Mentalism

Derren Brown

Mentalism [men-tl-iz-uhm] is a performing art in which its practitioners, known as mentalists, appear to demonstrate highly developed mental or intuitive abilities. Performances may appear to include hypnosis, telepathy, clairvoyance, divination, precognition, psychokinesis, mediumship, mind control, memory feats, deduction, and rapid mathematics.

Mentalists are sometimes categorized as psychic entertainers, although that category also contains non-mentalist performers such as psychic readers and bizarrists (magicians they rely heavily on wordplay). Notable mentalists include Derren Brown, Uri Geller, and the Amazing Kreskin.

Much of what modern mentalists perform in their acts can be traced back directly to ‘tests’ of supernatural power that were carried out by mediums, spiritualists, and psychics in the 19th century. However, accounts of seers and oracles can be found in works by the ancient Greeks and in the Old Testament of the Bible. Among magicians, the mentalism performance generally cited as one of the earliest on record was by Italian diplomat and pioneering sleight-of-hand magician Girolamo Scotto in 1572. The performance of mentalism may utilize these principles along with sleights, feints, misdirection, and other skills of street or stage magic.

Styles of presentation can vary greatly. Traditional performers such as Dunninger and Annemann attributed their results to supernatural or psychic skills. Some contemporary performers, such as Derren Brown, attribute their results to natural skills, such as the ability to read body language or to manipulate the subject subliminally through psychological suggestion. Others, including Chan Canasta and David Berglas made no specific claims but left it up to the audience to decide.

Contemporary mentalists often take their shows onto the streets and perform tricks to a live, unsuspecting audience. They do this by approaching random members of the public and ask to demonstrate their supernatural powers. Performers such as Derren Brown who often adopt this method of performance tell their audience before the trick starts that everything they see is an illusion and that they are not really ‘having their mind read.’ This has been the cause of a lot of controversy in the sphere of magic as some mentalists want their audience to believe that this type of magic is ‘real’ while others think that it is morally wrong to lie to a spectator.

Mentalists generally do not mix ‘standard’ magic tricks with their mental feats. Doing so associates mentalism too closely with the theatrical trickery employed by stage magicians. Many mentalists claim not to be magicians at all, arguing that it is a different art form altogether. However, many magicians mix mentally-themed performance with magic illusions. For example, a mind-reading stunt might also involve the magical transposition of two different objects. Such hybrid feats of magic are often called mental magic by performers. Magicians who routinely mix magic with mental magic include David Copperfield, David Blaine, and Dynamo.

Mentalism techniques have, on occasion, been allegedly used outside the entertainment industry to influence the actions of prominent people for personal and/or political gain. Famous examples of accused practitioners include Erik Jan Hanussen, who was alleged to have influenced Adolf Hitler and Grigori Rasputin who was alleged to have influenced Tsarina Alexandra.

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