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Mentalist Keith Barry on new age cons

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I interviewed Irish mentalist Keith Barry for Time Out last week. I notice he always gets referred to as “Irish mentalist Keith Barry”, which feels a bit like saying “black singer Donna Summer”, but Keith’s main point of difference as a mentalist/magician/illusionist/brainhacker is that he’s not some skulking creep trying to psyche you out in too much eyeliner… and journalists using the label “Irish” is shorthand for letting you know you’re in for a no-bullshit approach. Yep, Keith’s the no-bullshit bullshit artist.

In this interview he takes pops at personal development gurus, psychics and the pseudoscientific claims of cosmetic companies. And yep, he read my mind at the end and guessed which number I’d thrown on a dice, which irritatingly meant I lost his $10,000 bet. He’d happily refer you to The Full Facts of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland though, to let you know exactly how he did that.

Keith, you’ve been embraced by the Hollywood celebrity circuit and frequently mind-melt the stars. Are actors particularly easy to read?

Yeah, absolutely. Athletes are the other ones, because athletes are very good at visualisation techniques. I just like to turn the tables on them and take away their control mechanisms for a moment, because they’re such control freaks at that level. They’re surrounded by so many people, and they have their managers and their agents always around them, yet for one moment in time they go back to that childlike sense of wonder again. When they’re with me, it’s not about them, it’s about: “How the fuck are you doing this stuff?”

You did a talk for TED.com a few years back, and the analogy used to describe you was that you’re a computer programmer who can hack into the brain. Was that your own description?

I can’t remember if I came up with that analogy, but it is true. I see the brain exactly like a computer. You’ve got a hard drive, you’ve got software that goes in there, sometimes you’ve got viruses that go in – and I can send viruses into people’s brains. Just as some computers with their security systems can be very difficult to hack into, some brains are really difficult to hack into. There are obviously hundreds of thousands of pieces of information in a computer, but it’s the same in our brains – there are hundreds of thousands of pieces of information we’re not even aware, because they’re stored subconsciously rather than consciously. I also compare brains to safes. In other words, some safes, believe it or not, only have two-digit combination, so hacking is very easy. Other safes have like a ten-digit combination, and they’re nearly impossible to hack into.

You don’t have the creepy illusionist thing going on, though.

Those people are creepy, but it’s also boring. There are a lot of guys very well known in the mentalism community, that personally when I see their shows I fall asleep, because it’s all that Svengali, scary, “I’m gonna hypnotise you” thing going on, and it’s almost like being a bully. For me, it’s all about the entertainment factor. The live show is raw, uncensored, and designed to make people laugh until their faces hurt, and then hopefully be fooled as well. I couldn’t care less really, whether people can figure things out or not. I want them just to have a good night out, over the period of two hours. I wanna be the ordinary guy that can do some pretty weird shit that you’re slightly nervous of, but you wanna have a pint with at the same time. I don’t want to be creepy.

What do you make of mentalist-cum-pickup artists like Mystery – the subject of Neil Strauss’s book, The Game?

I’ve examined The Game and the whole pickup artist area and I just think they’re a bunch of sad bastards. They’re hiding the fact that they’ve no personalities beneath it all. I know pickup artists in Ireland that get together once a month in a bar, and the whole thing is to pick up as many phone numbers as they can. It’s a learned art.

And thanks to The Game, women recognise all the neurolinguistic programming techniques now.

But as well as that, if a woman – for whatever reason – actually enjoys the company of a pickup artist and then starts dating him, after a couple of months she’ll find out it was all an act and the whole thing will crumble. Mystery was teaching bunch of nerdy guys how to be a pickup artist, so in my mind that’s what he himself is, a nerdy guy. I saw him doing some really bad magic one time, trying to teach guys to do magic tricks to pick up chicks. I was like, jeez, really? They’re preying on women and their vulnerabilities, so yeah, it’s not for me. I’m happily married anyway, to the same girl for 18 years.

I did wonder how any girl would be able to trust you…

We’ve been together since our teens and she started studying psychology. That’s when I became interested in mixing psychology and magic, because I was only a magician then. We both went to college together and I was studying chemistry of all things, but I started reading her psychology books and learning hypnosis. To an extent she can hack into people’s brains and hypnotise them herself.

You could be master criminals!

Yeah, I’m telling you! At dinner parties we sit there and say, will we fucking rob a bank? Just imagine, no one would ever suspect me, let alone my wife, or this guy over here, a quality insurance guy for cosmetic firms… who’s going to suspect any of us? And we’d be really good at it! I always wonder about that.

You’ve appeared in CSI Miami. That can’t have been something you anticipated, starting out in Ireland as a magician. What ambitions do you have left?

I’ve fulfilled all the ambitions I had, so I’ve set new ones now. I said last year that I’d really like to work in movies and then all of a sudden I got hired for a massive movie project. It’s coming out in January next year and it’s called Now You See Me. It’s a magic/mentalist/hypnotism/heist movie, starring Woody Harrelson. I was involved in the rewrite of the screenplay and then they hired me as the chief mentalism consultant. I was teaching Woody how to be a mentalist and then they gave me my own role, which I’m assured isn’t on the cutting-room floor. I know Irish people are going to completely take the piss out of me because I play a French tourist and I’ve never spoken a word of French in my life.

If I got serious about it, I’d go to the Gaiety School of Acting, where Colin Farrell and Stuart Townshend went, really because I’m interested in the power of the mind. I give motivational speeches back home in Ireland and help people get over their phobias. I do it to promote gigs, if I’m honest. I want to start doing seminars on reprogramming the subconscious mind, giving people the tools to do it themselves. And everything I do is about permanent solutions – you don’t have to keep coming back and paying me!

Reading any good books at the moment?

I’m reading one called Hitler’s Jewish Clairvoyant by Erik Jan Hanussen, who came up with the idea of using the swastika and taught Hitler all these brainwashing techniques. I talk about psychics quite a bit in the live show and why I don’t believe in what they do. Stalin had a psychic advisor too – Wolf Messing. So if you think psychics don’t do any harm, you should investigate those guys, you know?

A friend of mine, her and all her friends gather and go and see a psychic, who gives them career advice, health advice, love advice – and they all take it. It’s crazy stuff. They’re living their life by what someone else says. I said to her, “Just do me a favour – read this book. It’s called The Full Facts of Cold Reading, by Ian Rowland. I gave her the book, and she had it for a year but never opened a page of it, because people just want to believe. I think it’s quite damaging. If you want to go to a psychic act for fun then that’s OK, but if you’re living your life by what the psychic says then there’s a lot going on that’s wrong there, you know?

I go to them all the time, because I’m ready to be converted. But with the knowledge that I have you better be damn fucking good. I went to one in LA and I gave off the subliminal body cues that confirmed she was getting things right – because that’s what they do, they’re reading your body language, your pupil dilation, even. If I was a normal person I might have convinced myself she was very accurate. If you don’t investigate this stuff and you don’t know how it works, then it appears that they’re really reading minds or contacting the dead.

Professor Richard Wiseman writes some great books on the subject of mind tricks, mediums and clairvoyants.

Yeah, I’ve read Quirkology, and another one, and I follow him on Twitter.

Did you ever have a boring day job?

I am a cosmetic scientist by trade. I used to invent women’s makeup. I went to college for four years and then I worked for a Swedish cosmetics company for two-and-a-half years. Actually it was a real con, cause I was the guy standing over a three-ton batch of cream with a pipette, and dropping four drops of aloe vera in, so that marketing could get the claim “aloe vera”. It’s like your blog again. It’s fascinating when you see the marking labels and I’m sending four drops into a three-ton batch. I became bored, so I was like, OK, I’m gonna take the risk. I’m gonna become a full-time entertainer and that’s it. No one could talk me out of it.

Are you a believer of the law of attraction, or are you are ‘working hard gets you places’ kind of person?

I don’t believe in the ethereal, weird version of it, but I do believe that if you want something you have to think about it obsessively. It’s like the movie I’m involved in. I attracted that, but I didn’t just think about it, I went out and made it happen. Rather than believe in the law of attraction to the extent that the books [like Rhonda Byrne’s best-seller The Secret] say, you need to give yourself a realistic timescale and work towards something.

Would you write a book yourself?

I’ve got a book deal at home in Ireland. A publisher’s taken me on board, so the book will be about three probes in the subconscious mind and teach people how to do it. I see a lot of people being ripped off around the world at motivational seminars – it’s big money at the moment. You could be paying $10-$15,000 for a two-day seminar, where you have to fly to Hawaii and that kind of stuff, and I just think they’re taking it too far now. People just get greedy too fast, and a lot of the public end up very disappointed.

Oprah keeps endorsing them, that’s why.

Well that’s it, you know. I mean, I know Tony Robbins, he does get results, but if you pay a lot of money to go to his seminar, you don’t get him for two days – he’ll do a few hours. I do admire people like him, I just think it ends up too costly for people. [Robbins’ six-day ‘Date With Destiny’ course in Australia this August costs a minimum of $4995].

How to train your dragon, geomancy style

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Back in the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch found that if a group of participants – all but one of whom were plants in the experiment – decided that one straight line was longer than another, when it clearly was not, around 75% of the time the non-plant would defy reason and side with the majority.

I’m fully aware of this experiment as I stand here on Diana’s farm, swinging my rose quartz pendulum, but I’m not going to be the girl who couldn’t feel the vortex dragon. No way.

Today I am practicing the ancient art of geomancy. I’m out on a vast, beautiful property carved out of the countryside by volcanic action 470,000 years ago. Lately it’s been festooned with “power towers” and Blair Witch-style mounds of granite and quartz. The six of us gathered here today are under the guidance of Diana, a striking woman with a wily way with a pendulum.

Geomancy dates back to African-Arabian traders using the Silk Road – who would use markings on the ground and complex charts for divination – but it morphed into different forms in European and Asian cultures. It enjoyed a comeback in 17th century Europe as a Renaissance art, before being stamped out by the Age of Reason – then rearing up again during the rise of interest in the occult in the 19th century.

A British lady dousing a mango.

Seeing talk of “dowsing” on Diana’s flyers, I’d thought we’d just be finding water with forked sticks or – better still – animal shoulder blades, but the method we’re practicing today is more closely aligned to feng shui – in that we’ll be communicating with the spirits of the land, or the “devas”, to use Diana’s Sanskrit term. Diana uses pendulums to eke out energy obstructions and water sources, complementing her love of permaculture. Is your telly playing up due to an abundance of positive ions in the earth? Does your baby refuse to settle in its bedroom thanks to some invisible water source? Diana’s your woman. She’s even been called upon to remove negative spirits from a grungy Melbourne rock pub.

Dowsers in olden times.

We begin by holding out our pendulums and trying to gauge the outer reaches of each other’s aura. Diana demonstrates on Craig and starts feeling his vibes from a good few metres away. I hope to blazes my aura – which, to be clear, I don’t believe in – isn’t blinking lamely around my body like a dud battery.

Craig pads towards me slowly in his five-toed imitation-leather shoes, one palm held out towards me, the other hand holding his gently rotating pendulum. He stops a couple of metres away and frowns. “My hand’s tingling,” he murmurs. “I can definitely feel your aura here.” I have a go on him and report the same.

Next, we go for a yomp around the land, and Diana bids us tell her where we think the two yin and yang dragon vortexes crisscrossing the property are.

“I can feel it,” one half of an earnest couple from Northcote tells me, mapping out a dragon’s serpentine girth with his hands.

Can you see the vortex dragon?

Now, some would say that it’s the ‘ideomotor effect’ that has his pendulum all a-whirl; that is, the subconscious mind minutely influencing his muscles. It’s how Victorian-era mediums convinced the public that tables and ouija board glasses were being moved by spirits. Personally, I’m happy to accept that there are grids of meridian and ley lines of energy running through the Earth – enthusiasts have been building monuments on them since the beginning of time – but I baulk at being asked to hold a conversation with a dragon vortex.

How about now?

Actually, that’s not true. I do hold a conversation with a dragon vortex, since the peer pressure is immense. These kinds of new age workshops are like a war of attrition against your rational mind. As the hours and explanations wear on, peppered with semi-scientific sounding guff, you feel your boundaries slide sludgily down the mountainside of common sense.

Diana suggests we ask the dragon for permission to cross its path. As this property is inhabited by actual llamas as well as dragons, I ask the vortex if it likes the furry beasts. The pendulum rotates backwards. No.

We conclude by splitting into gender groups, with the women walking anti-clockwise around a sacred stone circle and the men exploring a “labyrinth” off somewhere I can’t spy on. Finally there’s a power tower ceremony, in which we drum up some sacred noise in thanks. I play the singing bowl.

As a mental exercise in connecting with the land, I enjoyed dowsing well enough, but I reckon I’ll leave the gentle art of geomancy to the experts.

John Carpenter’s They Live

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I was watching John Carpenter’s 1988 flick They Live and thinking, jeez, it’s like this informed all David Icke’s ideas about a reptilian master-race and subliminal messages. (David Icke being a new age conspiracy theorist whose mission is to “exposing the dreamworld that we believe to be real”, for anyone who hasn’t already enjoyed my perverse obsession with him.)

Then I found this interview with Icke… if you can get past the “moonstrel cycle” stuff. Or just skip to 6.15. Indeed, he gives Carpenter’s ‘theory’ his full support.

Incidentally, the flick stars WWF wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper, as a drifter who delivers the immortal line: “I have come here to chew bubble-gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble-gum.” That makes it worth hiring, doesn’t it?

Spirituality and the brain

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You loved the God Gene… now here’s the God Chemical!

Sending a Scientology stress-o-meter into the red

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I receive a tip-off that at Southbank – amongst the human statues, shirtless parkour boys, atheists trundling off to the Global Atheist Convention and God botherers chalking retaliations on the pavement – a couple of plucky Scientologists have gathered with some stress monitors.

These ‘E-Meters’ claim to read your stress levels as you focus on different areas of your life. Once you’re diagnosed as a neurotic ball of angst, you’re referred to a counsellor for a lifelong personality audit.

This stand at Southbank doesn’t mention the word ‘Scientology’ anywhere, although the Dianetics DVDs and books for sale would alarm and alert any but the most sheltered passer-by. I take a seat opposite Gavin, who immediately looks a bit alarmed himself. He regains his composure. I place him at somewhere between 16 and 20 years old.

Gavin gives me some copper tubes to hold, through which a minimal electrical current is said to pass. It passes through me and then onto the E-Meter, which has the pseudoscientificfantastic word ‘Quantum’ on it.

“Think about people that are stressing you out,” Gavin instructs vaguely.

“What, all of them?”

“Just one at a time. What’s coming up for you?”

I focus on stroking Mr Thumpy, my relaxed, furry rabbit. The stress-o-meter goes through the roof.

“What were you thinking of?” Gavin says in excitement.

“My mother,” I say obediently.

“Ah,” he says, and asks me a host of probing questions that I sidestep. He gives the meter a flick and it moves.

“What’s that?” he says. “Something came up there.”

“I was just thinking the sun felt nice,” I admit. We’re on a lovely spot by the river.

“What about work?” he says. “What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a journalist,” I say, and he leans back off his arms and shifts in his chair. When will I learn to lie?

“Oh right,” he says, stalling. “Yes, I can imagine that would be a stressful job.” Suddenly the dial swings again, apropos of nothing, and he points it out in great triumph.

“Does the dial tend to swing whatever subject somebody focuses on?” I ask.

“It depends on the person,” he says. “We just had a man come through who – every single question; family, work, health – the dial stayed completely dead. So he was obviously completely stress free.”

“Well,” I say. “I’m not going to buy anything here, but what would the next step be?”

“That’s absolutely fine,” he says, and hands me a DVD. “You can read the back of this. That basically explains everything.”

“All it explains is that there’s something called an ‘audit’.”

“Yes,” he says, and hands me a book. “If you read that it tells you all about that.”

I flick through the contents page, with pseudo-gump words littered throughout it, as well as a chapter on ‘prenatal’.

“So Scientologists believe stress goes back to being an embryo?”

“Yes.”

“Or before that?”

“No, just to being an embryo.”

Well, that’s something.

I think Gavin’s patter needs work, but they’ve got him while he’s young (taking pops seems cheap, but it’s certainly true…), so I’m sure that will improve.

I had psychic surgery to remove my alien implant

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Oh no.

I always come to see Mark when I visit this most mystical outreach of Australia’s coastline. I’m a skeptic, sure, but Mark’s my healer. He’s my wild card; the aberration of science that I’ve described as being the real deal in the same way that racists will have their one black mate who’s “all right”. It makes no sense, but we’ll happily let it through to the keeper.

Mark was the knife-edge on which my skepticism swayed. I’ve told so many fellow naysayers: “but there’s this one guy…” I’ve accredited him with dispensing of my circular thoughts, a broken heart and my smoking habit. Or at least, I’ve thought of it as a dual effort between us – one with immediate results I couldn’t have achieved on my own. Accordingly, I’ve lisped away to people: I could feel energy pulsing down my body and streaming out of my feet.

I think. Couldn’t I? I remember telling Mark I could.

Mark is placid as a panda bear; as warm as a roaring hearth. As benevolent and wise as Yoda. He’s the sort of person you can make prolonged and meaningful eye contact with without wanting to stab out the jelly in your vitreous with pencils. Last time I saw him he diagnosed an energy block in my abdomen.

“That’s funny,” I piped up. “I’ve always had a huge phobia about being touched around there. I’ve had nightmares since I was a kid about being rigged up and prodded in my hips by disembodied fingers.”

Mark suddenly saw arrows. “I’m being shown arrows,” he said. “You were shot in a past life by a jealous lover.” He gave a warm chuckle as I pictured my punctured ovaries. One healing later, I left: a big ball of loved-up expanded consciousness, floating off down the street to the sea.

Now, past lives are about as high on my ‘Maybe Believe This’ list as DNA ThetaHealing ™, but in the name of consistency, I decided to return to this subject with Mark on my next visit. I.e., would he stick to the arrows story?

“Last time I came here you said we should investigate an energy block,” I said.

Mark gazed at my energy for a bit. “I often baulk at saying things like this, because most people don’t react well,” he said, at which point my hips tightened a few notches. “But it’s an implant.”

“An implant?”

“Yes. I’m seeing reptilian ETs – Zeta Reticulans. They used to rule the Earth and would quite frequently study humans by using implants, but these days we thankfully attract more benevolent beings of a higher frequency. The Zetas put an implant in you at birth to study your reproductive system. I can probably get it out.”

I rolled with this. Mark’s not alone in thinking reptilian aliens are all around us; it’s a theory David Icke made popular, and I love hearing David Icke’s theories. Love it.

“I’m not going to use the spirit guides in this operation, I’m going to use the friendly ETs,” Mark said, as I removed my shoes.

I climbed aboard the table for 40 minutes. I usually love this bit, but I wasn’t feeling it as much this time, due to the inconvenient truth of Mark talking about aliens. I was mourning the Mark gone by; the one who told me not to intellectualise spirituality, the one who said he had no interest in studying things like chakras and what have you.

I tried though. It could be true, was my mantra. You don’t know for sure; you only know your version of reality. And besides, it’s worth the $90 for a good blog post.

I saw my individual cells, golden, spinning, shimmering and spitting like Coke bubbles. I felt myself opened up flat as a pancake on the table – although Mark later told me the operation was multidimensional.

“I’ve never seen one as big as this before,” he said when he was done, talking down at me as I lay on the table with my arms behind my head. “It was like the Tardis. There was a whole universe inside.”

“Really?” I said, unable to not be impressed.

“But then there’s a whole universe inside every cell,” Mark pointed out.

“A universe in my pelvic bowl,” I marvel, and we chortle.

“The Zeta aliens actually came in at the beginning,” he said. “It got a bit nasty, but they were asked to leave. Could you feel it being removed from your brain? There were strands leading all the way up your spine, meshed into every cell, and up into your brain. It was a very tricky procedure – I only facilitated it.”

Mark didn’t seem too rattled after facilitating major surgery on the biggest alien implant he’d ever seen. He explained that I’d attracted bad sexual experiences to myself because of the implant. “Your critical mind will explain this away over the next few days,” he continued, “but you know it was special. There was a lot of love in the room. Don’t forget this experience you’ve had.”

“So,” I offered hopefully, as I swung my legs off the table. “Do you see this as a visualisation technique to hypnotise me into freeing myself from some emotional blockage?”

There came a pause.

“Or are you describing things in real terms?”

“In real terms,” he said. His eyes shone softly, as though he were just giving me a lovely recipe for parsnip soup.

Bugger.

As I walked out, something in me pouted. I love the thought of two shimmering entities walking down the high street with me; why can’t I just go with it? I greatly enjoyed, as a child, believing the spirit of God was channeled through me and that I could bless people just by doing an internal yawn; even if it constantly irritated the family. Where’s the harm?

But Mark had pushed me past my limit of making allowances and moving the goal posts. I hate it when men do that. And so, with reluctance, I write up my findings.

- But Mark will see this and he’s a lovely guy.

- He WON’T see this – he’s not psychic!

In conclusion, in conclusion… I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m quite good at lying on a table and turning it on. Getting the love flowing. Could it be I already found the greatest love of all, inside of me? Possibly. I’ll report back.

A brief interlude from Bill Hicks

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“Today, a young man on acid realised that…”


Bill on tripping, spirituality and unconditional love.

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