Does Marc Salem have a superpower or a super power?
When Mike Wallace took “60 Minutes” to Marc Salem’s Broadway show “Mind Games,” cameras caught the TV host with his jaw on the ground. Wallace took a dollar bill from his wallet, and Salem correctly guessed the bill’s serial number. He later pinpointed the location of an audience member’s last vacation and while blindfolded correctly detected objects held by folks onstage. And without so much as laying a finger on it, he turned the hands of Wallace’s watch a half-hour forward.
Most would call Salem a magician, a mentalist or mind reader, but he never would.
“I often maintain that if I have a sixth sense, it’s my sense of humor,” he says.
Delightfully droll – just one trait that encourages comparisons to Jason Alexander – the New York entertainer who performs from Westchester to London and Australia even programmed his voice mail to say, “I knew you were going to call.” But though he plays up his bewildering talent that leaves audiences speechless and critics just the opposite, he squelches any suggestion that what his does is otherworldly.
“What I do isn’t supernatural and it’s not occult,” he says. “I’m not a mind reader. I’d say it’s most accurate to call me a thought reader.
“I don’t even know what a mind reader is, but let’s assume a mind reader can go into your mind and pick up anything. I need to be able to focus on specific things and then I get them.”
If that sounds like splitting hairs, consider the source is an academic highly trained in minutiae – particularly of kinesics, the study of nonverbal communication.
“Kinesics is everything, including paralinguistics, how things sound,” he says. “So a simple response like a yes or no gives me a great deal of information, or the rapidity at which somebody breathes. So I’m picking up cues constantly and I’m not even necessarily processing them. I’m using what we call intuition.”
Salem calls himself a student of the mind. He holds double doctoral degrees – one in education from New York University and one in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. The latter he earned working with Ray Birdwhistell, the founder of kinesics.
“I think the language most of us speak most of the time – the nonverbal – is the one language we’re not taught,” he says.
And yet he says the benefit of using it offers an edge that’s lost on most of society. His book “The Six Keys to Unlock and Empower your Mind” (Rodale) suggests it clues you in on how to “spot liars and cheats,” “win at the office” and “influence friends.” Talk about skills that offer a leg up in the world, not to mention the poker table. (Salem’s vowed never to learn.)
And as Aussie actor Simon Baker plays out on the small screen as “The Mentalist,” those skills can also help solve crimes.
“I do everything from jury selections to working with the TSA to international consulting,” he says. His client list includes the Rand Corp. the FBI, CIA, the U.S. Department of Defense and foreign governments.
“I don’t let it get heavy,” he says. “I just train people.”
On the flip side, for almost a decade he worked as director of research at “Sesame Street.” Salem’s enveloped in education and is just as interested in developing – and studying – the minds of students, teaching kinesics and group behavior at universities all over Manhattan. To Salem, it’s just a different kind of stage.
The power of influence
Speaking of which, back to Wallace’s dollar bill and mysteriously moving hands on his watch. All things considered, it still sounds a lot like clairvoyance.
“I think it has to do with influence,” Salem responds. “(The hands) may not have moved at all. I sometimes am able to influence people to see things that aren’t there. Now understand, I don’t do hypnosis in my show, but we’re constantly in a state of high susceptibility.”
He says audience members and the general public are subject to “the tyranny of the visual,” leading people to reach conclusions based almost entirely on their sense of sight.
“We live in a culture that too easily believes that everything is exterior,” he says, “that there are supernatural or extrasensory things that are beyond your senses. No, this is part of your senses.”
And after decades of sharpening his senses and honing his intuition – an acute and inherited trait, he acknowledges – Salem applies an almost Sherlock-ian sense of deductive reasoning.
“It’s picking up not so much the mind as how people think,” he says.
You could call it the difference between claiming superpowers or a super power, though some of his sensory training techniques sound like something from the mind of Stan Lee.
“Imagine your eyes like you have X-ray vision,” Salem says. “Imagine your ears like you have funnels. You know how to focus your eyes, but try to focus your ears.”
He also suggests “opening your mind to novelty” starting by putting down your myriad digital devices and instead picking up books or learning memory systems. They’re the first steps, he says, to gaining a better awareness of the world around you.
But while these are all well and good brain food, it’s still hard not to wonder at Salem’s baffling feat of deception onstage. Claude Debussy said, “Art is the most beautiful deception of all,” so perhaps this thought-provoking art is best left to the imagination.