Welcome back to our series on magic, magicians, and the world of illusion!
We have taken a look at mentalism, and the science of magic, in previous installments, but now we are going to take a closer look at the specific relationship between mind-reading (one of the subsets of mentalism) and the actual field of psychology.
Specifically, how does psychology specifically influence a performer’s ability to read minds (i.e. body language, verbal cues, etc.)?
What is the relation between mind reading and psychology? Mind readers and Mentalists are using principles of psychology in their performances. They’re utilizing the art of reading body language, gestures, movements, and using all those small clues to determine what the person is thinking.
Let’s dive in and take a close look…
Table of Contents
A History of Mentalism as a Science: Bacon And Behaviorism
Interestingly, before it was a form of magic and theatrics (and the subject of shows like The Mentalist or Psych), mentalism was actually considered to be a legitimate field of scientific study; specifically, it was a kind of precursor to modern, Freudian, and Jungian psychology!
As noted in the linked article, much of the early mentalists were more philosophers than anything else who focused more on discussions and debates than on hard research or scientific inquiry.
For instance one of the most famous early mentalist philosophers was Rene Descartes, who most famously said that “I think, therefore I am”; he did not say, “I think, therefore we can analyze it” or something that effect.
So, for a while, mentalism, as it related to philosophical endeavors, did not go into that much depth as far as how people think, just that they do and that it does indeed affect them.
However, once more scientifically- and logically-oriented minds such as Francis Bacon came along, the tenets behind mentalism and psychology began to meld together and create something more scientifically-based.
As noted in the abstract cited previously, one of the areas in which Bacon had an influence was on early behaviorism, in which he put forth that “the true character of an individual can be discovered in his observable behavior, and… and an informed’ understanding of these properties permits the prediction and control of human behavior” (MacDonald).
In other words, by watching someone’s behavior and how they react to different situations, and by looking for patterns in reactions, you can potentially figure our what they are thinking or – if done correctly – use their behaviors to “make” them say or do something you suggest them to do.
You have to admit, this sounds like a classic mentalist/mind-reader trick that you might see in a theater, doesn’t it?
Indeed, it was in the field of behaviorism – especially as it related to psychology – that mentalism went from a more philosophical pursuit to one that could have a scientific impact and, ultimately, be used by mind-readers/mentalist performers in more modern times.
Now, of course, as any student of psychology might know, behaviorism got off to an interesting, and rather controversial, start with the work of B.F. Skinner and his (in)famous Operant Conditioning.
In short: these were the experiments where Skinner and his followers would train rats to act a certain way by giving either positive reinforcements/reinforcers (i.e. if the rat pressed a lever, he got a piece of delicious cheese) or by giving punishments/negative reinforcement (i.e. if the rat pressed a button, he got an electric shock so he wouldn’t do that again).
Similarly to how, say, when you were in school and broke a rule and got sent to detention; this was meant to be a “punishment” that would convince you not to act the same way again (it should be noted that “punishment” and “negative reinforcement” are not the same things, but that’s a topic for another article).
Now, obviously, this style of psychological/mental conditioning is controversial and perhaps downright terrifying – many people, including famous linguist Noam Chomsky firmly denounced this kind of training – but the fact remains that Skinner wasn’t incorrect in what he was doing with behaviorism and operant condition.
He was one of the main people who figured out that the mind can be trained, and tricked, into doing or believing something by using suggestions and/or outright demands.
However, behaviorism did lead to the birth of cognitive psychology, which studied thinking (and how people think and what makes them think certain things) in a way that brought mentalism back into the picture.
As such, modern mentalists and mind readers have learned similarly that by conditioning audiences, and by planting ideas in people’s heads through suggestions, and by reading their emotions and reactions and studying behavior, mentalist magicians have come to be able to “read minds” and predict what an audience member will do.
Mentalism And Psychology: How Does “Mind-Reading” Actually Work?
So now that we know that mentalism and mind-reading magicians have been influenced by psychology, how exactly does “mind-reading” in the way we know it and see it onstage really work?
To recap, confirmation bias happens when the mind tricks itself into believing something is true or perhaps keeps appearing in life as a “sign” of something rather than just as a matter of random chance (i.e. you break with a girl named Lucy and suddenly you see that name everywhere, you believe that the number 13 is unlucky and seeing it will bring you bad luck and so you suddenly notice it appearing everywhere, etc.).
Mentalists and mind-readers take advantage of this confirmation bias and use it, along with subtly planting suggestions in someone’s head about something – i.e. if you want someone to think of the number “3,” keep saying things in groups of three (names, objects, etc.) to implant the idea of “3” in their head – to guide people into believing they are thinking or seeing something that is shocking or mysterious when it really isn’t.
The other and perhaps more famous, way that mentalists use psychological techniques and tricks to read minds is by reading cues and body language in other people in order to figure out what they are thinking by how they speak and act.
Indeed, reading body language is perhaps the most common way to do this, and it’s a technique used by magicians as well as law enforcement officers.
And indeed, many law enforcement officers – especially those who deal with interrogations and behavioral analysis – will use a suspect’s body language or speech patterns as a kind of “tell” for when they are lying or telling the truth.
For instance, a suspect who is feeling trapped and starts to lie may tap his foot, avert his gaze, or even change the pitch of his speaking voice.
This is why oftentimes in interrogations (including those that utilize a lie detector test), the interviewer/interrogator will start with easy, baseline questions that will determine how someone reacts when telling an easy truth so that deviations will be easier to pick out.
There are alternative ways to do this – this article mentions an interesting variation on this method in which it details how your own body language and physical reactions to a situation can help you determine what something is thinking or feeling
The bottom line is that people have physical, verbal, and facial tells when they think or feel something.
It just requires you to learn it, figure it out, and use it.
And in essence, that is what a mentalist/mind-reader does when they are “reading the audience’s mind” when doing their performances. Sometimes a mind-reader will throw a “line” out to an audience and look for a reaction; one example is the psychic who will say to the audience that someone sitting there has just lost a loved one.
The mind-reader/psychic will then be able to “figure out” who that person is to the astonishment of the crowd.
Of course, the magician did not actually read anyone’s mind or have a magical ability to figure out who the person is that lost a loved one/family member; if someone has just lost a loved one, just hearing that phrase will likely trigger a physical reaction (a frown, hunching over, nervous twitching, etc.) that an expert reader of body language will be able to identify.
By looking into the audience, the mentalist will be able to find that person based on his reactions and determine that this person is the one who is in pain!
There are many tricks and strategies that mentalists use to decode people’s behaviors and make it seem like they using telepathy and other powers to read minds, but really it’s more of their ability to read cues, pick up on subtle tells, and use that to their advantage… and for the betterment of the show!
Can You Learn Mind-Reading?
This is one of the common questions I receive over and over again.
Why I always refer to the same course? Simply because I tried it on my own and I was very happy with what I received.
This course is teaching Mentalism and Mind-Reading techniques from scratch, so even a complete beginner can start learning mentalism today.
If you’re interested in learning mind-reading techniques, check more details on this site.
Mind-Reading: A Summary
In summation, nobody can really read minds using magical powers and telepathic abilities.
Mentalism, and the magic of mind-reading, is more about psychology, the ability to determine what certain words, movements, and examples of body language mean in context, and to use all of those clues to make it seem like the magician is really reading your mind, when in fact he’s more just “interpreting” your mind, as it were.
The truly great mentalists are ones that are attuned with psychological tricks and can use them to misdirect, deceive, and amaze an audience.