Mindreading: a trick

Now, I know what you’re thinking. And I know what you’re going to say next.

No I don’t, not really. I wouldn’t presume to know what you’re thinking, or what you’re going to say next. But some people do. They say “I know what you’re thinking” even when they have only a tiny chance of being right. It can be hard enough to know what’s going on in your own mind without presuming to know what’s going on in other people’s minds. This is a piece about mindreading.

Nearly 20 years ago I learnt a trick that I still use to pretend that I can read other people’s minds. Many people have been fooled by this but I always explain how it works immediately afterwards. Let me try it on you. It involves some simple arithmetic, and straightforward general knowledge.

The trick

First, think of a number between 1 and 10. Don’t tell me what it is.

Now double that number. Again, don’t tell me what the result is.

Add 8 to the number.

Now halve it.

And finally take away the number you first thought of.

Don’t tell me the result, but it should be a number between 1 and 10. If not, something has gone terribly wrong, so try again, and when you’ve sorted that out move onto the next step.

So, you now have a number between 1 and 10.

Think of the letter of the alphabet that corresponds with that letter: A=1, B=2, C=3 and so on. Don’t tell me what the letter is.

Now, first thing that comes into your head, think of a country that begins with that letter.

Keep the name of that country in your mind and think of the second letter of the word. Again, first thing that comes into your head, think of an animal that begins with that letter.

Finally, think of the colour of that animal.

I’m guessing that you have a grey elephant from Denmark.

When I play this trick with people I pretend that I have been able to read their mind, write the three words Grey Elephant Denmark on a piece of paper (or a 3×5 Index Card – because they’re the future) and show it to them afterwards. Some people have been genuinely freaked out by this, shouting “Oh my God, how did you DO that?”

“I’m a mindreader” I say, looking as serious as possible.

And then I explain how it was done.

How it works

The mental arithmetic questions will always lead to the number 4. (This will be true with any integer, however large, whether positive or negative.) D is the 4th letter of the alphabet. For most people the first country beginning with D that comes to mind will be Denmark. (Nobody has yet suggested Djibouti, Dominica, Dominican Republic or Democratic Republic of Congo – the only other countries beginning with D.) The second letter of Denmark is E and for most people the first animal that comes to mind beginning with E will be elephant (not elk, although someone did once go for eagle, leading me, for a while, to say “Think of an animal, not a bird, or fish or insect – a mammal”). And elephants are grey, so for most people Grey Elephant Denmark will be the result of answering these questions.

And if someone comes up with a different answer (a Golden Jackal from Djibouti perhaps) you can say, “Ah, it’s not 100% accurate: you have a very strong mind, and I wasn’t able to read it this time.”

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