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What is Mind Reading?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Feb 28, 2024
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The term mind reading can be used to refer to two fairly disparate things: the effect of mentalism, and an actual communication between two minds. The first is a well-documented performance art with an established history and system by which it is accomplished. The second is a parascience, and is therefore treated with a great deal of skepticism by the mainstream scientific community. Nonetheless, mind reading telepathy remains a very popular belief among many people throughout the world.

Mind reading by using mentalist tricks is meant to convey the impression of actual telepathy, but it is actually accomplished by taking advantage of well-understood principles, including cold, warm, and hot readings, and some basic stage principles. Mentalists have been performing mind reading tricks since ancient history, with recorded shows as far back as the 16th century. Early mentalists truly purported to possess telepathic skills, and indeed some may have actually believed they had these powers, but many modern mentalists if pressed will acknowledge that what they are doing is a mentalist performance, and not an actual parapsychological phenomenon.

Mentalists may perform all sorts of different mind reading tricks, to show that they are able to read minds. One of the most famous of these is known as the book test. In the book test, a book is taken at random, and given to a member of the audience. The member is then asked to open the book to a random page, and select a random word. The mentalist then appears to read the audience member’s mind by saying the word they had chosen. Although effects like this appear to be clear cut cases of mind reading, they are actually the result of a fairly ornate system of reading techniques, which have in recent years been codified into cohesive structures by mentalists.

While mentalism is one area of mind reading, actual telepathy is different altogether. It is a matter of debate whether telepathy actually exists, with no strong scientific tests validating its existence, and largely anecdotal evidence to support it. Many people continue to believe in telepathy, however, and many people claim to be able to engage telepathically on occasion. In fact, a majority of Americans purport to having experienced telepathy on some occasion, often in the form of knowing exactly what someone was going to say or do before it happened. Skeptics would likely attribute this to the detection of subtle cues, or environmental stimulus that creates a shared response in both people.

In popular culture, mind reading remains a constant source of interesting stories and characters. Super heroes, science fiction characters, and characters in popular movies and video games often used mind reading as a special power. From the Jedi in the Star Wars movies, to the Sorceress of Castle Grayskull, to Lwaxana Troi on Star Trek, to Dr. Tachyon from the Wild Card books, interesting characters are often given telepathy to help set them apart. Transhumanists, who believe mankind will eventually evolve by its own design past the current species, often propose a form of artificial telepathy, which will be somehow added to humans, either through bioengineering or technological hardware.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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Discussion Comments
By anon159458 — On Mar 12, 2011

Travel to other less stimulate environments of the world. You will experience that the clarity of these people's minds, where westerners are clouded. Mind reading for them is like getting out of bed, for most of us. They may not have many jobs or opportunity but they sure know what you're thinking and doing.

By anon71356 — On Mar 18, 2010

what is the history of mind reading?

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