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Watching a mentalist perform is about as close as you can get to witnessing supernatural powers in real life. Of course, it's not really supernatural. Which might lead you to the question of what exactly it is then? What does a person need to learn in order to become a mentalist?
Mentalism is an art form in which individuals carefully develop their mental abilities for entertainment and practical uses. Mentalists often employ memory tricks, hypnosis, deduction, and rapid mathematics in order to wow an audience. They may use these skills to convince an audience they have supernatural abilities.
If you’d like to learn more about the art of mentalism, you've come to the right place. In the following sections, we’ll break down why people practice mentalism and how it works before surveying a few real life and fictional examples of mentalism in practice.
What Exactly Do Mentalists Do?
People practice mentalism because the techniques it involves are effective both for entertainment and even for practical uses in their personal life. For example, a skilled mentalist can use memory tricks to feed back information someone has already told them (but forgotten about) and pretend to be a psychic.
Those same memory skills can be applied to everything from memorizing a grocery list to the lines they might want to repeat in their show. Part of the appeal of mentalism is just how applicable the skills it requires are to various situations.
Common Techniques Used By Mentalists
The further up the ladder you go in mentalism, the more you discover esoteric techniques that are only used by the pros. Still, there are some basic techniques like cold reading or hypnosis.
Some of the most common techniques of mentalists include:
Cold Reading: An Important Technique of Mentalism
Cold reading is a technique wherein the practitioner pays close attention to what someone is saying to them and then feeds it back carefully as if they just knew it. This technique is usually used to fake being a medium or mind reading.
Hypnosis: An Important Technique of Mentalism
Hypnotists are able to use a variety of suggestions to get participants to relax or engage in entertaining acts. A good mentalist will tell you that they can really only hypnotize a person if they want to be. So selecting participants based on their suggestibility becomes an important part of making the act convincing.
Neuro Linguistic Programing: A Controversial Technique of Mentalism
Many mentalists claim to use a technique called neuro linguistic programming to provide suggestions to their subjects. Supposedly they can read tiny cues in a person's body language and word choice to draw conclusions about them. They use those observations to know what words and tone they should embed in their phrasing to influence their subjects behavior more efficiently.
NLP is controversial because many psychologists are skeptical of just how effective it really is. There is a long standing argument over whether or not it is in and of itself part of the act.
Sleight-of-Hand: A Fundamental Technique of Mentalism
Mentalists use sleight-of-hand for all kinds of acts, including everything from “psychokinesis” to “mind control”. To do well with sleight-of-hand, mentalists have to continually practice specific movements until they can do them purely on muscle memory.
Quick Memory: An Integral Set of Techniques in Mentalism
Mentalists use a variety of different techniques to memorize long bits of information in a short period of time. One popular mnemonic device they use is called “linking.”
If they’re given a list of random things to memorize in one reading, they will quickly associate each object with a bold image. In choosing the next image to represent the second word on the list they will stick with something that connects with the previous one either in its sound or content.
Another popular memorization technique is creating what is known as a “memory palace.” This is where one takes the effort to symbolize whatever they want to remember as items in an imaginary palace. The technique is said to allow them to memorize large chunks of information in a short period.
The Most Common Mentalist Acts
Mentalist acts usually revolve around convincing an audience that they have some type of psychic or supernatural ability. They achieve this goal with everything from psychokinesis
(moving things with their mind) to divination (ritualistically seeing into the future).
Some of the most common mentalist acts include:
Practicing Mind Control as Mentalism
Mentalists will use a combination of traditional hypnosis and possibly also NLP (neuro linguistic programming) to make it look like they have the power of mind control. They might make someone forget their name or respond to certain triggers with entertaining behaviors.
Practicing Clairvoyance and Mediumship
As a “medium” they will usually pretend a spirit is trying to talk with them and they’ll throw out a common name to the audience. Invariably someone in the audience will have a family member or friend with that name who passed away.
The mentalist will then carefully pull details out of the audience member’s response and put them together to draw likely conclusions about the deceased. When they feed these deductions back to the audience, they appear to know details they have “no way of knowing”.
This same technique of cold reading is used when they pretend to have clairvoyance. Clairvoyance is just the ability to know things through extrasensory perception.
Practicing Telepathy as Mentalism
Okay, they aren’t really practicing telepathy; they're just using a combination of suggestion, cold reading, memory tricks, and observation to make it look like they are. Still, a skilled mentalist can put on a convincing show that could have the most ardent skeptics scratching their heads.
Practicing Divination as Mentalism
Divination is when an individual brings seemingly unrelated observations together to foretell the future. While responsible mentalists don’t claim that they can truly see the future, they can make it seem like they really can.
Practicing Psychokinesis as Mentalism
Psychokinesis is the ability to move objects using only the mind. Mentalists often achieve this feat by manipulating the audience's perception through optical illusions, magnets, and thread. There are a variety of different techniques that vary depending on what the mentalist is trying to move.
Spoon bending is probably one of the most popular ways for a mentalist to display psychokinesis. It’s one of the easiest tricks to learn so it’s usually one of the first ones practitioners are introduced to.
While hucksters have tried to use the same techniques to convince people they really can use psychokinesis, they have been roundly rejected by the mentalist community. A notable example of this was when James Randi exposed a man claiming to be able to move a pencil and turn the pages of a phone book with his mind.
Are Mentalists the Same as Magicians
While there is some overlap in the types of shows mentalists and magicians perform, they are not the same thing. In fact, many mentalists avoid doing traditional magic tricks to distinguish their performance. They want to narrow in on the primary purpose of mentalism.
Where magicians like to use big theatrical props to put on a spectacle, mentalists focus on wowing people with their incredible cognitive abilities. Instead of going from trick to trick, they will spend a long period of time getting the audience to believe they have some sort of supernatural power like mind reading.
To responsibly do this, the mentalist will never explicitly state that they’re just performing tricks; they'll instead leave some ambiguity. At the same time, they won’t use these skills to take advantage of others.
What About Mental Magic?
Mental magic is a term that has cropped up to describe the fusion of mentalism and magic. While most mentalists don’t want to be confused for magicians, others embrace both titles. They combine standard magic tricks like sawing people in half with sections of the performance dedicated to cognitive feats like mind reading.
The History and Development of Mentalism
While the techniques of mentalism have been used for ages, the first formally accepted mentalist was a man named Girolamo Scotto in 1572. Still mentalism didn’t really enter the mainstream until the early 1800s. Today it marks a multimillion dollar industry that includes everything from local acts to big name celebrities.
Proto-Mentalism in Ancient Mythology.
Historians point out that there are examples of protomentalsim that appear in everything from The Bible to Roman mythology. These are essentially depictions of mentalism before mentalism was considered a thing.
Below we’ve outlined a few well known examples of mentalism in ancient text and mythology:
- The Bible: In the book of Exodus, Moses–the leader of the Israelites–and his follower Aaron have to face off with the Pharaoh's magicians. Ultimately they prove that what the magicians were doing were mere illusions.
- Roman mythology and practices: In Roman culture there were Oracles who were held in extremely high regard for practicing divination. They would be used to plan for farming and battle. Their existence was incorporated into their mythology.
- Greek mythology and practices: The Greeks also had Oracles. Most likely, in both civilizations Oracles were actually using similar techniques to modern day mentalists in order to look like they knew more than they really did.
- Middle ages: In the middle ages, many kings would hire prophets known as oracles and seers, to help them strategize before battle. They believed these prophets could see into the future and help them avoid failure. Most likely, they were just using tactics similar to those mentalists use today in divination practices.
The Emergence of Formal Mentalism
The earliest known mentalist act dates back to 1572 with Girolamo Scotto. He primarily relied on slide-of-hand in order to convince the public that he had supernatural powers. His shows were popular for just how puzzling and unique they were.
By the early 1800s, more and more acts started popping up where the performer implied they had psychic or supernatural abilities, which they were demonstrating in their acts. The discipline grew in conjunction with advancements in magic. Mentalists like J. Randall Brown and The Amazing Kreskin brought their practice into the 1900s, where it thrived.
Today mentalism is featured in television programs, live shows and over social media platforms. While big name mentalists still wow people with the same fundamental tricks, they have invented endless new ways of pulling them off.
Can Just Anyone Learn to Practice Mentalism?
Learning to become a mentalist requires a significant amount of time and dedication, however, it can be done. You’ll need to be prepared to increase your observation skills, learn rapid memory techniques, become really good at math and work on your showmanship.
It sounds like a lot but if you break it down into steps and focus on one thing at a time, it's very doable.
How do You Become a Mentalist?
So what exactly are the steps to becoming a mentalist? Are there any resources out there to help one learn mentalism? Below we’ll answer these questions and list out how to become a mentalist in 5 steps.
- Find resources: There are many detailed guides online that give you a few tricks to start with. There are also books like Darren Brown’s Tricks of the Mind, which lay out the fundamentals of mentalism. Like with magic tricks, there has always been an air of mystery around where you can learn to practice mentalism from. Everyone carves their own path.
- Consider your focus: Find a handful of tricks to start with and think about which ones you like the most. For example if you find that you like convincing your friends you have psychokinetic powers, you can pursue more tricks in that vein. When you have a more narrowed focus you can get better at that particular skill faster and more efficiently.
- Practice as you’ve never practiced before: You’ve gotta practice if you want to be a good mentalist. Part of what makes a mentalist act convincing is how smoothly they pull off their seemingly supernatural feats. You’ll want to remember to make sure you practice how you’ll address the audience as well as how you’ll pull off your tricks.
- Meet other practitioners: Meeting others is a great way to expand the scope of what you can accomplish. Others can introduce you to new ideas and give you a competitive fuel to do better. In the modern age, you don’t even have to go anywhere to do this. There are several online communities for those interested in mentalism.
- Make a long term plan: Are you learning mentalism as a hobby, or would you like to get involved in professional shows? The steps you need to take will differ depending on what you’re trying to do.
The Benefits of Practicing Mentalism in Your Personal Life
Mentalism isn’t just good for the performances it inspires. Learning it can also help you in your personal life. From giving you a greater degree of control over your interactions with others to instill confidence, mentalism has many benefits.
While the techniques in mentalism are very specific, the principles that make them work are universal. Principles like always being prepared and always projecting confidence can be applied to everything from your personal life to whatever you do as a day job.
In the following sections we’ll break down five of the biggest benefits you’ll see in your personal life if you start practicing mentalism.
Mentalism Can Dramatically Increase Your Communication Skills
One of the primary skills a mentalist must develop in order to effectively carry an audience is communication. Not just in what they themselves say but in the way they weigh others' words or read their body language. Once you’ve practiced mentalism enough, you'll be ready for almost any interaction.
This skill will also extend to meeting new people. You can feel more confident introducing yourself to new people, ultimately expanding your ability to network. The saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is used for a reason. You’ll be surprised what opportunities open up when you properly network.
Mentalism Can Strengthen Your Relationships
This goes hand in hand with it strengthening your communication skills. Once you understand the psychological principles that go into pulling off an act like mind reading, you’ll get better at picking up on small questions from the people around you.
Mentalism Can Give You a Sense of Control
You have to understand a great deal about what motivates people in order to carry out acts where you use “mind control.” You can use some of the same techniques to control any kind of situation you might come across in your professional life. When you can guess what others are thinking, you can respond more effectively to their needs and make yourself invaluable.
However it should be noted that you should use this ability responsibly. It’s OK to take control of a situation when you're trying to solve a problem with others, but it's another to use it to trick vulnerable people.
Mentalism Can Make You Better at Problem Solving
Constructing an act can be thought of as just one long exercise in problem solving. To create new tricks that will even surprise other mentalists, you’ll have to develop the ability to think outside the box. This will be cultivated by every single trick you put together yourself or learn the inworkings from a fellow mentalist.
Greater Problem solving skills invariably also lead to more creativity. As a mentalist, you’ll learn to look at challenges in life as mysteries that can be solved as opposed to impenetrable enigmas. You can become more excited to learn new things and find creative ways to incorporate them into your daily life.
Mentalism Helps You Work On Your Preparation Skills
A ton of preparation goes into constructing a mentalist act. Everything from the tone of your voice during specific acts to the technicalities of each trick must be thoroughly thought through. If they aren’t, you could accidentally expose the mechanics behind your tricks and ruin the mystery for your audience.
This skill can be carried over to your day job, your personal life, and any other endeavor you engage in. By learning to become a mentalist you’ll have put yourself through a sort of boot camp for being prepared. It’ll make other challenges feel like nothing.
Responsibility That Come With Practicing Mentalism
Practitioners of mentalism will quickly point out to anyone who wants to join their ranks, that knowing these techniques comes with a responsibility. It can be tempting to use these skills to take advantage of people. You often see this with fake mediums that take advantage of people’s grief.
At the end of the day any trick in mentalism is fine to perform as long as you don’t claim that it’s real just to take advantage of a vulnerable group. Most mentalists prefer to leave an air of ambiguity to further engage with the audience. They don’t explicitly call what they’re doing tricks but they also don’t say they're not. They let the audience members believe what they want.
Styles of Performance in Mentalism
Mentalists vary greatly in how they present themselves to the public. Some like Uri Geller have attempted to convince audiences that they truly have supernatural abilities. While others like Darren Brown and The Amazing Randi have ardently expressed that everything they do, they do via natural techniques.
Mentalism in Popular Culture
Mentalism has been appearing in mainstream fiction as far back as Sherlock Holmes. Generally, stories about mentalists place their protagonist in a situation in which their mentalism is the key to unraveling a mystery.
At the same time real life mentalists have grown in popularity to the point where people like Darren Brown have been making successful TV specials and mini series for decades.
Below we’ll breakdown what mentalism looks like in fiction vs. what it looks like in reality, then highlight three examples in each category.
Mentalism in Fiction
In fiction, mentalists not only put on entertaining stage shows and TV specials, they also solve crimes. Because detective stories require the protagonists to use their cognitive skills for deduction, using elements of mentalism only feels natural.
Though not all of the following fictional characters are directly named mentalists, they employ the same techniques to solve cases.
- Sherlock Holmes: The one and only original detective series stars a protagonist who uses many of the same techniques as mentalists. This is really the blueprint for what mentalism would look like in fiction.
- Patrick Jane: CBS hit series The Mentalist, featured a tortured mentalist trying to solve the murder of his family. It ran for seven seasons and tried to mix real life mentalism combined with a little Hollywood fiction. However, real mentalists consulted for the show to keep things believable.
- Shawn Spencer: The unlikely hit cable show Psych stars the character of Shawn Spencer; a man who uses his powers of observation and memorization to act like a psychic and solve crimes.
Prominent Real Life Mentalists
Real life mentalists may not be crime stopping detectives, but they put on some of the most entertaining stage shows and TV specials out there. Some mentalists like James Randi have used their platform to expose frauds. At the same time other mentalists like Nina Kulagina used their abilities to pull off hoaxes themselves.
Three of the most well known mentalists across the 20th and 21st century include:
- Nina Kulagina: During the Soviet Union Nina Kulagina claimed to have psychokinetic powers. While she was eventually exposed, she was the subject of tests by the USSR. It’s thought that she used a combination of magnets and string to pull off her feats.
- James Randi: James Randi used his skills as a mentalist to debunk those who used the same techniques to claim they had supernatural abilities. He was famous for a long standing offer of one million dollars to anyone who could prove they had supernatural powers in a controlled scientific setting.
- Daren Brown: Daren Brown is one of the most well known and highly regarded Mentalists working in the mainstream. Between live shows, television specials and a whole slew of mini series, Daren has made his name with his amazing abilities.
So Really, What Does Mentalism Mean?
Mentalism is a performing art similar to magic but different in its focus. Practitioners use cognitive tricks to convince an audience that they have supernatural powers. Often these cognitive tricks involve observation, quick memorization and rapid mathematics. They will also employ tactics like cold reading in order to make an audience believe they are psychic.
In fiction, mentalism is usually depicted off the stage. Protagonists who are mentalists usually end up using the same tricks in order to solve crimes instead of perform. This can sometimes lead to misconceptions of the scope and purpose of mentalism. It also exposes more people to the art from and inspires many people to learn themselves.