Enjoying magic and mentalism takes a certain amount of blind faith — or at the very least, indulgence. Still, magic is something that unites people of all ages and backgrounds. After all, most of us get bitten by the magic bug in our early childhoods.
Usually, our superficial interest in card tricks quickly develops into replicating feats that approach what we now refer to as mentalism.
What is a mentalist, anyway? You’re about to find out. Today, we’re going to tackle the meaning of mentalism as a branch of magic, its peculiar history, and the most famous practitioners of the craft.
As a brief disclaimer, we should mention that most mentalists don’t really define themselves as magicians. They usually don’t practice the same prop-based tricks magicians perform, though some stage magicians do use “mind tricks.” Furthermore, both kinds of performers use the same principles to perform miraculous feats, namely misdirection.
In fact, the definition of mentalism positions the discipline closer to psychic entertainment than magic. Basically, its practitioners appear to be able to read minds, hypnotize or mind-control members of their audiences, and even communicate with spirits.
Yet, that definition of mentalism only gives us a superficial knowledge of the discipline. In order to figure out how the practice got to where it is today, we must first consider its history. We’ve discussed the basic meaning of mentalism — it’s time to take this conversation a step further.
As we have mentioned, the definition of mentalism would have us believe that magic and mentalism are two very different disciplines. Still, the fact remains that their histories are a bit similar.
We might even say that both disciplines are continuing the legacy of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, a 19th-century French stage magician. Like many magicians who came after him, Robert-Houdin mostly relied on his inventions to perform his tricks. He was the one to inspire magicians and mediums alike to move their performances from country fairs to the salons of aristocratic houses.
In fact, during the 19th century, there was a widespread fascination with mediums and psychics. Some of them, like Henry and Annie Fay, might even be seen as the founders of mentalism — but we’ll get to them later.
Assuming that all mediums and seers throughout history were practitioners of some form of mentalism, it’s very likely that the history of the discipline is much richer than we know. Sadly, much of it remained a mystery until the 20th century.
Most recently, there’s been an increase in the representation of mentalists in not only talent competitions but also TV shows such as the Mentalist, Psych, and films like Now You See Me. However, magic enthusiasts have an entirely different pool of famous performers to draw from.
Today, there are many hugely famous and successful mentalists. Several years ago, Derren Brown became well-known for his interactions with celebrities like Simon Pegg.
He’s always emphasized that he achieves his tricks through suggestion, misdirection, and psychology. Yet, believe it or not, not all performers are as quick to deny having supernatural talents.
Indeed, throughout history, most mentalists happily leaned into the mystical. One of the first truly famous mentalists of the 20th century, Claude Alexander Conlin, often highlighted his “mystical abilities” by dressing in Oriental-looking clothing and using a crystal ball for his sessions.
Also, in order to make themselves seem more spiritual, some performers even wore “exotic” makeup.
Even before Alexander, back in the 19th century, there were travelling mediums like Henry and Annie Fay. However, people later learned that the Fays actually did preliminary research on their audiences.
So they didn’t exactly rely on many of the skills modern mentalists use. After her retirement, Annie Fay revealed her tricks to Harry Houdini, who developed them further and used them after her death.
As we have discovered, the meaning of mentalism mostly boils down to its performative aspects rather than anything supernatural. Therefore, the question: “how do mentalists work?” is fairly easy to answer.
Practitioners simply know how to read body language and are highly trained in the art of suggestion. Some even rely heavily on their memory and ability to perform rapid mathematics.
Still, even though the meaning of mentalism is easy to discern, its practice is another matter altogether. It takes years of work for a mentalist to become proficient at reading, influencing, and predicting human behaviour. But then again, that’s exactly what makes it so impressive!