One of the more difficult tasks within Mentalism is finding creative and unique angles when performing your material. I always try to give my shows a unique twist or premise which captures the imagination of my audience. This ‘Man vs Machine’ story that follows is a perfect example of that.
In late 2013 I was presented with an unexpected and fantastic opportunity. Completely out of the blue, Dr. Aneurin Kennerley, a researcher at the University of Sheffield in the UK, wrote the following letter to me:
My name is Dr Aneurin James Kennerley, and I am a research Fellow (Physicist) at the University of Sheffield. My research concerns brain imaging, specifically using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to look at brain function.
Can the technique really be used to ‘see’ what people are thinking? In recent years there have been a plethora of news articles and documentaries concerning such applications of MRI.
I am in the initial phases of organising a public engagement event to run at the Festival of Mind 2014 to discuss some of the science behind MRI and dispel some of these popular press myths. If you are not aware, the Festival of Mind is an 11-day event (starting September 18th) to showcase the research strengths and cultural collaborations of the University of Sheffield and the City.
The festival takes place at key venues around the University and the City. It is open to everyone – the general public, academic colleagues and the professional and cultural quarter.
I thought my outreach event might be something you, as a professional mind reader, would be very interested in and could come on board with as a creative collaborator. You could run a performance, and I could discuss if technology can help us read people’s minds. I actually run an MRI facility and I can set up a remote link to the scanner in the University for people to access. I have run similar smaller events for the University, and visitors had great fun when I performed simple mind reading tricks and games with them (I am somewhat of an amateur illusionist myself). However I really feel a more professional edge is needed for the Festival of Mind.
I am in the process of applying for funding for the event. If you are interested, please get in touch and we can discuss these ideas and commission further.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Festival of the Mind
My interest was most definitely piqued, and teaming up with a prestigious University would be hugely beneficial. I met up with Anuerin to discuss his ideas and objectives for the project. He wanted to increase public awareness of MRI by giving an example of what it could do. Linking MRI to the idea of ‘Mind Reading’ was a great way to engage public interest.
The show was to be part of a bi-annual event held in my hometown of Sheffield called ‘Festival of the Mind’. This is a University organised 11 day event which involves creative collaborators working with departments within the University. Together, they create projects and demonstrations to educate and inspire the public with regard to the capabilities of the human mind. It was right up my alley.
Aneurin had a concept whereby a random member of the public would be placed into an MRI machine and shown a series of images via a video screen. As the images were being shown to the participant, their brain activity would be scanned and the subsequent data analysed. Aneurin informed me that the participant’s brain activity would be different depending on which image was being shown.
- Female Faces
- Male Faces
Once the five images had been displayed to the participant, the MRI operator would ask them which image they would like to see again. The participant would make a choice and tell the operator via an intercom inside the machine.
Anuerin and his team would be outside the scanning room at this point. They wouldn’t be able to hear or see the participant’s choice of image. The participant would be shown their chosen image once more, and the MRI would scan their brain activity one final time.
During the actual show, Aneurin and his team would be given the raw data from each of the five scans, and they would create a series of ‘visual maps’ displaying the participant’s data and showing their brain activity when they were focused on each of the five different images.
The team would examine the data from when the participant was focusing on their chosen image and use it to create another ‘visual map’. The theory was that Anuerin and his team would be able to determine what image the participant had chosen by comparing the ‘visual maps’. In essence they would be using the MRI to read the participant’s mind.
It sounded like a tongue-in-cheek claim, but Aneurin told me that it is technically possible. By all accounts an American company (who went by the strap-line ‘No Lie MRI’) offered lie detection services for court trials using a similar type of comparative MRI process.
The Entertainment Factor
Aneurin wanted to bring me on board to inject an element of entertainment into what would be a public science show. We decided upon a ‘Man vs Machine’ premise, pitting me against the MRI Machine in a battle to discover which of us could read the participant’s mind.
Aneurin received approval for the project from the University, and in the months that followed we met up frequently to plan the show.
The ‘Looch’ in the Machine
As part of the project I was invited to the University Hospital to experience an MRI scan myself. This I thought was a fantastic idea. That was until Aneurin informed me that in the event of something ‘problematic’, he was legally obliged to inform my Doctor. My main concern was that they would have trouble finding anything to scan.
I underwent the exact procedure the participant would experience, and I was shown the five images during an hour long scan. It was quite claustrophobic being strapped into a giant doughnut shaped pod. I was subjected to intense mechanical and electronic noise as the £5 million scanner did its job.
It was quite difficult to remain awake for the full scan, and I can well imagine my audiences experience the same difficulty during my shows.
The noise was so intense and repetitive while in the MRI that I began to hear rhythms and music within the noise. It reminded me of hard techno music (Gabba) from the Netherlands, and it was a very surreal experience. After the scan, Aneurin and the MRI technicians gave me a debriefing. I even received some print outs of my brain, which were nice souvenirs to take with me.
The show was held on two consecutive nights in the ‘Spiegeltent’ in Sheffield City Centre. Posters went up all over Sheffield advertising the festival, and there was a real sense of excitement and buzz surrounding event.
In the months prior to the festival, Aneurin and I liaised back and forth with further ideas. The show had really come together, and we were both excited to perform it at the festival.
The opening night arrived and the show was a sell-out. It started with an interactive ‘quiz’ from the ‘Neurogirls’ who kept the audience engaged with brain based factoids and questions as the venue filled up. The ‘Neurogirls’ were a group of PhD students who were working with Aneurin at the University.
After the ‘Neurogirls’ had done their bit Aneurin took the stage and presented a laymen’s introduction to MRI and its applications. He described the concept of the ‘Man vs Machine’ challenge. Explaining the University would pit their multi-million pound MRI machine against me in a battle of the brains.
I took the stage for a 25 minute Mentalism set. It was important to establish my credentials after which Aneurin would bring out the participant who had been scanned.
A short film was shown to the assembled audience on a large screen, detailing the scanning procedure. Aneurin & the ‘Neurogirls’ were presented with the scanned data onstage and began to analyse it in real time. As they were doing that, I was brought back onstage. It was time to do my ‘thing’ in an effort to determine which image the participant was thinking of.
The show concluded in dramatic fashion with me and Aneurin standing on either side of the stage with our ‘predictions’ in hand. The participant verbally revealed his image, and we both displayed our predictions for all to see.
We were both successful with our ‘predictions’, and the second show was also a sell-out. ‘Man vs Machine’ became somewhat of a hit for the festival, so much so that both the highlights reel and the full show made it online for download.
Man vs Machine – The Rematch
After those initial two shows I thought that my time with ‘Man vs Machine’ had come to an end, but I was wrong. Even I can’t see the future with 100% accuracy.
I was surprised to learn that Aneurin had secured further funding for an extended run of ‘Man vs Machine’ shows at different science based events around the UK. Funding was made available for a second show six months later at the Sheffield Festival of Science & Engineering (#SFOSE).
This time we performed an extended show at the Upper Chapel in Sheffield City Centre. A local radio presenter was the MRI participant this time, which helped enormously with the promotion and publicity for the event. The show was another resounding success, and at the time of writing this we will be performing ‘Man vs Machine’ at two more festivals around the UK in 2015.
Mentalism can certainly take you to interesting places, and have you doing all sorts of things that you wouldn’t immediately associate with traditional performances. Always be on the look out for unique opportunities for you to show the world what you can do.
Planning a Creative Event?
Are you currently in the development and planning stages of a unique event as part of your work? Why not get in touch with me today to discuss how we can work together? I specialise in developing events that are truly creative and memorable. Let’s chat!