you’ve ever seen someone moved to tears by the effect, it is likely because they were so emotionally invested in the story the mentalist created.
Where Can You Learn Mentalism Techniques?
The internet is full of resources for teaching yourself practically anything. That being said, the magic community is a tight one and they, by design, do not like to share their secrets. You can find amatuer youtube videos and blog posts, but the best places to learn mentalism are the oldest places: well-written mentalism books.
Here are three highly coveted books for learning mentalism.
13 Steps to Mentalism by Tony Corinda
This is lauded as the most definitive book to learn mentalism. It contains information on all the techniques to master and detailed information about how to master them. Tony Corinda was a mentalist himself and used his expertise to put this book together.
The 13 Steps to Mentalism is an older text, so it is often recommended that you combine it with a more modern book. Some of the information is a bit dated and may be tough to apply in today’s world, but nonetheless it is still absolutely the place to start.
Practical Mental Magic by Theodore Anneman
This text is often considered the runner up in mentalism texts and a great companion piece to the 13 Steps from up above. It is over 300 pages of detailed information on how to nail so many techniques. Once again, the book is old and should be paired with some more contemporary information to ensure practicality in the modern age.
The Artful Mentalism of Bob Cassidy
Some people point to this book as a more accessible option than the other books mentioned above. This text contains helpful information on nailing techniques, effects, and whole routines. This is a more modern text so the language and application is considerably more accessible than the above texts.
Consider starting with those 3 books and then check out 13 other mentalism books here.
What to do After You’ve Learned the Basics?
The simple step after learning effects, techniques, devices, and performatives is to practice, practice, and practice. The common theme you will hear from any professional mentalist out there is that they have spent hours and hours practicing their craft. Hours, even years of practice is what separates amateurs from professionals.
Knowing the effects and techniques from above is great and it may help you know how other people perform acts. But if you really want to perform them yourself, then you will have to practice them regularly. Practicing can get monotonous and it is important to keep yourself motivated in your work.
Set a regular schedule and try to stick to it. Think of practicing like exercising. The best results are achieved when you do it regularly and commit to doing it with all your effort. Lazy practice or skipping practice is going to keep you from really mastering the difficult tools of mentalism.
Also, try to practice with a buddy. Mentalism usually relies on a second person to achieve the effect.
Nail Down Your Mentalist Persona.
Mentalism is a performance. You should consider how you plan to present yourself up on stage and it should be different from your actual persona. We’re not saying you need to create an elaborate fictional character and backstory, but you should consider developing a distinctive personality that you stick to as the mentalist.
In the earlier days of mentalism, performers would usually claim to have supernatural powers and present themselves as superhumans. Mentalists today don’t usually go for pretending to have supernatural abilities. Instead they often present themselves as masters of human psychology and behavior.
Audiences today are less likely to believe in the magic and supernatural, but the ability to understand humans on such a deep level is almost more impressive. There is no “right” way to create your mentalist persona.
Here are some questions you should ask yourself as you are generating who you are going to be onstage:
- Are you going to be serious?
- Are you going to be funny?
- Are you going to be loud?
- Are you going to be quiet?
- Are you going to work fast or slow?
Whatever you decide, just be sure that it feels comfortable for you. Feeling uncomfortable in your stage persona is the fastest way to ensure that it will be unsuccessful. While the persona doesn’t have to be your genuine self, it should in some way feel like an extension of your genuine self.
Create Your Mentalist Routine.
If you’ve really studied and practiced a lot then you should feel confident doing a few acts off the cuff at any given time. That being said, you should build a routine that has a strong structure you can stick to and builds on top of itself.
Improvising is an important asset in a performer’s tool belt, but being able to fall back into the routine is a comfortable home base. For starters, your routine should be firmly in your wheelhouse. Of course you want to impress, but you also want to keep material in the routine that you can perform with absolute confidence.
A routine of three tricks is a great thing to have in your back pocket. Longer stage shows will likely involve far more than three tricks, but if you are out and about then it is really ideal to have a three trick routine ready to go. Three tricks can easily be worked into a story and a strong structure.
The first trick is thought of as the beginning or the introduction. It can be a fairly simple trick, something to just grab their attention. Move on to a slightly more complicated trick. Something in the middle and further the story. Then really bring things home with the third and final trick that really astounds them. Always leave them wanting more as they say.
If they do want more and you’ve got more to give, then you could add in another trick. But it is generally best to stick to the routine. This keeps you from running the risk of embarrassing yourself or exhausting your audience members.
You should also rehearse your routine with your “patter.” Patter is the conversation piece of the routine. It’s what you say to the audience members. It should be conversational, maybe a little funny, and definitely engaging. You want to connect with your audience through your patter as much as you do with your acts.
React to your Audience and Make Adjustments
The more you perform in front of a live audience then the more opportunities you have to make adjustments to the routine. Odds are that your routine could always use a little bit more work. You should take careful note of your audience reaction during and after your routine and make adjustments accordingly.
Pay attention to how audience members react to your patter and in between effects. Getting a big round of applause at the end of a trick is great, but how were they responding during the middle of the trick? Did they laugh at your joke? Did they seem to zone out in the middle? Were they more impressed with something in the middle than the final effect?
You need to consider the routine as a fluid piece that is always evolving. You can learn a lot by keying in to your audience during each step of your performance. It is also crucial that you consider the feedback you receive at the end of your performance. Be open minded and don’t be too protective of your work.
If you stick around and chat with folks after your performance, you can learn a lot. People will tell you the parts of the show that really stuck with them more than others. This can help you better understand what parts of your show are resonating most.
Additionally, you can learn what parts of your show aren’t hitting for people. Folks will often say things like, “Oh sure, but that’s a trick wallet right?” Or “You moved that spoon with wires.” Whether this is true or not, you should consider making adjustments to your patter and routine to circumvent these doubts.
Connect in the Community and Practice, Practice, Practice
Getting started with mentalism can be a ton of fun. But it obviously requires hours upon hours of practice. You should dig into the local magic scene and try to find other folks to practice with. Magic and mentalism is a tight knit community. Find a local magic shop or maybe a group that meets somewhere nearby.
Connecting with other dedicated artists can be invaluable as you practice your craft. They can offer tips and feedback and can be great motivational figures. So find your people, make friends, and keep up the practice.