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Mentalism is the craft that everyone knows about, yet few know how to define it. It presents itself by daring the audience to guess the secrets of each trick; not daring to hide behind a veil of supposed magic. Mentalism is both mysterious and real, depending on a specific set of skills to create an illusionary veil.
It can be hard to find mentalism examples because exposure is frowned upon in illusionary communities. After all, illusions are only effective when they stay secret. Read on to discover a variety of eight mentalism tricks, how they work, and specific examples of each.
Types of Mentalism
There are many different types of mentalism, but the most common are mind effects and techniques that rely on props. These include:
- Extrasensory perception
- Book tests
- Card tricks
- Magic wallets
All of these are key tools in a mentalist's belt. It is of the utmost importance that a mentalist's techniques are not widely discovered by the general public. However, even knowing of these techniques does not make one an expert. A mentalist has a professional grasp over each of these eight techniques and more.
Mentalism in the Mind
Mentalists are distinguished from other magicians by their ability to get into a person's mind, discovering every little thing about them down to the most minute details. While this skill is often developed, it does not take away from the magic and finesse behind it.
Examples of a mentalist's prowess in the mind include:
- Extrasensory Perception (ESP)
While each of these skills is generally linked, they have their own specific set of skills and techniques they utilize.
The word “telepathy” stems from Greek. The root, tele-, means distant. The suffix stems from the Greek “pathos,” which deals with feelings and perception. The term was coined in 1882 by Frederic W. H. Meyers as a way to explain the transmission of information that occurs beyond what humans can sense.
The idea of telepathy is mind-reading is a magical one that does not dig deep enough into skill. Mentalists use a set of skills to step into the mind of another person. What is explained as “mind-reading” is actually what happens when a mentalist employs their sharpened tools of reading body language and manipulation.
You have two spectators that are obviously friends, so you bring them before everyone to do this next trick. You explain to the pair that you believe they are so close together that you believe their minds are linked, and you would like to test out your theory.
You separate the pair (the further apart they are, the more dramatic the effect is). Ask the pair of them to pick one object in the room to focus on together to join their mind. After this, take the hand of person one and raise it, explaining that you are preparing them to make the connection. Ask them to close their eyes so they can focus.
Explain that you would like them to take note of anything they feel after this point, returning their hand to their side. You create a distraction by shifting the attention to the second person, asking if they are okay, and tapping on the first person's hand twice.
Walk over to the second person, tap their hand twice, and ask the first person if they felt anything.
The trick seems simple and easily discovered, but a trained mentalist is able to pick out the proper pair, create a large enough distraction, and time each step of the trick, so there is no option apart from telepathy to explain what has occurred.
The ability to see things that occur in the future or even predict them is another staple of mentalism. This goes beyond simple mind-reading, where a mentalist is seeming to peer into the state of someone's mind as they move through the trick, reading what they are actively thinking.
A mentalist exhibits their clairvoyance by having the answer set up before they even choose someone in the audience to survey, when, in reality, they are employing a list of skills to perceive the answer or even lead the spectator to it.
An easy example of this is the “Elephants in Denmark” trick, which follows a specific pathway to get to a specific result.
You start by writing the words “elephants in Denmark” on a sheet of paper, fold it up, and stick it in your pocket. After this, you will lead your audience, whether it is one person or many, through a series of steps.
- Pick a number two through nine. You can pick two or nine.
- Multiply the number you have chosen by nine.
- Add each digit of this number together.
- Subtract five from that number.
- Now, correspond this number to a letter in the alphabet. One is A, two is B, and so on.
- Think of a country that begins with that letter.
- Now think of an animal that begins with the second letter of that country.
- (At this point, you should use your specific style of showmanship to tide them over.)
- Reveal that you knew they would choose “Denmark” and “elephants.”
This is easily explained when you get into it. The mathematical equations will always take someone to the number four, which will always correspond with D. There are only a few countries beginning with D, the most popular being Denmark, and the most popular animal beginning with E is elephant.
If the audience chooses a less popular country like “Djibouti,” you can always play off the mistake by pointing out that you still got the original letter correct. This is a basic example to outline the idea of leading someone to an answer, but there are infinitely more complex tricks out there.
When someone is able to perceive something through means other than what human senses are able to, it is considered extrasensory. At this point, we have established that these “non-human” skills are actually a set of very human skills that have been developed.
The easiest way for a mentalist to showcase their ESP ability is through the use of ESP cards, though tricks usually require you to abide by specific guidelines.
Start off with an ESP deck that has the cards in repeating order by symbol (i.e., star, plus, circle, square, wavy lines, repeat). You will shuffle the deck yourself, taking care not to disrupt the repeating order, and then ask the spectator to cut the deck.
At this point, they choose a card freely, without any influence from you. It does not matter which card they choose, and the free choice helps thicken the veil of illusion.
After they choose the card, put the deck back together, still not disturbing the order of the cards. From here, you will create two twelve card decks, but you will reverse the order of the first deck and not the second.
Turn over cards from each deck simultaneously until you have a matching pair, and then start a new pile until you have another matching pair. Turn over the remaining cards into a third pair of piles, but they will not have matches.
The card that your spectator chose will always match the two pairs of cards if the trick is done correctly.
It is important to note that hypnosis on stage is different from hypnosis in a therapeutic setting, and a performing mentalist should never use hypnosis to reveal someone's inner trauma or secrets.
In general, hypnosis goes beyond suggestions. It involves creating an atmosphere where someone's mind and body are even more relaxed and open to suggestion. On a stage, hypnosis is generally used alongside other mentalist skills like reading body language and showmanship.
Seat your spectator in a chair (the sturdier, the better) where they are leaning back, arms are folded, legs are stretched out, and their head is back. Make sure that all four legs of the chair are touching the ground.
Using your index finger, push down gently on the center of their head. You need to ensure that you are using just enough pressure for the trick to work. The lightest you can apply, the better the trick will work.
Make a statement along the lines of, “You cannot rise from this chair while under my hypnotic power.” Then watch your spectator struggle to stand. After they have done so, sufficiently relax your finger and give them permission to rise, explaining that they are free from hypnosis.
Mentalism Using Props
Props are more commonly associated with magic tricks, but they have their place in a mentalist's repertoire. Mentalists are usually more open about their tricks being illusions, seemingly daring the audience to figure it out.
While the tricks they do tend to employ props with less grandeur (you will not be pulling rabbits from hats or sawing someone in half), using certain items undoubtedly bolsters a performance.
Props can serve a number of functions, from being one of many “outs” to a trick or being the trick itself. A prop trick boosts confidence, especially if someone is just starting out with mentalism.
You can go back 600 years to witness the origins of book tests, though there is a good chance they existed before then. They are treasured for both their tradition and novelty, and they have continued to grow alongside other mentalist tips and tricks.
Book tests are defined by their use of a book, but there are numerous ways to perform the trick, including:
- Leading the volunteer down a predestined path
- Using a gimmicked book
- Adding a gimmicked page to a natural book
- Using a natural book with specific forces
Unlike with magic tricks, the book may not be the object of a gimmick but a means of performing one.
This is a trick used even by popular mentalists like Derren Brown.
You offer three books up to a volunteer and ask them to select one of the books. These are natural, unmodified choices, but you need to make sure they are three books you are familiar with.
A second volunteer cuts a deck of cards and adds together the values of the first two cards in the bottom pile. You instruct the first volunteer to turn to that page in the book and focus on the first sentence or line while you “tune in” to the book.
At this point, you might announce a few of the words, pick up a notepad and write the line down, or even draw the scene. But afterward, you ask the volunteer to read the sentence, and it should match what you have written.
How does this work without a gimmicked book? Employing more than one prop, in this case, a deck of cards, makes the trick more complex and harder for an audience member to perceive accurately.
The deck of cards is a 14/15 stacked deck, so you know exactly where it will direct your volunteers to read from. Offering three different choices increases the illusion, and you only need to memorize three different lines.
Another popular effect of mentalism is the idea that the mind alone can manipulate physical matter. Telekinesis is the ability to move or maneuver objects using mental power alone, so what better way is there to show you have fully developed mental abilities?
Mentalists use their perceptive and manipulative abilities to create a scenario in which it appears that they are exhibiting telekinetic power.
A great basic example of this is spoon bending, which has been shown in popular media like The Matrix and Pokemon. At its most basic form, it is the deformation of a metal spoon without physical force.
There are two different routes that a mentalist can take.
The first is to rely mostly on angles, and it works better when used quickly in an intimate setting. The mentalist holds the spoon in such a way that the handle moves in their hand when they apply pressure, giving the illusion that the spoon is bending.
This method is not fool-proof, and it does require the performance itself to be convincing. The spoon will not actually be bent at the end, so a story to explain how it reverted back to its normal state is necessary to the completion.
The second route involves misdirection. There are a number of variables that can allow you to physically bend the spoon without the audience perceiving the effort, such as:
- The spoon being weak or broken prior to the trick
- A distraction at the time you bend the spoon
- Specific angles that mask the actual force used
- The use of self-bending spoons
You have probably heard of the spoon bending trick or even seen it many times before. You probably did not realize, though, how many ways it could be performed.
Card tricks are the most accessible tools for new mentalists, the most familiar for the audience, and have the widest variety of tricks you learn. The possibilities are practically endless, especially when you factor in trick decks and using cards alongside other props and tricks.
They are great for any part of a mentalist show, and toting around a deck of cards is easy enough to allow for impromptu performances.
This example utilizes only one card, and it showcases how easily cards can be used alongside a specially curated set of skills.
Select one card and lay it face down. You should already know the suit and number of the card, and you may even want to practice using a specific card.
When you instruct your volunteer, you need to make sure you are doing three things.
- Use your hands to indicate the suit of the card. The easiest will likely be diamonds, which can be shown by putting your index fingers and thumbs together to make a diamond.
- Indicate the number of the card. Hold up fingers or make repetitive gestures that lead the volunteer's mind to the number.
- Ideally, you should pick a lower number so that it is easier to slip in with a gesture. You can also reinforce this by verbally suggesting that the volunteer choose a smaller number.
The trick lies in the card, but the power lies in the manipulation and the performance. This is the kind of trick you need to practice beforehand to make sure your hand gestures appear naturally and not forced. Confidence is key in pushing these ideas on your volunteer, so make sure you believe in yourself and the outcome of the trick.
A magic wallet functions as well as a normal wallet, but they are specifically designed to have hidden flaps and straps. They were originally created by wait staff in France to secure tips and receipts, but magic wallets function perfectly for both magicians and mentalists.
While a magician may use a magic wallet to give the illusion that they transform something, the prop can be used by a mentalist to enhance their revelations. Remember the book test example? Revealing an empty wallet before the trick and then revealing the same wallet with the text can deepen an illusion.
Place a card in the wallet, showing your volunteer what it is. Close the wallet and instruct them to think of a different card.
Throughout the interaction, you should be using the manipulation described in the previous section. You have already chosen the card and hidden it away in the other section of the magic wallet; you just need to nudge your volunteer's mind to that conclusion.
Once they have decided on a card, have them announce it out loud, and then reveal that you have “changed” the card within the wallet.