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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » The October 2011 entrée: Alain Nu » » Belief & The Suspension Of Disbelief Essay » » TOPIC IS LOCKED (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

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Alain Nu
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I thought I would start on the deep end by sharing an entry with the Café which I made in my Shop of Secrets "free essay page" from a few years back. Hopefully my doing this will inspire me to want to write up a new one before too long, he he...

Belief & The Suspension Of Disbelief (http://www.shopofsecrets.com/essay.shtml)
(first published in Nu Secrets & Realities LIMITED EDITION/ Out of Print / copyright 2006)

Both magic and mentalism can be presented and perceived as forms of entertainment, a means of inspiration, or a metaphor to greater human experience. Where mentalism departs from magic in modern times is that, even among rational thinkers, it cannot escape the possibility that it may be perceived as real.

In most cases, the art of conjuring and sleight of hand serves to encourage its audience to suspend its sense of disbelief— relinquishing rational thought to momentarily accept the events which are unfolding. Magic has the power to create an engagement with fantasy that momentarily eliminates all awareness of the “real” world. However, when the audience returns from the magical experience, they can easily recognize when they entered and exited the fantasy world that the magician has created. Some audience members may choose to let the fantasy linger, even after the experience is over. Even in these cases, however, the line between that world and the one around us is clearly recognized.

Like magic, experiencing mentalism can leave no choice but for your audience to question repeatedly what they just experienced. They may both produce strong effects that seem beyond explanation. Mentalism, however, seems to possess an ability to make even intelligent people, educated in concepts as concrete as the scientific method, conclude that the explanation may lie beyond the frontiers of current knowledge. The fact the scientists have been so intrigued by these demonstrations, as to inspire scientific investigations into them, proves this point.

Just in case it is necessary, I will clarify that I am always speaking from direct personal experience as a representative of my place and times, that is to say, a developed nation at the beginning of the 21st century. I cannot account empirically for all the ways magic or mentalism could be perceived by any and all cultures. However, from my vantage point, it’s pretty safe to say that conjuring performances are generally perceived as having logical methods. An audience may not be aware of what the specific method is, but they are aware that an understandable method does exist. Whether they choose to figure it out or not is up to them. Yet through my own personal journeys in both fields, I find that with mentalism, even with a disclaimer, a logical explanation generally remains only one potential explanation that audience members might use to account for what they are seeing.

If executed well, performers of both will earn the audience’s respect and praise for their mastery. But if you examine the genres more closely, it’s the manner in which the audience perceives the experience that is one of the most distinguishing characteristics between the two fields. Again, in modern western society, the suspension of disbelief contract seems to already exist between magician and audience when they enter the performance space. With mentalism, there is insufficient consensus of experience or knowledge on which a pre-existing paradigm could be built. The term “mentalist” itself has not even been in use long enough for the average person to know what it means. That being said, some techniques of mentalism are quite old, and the use of these techniques (along with magic techniques) were at one time equally embroiled in the type of controversy now surrounding mentalism. The plain and simple truth is that when people see mentalism, any number of explanations could be applied to it. And genuine psychic abilities is one of these potential explanations.

So the question lands on the mentalist himself- should his demonstrations be played as “real?”

It appears obvious that it would be dishonest and misleading to portray mentalism as a genuine article, even though it is based on many basic and “true” psychological principles. No one can deny that if you claimed to have genuine powers, some people may believe you and others may not. Yet the contrary it is often ignored. Those who present mentalism as just entertainment, or mere trickery based on psychology, mathematics, or powers of persuasion, cannot escape the same response. Some people will believe their claim, others will blatantly deny it.

So the truth is that no matter how one chooses to present mentalism, the potential remains for it to be taken as real, and therefore, it is undeniable that its techniques could theoretically be used to mislead public consciousness.

It is for this reason that I strive to bring my audience the experience of mentalism in an intelligent responsible manner— leaving people questioning, while not imposing any answers. In this way, a careful balance is achieved between preserving the mystery, and not misleading anyone into false belief. If all of my goals are achieved I will have served as a tour guide of the mind, taking my audience into places they may have no other ways of finding— secret places that open up mental pathways and mysterious spaces that the audience can explore more deeply if they desire.

Given that the suspension of disbelief contract places the magician in a relative safety from deeper ethical issues that plague the mentalist, how should the mentalist address the suspension of disbelief? A mentalist cannot reject the notion that some audience members will choose to perceive his performance by suspending their disbelief, thus experiencing it as a momentary fantasy. But is the mentalist required to initiate such a belief? In many ways, a mentalist’s disclaimer is an attempt to establish such a contract at the outset of the performance. I have chosen to incorporate my disclaimer in a theatrical manner, not in the legal spirit, but leaving the door open to those who wish to experience my show as they would a theatrical play.

For those mentalists who feel that a disclaimer adds an undue imposition on the flow of their presentations, are they doomed to be presumed as ethically unsound? Is it the mentalist’s moral duty to move an audience into not considering other possibilities?

Mentalism is not an easy art-form to master. By its nature alone, it cannot escape the numerous explanations it may evoke. It takes a great deal of responsibility, one that far surpasses the ordinary rules of entertainment, to study and practice the art while considering how it may affect any and all audience members. A mentalist’s personal integrity becomes critical. Though it may sound like a melodramatic question, it starts to sound relevant and serious: Will a mentalist use his abilities for good or evil?

As Spider Man often remembers his Uncle Ben saying to him, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Peace,
Alain
Alain Nu
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Now I would be VERY INTERESTED in hearing YOUR OWN philosophies about magic and mentalism!

Please post them here!

looking forward to reading your thoughts, Smile
Alain
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Hello Alain and welcome to The Magic Café.

Well, I hope time will allow me to give a good full response, but I have to say at the onset that you start out with a false premise. The line that magic ask its audience to suspend their disbelief is not correct in my opinion. I believe that magic challenges an audience's existing beliefs and forces them to occasionally throw them out, but never suspend them. Magic would be weak if it did not challenge some aspect of man's internal system. A belief that is suspended is weak and without power.

I do fully agree with what you stated about what mentalist displays being much more perceived as potentially real then what magic usually displays. I would say that is a function of the performer more than something inherent in the performance of magic. Do you believe that magic truly tries to eliminate all awareness of the “real” world? Would that not lessen the impact as compared to challenging what is known to be so certain. When there is a certain “law” for lack of a better term, that someone has so ingrained as a belief and when you violate that by making something take place in a way that is impossible when this rule is applied; then they go away with no possible answer. More memorable!

No more time right now. Hopefully I can come back and dialog about more of this since I only made it to the fourth or fifth paragraph. Smile

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Alain Nu
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Kingman,

I like what you are saying and am looking forward to reading your continued thoughts. To be clear, I wrote the above in 2006, and I do not wish to state any empirical "laws" as that is simply not my style. I do not think that I meant to say that magic's function is to "eliminate" all awareness of the real world, but rather, that it's purpose is to explore that which is simply to our (audience's) definition of what is "impossible." I was comparing it to the notion that what a mentalist does is perceived as "potentially possible."

The paragrah you are referring to states:

"In most cases, the art of conjuring and sleight of hand serves to encourage its audience to suspend its sense of disbelief— relinquishing rational thought to momentarily accept the events which are unfolding. Magic has the power to create an engagement with fantasy that momentarily eliminates all awareness of the “real” world. However, when the audience returns from the magical experience, they can easily recognize when they entered and exited the fantasy world that the magician has created. Some audience members may choose to let the fantasy linger, even after the experience is over. Even in these cases, however, the line between that world and the one around us is clearly recognized."

So "momentarily eliminates" would be the more accurate statement. After that moment ends, the audience's perception of reality is then challenged. That is the essence of amazement. Something takes our breath away, and then we wonder about it. In my opinion, that is something that all mystery performers share.

So I am not sure that we are saying different things here. But maybe you misunderstood my intention for saying what I did?

Alain
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Alain,

Nathan Kranzo lectured here about a week ago, doing a lot of mental material (in more ways than one!) He stated, and I'm paraphrasing, that the distinction between magic and mentalism is something that has really only been put forth by magicians (essentially that audiences won't cry foul if you follow, say, linking rings with a drawing duplication).

If a person's character is strong enough and there's theatrical motivation, certainly both types of effects could exist in the same show but, as a general rule, do you think that the two should remain separate?

Thanks,

Josh
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Josh,

Nathan's my boy!

RE: your question

When you are putting together a show, you are the master chef, preparing a multiple course meal. The most distinguished chefs understand that certain foods are just not appropriate in context with one another. Whereas other dishes compliment each other perfectly.

DJing is the same. Some music works perfectly to transition, whereas the wrong transition would just "not feel right."

If we were all just a bunch of society low-brows who have no desire to know or care about anything, then we probably wouldn't even be able to tell the difference between magic and mentalism, just that guy was amazing!!!

but I believe that it is possible for anyone to recognize quality if one tries to, and so therefore, whether you choose to only do mentalism or include magic (or visa versa), the hardest thing to recognize is whether or not the transitions are fluid and the program harmonious from an overall "artistic" perspective. But if it works, who can dispute that?

I for one will rarely perform magic mixed with mentalism unless it's completely informal, but I can see why others might choose not to.

Alain
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That's like someone saying, 'you can't take something hot and put it on something cold. It will not work, the two are incongruent with each other'. Then someone comes along and puts hot chocolate sauce on ice cream and proves him wrong. A rather simplistic example, but makes the point. I believe it is all based on presentation. You can take a card effect that is not mentalism based but still use it to demonstrate the way the mind completes the the bodies experiences, by mentally filling in cracks, applying theories, using imagination, maybe using deductive skills, these are all triggers that can be pulled with either mentalism or magic, if you choose to delineate. The presentation is what makes a spectator say, yes that is in the realm of possibility, but I do not see any method that I recognize as making it possible.

Such a great topic to discuss. Thanks for starting the conversation.

Kingman
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Alain Nu
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Kingman,

Ok, I see what you are saying. And to be clear, when I say "suspend disbelief' I too see the flaw in that choice of words.

I always liked the (21st?) principle in Maskelyne and Devant's "Our Magic": Any rule may be broken.

I am not one who likes to be defined in any specific terms as such that I even speak of in my essay, but I think on the flip-side, by accepting to call myself a magician OR a mentalist also puts me in a category which I would rather bypass completely from a professional standpoint. Both categories would place me into a particular societal status that I find unappealing and frankly untrue in contrast to my actual desired position of being more of an "enigma."

My daughter asked me what my job is when I go to work the other day. I knew the second she asked was because someone at school probably asked her, and she didn't know how to answer. So I said to her, "If any one ever asks you what I do as my job, you can tell them that your daddy is an "events producer and a public figure." It was a mouthful, but now that's what she says.

Alain
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I know that many purists prefer to keep magic and mentalism separate, but I think that's a distinction that magicians and mentalists obsess over but which the general public would look at and say, "What's all the ruckus about?" Robert Heinlein brought up an interesting dichotomy in _Stranger in a Strange Land_, namely that many people are relatively comfortable thinking/knowing that the powers that they see magicians and mentalists perform are "pretend" powers. But those same people would become paranoid if they felt that anyone around them really could read their minds. I remember an anecdote in one of the Houdini biographies about Harry telling Bess, "You never told me your mother's maiden name. Write it on a piece of paper and burn it." Harry then took the ashes and rubbed them on his bare arm, whereupon Bess's mother's maiden name appeared. Bess was shocked/frightened at the idea that Harry might have truly gotten the name by reading her mind... until Harry reminded Bess that she had written her mother's maiden name on their marriage license or something, so he knew it all along. My point is that even people who know how simple principles can be used to simulate psychic powers can have their "belief" manipulated/suspended to the point that they doubt their own logic.

----- Amado "Sonny" Narvaez
----- Sonny Narvaez
Kingman
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Alain, now I can fully agree. The title that you place on yourself is much more likely to follow along with what you stated originally. In relation to titles, I can see your point fully.

Don't worry about your daughter at school, I work as an security specialist for networks and so she tells everyone that her daddy's job is a hacker. Unfortunately, her idea of a hacker is the super criminal from the cartoon Cyberchase.

Thanks for all the participation this week.

Kingman
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"Suspension of Disbelief" is a philosophical mechanism created to describe an effect of good storytelling. And by storytelling I mean all it's forms from literature to poetry to cinema to theater to fables to cartoons and on and on. That term specifically was coined to explain the ability of storytelling to have you turn off your beliefs and turn off you logic filters for the time in which you are engaging in the story.

When I consider similar concepts wrapped up in my performance, I think of them in terms of "Willful investment in belief". It is a willful investment because they become participants who actively invest in believing what is about to take place to achieve the reward of something wonderful in return. Once I establish the investment/reward relationship I will have them running with me, instead of chasing me.

So, here is the distinction, for me, between Mentalism and Magic as it applies to my thought process on belief. In today's leading societies (my typical audience by proximity) the concepts of reading minds and psychic powers have a built-in surprisingly large number of those already set up to believe and run with you. With magic tricks you don't have that paradigm. What you do have is a massive number of people who will suspend their disbelief to watch some fun tricks. The days of societal belief in what we consider classic magic are gone. Once they exit the story, their logic returns and most will know it is some sort of trick, even if they don't know how it was done.

Conversely, more than half the people I encounter in general have some belief in some sort of "psychic powers" or paranormal events. For some it may just be as little as a happening they just can't explain which creaks open the door to considering the possibility of things which exist beyond current scientific and logical constraints.

All that was just another way of saying what Alain has said about performances being perceived as real. The only new light I'm sharing is my perspective of building willful investment. And that investment extends into the minds of "what if" as well as believers. I strive to give them some reward for embracing possibility.

For that I believe is the nature of humanity. We are advanced by the "what ifs" not by the "it's always beens". Unfortunately, we can also be misled by the "what ifs". Such is the price of the human condition.
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My primary interest in magic is kids. (Don't worry, this is relevant.) Kids generally know that magic isn't real (in the sense that we don't have special powers that defy the laws of the universe). Kids accept that what they see isn't really what's happening.

Here's the great thing about kids, though. They know how to pretend a whole lot better than adults. Magic is make-believe. That's what suspension of disbelief really is, at least to me. It is making believe that something is real when we know it isn't. It is accepting the imaginary scenario (that the guy with the wand has magic powers) in order to enjoy playing along. When we accept that metal rings really are solid and separate, we are now suspending disbelief. Or playing along, which is another way to say the same thing. When we agree that the rope really was cut in the middle, same thing. A good performer will have us wanting to play along because there's more enjoyment in doing so than in challenging whether or not the apparent situation is the actual one.

As to magic and mentalism, I'm very new to the mentalism. I don't perform it at all, just starting to learn concepts of presentation. However, I do have an interesting story about how blurred the lines are between the two, at least for kids. For a couple of years I volunteered at the local Catholic school. Parents would come in and read to classes for 15 minutes while they had snack time. I started to read for about 8 minutes and do a magic trick after that. I was with a group of fifth-graders one day. I did a rope trick and immediately one of the girls shouted to me "okay, what number am I thinking of?" There was clearly no division in her mind between magic and mentalism.

Let me reitterate. I had just restored a rope, a very visual magic effect, and instead of asking what else I could do, this girl immediately made the jump to a mind-reading effect. I did not motivate that. I looked her in the eye for a moment and said "seven." After that she was convinced I really could read minds. The next week she tried me again and I gave her the same number and nailed it again. She quit challenging my mind-reading abilities. The point is that I never claimed I could read her mind. I never said to think of a number. She assumed that mind reading was just part of magic and wanted to see if I could do it.

This isn't meant to answer any questions, just to add to the general discussion about where the line is between magic and mentalism.

-Patrick
Alain Nu
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I LOVE both of these last two entries!

Thanks for your contributions!
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It doesn't matter if you're "mental" or "magical" or "sideshow" or "juggling". If your presentation coaxes the audience from point A to point B to point C without making them stop to ask a question (that you don't want them to), you'll succeed. That's what a good story does...provides a sense of acceptance that surpasses belief.
“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus” -Mark Twain

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I believe the length of time after a magic presentation that the audience continues to talk about it or be affected by it also depends on how natural or close-to-real-life it looked. This is why laypeople sometimes say that close-up magic is more impactful than stage illusions. It's also why magicians work hard to make props look natural, impromptu, and/or borrowed. Magic done with THEIR cards, watch, or money is always stronger. This is nothing new, but I think it factors into Alain's first point about whether magic audiences willingly suspend their disbelief. If you're watching a zig-zag illusion, you might suspend your disbelief and enjoy the fantasy escape, but it's probably not going to keep you awake at night. The greater the naturalness of the performance, the more doubt creeps into your mind--willful or not. That applies to magic and mentalism. Perhaps the reason mentalism appears to have a head-start over magic is that by definition you're using more normal (or no) props so it automatically has the advantage of naturalness. Magicians have to work harder to achieve this same feeling in their props and presentations.
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This is truly fascinating stuff... Why do you think it is that people do not believe in "magic" as in tricks, etc. But, many do believe in "the paranormal" and are willing to believe in psychic powers, etc. Why, or perhaps, where is that division?

Cheers,

Kirk
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A deck of cards is a far more acceptable reality than a zig-zag box. It's part of everyday life.
“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus” -Mark Twain

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Kirk- I think that we have all learned through books with titles like EZ Magic Any Dumbhead Can Do that magic is just tricks. It is deception. There have been times in history when people claimed to have the powers to actually do the impossible. Perhaps those times were better for the magician, perhaps worse. Certainly the magicians were a little less likely to be lumped in with clowns in people's minds. And I'm not sure it is a bad thing to hang out with clowns, to tell the truth.

On the other hand, the mind's potential is still so under-explored that there's room for a lot of folks to believe in genuine psychic power. That, and there's a lot of wish-fulfillment going on. We want to have a glimpse of the future. So we want the tarot cards to really answer questions. We want to have that unfair advantage or at least to believe that it is possible to move beyond what we can see and touch and explain. So, even a bent spoon will stretch our credulity because we want to think that it is possible to be something almost nobody else can be. In a way, perhaps it is the desire to touch the divine. If I can change the shape of reality (even if only by causing a spoon to bend with my mind), then being near me brings a special change into your life. By experiencing what cannot be explained, we experience something new to us, powerful, different. And personal. That's probably the biggest aspect of it.

An anecdote:

A few months ago, I had just watched Paul Draper's explanation of his card reading method. I had a friend over for dinner shortly after watching that video and she asked me for a card trick. I did his basic method of card reading. I gave more disclaimers than I should have, stating that there is nothing mystical, powerful, supernatural in this, that it is just a game, really. I gave a reading with a basic message that she's a good person, that life takes a lot of work, that she'll succeed in making a good life for herself and her son. She was almost in tears. That was my introduction to the power of mentalist effects. If I had told her I'd been studying how to read cards, that I felt my readings were generally pretty solid, and that I'd like to give her one, I think I could have given the same reading and brought her to actual tears. She wasn't sad, just emotionally very moved.

Mental effects are personal. If I do something amazing with a deck of cards, they say I have real skill. But the truth is I have not touched them emotionally. When I know what card they picked, and they can only imagine my knowing it through telepathy, the same deck of cards becomes a demonstration, not of my skill, but of my ability to cross the boundaries that most of us believe exist between our thoughts and those of others. It is deeply personal. Deeply.

Human beings also seem to crave a certain element of risk. I think it is part of what makes us human, actually. When I watch a magician cut a rope and restore it, I know it is my eye being fooled. I enjoy being fooled. But it is a safe way to be fooled. On the other hand, there's a danger in thinking that someone can read my mind, know my thoughts, see the future, and so on. What risks do I run just by being near this person? What could he do if he chose to use his powers for evil? The risk is vicarious in most cases, but the element of danger is a powerful way to make a trick memorable. The challenge aspect of something like the ACAAN scenario is also a bit of a risky place to be. I can't imagine how he could know where my chosen card would be, so if he gets it right, that means I have to risk my whole concept of reality in some way.

Not the most coherent answer, but I think it touches on the reasons mental effects can be more powerful than what I have to term physical effects for lack of a better term.

-Patrick
Alain Nu
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Wow.

All great thoughts! Sonny, Tom, Patrick, Scott, Harley, Kirk-- fabulous! Thanks for giving me this discussion. As the father of a five year old, I watch a lot of PBS cartoons...

The significant point, I think, from my above essay was that mentalism pulls people in that direction EASIER and with far less challenge. A successful escape artist is still checked for hidden keys; a successful mind reader / psychic doesn't even need anything to connect with their audience but their presence. The very fact that it says on your placard that you are a psychic or mindreader (or hypnotist) puts the majority of your audience in your favor (in most cases). I don't think any other performer really has such immediate acceptance with their public with quite such ease with the exception of rock stars and pop celebrities... but that's only IF you know how to accept yourself within that role, and I think this is a very difficult thing for even most mentalists (especially those who come from a magic background) to understand. To the public, a "psychic" is not just anyone. They are "special people". Just being in the presence of someone like this is special. Everything about them becomes an oracle, from each word that is spoken, to whether or not (s)he smiles or frowns. The point is this, with psychics, as soon as people know you are a psychic, the game starts. And success is hardly even an issue.

What would YOU do with something that powerful? I know some of us can't take it, so we create demonstrations that explain how it is NOT real, or use mentalism against itself, or use it to show how people can be gullible. I'm not against any of this, per se, (generally, I base each presentation on its own merits) but none of the above is my style. I still think that within the mystery arts, mentalists, psychics, and hypnotists, have this ability to be seen as special people immediately upon introduction, and this to me is most interesting. The perception of it all.

There are people, myself included, who have an open mind to "the paranormal." In essence, a lot of what is called paranormal ends up becoming normal later, sort of like flying, but (although there are always naysayers) even things like genuine mind-matter interaction and precognition have been proven to exist in recent scientific studies. Daryl Bem from Cornell University just finished a study last year that is well worth looking into. And that is why I think that so many people accept psychics as part of society despite the simultaneous societal oppression of skeptical thinking. It's because most people themselves have experienced something in their lives that can be seen as "significantly psychic". Therefore, if you are a real psychic, you must also be one of these people and perhaps you can give me more information about what I too have experienced.

And contrary to what I think many skeptical people may think, I think the reason for this is not "gullibilty", but rather just a different way of looking at life. When we say, "that's irrational," we are not being very specific. Rational thinking is subjective and may well be "paranomal" in its own right. Smile Some skeptics are also Christians and Jewish, so what's that all about?

Mind you, I'm not saying that everyone you run into believes in psychics, but if you are a real psychic, the core of everyone you run into (who's privy to the knowledge that is what you are) is immediately struck by its own significance.

Alain
Mephisticator
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Fantastic stuff! Thank you Patrick and Alain.
I do not have the background in Mentalism, or psychic activity/ entertainment to really take that angle, however I have an unusual perspective that I would like to throw out there for comment. As a security advisor for the United Nations, I have worked with some colleagues who could easily change career to mentalist. They seem to have almost inhuman skill when predicting danger and assessing situations. It is clear that their sense of observation is keenly honed, but I believe there is something more at play. It is not just your observation, but it is what you do with those observations. We often say it is like the difference between information and intelligence. One is just facts, the other has been analyzed and interpreted... It is the skills/knowledge of the analyst that provides all the added value.

I find myself looking at mentalism through this lense... am I off base, or is this a good angle to take?

Cheers,

Kirk
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