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(a.k.a How to impress your friends and family.)

I once met a man called James Reason who told me that he could project his thoughts into my brain - like mind reading in reverse. He said that all we had to do was to sit opposite each other, that he would concentrate for a few seconds and then send a thought into my head. Then he would ask me a question which I had to answer immediately. ‘Don’t think about it’, he said. ‘Imagine the answer just falling out of your mouth.’ Just as I was about to say that I loved conjuring tricks Mr. Reason said that this was not a trick - it was a psychological experiment!

We took our places on opposite sides of a table and he produced some blank cards. He then wrote something down on the first card and placed it face down on the table. ‘That is the thought that I will try to project into your head.’ He then sat there and stared at me. After 15 seconds or so he suddenly said ‘Name a city anywhere in the world’ and snapped his fingers. In return I opened my mouth and ‘New Orleans’ fell out. I hadn’t thought about it. ‘New Orleans’ was just there. I reached forward to turn over the card on the table to see what he had written down but Mr Reason stopped me. ‘Let us try again, ‘he said.

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He picked up another blank card and wrote something on it. Once again he left it face down on the table. ‘That is the next thought that I will try to project into your head’. He sat quietly staring and then abruptly said ‘Give me the name of any make of motorcar’ and snapped his fingers. I immediately said ‘Cadillac’. I didn’t know why. I just did. Mr Reason looked apprehensive. ‘Would you accept one correct result out of two?’ he said. ‘Shall we give it one final try?’ He picked up another blank card, wrote something on it and then placed it face down on the table. ‘This is the final thought that I will try to project into your head,’ he said. Again he stared at me and then suddenly said ‘Name any vegetable.’ ‘Carrot’ suddenly appeared in my head and I said it. ‘Carrot.’

Mr Reason smiled and picked up the three cards that were face down on the table. ‘What was the name of the city you chose?’ he asked. I replied ‘New Orleans’. Mr Reason showed me one of the cards. It had ‘New Orleans’ written on it. I was impressed.

‘What make of motorcar did you choose?’ he asked. I replied ‘Cadillac’ and he showed me the next card. It had ‘Cadillac’ written on it. ‘And how about the name of the vegetable? What was that?’ I told him ‘Carrot’. Mr Reason showed me the third card. It had ‘Carrot’ written on it. I felt as if my brain had been invaded! ‘Nobody has a closed mind,’ said Mr Reason,

James Reason was being disingenuous. There is a trick in this routine and I will leave you work it out for yourself. You might even try it out yourself on friends and family. Older children love it.

At the time of the telling James Reason was a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Manchester University and he had built the routine around a psychological experiment that he was conducting. The principal he was demonstrating was if you put someone under gentle pressure and then ask them to answer certain questions immediately without thinking about the answer you can predict with a varying degree of accuracy what they will say. Ask them to name an insect and there is a good chance that they will say ‘Ant’. Ask them to name a bird they could say ‘Robin’ and so on. With some questions the chances of getting the answer you expect is over 90%. Now work out how the trick worked.

– from Martyn Day