He already knows you値l enjoy this pieceMentalist Michael Abrahamson can’t read your mind, but he does a very good job of making you think he can
WHEN Michael Abrahamson wants to rev up his brain, he runs through a few mathematical calculations, such as the square root of four-digit numbers, or cubed roots if he’s feeling particularly bright. Mention any date between 2000 and 2015 and he’ll instantly tell you what day of the week it is. Not because he’s an autistic savant who is brilliant with dates but socially inept, but because he has spent hours memorising 15 years of calendars.
Abrahamson has trained himself to be a mentalist and presents an amazing stage show in which you laugh out loud, scratch your head and stare at him in bewilderment. He predicts what people will say and which cards they will choose. He even predicts which telephone number will be the last entry on a page someone picks at random from a phone book. His answers are written down in advance and locked away, ready for the denouement to prove he knew what you were going to say before you said it.
For a thinking, analytical audience, it’s mind-blowing. We’re looking for smoke and mirrors, debating how many aces one pack of cards can hold, wondering if the Johannesburg phone book has been reprinted with 300 identical pages.
Yet as I speak to him, he pulls out a pack of cards and holds it beneath the table. Think of a card, he says, telling me he will turn it face down in the pack. I can’t think of any cards, so he reminds me there are red and black. My brain suddenly conjures up the 10 of diamonds, but Abrahamson has already slipped them back into the box.
He takes them out again and turns over one card that is face down. The 10 of diamonds. I’m gobsmacked. Did he read my mind, or did he pop the thought into my head?
"I can’t say how I do it," he says, and he means he can’t really explain, not that he won’t tell. "I can’t read what you are thinking but I watch for subtle eye movements, colours that appeal to you. It’s my skill as a mentalist to get people to do what I want them to do."
He tells me I was steered towards that card. Red had appeared on a Rubik’s Cube trick he just demonstrated, so I was predisposed to choosing red: "Hearts is too emotional so you are more likely to go for diamonds. But you could have gone for the eight." Yet I chose the 10, and somehow he knew I would. "I surprise myself sometimes," he grins.
Mentalism uses the five senses to create the illusion of a sixth. "There’s probably some sort of telepathy in it too. I can’t say it’s specifically this or that. There’s a magic element, maths, memory, probability and the way you conduct yourself." If he asks someone to visualise a letter and their shoulders sag very slightly, that gives him a clue that the letter is round.
Years ago he studied actuarial science and statistics and worked for an insurance company. It wasn’t wildly exciting, he admits. Then he spent 20 years as a TV and radio sports presenter, but magic was always his hobby. Now mentalism comes first, with occasional stints as a radio commentator and a master’s degree in statistics put on hold.
"Conventional magic shows don’t excite me any more. Pulling a rabbit out of a hat or cutting someone in half when the audience knows it’s obviously an illusion gets boring. I needed something a little more brain-intensive."
This is understandable, because Abrahamson has the brainy look of a geek, not the razzmatazz of a conjurer: "I like the nerdy look because it appeals to my act. It’s important to have credibility."
Performing as a mentalist demands a good command of language, the ability to read people, psychological skills and credibility, so the audience knows something is happening with the brain, not by sleight of hand. He’s friendly, open and instantly likeable, and happy to share his knowledge, not hoard it to himself.
There isn’t a large enough audience at the theatre or corporate gigs to abandon his day job, but he wouldn’t want to. He teaches statistics and actuarial science at Boston City Campus and also runs memory courses.
"I don’t want a new generation of mentalists being produced, that’s not the intention. The intention is to motivate people to get the best out of their brain, improve their memories, study smarter and retain information. And to help them spell better — one thing I hate is bad spelling."
The courses help motivate people to be the best they can be, he says, inspiring them to feel extremely positive and eager to try new things.
Tactics include calling out 20 items and getting his students to memorise the list. I gulp at the very idea. Once his students learn to picture each item and make up a little story about it, the success rate is 100%.
"They learn they can do it very easily and suddenly feel empowered." I almost enrol on the spot.
He also covers brain foods, explaining which foods and vitamin supplements can boost brain power and which diminish it. Can I eat myself smart, I ask? Well, no, you need lessons and practice too, but the right foods certainly enhance the results.
Caffeine is terrible before an exam because your energy levels go from the highest high to the lowest low within minutes, he says. "If you are trying to concentrate, it’s very bad to have those fluctuations. You need something that gets the left and right sides of the brain flowing. I can’t say if you take selenium you will suddenly remember everything. You won’t. You also need the techniques. With memory, there are no short cuts, but the long cut isn’t very long."
I’m about to ask why he no longer practises as an actuary, when he says: "Some people ask me why I don’t work as an actuary any more."
"Stop that mind-reading!" I say, "it’s most unnerving." It must be a killer to go on a date and know exactly what the person you’re trying to impress is thinking. "I have had some shocking experiences," he admits. Now he is married to Tess, his on-stage assistant, yet you suspect he spends his free time poring over information rather than enjoying a social life.
"I don’t sit here and memorise things all the time. I socialise a lot with my students and friends, and I play in a tennis league."
Still, he must get awfully bored by people who can’t match his own substantial brain power. "I’ve learned not to," he laughs. "Because I teach so many school kids I’ve learned that people don’t have the ability to pick things up instantly, so I’m a lot more patient than I used to be."
He switches off his mentalist brainwaves when he’s not working and stops consciously reading body language so he can relax. Besides, when he’s off duty he probably doesn’t care what other people are thinking, because a million facts, statistics and thoughts are already swirling around his own amazing brain.
First published in Business Day - photo by Martin Rhodes.