Mnemonics

Some psychics facilitate the cold reading process by using simple tried-and-tested memory systems. I myself have used a mnemonic system which gave me one or two key words for every card in a tarot pack. These key words had nothing to do with the actual meanings the cards are supposed to have. They just provided me with prompts for something to say, ensuring that I never ran out of material for the reading.

Using set methods like this can turn up some very surprising hits. A very talented cold reader I know was once giving readings at a home for senior citizens. At one stage, he was giving a reading to an elderly lady of very advanced years. A particular card came up which, in my friend's system, always cued him to refer to a wedding celebration. Since this seemed plainly inappropriate, he momentarily hesitated. However, being short of time to think of anything else, he decided to just stick to his system. At this, the onlookers roared with laughter and amazement - this very elderly lady had recently announced her engagement to one of the men in the same home! It was all my friend could do to conceal the fact that he was more amazed than anyone.

Mnemonics can also be used in other ways. Some psychics, who are especially devoted to their work, use simple memory techniques to remember details about their clients and the main themes that came out of the reading. Should the psychic meet the same client again, the psychic can pick up where she left off, as it were, and avoid saying anything which contradicts her previous reading. Of course, there is no need to use sophisticated memory aids to do this - a set of file cards works better and is easier to use

Meet the expert

If you are interested in memory techniques, then I suggest you refer to the several books published by my friend Dominic O'Brien. At the time of writing, Dominic has won the World Memory Championships eight times in all since its inception in 1991. He secured his first entry in the Guinness Book of Records in 1989, when he memorised the correct sequence of six decks of cards randomly shuffled together, or 312 cards in total. However, Dominic is nothing if not determined to prove that his memory training systems really work, and in 1995 he memorised no less than 40 decks shuffled together. That is 2080 cards, which Dominic was able to recall in correct sequence having seen each card just once.

He can do sprints as well as marathons. Dominic has memorised the order of 1 deck of cards in 38.29 seconds (verified by Guinness) or 27.5 seconds (personal best). I have seen him do this first-hand, at a private dinner party, and it is simply phenomenal to witness.

Among my friends, I am known for organising a rather strange birthday party each year at which I usually persuade some of my fellow entertainers to participate in an informal live 'cabaret'. One year, Dominic came along and invited two guests to compose a 100 digit number entirely at random. Dominic then committed the entire 100 digit number to memory in 2 minutes. If you do not think that sounds very entertaining, you obviously have never seen the remarkable Mr. O'Brien in action. He simply brought the house down, and won the most fervent and enthusiastic applause I think I have ever witnessed.

I could write much, much more about the rather awesome Mr. O'Brien, and his self-taught talents (including the card-counting skills which have earned him a ban from every casino chain in the world). Suffice it to say that if you want to learn anything -anything at all - about memory techniques then your wisest course is to get hold of Dominic's books and study his methods.

Hot reading

Cold reading concerns readings which are given to complete strangers without any prior information. 'Hot reading' or 'warm reading' is trade jargon for covertly obtaining information about the client before the reading. This is an area which I have looked into, and it is quite staggering how much you can find out about someone ahead of time without them knowing. Magicians, con artists, detectives and those in the espionage trade have all devised many excellent methods for gaining information about a person without them ever knowing.

There is good evidence to suggest that some psychics use assorted forms of hot reading. If the psychic works from an office, or from her own home, she may employ various simple ruses to glean some useful information. For example, the visiting client may be welcomed by a charming assistant who kindly relieves her of her purse and coat. Unknown to the client, the innocuous assistant rifles through these possessions for any useful clues which are then supplied to the psychic just before the reading begins. Another time-honoured trick is for the assistant to nip outside and peer through the windows of the visiting client's car -just in case it contains any clues to her lifestyle and interests.

Hot spiritualism

Another ruse is for psychics to pass information about regular clients among themselves. People who have studied the spiritualist movement have written of spirit mediums compiling notes on regular clients which they then readily share among themselves. Not only does this allow psychics to be exquisitely well-prepared for certain clients, it also means they all "sing from the same song sheet" and therefore boost their collective credibility in the client's eyes.

Spiritualists are also reported to have assisted the success of their larger stage demonstrations, especially if the media are going to be present, using hot reading techniques. For example, the psychic may send out free tickets to the event to clients whom she has known for years or even decades. To the millions of entranced TV viewers, the psychic seems to be delivering astonishingly accurate statements to complete strangers. In reality, the 'complete stranger' may have been visiting the psychic regularly for the past 20 years, openly discussing every aspect of her life and that of her deceased relatives.

Psychics who give televised demonstrations of their awesome gift often enjoy many opportunities to gain 'hot' tips before the cameras roll. Many TV producers see no harm in allowing the psychic (or associates) to mingle ahead of time with those members of the audience to whom she will give a reading on air. If conditions are very lax, the psychic may ask direct questions or otherwise extract information that will be useful later on. Even if this is not allowed, the psychic may well notice some useful details, such as a pendant bearing a particular initial, or a photograph of a deceased relative being handed over to the production team so it can be 'grabbed' as a still image and shown on screen during the programme.

One of my correspondents, Ben Whiting, tells me that some travelling fortune-tellers, who call from house to house, leave behind coded information about the occupants of each house they call on. This code, apparently called 'patrin', covers such information as how many people live at that address, the number of children, any recent bereavements or impending marriages, and so on. Hence any other fortune-teller who understands the code, and who passes along the same way, has a head start. I

have no first-hand knowledge of this, but it is hardly implausible. I do know that the police used to maintain information about similar signs and marks left on 'visited' property by thieves and burglars, as a courtesy among their own kind, although I have no idea whether this is still done.

The realm of the impossible

From the above discussion, it follows that psychics can, and sometimes do, obtain information about clients beforehand. In general, to assert that it would have been "impossible" for a psychic to know something about a client in advance is to assert a nonsense. It may be hard to imagine how information could have found its way from A to B, but this is scarcely the same as being impossible.

To illustrate this point, let me share a story with you. I assure you from the outset that this is absolutely true.

I once visited a college where I was due to give a show in a smart and well-equipped student theatre. Upon my arrival, I was introduced to a pleasant young woman called Becky who ran the theatre, and with whom I discussed my sound and lighting requirements. Becky was moderately interested in what my show was about, and I suppose that she and I chatted together for at least 20 minutes or so.

If I were in the business of claiming genuine psychic powers, my meeting with Becky would have been a perfect opportunity to demonstrate my "inexplicable" gifts. I would have been able to tell Becky a huge amount of information about her past life, including dozens of tiny, specific details: things she was doing 15 years previously, names of people she knew, accidents she was involved in, places she had visited, times she had enjoyed, times she had cried, romances that had failed... and so on. Becky would have been astounded, and would have sworn that I had never previously met her or anyone she knew. The incident would have seemed an impenetrable mystery, one with which my acolytes could taunt the "closed-minded drones" of orthodox science, gleefully challenging them to "explain that away". It would have made a lovely chapter in books about my astonishing psychic gifts.

The fact is that I had known Becky quite well, some 15 or 16 years previously. She and I had both attended the same university, and had both been in a medium-sized theatre group putting on a show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Becky simply did not remember me, and had no recollection of the few weeks when we had been in Edinburgh together. How to account for this? Perhaps it is a testament to my weak personality and general dearth of charisma. Then again, my appearance had changed quite a lot from my student days (and so had Becky's, come to that). Also, some people are just not terribly good at remembering people from the distant past. Whatever the reasons in this particular case, this story illustrates the fact that you can never be certain a psychic is operating without prior knowledge. Even if the client herself sincerely believes this to be true.

I myself have never used hot reading, nor has it ever seemed necessary. For the record, my TV demonstrations (such as those transcribed in Section Three) have never involved 'hot' reading or any kind of prior information.

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