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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].

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Psychometry, somewhere outside Geelong

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The evening’s all a-bluster as we trundle over the West Gate Bridge and point our quackmobile towards Geelong. It comes as a surprise that there’s a psychometry group in this direction. While the Mornington Peninsula is a hotbed of psychic activity and angel guides (there’s a whole newspaper devoted to the stuff), the Bellarine Peninsula is less concerned with esoteric wisdom. Sure enough, our destination turns out to be quite godforsaken looking, and about as spiritual as a sock.

Or is it?

En route to this Monday night gathering, at which we must give psychic readings for other members, Esther and I rehearse our scripts, utilising the cold-reading tips set out in Professor Richard Wiseman’s book, Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There.

I practise my double-headed platitudes: “You’re a person with great depths who enjoys pondering the big stuff alone, yet people seek out your company,” I postulate.

“You’re not one to gossip, but people value seeking out your advice,” Esther counters.

For today’s mission, we will need some kind of personal trinket, which will be put anonymously into an envelope and picked by someone else, who will do a reading based on it. Esther has a rummage in the car for something I can use.

“But it’s got to belong to me,” I point out.

She looks at me sharply. “You say that as though makes a difference.”

Oh yeah.

Nevertheless, once we get to the venue, I can’t help noticing Esther has a superstitious riffle through the empty envelopes on offer until she finds one with her favourite number printed on it. Sap!

Terry also notices. He’s the leader of this group, and also – according to my Googling skills – a local performer in the vein of Tom Jones. Right now, he’s lurking under the pretence of handing us nametags, as I stuff an earring into my envelope, trying to duck behind Esther.

Tonight there are 12 of us – all women, including Terry’s wife – sat in a tight circle in a barely lit Masonic hall. We’re not allowed to cross our legs as Marg leads us through a guided mediation, presumably so that the ‘christlight’ in us can seep out unhindered.

After the meditation we’re all asked to share what we saw. Everyone, bar us two interlopers, admits to having had a conversation with their spirit guides. Terry had also conversed with a dolphin “that seemed to know me” and seen all sorts of spectacular wizardry that Ronnie James Dio would have baulked at. Personally, my mind had just wandered down its usual route. I hope the group can’t smell my sexy pheromones.

Next it’s the bit we’ve been waiting for – the psychometry. Terry picks my envelope, and waxes lyrical about a totem animal, an eagle, that is coming to him loud and clear.

I open my envelope to find some kind of necklace with a ‘T’ on it. I pass it from hand to hand, tangling the chain between my fingers.

“I get the feeling this person has been waiting very patiently for their time to come,” I say. “They’ve watched others have their moment in the sun, but they really feel it should be their time now. And it will be. But they need all the support from their family they can get.”

“That was 60 to 70 per cent right; so that’s really good,” says Terry when I’m done. He spends the rest of the meeting trying to unsnarl his necklace.

“I’m getting bananas,” Esther shouts when it’s her go. “I don’t know why, but I can smell them really strongly … and I can feel a pain in my head, here.”

Carmen reclaims her ring. “I quite like bananas,” she admits politely. “And I get headaches sometimes.”

I notice that there’s a script of sorts being stuck to here. Almost everyone complains of a burning sensation coming off their object, and “I can tell this person has great wisdom” gets bandied about a lot. My overwhelming feeling, though, is that I’m in a room full of curtain twitchers.

We finish off by healing Annie, who – I am deducing – has a serious illness. We stand around her and hold hands as she weeps. Terry warns her about a couple of dubious men in her life who mean her harm, touches her head and gives it a little push. Cured!

As we bid our farewells, two of the women tell me I have a remarkable gift, steadfastly ignoring Esther.

“I actually did see a banana!” she says indignantly as we jump in the car.

I really hope Annie seeks proper medical attention.

SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read this if you enjoy visiting psychics. Or are psychic

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In his rip-roaring read, Paranormality; Why We See What Isn’t There, Professor Richard Wiseman exposes all sorts of snake oil techniques, from ghost hunting to fortune telling to conversing with the dead, dating back over the centuries. Unlike the swashbuckling swordplay of science journalist Ben Goldacre, Wiseman presents his findings in the most affable possible way and with plenty of chortles. He has published 50 academic papers on the subject and is a fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

Wiseman explains the principles behind the art of ‘cold reading’ – the technique a psychic will employ to shock and amaze.

1)   Flattery Attribute wonderful characteristics to the customer and give them great depth. Suggest they may be psychic themselves. (This one’s been tried on me, see here)

2)   Double-headed statements Here’s on example from Wiseman of a playing-it-safe double-header, which will be guaranteed to strike a chord one end or the other. “At times you an be imaginative and creative, but are more than capable of being practical and down-to-earth when necessary.”

3)   Keep it vague Talk of upheaval and significant events will draw the customer to fill in the blanks and infuse the words with meaning. Wiseman also suggests being abstract: “I can see a circle closing. Does that mean anything to you?” 1989 manual King of the Cold Readers suggests using the mnemonic THE SCAM to stick to safely broad subjects: Travel, Health, Expectations about the future, Sex, Ambitions, Money.

4)   Read the feedback A palm reader holding a customer’s hand is able to pick up on sudden tenseness – or an outbreak of clamminess. Similarly a psychic will watch out for signs of confusion – a customer trying to make sense of a statement – or excitement.

5)   Play on people’s sense of uniqueness There are some specific-sounding statements that actually rely on the customer being more passé than they realise. Referring to a scar on a knee, for instance, will likely ring bells, or, as Wiseman says, referring to a family member called Jack – which one-fifth of people have.

6)   Don’t take no for an answer If someone rejects a statement, appear incredulous and ask them to think harder. Or broaden the statement, as though further information is filtering through. “After that,” says Wiseman, “comes the old ‘I was speaking metaphorically’ scam.”

The more advanced psychic will read into clothing, handshakes, posture, accent and grooming. Ask any mentalist.

Psychics Vs Mentalists: the rematch

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Derren: mentalist.

Here is an excellent post from Michael Witheford on uber-mentalist Derren Brown, versus world famous psychic John Edwards – a man South Park’s South Park’s Trey Parker said, “We literally did decide this guy was the worst. He was the worst guy in the world. There’s nothing you can do right now that’s worse than this.”

That’s a bit rich coming from Trey though, eh?

Witheford, by contrast, says of self-confessed confidence trickster Brown: “At some point I intend taking Derren hostage and, while waving a hot poker in his face, enquiring about how his dazzling set pieces are achieved. In a microsecond, of course, he’d have the poker in his own hands, and I’d be tied to a chair in a busy street with no trousers on.”

Here’s The Guardian on Derren Brown taking on faith healers in a new series.

John: psychic.


Psychics Vs. Mentalists

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I’m on a quest to crack open my monkey brain and slip in the spoon of spirituality (a hypnotherapist told me the unconscious mind responds well to metaphors… how’s yours doing?), but one area guaranteed to get me wriggling like a fish on a hook is clairvoyancy.

Here’s why.

“Many of the chronic health conditions and diseases that we experience in adulthood are rooted in childhood or the womb. I use many different techniques to remove these traumas and problems quickly and easily.”

“A Soul Inspired reading is an opportunity to connect with your Soul/Higher self, to gain, feel and see your life from a higher perspective through the energy of love and without the distractions of your personality.”

“Anything from minor complaints to life-threatening injuries can be treated or even cured through the use of psychic powers. Whether these powers come from God, the healer, or the Universe as a whole is a matter of debate, but that they work is certain to those who believe in them.”

“Psychic healing can help you obtain relief from physical or mental pain. The gifted psychic can see your aura and determine the source of pain. They use subtle energy to remove your pain.”

“Transcendence Healing is an individual process assessing powerful Universal energies in order to facilitate your healing at a soul level.”

Deep down I would rather believe than not believe, though. How awesome to think that someone could completely understand and anticipate you without all that awkward business of getting to know you. So I’m fully prepared to alter my perception at the slightest shred of evidence and raising of hairs. I’ve already been proved wrong with energy healing, as I’m convinced the chap in Byron Bay on Day One quelled my vagus nerve by the time I’d wobbled out his door. So maybe, as with teachers, hairdressers and cats, you’ve just got to meet the right psychic.

The problem is, I’ve failed to be rendered wide-eyed by the triumvirate of revelations psychics always wheel out to women in their thirties:

1)    You’re having doubts about a man

2)    You’re thinking about buying a house

3)    You’re unhappy in your job and thinking about going for another

You may also be worrying about a friend, be musing on vague plans to travel or move to the sea, and be thinking about starting a family… although no one’s leveled that last one at me.

That’s because of cold reading; the art (they’d call it science) of making high probability guesses about someone’s life by their appearance and reactions.

Psychics beadily eye my slovenly dress code and inky arms and deduce I’m a raging pisshead. “You need to start taking it easy on your body,” they’ll say with concern, shuffling cards and prescribing early nights. One of the perks of being a toothsome teetotaller is smugness, so imagine how sensational I feel when a psychic wheels out that old chestnut. For this reason I reckon I’m a fantastic litmus test for psychics – you should take me along before you agree to hand over your money.

Here’s an interview I did with a mentalist – a man who happily admits to leading a person’s train of thought with imperceptible cues (and a good grasp of neuro-linguistic programming), reading the nuances of their face and body in turn, to see if he’s on the right track. The accomplished accompanying patter allows him to slither and weasel his way out of any wrong turn, barely detected.

No such luck today here in Glebe. I can’t believe this $30-for-20-mins psychic is talking solely about me, yet I’m still bored.

We get onto the subject of some japester persistently vandalising my property, and she proposes I call on “his royal hotness” the Archangel Michael. I’m to visualise a deep blue cloak draped around my possessions, which will render them invisible. Sorted.

The Archangel Michael.

“Take a big lump of rose quartz,” she says, doing the very same. “And hold it in your right hand.”

Awesome. Are we going to make a fist around it and learn how to throw a loaded right hook?

“See all the lines in it? They directly link up to your brain stems.” She gauges my reaction for a beat. “You can tell this crystal your intention and it will project it out to the universe.”

I feel like I’m on the phone to a telecaller, or a boring band I’m interviewing. “Okay, thanks then. Okay thanks. Thanks. Yep, yep, no, that’s all,” I say, lowering the metaphysical telephone receiver. Keep talking and I’m going to have to blow a whistle down it in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

Nonintuitively, she bids me ask another question.

Psychic ‘n’ Parma Night in the outer suburbs

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Pinched from my last venture, the new-adventure-every-day-for-a-year account, Hey Man, Now You’re Really Living

“So how long have you known you’re a white witch?” the psychic asks me over her shoulder as we hurry through the pub for my 10-minute sesh in a back room. As opening lines go I reckon it’s up there with “If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?” So good, she uses it on my mate later.

One archangel, two spirit guides and a medieval past-life later, I’m moving on to the tarot reader – it’s $30 for a counter meal and two readings at this pub out in the ‘burbs. This reader bears an unnerving resemblance to Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom as she pins me with a stare and says: “You think you’ve reached rock bottom already, but you haven’t.”

Predicting a spell in rehab and a short-lived career selling drugs for bikers, she doesn’t pull her punches. What’s more, she seems to be almost imperceptibly vibrating her head as she cranes closer, giving off a weird strobe effect.

“You’ve had two abortions … no … miscarriages … no … you can’t have children because of all the drugs …  no … you don’t WANT children!” she finishes triumphantly.

“You think men are only good for one thing; you tend to flip either way [for the record, I’m quite particular about only flipping one way] and you’re fed up of being told to just get over it.” She fixes me an extra beady one. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”

Jeez, someone’s been watching too much Underbelly, I’d wager. Jacki did nail my upbringing with further detail, but then, I can immediately sniff out someone with a back-story like mine, too – you don’t have to be a psychic, or a grifter.