Alexander George, the Rachel and Michael Deutch Professor of Philosophy “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.”

Alexander George isn’t a psychologist, but he’s quoting Sigmund Freud to me from across a small table in the Alumni House. He’s a philosophy professor here at Amherst, but he moonlights as a mentalist. So now he is going to try, again, to read my mind. More specifically, what he’s explaining is that he’s going to read my “tells”—the tiny, involuntary movements of my face and vocal chords through which I will inevitably reveal what’s on my mind.

At this point, George, the Rachel and Michael Deutch Professor of Philosophy, has already shown me two card tricks, in both cases ultimately guessing my card correctly. Or, in the second one, had he, with carefully chosen questions and instructions, subtly guided my thoughts toward the card he had picked in advance? I don’t have time to puzzle it out right now; I have to stay focused on this third trick.

At his prompting, I have cut a deck of cards, moved it down under the table, cut it again and placed one ostensibly random, secret card on my knee. It’s the six of hearts. I’m pretty sure the professor can’t see it, nor can either of the two cameras pointed at us by the College’s video producer, Marcus DeMaio. I honestly can’t decide whether I want George to succeed at guessing my card again. Success will make for a better article and video, but I also want to put his mentalist skills to a genuine test—if that’s even within my power at all.

“Your card could be a red card,” George says slowly, “or a black card.” I try to keep my face stony as he scans it for a reaction to either of those possibilities.

Who am I kidding, though? Even when I’m not on camera, I tend to be self-conscious about my face and my body and the great many things they reveal about me. Family and friends have teased me since toddlerhood about my formidable and expressive eyebrows, how they rise in surprise and furrow in concern. I talk to myself so much that I have to check to make sure I’m not doing it out loud when others are around. When I interview people for the articles I write, as I will interview George later on, I catch myself bobbing my head and making too-frequent affirmative noises to assure them I’m paying attention. And I have cerebral palsy, so precise control over muscle movements is not exactly my forte. If I am to believe George that this trick really does hinge on his ability to read my physical signals, I’m not going to be able to hide anything for long.

“Your card could be a red card,” George says slowly, “or a black card.”

“Your card is a red card. Am I correct?” the professor asks. I make an affirmative noise.

“If it’s a heart, think of something rounded and soft,” he continues, “and if it’s a diamond, think of something sharp.”

I get momentarily confused and start picturing a gleaming kitchen knife. I’m accidentally disobeying his instructions, imagining the wrong thing.

But he guesses correctly anyway: “Your card is a heart?”


Then George tells me, “I’m sorry—I’m going to stare at your larynx. I hope you don’t think that that’s rude.” Supposedly, if I even think of the card’s number, he will see my vocal chords move as though I’m speaking it. “Say nothing, do not move your lips—just mentally repeat the value of the card. Again… and again.”

Six… Six… Six…, I think, amused at the beastly connotations.

“Your card is a six of hearts?”

“That’s correct,” I say, and hold the card up for the cameras.

Alexander George, the Rachel and Michael Deutch Professor of Philosophy “One of the intellectual currents that really fueled mentalism as a performance art, and as a subject of research, is the growth of spiritualism in the second half of the 19th century, the early 20th century,” George says. He’s now introducing his final trick: what spiritualists knew as the book test.

“The medium would announce that if the sitter were to go, for instance, to the bookshelf in her den, and look at three shelves from
the bottom, seven books from the left, and pull it out, on page 52 there would be a message,” he says. “Then very often the sitter would go back and look, and think, ‘This is something that is clearly a message from my departed son. It would make sense for my son to have pointed to that.’ That was considered to be very strong evidence for instances of the afterlife.”

I raise my eyebrows and bob my head,

“That’s a little bit heavy. I want to do a slight version of that,” he says.

The professor holds up a book that I saw him choose from a shelf when I first arrived in the Alumni House. It’s an Amherst course catalogue from decades ago. He riffles a playing card along the top corner of the closed book until I tell him to stop. He offers to do it again until I’m sure I like where the card is positioned.

He turns away—“so that you can see there is no possibility of my seeing”—and holds the book back toward me, cracked open so I can glimpse the page that the card has landed on. He wants me to memorize the page number and the first word on the page.

So I do: The number is 104. The word is revolutions.

He closes the book, puts it down, turns back to face me and says he’ll try to figure out the number first. “Will you put your index finger straight down on my palm? Please don’t move your finger, but can you imagine that you are writing the page number?”

I visualize the strokes of a pen on a page, but I try to hold my finger rigid and still.

After a moment he says, “It definitely starts with a 1. It’s a-hundred-and-something.”

Then I imagine writing the second digit. “That’s very clear,” he says: “That is 0.”

He moves on: “And the fourth digit—”

“You mean the third?” I ask.

“The third—sorry.” The third digit is “complicated,” he can tell. “You have to raise your finger in writing it.” But I don’t raise my finger from his palm. “Could be a European 7. But it’s not—it’s a 4. The page you were looking at was page 104. Is that correct?”

“That’s correct.”

Now he’ll guess the first word on that page. “Think of the word, and can you try to get beyond the word a little bit, and imagine seeing the word, or associations you have with the word?”

I sure can. I’m pleased to have landed on such a dynamic and interdisciplinary word: revolutions could be part of a course description in astronomy, or physics, or history, or political science. I picture planets spinning around stars. I think of the Beatles song—people carryin’ pictures of Chairman Mao. I imagine muskets and Redcoats in a climactic number from Hamilton, a musical I have never actually seen and don’t know much about, but it has something to do with the American Revolution, doesn’t it?

Watching my face, George determines, “It’s not static. There is kind of motion to your thoughts.” He picks up a pad of paper and a pen. “Again there is movement. I see circles. There is a lot of bustle.” He writes something. “I don’t know. I hope I got close to it.”

He turns the pad around to reveal his guess to me and the cameras: REVOLUTION.

I take a little bit of comfort in the fact that he has left off the S. He hasn’t gotten it exactly right.

With the demonstration done, it’s time for the interview. I ask George about the differences between mentalism and other kinds of magic performance.

For one thing, mentalism generally doesn’t rely on sleight of hand—a mentalist doesn’t need to sneak a coin out of a person’s fist or a card into a pocket, for instance. “If somebody can enter or access your mind, it’s something much more visceral than the fact that they can enter your fist or enter your pocket,” he says. “In the 21st century, people don’t believe that middle-sized physical objects can disappear or miraculously transform themselves in some way. They don’t believe that. What’s right to believe about the mind and its powers—that’s very much still up for grabs.”

Another difference is that, while many kinds of magic can be demonstrated in front of spectators, mentalism requires participants. “You cannot perform a mentalism effect without there being another mind who is actively involved.”

That’s why George began, a few years ago, practicing his effects with the elderly
at local senior centers, and why he gave performances this spring and fall at the Iconica Social Club in Northampton.

A Daily Hampshire Gazette article about these shows is what has inspired me to ask him for a demo and interview. That article, by Steve Pfarrer, describes how George began performing magic tricks as a child, then moved on to other interests for many years; he “started getting the bug again” after reading about the Western Massachusetts village of Lake Pleasant (part of the Town of Montague) and its importance as a summer meeting place for magicians, mediums and spiritualists in the late 19th century.

Is it wrong to encourage people to believe things that one knows to be false?

I ask George about how mentalism relates to his scholarly work. “Of course, as a philosopher I’m very interested in the nature of the mind,” he says. “I’m very interested in what our response should be to marvelous or miraculous events. I recently wrote a book about the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who has a very famous essay called ‘Of Miracles,’ in which he explores the question of whether it would ever be rational to believe that a miracle had occurred on the basis of someone telling you so.” George’s book The Everlasting Check: Hume on Miracles was published in 2016.

This gets at one of the ethical questions raised by mentalist tricks: Is it wrong to encourage people to believe things that one knows to be false? Or, George asks, “Couldn’t the skills and abilities that are employed in mentalism be put to evil uses?” After all, he grew up in New York City in the 1970s, watching three-card monte players con folks out of their money in Central Park.

The Mentalist

October 30, 2018

Watch as Amherst Philosophy Professor Alexander George conducts a "little experiment in imagination and influence" on Katherine Duke ’05, assistant editor, Office of Communications.

“Has your teaching helped you to develop or hone any of your mentalism skills, or vice versa?” I ask.

“I think that any good teacher tries to get better at reading his or her students, trying
to understand where they are, and also trying to guide them to certain places,” George says, adding, “I work hard at trying to make philosophy, the material that we deal with, dramatic. The same thing is true for a mentalism performance.”

But are any of his students even aware that their professor performs as a mind-reader?

“I’m not sure. Actually, I hope they are,” he says, “because the ones who are, they might think twice about the kinds of whoppers they’ll feed me about their late assignments.”

I laugh and bob my head, and George thanks me for the opportunity to talk about this part of his life.

“Thank you,” I say. “I hope I did my part as not just a spectator but a participant.”

“You did—wonderful,” he tells me. “You are an open book.”

Assistant Editor Katherine Duke ’05 is the author of Kissability: People with Disabilities Talk About Sex, Love, and Relationships.

Photo Credit: Tony Luong