No Roots

Marc Salem Spoiler

I watched the mentalist show "Marc Salem's Mind Games" yesterday. It was enjoyable but there were a few cheesy tricks which destroyed the illusion for me. I'm about to expose some of them so if you don't want to spoil the show for yourself, don't read this.

Salem doesn't come under attack from the usual ESP debunkers because he states clearly that he is not doing magic or anything supernatural. He does, however, emphasize that he is using established psychological techniques. The inference is that his performance is based on being unusually skillful and that, while he may not be supernatural, he most likely is superhuman. That is the unifying illusion. If you don't buy into that you may not enjoy this show as much as the critics.

Unfortunately, those "psychological techniques" (which I suppose could mean anything you want) didn't come into play much... most of his act involve creating an illusion by using slight of hand to switch papers and misdirect attention. 

The show starts with Salem getting the audience to give him a two digit number for which he then provides a kind of  "Gnomon magic square." It is a great opener to get the audience to believe he has a fantastic mind. However, this is not mentalism nor even an amazing display of mathematical ability. For the purpose of the act he could have simply memorized the all the magic squares under 100. Even that might sound impressive but I did the calc and I'm sad to report that the number of squares you need to memorize for this result is only one...! 

There are different ways to do this but they all amount to basically the same thing:

n-18 3 2 13
5 10 n-23 8
9 6 7 n-22
4 n-29 14 1

Where n = the number you are solving for (ie the number given).

This was done too fast for me to analyze on the spot - the simplicity of it was only apparent later. So for the opening I was still on board. I wanted to take the trip... but it wasn't to be.

The trick which tipped me off was when he wrote something on a piece of paper, then asked the audience for various bits of info and then showed the paper showing he'd predicted the audience's suggestions. Problem is, while he was asking the questions, it looked like he was scribbling the answers down with his thumb... there was probably a pencil led or the like stuck on his thumb and thus he was dictating. Very cheesy.

After that it was very hard to suspend disbelief. 

For another similar trick he "wrote something down" on a sheet of paper but from my angle it looked like nothing was written down at all... that the pen didn't work. Yet later, after the info was provided, the writing was there.... another thumb dictation?

So how about the other tricks?

No Pulse?
I was hoping he really did have the ability to control his pulse - this would have been quite cool. He seemed to be able to start and stop it at will. The Yogis who have this power require considerable concentration. Could Salem really do this while chatting to an audience? No. This is a simple and fun trick exposed on the net which I'm sure could be woven into a decent pick up routine: Hide a rubber ball under your armpit and use it to apply pressure to your brachial artery. It's that simple. You have pulse on demand. 

Several of the tricks were built around this idea. 

There were a few others which didn't really astound. One woman's watch suddenly showed the wrong time... but I'm quite sure that I saw him switch the time before he showed it to the audience ... He stated the actual timed while waving the watch around so quickly that I don't think the audience could have verified anything before he handed it over for closer inspection by the audience volunteer.

Another trick involved 9 people in the audience each providing a digit in three 3 digit numbers. They were added up and the answer written down. Then he played a pre-prepared tape which showed he'd predicted the answer before the show. But it would have been a simple matter to have switched the paper with the numbers supplied by the audience before they were added up as they were not called out. There was no verification afterwards that the numbers were in fact the same as those supplied. Duh.

What I could not figure out is how he was able to know what objects were being held or what was written down on some cards while blindfolded. Given the other trickery I have to assume that he didn't actually tape quarters to his eyes but perhaps pieces of glass and that he wasn't as blind as he appeared. The reason I assumed he could see and he wasn't being intuitive is because, when I supplied a book, he told the audience what was written on the cover - something I had never really registered. To me I had provided a music book yet he read "Preparation for theory exam" and never commented that in fact it had to do with music - something difficult to tell from the cover.

Initially I assumed there was an earphone hidden in his blindfold and that an assistant somewhere was telling him what the objects were. But I couldn't see an assistant. Perhaps he had palmed some kind of camera...? This one keeps me stumped.

What seemed potentially genuine was his ability to spot a person lying. For that alone the show may be worth watching. I just wished he'd dropped some of the other party tricks because it detracted from what was possibly a fascinating display of talent.

OK who am I kidding? He blew it for me. I guess this is why I'm disappointed: given how fake the other stuff was, I'm left with a serious doubt as his "amazing" skill at reading non-verbal communication. I would like to believe... but if he could spot what was written on a 5x3 card while supposedly blindfolded, why should we assume he can't do it on a 12"x14" card just because he has turned his back?

Lets ask ourselves: what is more likely - that this guy has an amazingly well developed ability to spot lying and that only 95% of his act was trickery... or that the the act was 100% illusion?

Occam's Razor: Given a choice between two explanations, choose the simplest.

The Santa Clause Principle: Sorry but there is still no Santa Clause.

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Comments...

Anonymous Rob Mello

Immediately after watching the 60 Minute Wednesday piece on Mark Salem, I started Googling to find out how some of his tricks were done. (I already knew about the pulse trick.)

I think I'm even more impressed now that I know how he performed some of the tricks. The pulse thing is old... wish he didn't do that one - but you have to give him credit for drawing (most of) the crowd in so that he could weave simple tricks in.

I for one, can’t wait to see his act live, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it!

Tuesday, May 31, 2005  

Blogger Missbossy

This article on Derren Brown accurately captures the feelings I was left with after watching Marc Salem.

Spectacular Psychology or Silly Psycho-babble?

Friday, January 06, 2006  

Blogger Michael

You don't need cameras or assistants for the blindfold stuff. Real quarters are taped over the eyes too.

Usually most people verify that the numbers written down and added up are the same as the audience gave.

There are different methods to perform what Marc does.

You have to remember it is entertainment.

The pulse stop effect can be done without the rubber ball but it does require extra practice.

I know one performer who does the pulse stop effect then has the person taking his pulse take the pulse of another member of the audience and then stops their pulse, now that is cool and no stooges needed.

Banachek is another good performer.

Thursday, May 08, 2008  

Blogger Jon

I've seen Salem three times now and I have to agree with the first posting. First time I was gobsmacked, second mererly amazed, third time realised many of the tricks are actually horribly banal.
He is undoubtedly a master at detecting non-verbal communication - those little tics that subconsciously give us away. Hence, the ability to tell when a person is lying, or thinking of a particular letter of the alphabet, which form the basis of many of his stunts.
But its' disappointing he devalues this genuine ability with so many tawdy wedding turns.
The one where he gets an audience mamber to fish a jigsaw piece out of a bag - voila it's the exact missing piece. Well even I could see that whereas the top pieces in the bad were varied, all the bottom ones were the same! Even as he was inserting the 'unique' piece in the painting there was an identical one visible in the bag.
The most disappointing revelation - sad becuase it's so amazing the first time you see it - is the coins over the eyes.
AS you say, he like many great MAGICIANS is a master of misdirection and the ceaseless engaging patter distracts from the fact he's simply LOOKING down under the blindfold. He may have wiggled his eyebrows or something to loosen the masking tape but on numerous occasions (remember I was looking for this - hard to spot if you're not) I saw him angle his head to sneak a look at objects, written notes, drawings being made. The genius lies in the misdirection - NOT any kind of mind control.
So come on Marc - you know you're better than that. Less of the cruise ship stuff please, and more of your amazing and genuine talents.

Monday, July 28, 2008  

Blogger Pizza Guy

I'm as skeptical as the next guy but as much as I'd like to explain away everything he does, I have never read a convincing explanation of some parts of his act. Even the most jaded skeptics at some point are left with the circular reasoning of, "Well, I know it's a trick because it must be a trick, therefore it is a trick."

Monday, January 25, 2010  

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