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Whether you identify as a “skeptic” or a “believer,” there's no denying that some people have wacky talents. Often, those talents seem to be on the metaphysical side of things. Many figures have gained international fame by claiming telepathic, psychokinetic, and related abilities. In reality, these are all fake, showy titles for what they're really doing: mentalism. 

Mentalism is the practice of manipulating someone's thoughts and perceptions using several techniques, mainly reading body language, misdirection, and “forcing.” Most mentalists openly state that there are no supernatural elements in their act, but others capitalize on vulnerable audiences and claim authentic spiritual abilities. 

Becoming a successful mentalist takes years of practice, as you must master awareness of others' perceptions and cognition, in addition to your own. This practice depends heavily on human behavior and thinking, so you won't get far without this expertise. Here's a comprehensive overview of mentalism and examples of how it's used in entertainment (and scams).

What is Mentalism?

Mentalism is a type of performing arts where a practitioner, known as a “mentalist,” reads their subject's movements, physical behaviors, and other body language aspects to accomplish a trick, guess information, or other popular talents. Many performers use mentalism as their primary strategy for “reading” the audience's minds.

For example, imagine that you're at a magic show or a circus featuring a magician or similar performer. That magician selects you from the crowd to pick a number or word, either by randomly choosing it from your mind or a text, like a book or a magazine.

When the magician guesses that information correctly, they were not reading your mind but observing things about you and your environment to settle on the right details. Now, of course, this is an oversimplification of a mentalism “trick” since they don't always happen on the spot. Sometimes the magician will have prepared information beforehand or spent a few minutes pre-show observing you.

In any case, this is, by far, one of the most popular forms of magic entertainment since it involves the observation of human behavior details that most people wouldn't readily notice or think to look out for. The mentalist's ability to perceive their subject so well is then seen as “supernatural,” creating a feedback loop of the audience enthusiastically believing in their seemingly psychic capabilities.

Types of Mentalism

There are several types of mentalism you might come across as an audience member or an aspiring mentalist. Some are quite simple and involve only card tricks. On the other hand, some techniques can be pretty serious, consisting of contacting someone's deceased loved one. More of the most common types of mentalism include (Source: Medium):

  • Telepathy: This is quite possibly the most popular kind of mentalism. It often involves circumstances like the example mentioned above, using card tricks or secretly written and hidden information. The mentalist might ask you or another person to choose a card or draw a picture, then “read your mind” to guess what you have or drew. 
    • Example: Dan White gives a package to an audience member. He then asks Jimmy Fallon to choose a card, read the card, then write the first short word that comes to mind on the card. White then reveals that he guessed the word beforehand by writing it on a nearby chalkboard and “teleporting” Fallon's card to the audience member's package. 
  • Mind Control: This is most often practiced in the form of hypnosis. Such a trick involves putting your participant into sort of a sleep or dream state, then telling them to do a task when they wake up or simply making them wake up after a certain amount of time, or on a specific cue. 
    • Example: Chris Ramsay asked two participants to sit down with him to “control” one's mind to guess the other's secret. (In this case, the “secret” was which card the other participant was thinking of.) He places his hand on one participant's forehead, then “thinks” the information to her, resulting in her guessing the other's card out loud.
  • Psychic Visions: These types of mentalism techniques span a wide range of applications. There are all sorts of things a mentalist can do with psychic visions, especially in religious spheres. This may involve “foreseeing” someone's future or somehow knowing information about their past or loved ones that supposedly no one else would know. 
    • Note: Be careful with these mentalists. It's very easy for these practitioners to exploit their audience for monetary gain. Those who don't believe they're practicing mentalism often market themselves as “mediums” or operate in churches. There is an endless supply of examples of this type of mentalism, succinctly explained here
  • ESP (extra-sensory perception): This is another form of apparent psychic abilities that mentalists use to convince their audience of supernatural powers. Instead, this is more general and does pertain only to visions. It's closely related to telepathy, as performers often use this to guess relatives' names and other simple information. 
  • Psychokinesis: This involves the movement of physical items using seemingly “supernatural” abilities. Most often, this doesn't involve movement that is too dramatic. You'll most likely see a psychokinetic mentalist bend a spoon, blow over a piece of paper, or gently nudge a small item, like a phone, just an inch or so to the side. 
    • Example: James Randi is one of the world's most renowned mentalists who used his expertise to debunk scammers and teach audience's why these magic tricks work so effectively. He debunked Uri Geller's famous spoon-bending act, showing that it doesn't require supernatural abilities but secret preparation beforehand and some body heat. 

What is the Theory of Mentalism?

There are a few different kinds of mentalism theories, so it's important to clarify what you're talking about before diving too deep into the subject. Otherwise, you may get side-tracked from the topic and end up in another discussion entirely.

For instance, there is the “mentalist learning theory,” which focuses on how the human mind learns languages. Noam Chomsky led this theory in direct response to the famous psychologist and behaviorist, B. F. Skinner's, radical behaviorism ideals. This discussion mainly centers on whether a human's capacity for language comprehension is innate or learned. (Source: Wiley Online Library)

Needless to say, this is not the mentalism described above, although it does represent the most widespread understanding of this terminology. Another type of mentalism theory is focused on the relationship between cognition and behavior.

This is more closely related to those techniques listed above, as 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.” This entails the use of psychological terms to describe a person's actions, tying together behavioral and mainstream psychology, and neuroscience.

Academic Objections and Perceptions on Mentalism

Part of what drives the popular desire to debunk so many mentalists (at least, those who do not identify themselves as mentalists but use the methods to exploit believers) is its inherent dualistic ideology. Scientists address this as “literal dualism,” which refers to either participants' or practitioners' belief that life exists in two opposing forms, matter (physical) and “nonmatter (spirit or soul).

In this line of thinking, the former lives within the confines of space and time, while the other is “nonspatiotemporal.” This is not scientifically possible because anything regarded as nonmatter cannot have any “form, mass, acceleration, [beginning, or end].” Yet, all mentalists' tricks are “events,” with specific causes and effects that are observable and tangible in real-time.

Because of this, there must be physical elements to every facet of their performances. Additionally, these nonspatiotemporal events could not possibly cause physical events to happen. This complicates these instances' possibility of causing behavioral events, leading to the second major reason mentalism does not equate to genuine psychic ability.

Some researchers try to use the term “brain” and “mind” interchangeably when observing mentalism and its effects on people. This allows enough vagueness for some figures to misrepresent behavioral events (e.g., emotional responses to ESPs, “recognizing” details a psychic gives) as “spiritual events” caused by another behavioral event (e.g., the psychic's guesses), causing circular reasoning. (Source: The Behavior Analyst)

What Does a Mentalist Do?

So far, you've seen the many different types of mentalism, so you've got a basic understanding of what mainstream mentalists do. In short, they look at their audience's behaviors and try to convince that audience that their ability to infer or know the participant's information or thoughts is supernatural, in some shape or form.

Now, honest, reputable mentalists (which might simply go by the title, “magician”) would tell their audience outright that the performance is merely for entertainment purposes. Any convincing of supernatural ability is lighthearted and not meant to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, there are many people who exploit audiences' willingness to suspend all disbelief.

One of the most famous examples of a mentalist is Uri Geller. He catapulted to fame in the '70s when he claimed to bend spoons using a psychokinetic ability, concentrating his “energy” into the utensil. He also claims to be telepathic by guessing participants' hidden drawings. As noted above, James Randi has repeatedly disproven the involvement of any psychic abilities in these acts (Source: Pato E; Pato E)

Another famous mentalist is the Long Island Medium. She is a beloved mentalist (although she doesn't identify as such) who claims to communicate with deceased people. Her practice has brought up heated discussions on the ethics of practicing mentalism this way, particularly with those who are grieving or in a similar vulnerable state. Her techniques are described below.

How Psychics “Read Your Mind”

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?”

This comprises the entire foundation of cold reading. It's essentially a barrage of questions and guesses that are guaranteed to be correct with the right group size. Because it seems that the mentalist is supernaturally gathering this information, the audience then participates by granting even more information. This feeds into the perception that the mentalist got all the details on their own.

Here's an example: The Long Island Medium (Theresa Caputo) was featured on a live TV show with a crowd of about 250 people. She opens with the technique known as “shot-gunning,” meaning she “shoots” out a question to the audience and hopes for a bite. Her question, “Who had an issue with the brain: aneurism, brain tumor, Alzheimer's, or dementia?”

In this question, Caputo just gave a list of the most common brain diseases in the United States. Someone is bound to relate to this question. This technique is apparent in other prompts like, “Is there a Mary or Mark, Jim or James?” These are merely the most common names in the United States (and have been for decades), so again, the mentalist is bound to be correct, no matter the audience. (Source: Holy Koolaid; U.S. & World Report News; Social Security)

How Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP) Works

One of the best demonstrations of what ESP truly is came from The Amazing James Randi, introduced earlier. Throughout his life, Randi was dedicated to educating the public on what to look for when they witness magic tricks. This was never to take the fun out of the experience but to prevent anyone from falling victim to scams since so many mentalists try to exploit vulnerable people for money.

In one of his routine “exposures” of ESP, Randi uses a classic set of psychological test cards specially designed to test for ESP abilities, particularly the ability to read minds and predictive powers. He gave an audience member a brown manila envelope, a piece of opaque black paper, and the psychology cards to shuffle face down, then place two face-down underneath the chair.

Randi then instructed the audience member to position those two separated cards face-to-face (without looking), then place them in the black paper, then the manila envelope, and seal it. He then broke down the probability of guessing the right cards, in addition to guessing their specific positions in the envelope.

Of course, as a magician, Randi can't give away trade secrets. Despite not providing a direct explanation, he implies that the trick entails advance preparation and some sleight of hand. This works by redirecting the audience's attention and convincing the onlookers that the correct guess depends on psychic awareness rather than familiarity with the deck and a deliberate prior setup by the mentalist. (Source: James Randi Foundation)

Can Mentalists Really Read Minds?

While there is no possible way to definitively state that a mentalist cannot read minds (there's no way to prove this, but many ways to debunk individual instances), 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, thus minimizing stress and freeing your mind to more pleasant things. (Source: TED)

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 via hiding things from your view or setting up props beforehand, 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.

How Can I Learn 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 master sleight of hand. Instead, a successful mentalist has typically dedicated years to familiarizing themselves with human behavior and cognition. (Others just have a knack for it right and take to the practice very quickly.)

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,” in a sense. It all starts with “sensory awareness” and how to use it in your interpersonal interactions.

According to Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D., anyone can sharpen their awareness of others' mindsets and behavioral tendencies by practicing control over several facets of your sensory system. This includes (Source: Psychology Today):

  • Cognitive awareness: This 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. For example, you use yoactionsive awareness to interpret someone's facial expressions to understand their words' unspoken meanings. 
  • Sensory awareness: This 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. As a mentalist, you'll need to master this to extract the information necessary for your performance.

How to Enhance Your Sensory Awareness

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.

(Note that the extent to which you might use this in a mentalism act varies. Mentalist card tricks won't require the same level of sensory awareness that an ESP act would.) Reynolds provided six easy-to-follow steps to help you learn to “read minds” using inferences based on basic conversational awareness:

  1. Practice being an active (but quiet) listener. Crowding your brain with preset responses or thinking ahead of the person you're interacting with will harm your ability to process all they have to say. Thus, it will also inhibit your ability to assess or predict their words and behaviors. 
  2. Clear all your sensory channels. To be a genuine, active listener, enter conversations as positively as you can. Before chatting with someone, do breathing exercises and recall something you're grateful for. This will help open up your mind and heart to be receptive to what someone has to say. 
  3. Tune in to what you're feeling. Awareness requires that you are always deeply in touch with what you're experiencing and continuously infer what someone else might be feeling at the same time. As Reynolds states, your emotions are, in a sense, reflective of what the other person is feeling. Being in tune with yourself will help you discern their emotions, too. 
  4. Test your awareness. There's no sense in practicing these techniques in a vacuum. The only way you'll get better at maintaining inward and interpersonal awareness is by taking opportunities to interact with others. In conversation, practice all the steps above and share what you're inferring. Accept when the person agrees with your inferences or not, and continue practicing.

No matter what, try not to be hard on yourself. You'll hardly improve if you spend too much time dwelling on details that you got wrong or whether you were “really” in tune with yourself or not. Plus, if you're too stuck on whether your understanding of the person's behaviors and thoughts was wrong, you'll inevitably disconnect from the interaction, and it'll go downhill from there.

Learning Effective 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.

Mentalist Katherine Mills recalled how she practiced mastering this skill by playing a game with a local jeweler. Mills asked the jeweler to lie in response to any questions she asked. This conversation allowed Mills to identify all the jeweler's “tells” – minute behaviors and expressions someone unknowingly displays while fibbing. (Source: London Live)

Once Mills knew all the right signs to look for, she was able to crack the code to the store's safe. Still, knowing someone's tells isn't all it takes to be a successful mentalist. 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.” (Source: Discover Magazine)

The latter seems to leave several options for the onlooker, but really, all paths lead to the same outcome in this case. 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. (Source: Frontiers in Psychology)

Applying Your Practice to Performance

Once you've mastered the above elements of mentalism, all you've got to do is apply those techniques to your preferred tricks. So, are you more drawn to entertaining people with cards or other props like spoons? If so, it's best to focus your attention on mastering the art of misdirection.

However, if you're more drawn to getting into people's minds in the form of mind control, hypnosis, or telepathy, then learning human behavior and developing your sensory awareness is crucial. Without this expertise, you won't get far in being a mentalist who performs those sorts of tricks.

No matter which path you choose in mentalism, you must prioritize ethics above all. As mentioned a few times previously, too many mentalists use their talents to exploit their audience. This is popular among religious communities and amongst individuals who have just lost a loved one. It is objectively unethical to use mentalism for capital gain when you are lying about the causes and results to your audience.

If you are open about the fact that your mentalism act is a series of psychological manipulations meant for entertainment, then that is perfectly fine. However, leading people to believe that you have some sort of supernatural ability that will either improve their life, put them in connection with a loved one who recently passed, or that you're connected to a deity will always be wrong and insensitive.

In Conclusion

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.

With enough practice in learning human behavior and sharpening your sensory awareness, you could become a successful mentalist. Whether you make it big like Penn & Teller or The Amazing James Randi, just remember to be transparent about your act.