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You have probably seen The Mentalist or watched Psych. These are both popular television dramas that call to mind the idea of mentalism. And honestly, they depict mentalism as it is defined in psychology to a certain degree. But the mentalism you see on television and the theory in psychology are different. And we are here to break it down for you!

Mentalism psychology is the theory that mental processes occur separately from the physical and behavioral processes of a person. It is a piece of psychology that was part of the original founding of the field, as psychology originally focused on only thought or cognitive processes.

mentalism psychology

We will clear up any misconceptions and address the science of mentalism psychology. We will discuss how mentalism is viewed in the field of psychology, give you the broad definition and cover the tricks and techniques used by many psychologists today. 

What Is Mentalism In Psychology?

Mentalism as a theory of psychology states that mental phenomena can’t be reduced further. This mean that mental phenomena are generally unmaterialistic. However, more recent forms of the theory have deviated from this notion.

Each of the actions in the following list are considered types of mental phenomena:

  • Desiring
  • Feeling
  • Intention
  • Preferring
  • Thinking

And again, in the theory of mentalism, these mental phenomena are considered separate from our physical and behavioral processes. 

The following chart highlights the differences between mental, physical, and behavioral process through the lens of mentalism in psychology:

Mental processesPhysical processesBehavioral processes

Mentalism in psychology includes all of the following:

  • Based in understanding the human mind
  • Can be interpreted as mental events that relate to physical processes
  • Focuses on thought processes
  • Helps us to understand thought patterns
  • Says that only mental phenomena cause changes in our behavior
  • Widely debated

Mentalism in psychology differs drastically from the mentalism used during artistic performances. In order to help you see some of these differences let us quickly break down mentalism in performance art for you. Mentalism in performance art includes all of the following:

  • Can also be demonstrated
  • Draws on the field of behaviorism, another branch of psychology (we will dive more into this later)
  • Is sometimes known to popular audiences as mind reading
  •  On television as the popular series, Psych and The Mentalist
  • Requires an understanding of the inner workings of the mind
  • Uses observation
  • Uses the classical understanding of mentalism from psychology
  • Was made popular by magicians

As you can see from this brief comparison it is really easy to mistake one form of mentalism for another. However, there is quite a bit more science backing the theory of mentalism in psychology.

Mentalism in Four Assumptions

Another way to define mentalism is through the perspective of the radical behaviorist, J. Moore. As J. Moore put it in his research paper on mentalism, it can further be described in four assumptions, which we explain in more detail below.

It is important to look at mentalism from a behaviorist’s perspective because he does a great job of simplifying the material. Not only does Moore’s paper highlight the similarities and differences between mentalism and behaviorism. But it also presents mentalism in a mostly unbiased form for the purposes of defining the field. 

The following are the four assumptions that mentalism makes when explaining behavior, as summarized by Moore and condensed here for ease of understanding:

  • Cognition – An organism’s psychological makeup is inside the organism. This area of mentalism theory is widely disputed because it is difficult to methodologically study. 
  • Principle – Processes are the primary source, explanation, or cause for the behavior and no additional clarification is necessary. This is different from having observable states cause a behavior. 
  • Processes – The cognition contains certain indescribable phenomena, opposite to how observable stimuli and responses can be defined and described. These phenomena are designated by many as “processes.”
  • Theory – Uses psychological explanations as a means to infer about the behavior. It does not look to associations between the behavior and environment. 

Hopefully, these assumptions can help you to elucidate a better understanding of the state of the field. 

A Brief History of Mentalism in Psychology

You are probably wondering where mentalism fits into the field of psychology and when it first entered the field as a legitimate theory in science. Below you will find a brief history of mentalism in psychology to help you better understand the field’s evolution. 

The following is a list of the major names in the field of mentalism psychology:

  • E. B. Holt – Harnessed much of William James’ work to create the subfield of descriptive mentalism in opposition to causal mentalism
  • Edward Titchener – Known widely for his ideas of consciousness and introspection, as well as his pioneering in structuralism. His basis that consciousness was at the root of psychology made him a mentalist
  • George Miller – Uses a mentalistic framework for his research 
  • Nicholas S. Thompson – Expands the descriptive approach to mentalism
  • Noam Chomsky – A prominent linguist of the time, used structuralism and consciousness at the heart of his teachings. 
  • William James – A radical empiricist that posits a theory of mentalism based on the behavior giving meaning to a feeling or other mental process. He focused on functionalism, but again finds consciousness at the root of psychology making him a notorious mentalist. 

What follows from these major contributors is the connections across fields to which a new discipline is formed, cognitive science. Mentalism as a theory in psychology plays a key role in the development of cognitive science as its own field of study. 

Mentalism ultimately become encompassed by the ideas and theories of cognitive science, and the term takes on a new meaning in the performance arts and magic community. 

The following is a brief timeline on the history of mentalism based on Dr. Eric P. Charles’ publication in the Review of General Psychology:

  • 1912 – John B. Watson rejects the current ideas on a psychology of consciousness and proposes a psychology of behavior; behaviorism is born. 
  • 1914 – E. B. Holt labels his school of thought as descriptive mentalism, which would label a mental process as a descriptor of a specific behavior.
  • 1951 – George Miller becomes a mentalist and rejects behaviorism for the cognitive revolution
  • 1956 – Noam Chomsky sparked revolution in theoretical linguistics in psychology
  • 1959 – Noam Chomsky published a review of B. F. Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior,” a prominent work in support of behaviorism. Chomsky’s criticism revived the focus on consciousness and mentalism theory. 
  • 1978 – Marks the connection between six fields of study imperative to cognitive science: psychology, philosophy, linguistics, computer science, anthropology, and neuroscience. 
  • 1988 – Nicholas Thompson adds to the body of work in the subfield of descriptive mentalism, by elaborating on the use of mental terms as descriptors of behavior

Above we briefly mention B. F. Skinner, who was a prominent behaviorist of the 20th century. He developed ideas about behavior in terms of the following:

  • The development of language
  • The technology of teaching
  • The use of language

And why is this important, you might ask? Even though B. F. Skinner was focused on linguistics, this tied closely into the work of psychologists at the time. 

And B. F. Skinner was also known for being anti-mentalist. This means he opposed mentalism to such a degree that in 1987 he accused cognitive scientists of:

  • Changing the way definitions and logical thinking are standardized, which calls into question the field’s legitimacy 
  • Creating increased speculation on the state of the field due to the backpedaling toward mentalism theory 
  • Reviving the ‘dated’ mentalism theory of feelings and mental processes as the cause of a behavior
  • Siding with a theory that is not science
  • Speculating about internal processes which can’t methodologically be observed

This basically continued the long held debate between mentalists and behaviorists, who each held clear to their positions. B. F. Skinner, among other behaviorists, wanted to explain behavior using only observable variables instead of with feeling and thinking. 

Yet, the mentalism theory eventually won out and was in turn incorporated in cognitive psychology and other cognitive sciences as we know them today. 

What Thought Processes Are Involved in Mentalism?

Mentalism has a few different thought processes associated with the theory in psychology. As we have described, mentalism focuses on the thought processes of a person as separate from physical and behavioral processes. 

To expand your understanding of the thought processes involved in mentalism, we will break down the following that are involved in mentalism:

  • Cognition
  • Consciousness
  • Mental imagery

These functions of our thought processes have been examined by researchers across multiple disciplines. Below we will highlight these processes throughout the field of psychology over time. 

Mental Imagery

Mental imagery is the ability to create an internal visual picture in your mind without external stimuli. It is considered a powerful tool in treatment of many mental disorders. In a paper published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, a group of researchers discusses the implications of mental imagery. 

The following points reflect the current state of the psychology field based on mental imagery as used in the theory of mentalism:

  • Has major role in mental health disorders and their treatment
  • Mental imagery and visual working memory differ across populations, thus screening without separating participants with strong and weak imagery skills could lead to major inconsistencies in data collection
  • Mental imagery is hypothesized to be based on memory recall and the ability to combine memories
  • Seems to function as a weak form of perception

The biggest takeaway from mental imagery as a thought process of mentalism is that as future discoveries are made, both neural and cognitive mechanisms are elucidated and have the potential to improve treatments for mental disorders in a similar way to talk therapy. 

Again, this is tied to the idea of mentalism, in that mental imagery is a conscious thought process that is separate from a person’s physical and behavioral processes. 


Mentalism in psychology also includes the thought process of consciousness as a fundamental element of the theory. Consciousness means to have a comprehension of self. 

This understanding of self as consciousness is reinforced through the following things that are specific to you as a person:

  • Environments 
  • Feelings
  • Memories
  • Thoughts

The opposite of consciousness is unconsciousness. This is an alternate state of awareness that may be due to a medical or mental disorder. This state of awareness for any period of time can be of serious concern. 

However, consciousness in mentalism is a key foundational element to the classical type of mentalism. As we spoke about earlier Edward Titchener and William James were pioneers of mentalism because even though their schools of thought eventually differed, they were both set on the idea of consciousness as a focal point in the field of psychology. 


A final thought process in mentalism is cognition. As you may remember, we discussed earlier how cognition is one of the main assumptions of mentalism theory. Cognition is defined as a thought process that allows us, as humans, to gain information and understanding from the stimuli within and around us. 

Many cognitive processes that fall under the umbrella of cognition in mentalism. To provide you with a clearer understanding of cognition we include the following associated processes:

  • Judging
  • Knowing
  • Problem solving
  • Remembering

Our cognition helps us to understand our surroundings and their impact on our daily lives. All the following impact cognition:

  • Interacting with others and the world around us
  • Retrieving memories and filling in missing information
  • Interpreting the information input we receive from our external environment

Cognition as a major thought process in mentalism is strongly based on understanding what is going on inside the mind, instead of the observable behaviors that much of previous psychology schools of thoughts were based upon. 

All these processes help us to function at higher levels. The cognitive thought processes in mentalism allow for us to understand:

  • Imagination – This piece of cognition combines learning, attention, memory and thought, all of which allow for a person to focus on external stimuli, higher reasoning, to encode and store information, and to synthesize new information in relation to previously collected knowledge. 
  • Language – Cognition is needed to understand and express through written and spoken words. Language allows for communication which is a central part to thought processes and mentalism theory. 
  • Perception – Cognition is needed in this process which allows you to use your senses to collect information and respond and react to external stimuli. 
  • Planning – Cognition is needed in planning because it helps us make decisions, solve problems, and learn from the outcomes. 

Now that we have covered the thought processes associated with mentalism in psychology, let us dive into the techniques and tricks used throughout the science. 

Techniques & Tricks For Implementing Mentalism

Using mentalism techniques and practices in psychology have changed over time to adapt as more of an understanding of the thought processes in mentalism psychology are challenged and revised. 

The following is an overview of the three techniques and tricks we cover in detail for implementing mentalism in psychology:

  • Empathizing
  • Hypnosis
  • Introspection 

We will give you a basic understanding of each of the techniques and practices, as well as how they specifically relate to mentalism theory in psychology. We even go on to provide their uses in modern psychology. 

Mentalism And Hypnosis

Hypnosis in mentalism psychology allows for a trained professional to guide you into a semi-conscious state. It is sometimes equated to zoning out or sleepiness, however, the true state of a person under hypnosis is hyperaware. 

If you are in a hypnotized state, you may experience any of the following:

  • Increased concentration
  • Heightened suggestibility
  • Focused attention
  • Intense fantasies

There are three common types of hypnosis:

  • Guided hypnosis
  • Hypnotherapy 
  • Self-hypnosis

In mentalism, hypnotherapy is a common practice as entering the hypnotic state is done alongside a licensed professional. Oftentimes, hypnotherapy can be used to treat the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Pain
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Stress
  • Smoking cessation
  • Weight loss

Hypnosis as a medical, mentalistic, and psychological treatment has been shown to improve the symptoms associated with the following diseases and disorders:

  • Chronic pain
  • Dementia
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Pain during and after childbirth
  • Chemotherapy 

An interesting fact about hypnosis is that not everyone is responsive or susceptible to the practice. 

Introspection as A Technique In Mentalism

Introspection is a process by which a person looks inwardly at their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Introspection is a form of reflection that can be formal or informal. Sometimes you may hear it referred to as experimental self-observation, which was first developed by Wilhelm Wundt. 

In the first case, we will examine the formal nature of introspection and how it applies as a technique of mentalism. In this way, introspection is controlled and measurable. This is generally only for research and experimental design. 

However, because introspection is so based in one's self, stimuli that looked one way to you could be reported in a totally different way from another person. 

On the flip side, to the more mentalistic view of introspection, you may be asked to analyze your thoughts about a particular environmental stimulus. This is a clear example of how introspection is a mentalistic technique used to explain behavior. 

Empathizing as A Practice In Mentalism

One trick or practice used in the field of mentalism psychology is empathizing. This is more formally referred to as cognitive empathy. And in psychology, it is also sometimes called perspective taking.

In short, this is a skill you can build on yourself. Cognitive empathy is putting yourself into someone’s situation to better understand their experience. This trick in mentalism draws on imagination, which, as we covered earlier, is a type of cognition. 

Similarly, empathy is used in mentalism to evoke a connection between two people and helps to explain one person’s drive for behaving in a certain way.  

Problems with Mentalism In Psychology

We know mentalism is much debated based on its history and the rival school of thought, behaviorism. but much of what has been discussed has focused on the flaws in behaviorism and not on the potential pitfalls of the theory of mentalism. 

In 2003, Dr. J. Moore wrote about mentalism and its flaws as seen in traditional psychology. He cites two major problems as they relate to traditional psychology in using mentalism:

  • Attribution theory – The basis of attribution theory was developed from work by Fritz Heider in 1958. This theory states that observed behavior is attributed to either internal or external causes. However, it goes on to say that you cannot attribute behavior to both. It cites internal causes as traits, attitudes, intelligence, and cognitions. Using these internal causes as an explanation of behavior is called dispositional attribution. 
  • The idea of intelligence – The use of mentalism and its traditional view of intelligence was prejudiced, racist, and sexist. It promoted the idea that a person who lacks dispositional attribution should be treated differently. And we are sure you can agree, even today this is a problematic stance, especially in science. 

He goes on to list a multitude of reasons for mentalism being a detractor from the field, including the following:

  • It is seen as an incomplete science
  • It obscures details and provides vague explanations
  • It focuses solely on internal processes and hinders the search for environmental variables as the cause of behavior
  • It continues to use outdated techniques

As you can see, there are a few flaws in the use of mentalism. But in psychology today, mentalism has evolved into cognitive science, and while the ripples of these flaws are still felt from time to time, they are quite diminished today and no longer embody those flaws.

The Difference Between Behaviorism and Mentalism

The biggest distinction between mentalism and behaviorism is the mentalism focuses on the inner process of a person. And because this process causes a behavior, it is not synonymous with the action of that behavior. In this section, we dive into the differences between the two schools of thought using Dr. Beth Preston’s 1994 publication.

The following is a chart comparing mentalism, behaviorism, and the commonalities they share:

Behavior is analyzed by mental processes that have non-physical existenceExplains behavior as a result of the inner mental processes that cause the behavior Modern branches do embrace the idea of mental processes being materialisticScience of the mindIdea of control Idea of inner-outer splitBehavior is analyzed by observable features in the environmentExplains behavior as a result of the environmental variables that control itScience of behaviorTends to neglect the idea of internal processes having a role in behavior 

Now we will dive a bit deeper into the similarities between mentalism and behaviorism as they will help to broaden the definition of mentalism in psychology that we presented earlier. Again, Preston does a great job at explaining the two similarities.

The Inside-Outside Split in Mentalism Psychology

Another place of overlap between mentalism and behaviorism is in the idea of there being an inner and outer split between our minds and the world around us. It supports the idea in mentalism psychology that behavior can be explained via inner structures and processes and does not need any additional explanation. 

The inside and outside of a person's mind are defined by a specific boundary. As Preston notes in her work, this boundary has to be crossed, and it is at this boundary the stimuli from the outer world are converted for the inner world and vice versa. 

The flow looks something like the following:

Mind <-> boundary <-> world

To move from the world to the mind outer stimuli must be converted into a representation of the world. And to move from the mind to the world, the representations are converted back into observable behavior. 

Some people synthesize this idea further to simplify the inside-outside split. It can be agreed that a behaving organism can be equated to an input-output device. 

The Idea of Control In Mentalism Psychology 

Control in mentalism psychology plays a key role in the mechanisms of understanding behavior. In mentalism specifically, control passes from mental process to mental process.

This is better explained using a control structure; however, these structures are not without influence from the environment at times. Using the idea of a TOTE unit hierarchy of test-operate-test-exit, control in an organism passes from environment to organism. 

In essence, the idea of control in mentalism is used to explain the generation and organization of behavior. This is to say that mentalist is an explanation of how behavior is generated in a consistent and causal fashion. 

In Summary: Mentalism Has Transformed Psychology

While much of what was considered mentalism theory is now wrapped up in cognitive science, there is still a lot of free-standing ideas behind the theory. Mentalism is a way to describe and explain human behavior. 

Mentalism posits that behavior is caused by our inner thought processes and derived from these cognitive events. This theory was widely debated and ultimately ruled out as a wave of behaviorism became the more plausible explanation of behavior. 

Over the following centuries, a clear split occurred in psychology between mentalists and behaviorists. Eventually, mentalism came back into fashion but in a new form, cognitive science. Today, mentalism psychology is a theory of old, but much of the theory has influence psychology as we understand it in today’s world.