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The Definition of Magic: Mentalism


There’s more to magic—and how to describe it—than just calling everything a ‘trick’. That’s why we’re highlighting and exploring important terms, concepts, and ideas every week with The Definition of Magic on GeniiOnline.

Someone walks up to you on the street and asks you to think of your favorite food. She hands you a notepad, you write down what you’re thinking of, tear the paper out, fold it up and put it into your pocket. She thinks really hard for a second and says “I’m imagining that you’re biting into a big juicy steak.” You throw the paper at her and wonder aloud how the hell she knew that—you just got your mind read by a mentalist.

Mentalism is one of the oldest genres of magic in the world, with its modern roots found in 18th century performances called ‘second sight acts’ where spiritualists would make claims they could see into the mind’s eye with a variety of tests. One of the earliest mentalists on record, though, was Italian magician, juggler, and diplomat Girolamo Scotto. Born in 1569, Scotto performed for royalty throughout Europe during the height of the Renaissance, and a description of one of his performances notes his expert card magic, along with his telepathic abilities.

Like many genres of magic, mentalism can take many forms. Mentalists can be expert hypnotists, read minds through telepathy or clairvoyance, divine facts about the future, move objects with telekinesis, or even perform relatively benign but highly complex feats of memorization, deduction, or mathematics. Various tricks can be performed entirely with acute awareness and attention to detail or through gimmicks or sleight of hand—a lot of mentalists use a combination of techniques to achieve the desired results. As with sleight of hand, not all magic is mentalism and not all mentalism is considered magic.

The mystical approach mentalists have taken for their craft has changed throughout the years. Some, especially performers during mentalism’s early days, leaned into the occult trappings of psychic magic. Others, such as modern mentalists like Derren Brown or Colin Cloud, embrace the logic and skill required to successfully ‘read’ someone’s mind and attribute their abilities to their keen detective work and perception, a la Sherlock Holmes. In fact, many mentalists—such as early 20th century pioneer Joseph Dunninger—often use their knowledge to debunk paranormal mediums and supernatural fakers of all stripes.

Here are some example of what mentalism can look like

Colin Cloud reads Mel B’s mind, and Howie Mandel unlocks Cloud’s iPhone with six randomly chosen numbers.

Derren Brown messes with a clinical psychologist through reverse word association.

And here’s David Blaine, reading minds and never, ever breaking eye contact.