In today’s article, we will dive in and learn more about mentalism: what it is, where it came from, how it’s done, and who are some famous mentalists in magic history.
I have reviewed a little bit about what mentalism is in previous articles, but a short recap before we dive into more specifics.
What is mentalism? Mentalism is where a magician makes it seems like he or she can read the mind of an audience, whether it be a large audience or a small group, or even an individual. In addition, a mentalist can also make it seem like he can see the future, guess exactly what someone might say before they say it, or even hypnotize others and/or speak to those that aren’t there.
Now, obviously, mentalists don’t actually read minds or speak to the dead or predict the future.
Perhaps some are better at it than others, but mentalism is more about deception, suggestion, and other tricks than it is actually being “magical” in that sense.
Table of Contents
A History of Mentalism
Mentalism has a long and storied history, not always as mentalism the form of magic, but in terms of the skills required to be a mentalist and the way those skills have popped up throughout history.
For instance: as we’ve discussed, mentalism involves (pretending?) to see the future, read people’s minds, and make bold and dramatic statements that could potentially put ideas in people’s heads and convince them to act in a certain way.
If you think back to your ancient history courses in school and say, “Hey, this kind of sounds like those Ancient Greek oracles and prophets!” then you are not mistaken.
Indeed, the Ancient Greek oracles served many of the same functions as modern mentalists, but they admittedly had quite a bit of power and sway over ancient societies, much more than a modern magician.
It can also be (perhaps controversially) noted that many of the prophets in the Bible and other religions may have shared some of the tendencies of mentalists as well (but that’s for another time).
The more recent forms of mentalism truly began to take a share in or around 1572, when an Italian named Girolamo Scotto was credited with inventing the sleight-of-hand trick in magic, which played into the foundation of modern mentalism; indeed, sleight-of-hand and misdirection are key elements of mentalist magic with regards to how the mentalists “trick” the audience.
Of course, as noted in one of my previous articles, one of the first major performers to popularize mentalist-style magic tricks to a broader, more cultured, and theater-going audience, was Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, one of the fathers of theatrical magic and the man behind the “Second Sight” magic trick (though the original version of this trick was performed by John Henry Anderson).
In this trick, Robert-Houdin’s son – who was on stage and blindfolded – would be able to correctly guess through “magical abilities” and/or clairvoyant skills what item his father had picked out from the audience.
Another popular category of mentalist that has been well-established for years – though there is some debate in this arena – is that of the psychic and/or fortune teller.
Both types of people deal with intuition, people-reading, and “mind-reading” naturally, but there are some differences.
The first major one is the audience – psychics/fortune tellers tend to deal with a much more intimate audience (though some psychics, like Theresa Caputo, the Long Island Medium, do perform to larger crowds).
Mentalist performers, on the other hand, tend to perform in front of larger groups of people; in essence, true mentalist performers are stage magicians or parlor magicians, while psychics lean more towards close-up magic or smaller parlor performances.
Also, mentalists tend to be more performative/entertainment-oriented (i.e. the “Second Sight” trick) while psychics tend to deal with more personal issues (like deceased relatives or advice on relationships).
How does Mentalism Work?
As noted in the previous section, sleight-of-hand and (specifically) misdirection are two of the biggest plays in the mentalism playbook.
However, there are additional techniques in play when it comes to the most successful mentalist performers.
Two of the other key elements that play into the effects of mentalism are the placebo effect and confirmation bias.
The placebo effect is more of an influence on how mentalists trick people rather than a true strategy, but it relies on the fact that the human brain – while powerful and capable of great knowledge and power – is also easy to trick with the power of suggestion.
The specific case referenced in the article linked above references Chantix and helping people quit smoking; certain people in a test group were given a false pill (not the drug itself) but many showed the same signs of improvement than those who were given the drug also showed.
In essence, if it is suggested to the human brain that something is happening (even if it may not be) then a person might end up believing it.
Similarly with mentalism, if you can implant in someone’s head that they are seeing/experiencing/thinking something, they may believe you due to this placebo effect/power of suggestion.
Confirmation bias also plays a major role in how mentalism works.
Essentially, confirmation bias is when you trick yourself into believing something is true and/or keeps appearing in life, and you keep seeing it as a “sign” of some sort, when in fact it was always there without any kind of prompting.
Confirmation bias, then, tricks your mind into seeing something that may be commonplace and turning it into something more; for instance, if you believe that the number “13” has an unlucky significance, you will convince yourself that you are seeing it everywhere and perhaps you are about to come into some bad luck (rather than, perhaps, it is just a common number).
Mentalism, then, takes confirmation bias and applies it to phenomena that apply to the act, convincing you that you may be seeing something in the world that has a special meaning due to supernatural forces (i.e. seeing a cardinal to remind you of a deceased relative).
Another prominent technique that many mentalists use is the ability to read people’s facial expressions, body language, and even use prior knowledge and educated guesses to make assumptions about people and guess what they might be thinking or what they believe.
For instance, a mentalist may mention several words/phrases/refer to people or objects and wait for a person to tense up, open their eyes wide, or show some other physical “tell” that convinces him that he is on the right track with his mentalist act, and will keep going down that same line of thinking to make it seem like he is reading the audience member’s mind.
Who are Some Famous Mentalists?
That’s easy: Patrick Jane, Shawn Spencer, and Burton Guster!
One of the most prominent mentalists in modern times has been Derren Brown, who has been a stage and TV performer with his mentalist act for years. His acts generally use the power of persuasion and implanting ideas, concepts, or words in the minds of his marks and audience members.
Mentalist Uri Geller is widely known for his spoon-bending tricks (one way in which this trick is achieved is to “gimmick” the spoon beforehand so that it is structurally weakened and can be bent much more easily on the stage).
Bob Cassidy, another prominent mentalist, was also the founder of the Psychic Entertainers Association; Cassidy has always been adamant that anyone, with enough time and practice, can learn to be a mentalist magician and has written numerous books on the topic.
Now to address the Hollywood side of things: obviously, someone like Patrick Jane (from the CBS show The Mentalist) would likely never be hired by a real police department to help with cases.
However, the techniques of behavioral analysis experts – and certain experts at interrogating criminals – do share some similarities with mentalist magicians, with the emphasis on reading people’s body reactions and facial expressions.
Can You Learn Mentalism?
Mentalism, as part of the magic, can be learned.
If you want to learn mentalism, I can honestly recommend this online course.
It’s the best online training on mentalism I tried and I keep returning to its content again and again.
EXAMPLE: Easy Mentalism Trick
Mentalism, as a whole, is a type of magic based on deception and intuition; to be a good mentalist, you have to be able to trick your audience, but it can’t just be through sleight-of-hand magic and misdirection.
You have to be good at reading people and implanting suggestions, and as such being an effective mentalist can certainly be harder (in some ways) than other types of magicians.