What is Mentalism?
Posted by Joe M. Turner | TurnerMagic.com on February 23, 2012
My clients know that I perform a variety of illusions in different genres, depending on the specific needs and character of their event. Many of them have encountered the term “mentalism” in conversations with me, or they’ve heard it from others, or they’ve seen the popular show The Mentalist on CBS. Many people still approach me with the question: just what is mentalism, anyway?Mentalism, simply put, is the branch of illusion arts that deals with psychological experiences more than visual ones, though there is sometimes some overlap. Mentalists present their audiences with experiences that seem like mind-reading, mental influence, predictions of future events, and occasionally the ability to move or affect physical objects with the power of the mind.
Modern mentalism has roots in ancient times, where soothsayers and mediums performed acts that would be related to some kinds of mentalism today. In the 1800s, psychic entertainers became popular and some of the feats they performed would still be part of any mentalism performance today.
Some mentalists strongly resist any comparison to magicians, preferring to think of the art as an entirely separate one with no pretended “supernatural” elements. Given that some mentalists have overtly made claims of “supernatural gifts” as the source of their abilities, that distinction holds little sway. Another common approach to performing mentalism today is to offer it in the context of using highly developed observational skills and an ability to read body language as the theatrical premise for the performance. This premise is, however, sometimes largely an illusion in its own right. It is generally a contrivance intended to persuade audiences that what they are experiencing is less a theatrical experience and more an actual ability to perceive people’s specific thoughts. While this claim is not supernatural in nature, in my view it is only slightly less dishonest.
My personal approach to mentalism is to recognize it for what it really is: a truly mystifying branch of the illusion arts focused on experiences of the mind. Just as a skilled sleight-of-hand artist can make a coin appear to melt into nothingness, a skilled mentalist can seem to make a thought appear in your mind. The first illusion is visual; the second is psychological. They rely on some techniques that are similar, and some which are different. Likewise, the performer who makes a tiger appear on a stage relies on some techniques that are similar, and some which are different. All of the experiences are illusions to an audience.
It can be fun to leave the line between reality and performance a little blurry for an audience. When that blurred line becomes a means by which someone attempts to sell products or services through the perception that the theatrical premise represents legitimate expertise on the part of the performer, then another line is also being blurred: the line between honest performer and scam artist.
Interestingly, when the television show The Mentalist premiered, the Atlanta CBS affiliate contacted me about coming on the news for a feature on “Atlanta’s Real Life Mentalist.” In that segment they profiled me and my work as a speaker and mentalist. The interview itself is linked just below the image. Enjoy!