Mentalism is everywhere in our lives. Fictional characters such as Sherlock Holmes use mentalism tricks to solve clues. Not to mention the highly successful US TV show – The Mentalist is based around this phenomenon. In addition, UK performer Derren Brown has made a career from using mentalism and performing tricks in his shows. So, what exactly is this technique and how do people use it?
A Personal Experience of Mentalism Tricks
I went to a Derren Brown show a couple of years ago. Derren picked members of the audience to participate in the show by throwing a frisbee. I managed to catch it.
My job was to choose a number from 100 to 200. I randomly picked a number which I wrote down and placed in an envelope. This number was integral of a series of other answers given by audience members who had also been randomly selected throughout the show.
To this day, I have no idea how he managed to guess all our answers. The weird thing is that they all related to one another in some way. Moreover, if he had got just one answer wrong, they all would have been wrong.
So what exactly are mentalism tricks? A mentalist, such as Derren Brown, will use a variety of ways to read you.
6 Different Tricks of Mentalism
- Studying body language
- Subconscious communication
- Simple trickery
- Understanding human behaviour
- Cold reading
- Power of suggestion
Let’s examine each method in turn and discover the tricks of mentalism:
Studying Body Language
A mentalist’s greatest strength is his or her ability to understand body language. Gifted mentalists will use this to supposedly read people’s minds. In other words – telepathy.
Actually, if you break down the word telepathy, you get ‘tele’, which means distant, and ‘pathy’, which means perception or feeling. This is exactly what a mentalist does to read your mind. They get a feeling from a distance and using their knowledge of body language to interpret this feeling.
When reading someone’s body language, the first thing a mentalist will do is establish a person’s base level. So they may start with fairly innocuous questions to gauge a normal reaction. For example, a person might have a habit of playing with their hair. If you didn’t know this was normal behaviour, you might assume they were hiding something later on in the questioning process.
Remember that mentalists take years to perfect their observations on body language. However, the main areas they’ll focus on are the face and hands.
On the face, they will look at movement around the mouth when talking. Does the person push their lips out when speaking? This is a sign they are forcing their words out and might not believe what they are saying. Likewise, do they cover their mouth while speaking? This is an indicator of lying.
What is their blink rate like? Look out for the ‘blink sandwich’. This is a fast succession of blinks before a lie, no blinks during the lie, then another burst of fast blinks. This happens because the person lying will often stare at their accuser to make their lie seem more truthful.
However, their eyes cannot keep up the pretence and need to blink. Hence the rapid blinks either side.
Are you the sort of person that always seems to receive great customer service? Or is it the opposite? Would you be surprised to learn that either way it might be your subconscious communications that are influencing others and predicting these outcomes?
Imagine two scenarios:
- In the first, you are late for work and rush into a coffee shop. You are flustered and unkempt and when it is your turn to be served, you bark ‘coffee’ at the server without looking up.
- In the second scene, you have a day off and are meeting friends. You stroll in, walk up to the counter, smile at the server and ask for coffee.
These two scenes are practically identical but for a slight tweak in attitude. But it is your subconscious communication that is speaking clearly here. What kind of service do you suppose you would receive for each scenario?
Remember, if it is so easy for novices like ourselves to understand, imagine how a mentalist could use it to read a person?
Most of us would like to believe that we wouldn’t be fooled by magic tricks, especially the really easy ones. But some of the best are the simple tricks. If you like programmes such as Perception with US actor Eric McCormack as Dr Daniel Pierce, you’ll be used to seeing mentalism tricks such as these.
For instance, in one episode, Dr Pierce ‘demonstrates’ his mind-reading abilities. He consistently guesses correctly from a deck of cards the right symbol his colleague is thinking of. His colleague is amazed until Dr Pierce reveals that he can see the cards his colleague is holding in the reflection of the colleague’s glasses.
Understanding Human Behaviour
I had gone to a psychic fair held locally and had managed to book the last sitting with a popular clairvoyant.
Just as she began my reading, a lady walked up and sadly said ‘Is it too late to book?’ The clairvoyant said ‘Yes, I’m sorry, this is my last sitting,’ gesturing to me. The lady was about to turn away and the clairvoyant stood up, grabbed her hand and said ‘It will be alright you know, you’ve suffered a terrible tragedy, but they are in a better place now.’
The lady broke down and said ‘Thank you’ and went on her way. I wondered afterwards, how did she know? But of course, this clairvoyant had been in the business for decades. I’m not taking anything away from her. She was an extremely kind lady to get up and offer the woman some solace.
Having said that, did she have clairvoyant skills or did she simply understand that this lady needed some kind of closure?
This is a particularly pernicious way of using mentalism tricks to get people to open up about themselves. You could relate it back to the previous story in fact.
Cold reading is when the reader has no clue at all about their audience. So they throw out random or general facts that could apply to almost anyone. It’s a little like your horoscopes. They are fishing for a bite. Once someone has bitten they can trawl them in with vague questions until they hit on the jackpot.
Cold reading uses a number of techniques to help them. They will use information about certain groups of people in order to pigeon-hole people. For example, young girls are likely to have problems with self-esteem. They’ll employ certain tactics such as ‘Barnum statements’ like ‘You feel anxious meeting new people’ or ‘When you try hard you succeed in whatever you do.’
Fishing is an example of a specific statement like ‘I can see a car accident here is significant’. Then, if this is picked up the audience will be impressed. If it is not the mentalist will quickly move on.
Power of Suggestion
Finally, the last but probably most important of our tricks involving mentalism is the power of suggestion. This is because it can be used in so many ways to manipulate us, and not just by performers. One person, Jay Olsen, found that his hobby of magic and illusion helped his career in psychology.
“Lots of what they said about attention and memory were just what magicians had been saying in a different way.” Jay Olson at McGill University in Quebec, Canada
Olsen devised a simple experiment in which he flicked through a deck of cards, then asked an audience member to choose one. When the card was revealed, Olsen took out the exact card from his jacket pocket.
So what was the mentalism trick he used? Olsen says that whilst shuffling through the pack, he lingered for a couple of milliseconds longer on the chosen card. This was enough for participants to choose it.
This easy manipulation technique has far-reaching implications, as Olsen is keen to point out. It even works on restaurant menus. Olsen says that we are more likely to choose from the very top or bottom of the menu. This is because these areas immediately attract our eyes.
So, while we think we might fancy the steak, really it’s just because it’s there at the top.
Mentalism tricks show just how easy it is for people to read our minds. But don’t forget, if they can read ours, we can use these same techniques and read theirs!
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