PhotobucketI just got a message from my friend Harry Temperante who, every time I meet, becomes more profound. He drops me a question that is as deep as the ocean at Seven Leagues Under the Sea:
Sir, may I ask something out of topic, as I do not know where to post questions…

What is the difference between mentalism and mental magic in your understanding? I’m trying to make good of these two things, but somehow, I get cluttered along the way.

Based on some of my research, it seems the difference lies on the methods used. While some rely based on who performs them. Some even further claims that these are just synonymous.

I’m confused. Seriously.

Hope you can shed light on this one, Sir Leo.

With much respect,




Hi Harry,

You are not alone in your confusion. I, too, am confused by these two terms. The reason could be that the difference between the two is so thin and so ambiguous we need to split hair to define it.

There was even a time when I thought mental magic and mentalism are just matters of semantics. That there is really no distinction between them, even though intelligent performers—and those who pretend to be intelligent—call them by two different names.

I’m not the right person to answer your question, but because I have the bad habit of playing the role a guru, I’ll perch atop my meditation stool and try to make heads or tails about this subject.

Go ahead and read my dissertation.

Caveat: you may end up more confused than before. I did.

Perception. People perceive mental magic as another baffling trick, in the same class as the Linking Rings or Sawing a Lady in Half.  Even though the methods used in the performance may fool some people, no one really goes home believing the performer is endowed with psychic or paranormal abilities. They all know that what they saw was just a bunch of tricks.

Mentalism, however, generates wonder. Having a pure base of believability and amazement, it produces wonder in the mind of the audience. With or without a disclaimer from the performer, the audience walks away uncertain whether what they have witnessed was real.  They wonder if the performer has a genuine psychic “ability”. They may not believe he has paranormal ability, but they wonder whether he “might” have.

Performance goal. Mental magic is a performance designed and presented as a magic trick with a “mental”, “psychic” or “paranormal” theme. Mental magic is about entertainment, making people laugh and giving them a good time while the show progresses. It is not intended to convince people that the performance is a “real” demonstration of mind-reading or “psychic” ability like clairvoyance or psychokinesis.

In contrast, mentalism is about creating believability.  Though some mentalists claim they too aspire to entertain their audiences, their compelling goal is to make people believe in, or at least make them wonder of, the genuineness of the psychic or paranormal feats they demonstrate.

PhotobucketPerformance style. Mental magic, for me, is prop-driven. Thus Mental Epic, using a chalk board that doesn’t look familiar to lay people, is mental magic. So is David Copperfield‘s Grafitti Wall, where he uses a large Berlin Wall “relic” to accomplish his mind-reading feat.

Me thinks that, as a general rule, the conspicuous use of a prop reduces a mental act to mental magic. But, of course, I could be wrong, since there might be exceptions lying outside my realm of knowledge that I can’t invoke now.

On the other hand, mentalism is supposed to be a pure effect that involves the emotions, reactions, and lives of the participants. The props used in the performance are small  (such as pay envelopes), if not hidden (such as a Swami gimmick).

Sometimes the performer uses no props at all. Instead, he employs psychology, hypnosis, suggestions, NLP, cold reading, body language reading, muscle reading. These methods may already lie outside the realm of magic trickery. For this reason, the audience is hard put to observe a chicanery or sleight-of-hand, because the stratagems used resides solely in the mind of the performer.

Okay, I’ve written just about all I know about the subject. The things I don’t know about it is more plentiful, and will need more pages to write about, but since I don’t know about them anyway, I’ll just publish all blank pages next time.

PhotobucketMeantime, digest what I have written and hope you don’t get diarrhea. If you do, that’s the penalty of asking a shallow person a profound question.

Stay magical,