Just about every week, at a theater somewhere in the world, hundreds of skeptical people show up to see for themselves the work and the performance of a man who calls himself a mentalist — a mind reader.
When they leave the theater a couple of hours later, they're astonished. But they can't help but wonder, "How'd he do that?" A while back, Correspondent Mike Wallace was one of those skeptics, too. But after watching, he was hooked.
60 Minutes Wednesday invited a random audience to see Marc Salem perform his magic at the Lyceum Theater in New York and set up cameras on stage for this unusual experiment.
Salem: What I want you to do is select three books, first to work with.
Wallace: …one, two, three.
Salem: Excellent, OK. … Mike, here's what I want you to do. I want you to say stop at any point.
Salem: OK, look at the first couple of words in that page. …Lock those words in your mind. All right. Could you open your book to any page? OK. Hundreds of words facing you right now? Have you got one in mind?
Woman: I've got one.
Salem: OK, shut the book. I want you to stare at my forehead. It's easy to do, it goes to the back of my neck. See the first letter of the word you're thinking of. Mike, think of the first letter of any of your words. Just focus Mike, just focus on the letter. Is that an "A?"
Wallace: Yes, it is.
Salem somehow read Wallace's mind, and he even guessed the woman's first letter, which happened to be "P".
How does he do it? Salem promises that he's not getting any help from hidden cameras or spies in the audience, and he offers $100,000 to anyone who can prove otherwise. His tricks are mind-blowing. Some of them are magic; others make you believe he actually can read your mind.
He was able to guess the serial numbers on a dollar bill from Wallace's wallet. He amazed a doctor from the audience by stopping and starting his pulse at will. He could identify objects while blindfolded. He made the hands on Wallace's watch move from 1:30 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. And he told an audience member whom he had never met where she went on her last vacation.
However he does it, it's hard not to be taken in.
Is he psychic? "No, I don't even know what psychic is. What I do isn't psychic. What I do isn't supernatural," says Salem. "It has absolutely no relation whatsoever to those other realms, whether or not they even exist."
Can he read thoughts? "Yes, I could pick up thoughts," says Salem. "But a thought is not the same thing as a mind, OK? Let me make a distinction. To read a mind means I can go in there, and pull out things you don't want me to get. A thought is something that you're focused on."
But if he's not a psychic, how does he explain his strange skills?
"There was a wonderful experiment in the last century. Clever Hans, a horse that everybody thought was able to read thoughts. And people would ask Clever Hans, 'How much is 2 and 2?' And Hans would go four times. And it was amazing and Hans went all around the world," says Salem.
"And then some scientists put blinders on Hans. And suddenly Hans was unable to do it. And it's not that anybody was commiting fraud. What it was, everybody would wait with tension till Hans reached the right number, and then relax. And that's when Hans would stop doing that. So I do think that, on that level sometimes, I'm picking up things like a horse."
But it's much more than that. His family always felt that he had some kind of special gift. Salem, whose real name is Moshe Botwinick, was the middle son of a prominent Philadelphia rabbi. As a child, he had a hypersensitivity towards people and his surroundings, always reading into subtle facial expressions and gestures. His family says he would routinely guess what his Hanukkah gift was before opening it, or where his parents were headed on vacation before they could even tell him.
"Even at that age, I think I understood certain things about suggestibility. Certain things about probabilities," says Salem. "And I think I took many a guess about things in the world around me. With limited amounts of information, I make connections that more often than not, are correct."