Mind Reading Or Manipulation? A Professor's Weekend Show

Dec 26, 2018

Alexander George has been demonstrating seemingly inexplicable feats at a hip Northampton, Massachusetts, café for a few months. 

About a dozen people sat around tables one night as he introduced himself.

"I am a professor of philosophy at Amherst," George said. "And in that capacity, I'm actually doubly interested in strange features of the mind."

Reading the mind, that is.

Whether teaching philosophy to 20-somethings, or demonstrating a unique set of skills where he appears to know what card, number, or word is on your mind, there are connections between the two.

"The mind is to philosophers what honey is to bears," George said. "They're positively intoxicated by its sweet mysteries."

George himself is intoxicated by creating uncertainty in a time when he says we're all way too confident about what we know.

Like a true professor, he put context into the show, dropping in references to psychological studies and literature. He mentioned one story that is the inspiration for what they were about to see. 

"Funes the Memorius" by Jorge Luis Borges is about a young man who falls off a horse and is paralyzed. But in the accident, he gains the capacity to remember everything. Not general or abstract things, George said, but every possible particular. 

"He can't expunge [anything] from his memory," George said. "And it’s worth so much to him that, in a way, he doesn't really care about the fact that he is paralyzed."

Alexander George performing in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Credit Tom Wood

After admitting an appetite for mind over body, George added that what he was about to do is nothing new — that every gambler knows about "tells," and how ideas lead to stimulation of facial muscles, fingers, even one's larynx.

Knowing this, George said he can predict what people might say. 

To get the ball rolling, he asked for a volunteer.

Sruti Kanthan walked up to front of the room and picked a card from a deck George held, shuffled by another audience member. George told her to burn the image of the card in her mind. 

"So I'm just going to run through some possibilities, and it's very simple," George told Kanthan. "We're going to stare at your face."

George listed what the card could be, starting with color. He repeated "red or black" over and over, rapid-fire. Watching Kanthan closely, he correctly guessed red, and he went on from there.

“OK, so if it was a red card, it's either a diamond or a heart,” he said, and then repeated himself, watching Kanthan closely.

George said diamond — correct again — and moved on to the value of the card.

"Ace, two, two, three, four, five, six," he recited, and then backed up, again watching Kathan closely. "Four, five..." He stopped for a moment.

"Your card is the five of diamonds," George said. Right again.

Alexander George, a philosophy professor at Amherst College, moonlights as a mentalist or mind reader, interactive entertainment as volunteers are often called upon.
Credit Tom Wood

George's demonstrations became more complex, at least mathematically. The most complicated was Knight's Tour, an algorithm he solved in front of the crowd. He upped the ante and recited the digits of pi, way beyond the first few numerals, at the mercy of audience members who passed around a book of pi, and called out page numbers.

"Page 32," said one member of the audience. George paused.

"Page 32," George said. "OK. Does that start with..." George paused. "Eight?"

Yes, said the audience member.

“Then a nine, then a five and a six. OK?" George asked.

So far, so good.

This night, at least, George never missed the mark.

Alexander George demonstrates his skills in front of an audience.
Credit Tom Wood

Even as George explained how all this works, as a reporter, I found it more than uncanny. Trying not to be a spoilsport, I asked George flat out — away from his audience — what is going on here?

"I don't pretend to be able to read minds,” he said. “I'm certainly using my powers of observation and whatever kinds of powers of verbal persuasion to pick up on things and also to manipulate people."

He admitted there are more details he won’t go into, but he said his role is the least interesting part of the story. What's more interesting is the audience.

"They're not quite sure of what they just saw," George said, and that's one of the differences between mentalism, as mind reading is also called, and a magic show, he added. 

"You don't know how the person did what they did, but you know they couldn't have done what they did," he said.

Like the old cut-a-body-in-half trick, and then the person reappears whole, or make a coin disappear and pull it out of someone's ear.

Study after study, not to mention YouTube, can tease apart some of the mystery of George's tricks. Yes, a knack for reading body language is a necessary skill, and a savvy mentalist will prime the audience by saying certain words, and even prime the room, by placing images or artifacts within view of the crowd.

Still, as a journalist, I wasn't getting what I wanted out of George. I pushed. Then he made it personal.

“You’ve had chicken recently, didn’t you?” he baited.

I paused. Maybe on a pizza?

He said he'd count that as a hit.