Mind reading from a remote location: Amherst College philosophy professor move his mentalist performances to Zoom

  • “La Clairvoyance,” a painting by René Magritte. Alexander George says he uses the image in his virtual show to demonstrate a power that “everyone has to some degree.”    Image courtesy Alexander George

  • In a performance at Northampton’s Iconica Social Club in 2018, Alexander George demonstrates some of his mind-reading techniques by using the pressure from hand touch with an audience member. file photo

  • An advertisement for the large Spiritualist gatherings that took place every summer at Lake Pleasant in Montague in the late 1800s. Image courtesy Alexander George

  • Pick a card, any card: Alexander George at Northampton’s Iconica Social Club a couple years ago. He has now refashioned his mind-reading show for the internet.  file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 10/16/2020 4:41:47 PM

Starting a few years ago, Alexander George made a splash when he began hosting small shows at which he demonstrated his ability as a “mentalist”: a performer who can read people’s minds through careful observation of their body language, tone of voice and other physical cues.

George, a longtime professor of philosophy at Amherst College, would meet with a small number of guests at the Iconica Social Club in downtown Northampton, where he’d demonstrate his perceptiveness through an array of card tricks, other demonstrations and a good bit of dry humor.

As he explained to the audience at one show at Iconica, where he conducted his exercises with at least one person at a time, his performances were based “90% on body reading and the rest on following a hunch. We don’t realize how much we give away through body language.”

So what to do when the pandemic prevents meeting in person? Is mind-reading still possible over the internet?

In a recent phone interview, George, who first developed an interest in magic tricks as a boy, said he has in fact refashioned his show for Zoom, adding different and interactive elements, such as the history of spiritualism, that put the focus on participants rather than himself. He’s also added simulations of the “psychic powers” of the various mediums of spiritualism.

When COVID-19 arrived in March and he was forced to cancel his remaining live demonstrations, George said was at first thrown for a loss. But then, he said, “I thought it would be a cool challenge if I could develop a virtual show that could be both entertaining and mystifying.”

“Strange Powers,” as it’s called, is a shorter show — about an hour — than his live performances. Audience size is limited to 12, and George says the show is built on a “narrative arc” that weaves in stories of spiritualism and profiles of magicians and mediums; he also uses slides and historical images in the presentation.

There’s a local link as well: Lake Pleasant, a village within the town of Montague, was a major center of spiritualism in the U.S. in the late 19th century, George notes, with a railroad station that brought in magicians, mediums and people interested in the occult (as well as vacationers).

Some of his demonstrations in live mind-reading have consisted of asking participants to, as one example, pick a card from a deck and memorize it, after which George asks the person questions and uses close observation of him or her to guess the identity of the card. Over Zoom, this is clearly more of a challenge, he notes, though still doable.

But on Zoom, he can use a variation of this by getting all the audience members engaged at once. “We have one exercise in which I have cards, each with a letter, that together spell out a word,” he said. “Then I shuffle the cards and the audience decides which order to put them in to spell it again.”

Other activities involve everyone at home picking cards from their own deck and making guesses on others’ choices. “I’ve tried hard to make sure (the show) is not a passive thing, where everyone is just watching me,” he said.

He also says audience members in the two shows so far have been interested in learning more about the history of spiritualism, which in the U.S. was once seen as a real alternative to the country’s prevailing “gloomy Calvinism,” as George puts it, and its emphasis on predestination.

“The spiritualists believed that humans could perfect themselves and communicate with past loved ones,” he said. “It was a more optimistic way of thinking.”

Doing the work on Zoom is still a challenge, says George, who notes that he already spends a lot of time every week on that platform teaching his classes at Amherst College. But he jokes that there’s one upside to it: “It’s a lot easier to know everyone’s name since they all pop up on the screen.”

Upcoming presentations of “Strange Powers” are scheduled at 8 p.m. on Saturday and Oct. 31 (Halloween) and Nov. 7 and 14. Tickets are available on a sliding scale from $10 to $30. More information is available at hereadsminds.com/strange-powers.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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