CAMDEN — The last time we spoke with Camden Hills Regional High School student Nat Lawson for our Rad Kids series, the 16-year-old was perfecting a mentalism show (essentially mind reading for entertainment) titled Perceptions, which he went on to perform nearly 30 times around New England.
Now 17, a year later, he has graduated from high school and has retired the very successful and lucrative show. What would be a head scratcher to many, Lawson’s just not interested in the fame or the money. He’s interested in bettering his talents.
“I saw a TED talk about a blind man who taught himself to see using echolocation,” Lawson said. “And then I came across a principle in mentalism called Contact Mind Reading where you read the person’s mind by touching the person’s hand.”
Interested in testing this principle on his own, Lawson proposed to his parents that he spend nine days this summer completely in the dark, blindfolded. It’s not something any mentalist has ever done before.
“They weren’t as surprised as you might think,” he said, joking. “I haven’t been normal for about 10 years now.”
In June, Lawson’s father helped him build a dark room in the basement out of plywood, sealing off all of the windows. “The idea for this room was that I could have a place to take my blindfold off and wash my face before putting another blindfold on,” he said.
Lawson constructed three types of elaborately layered blindfolds, one to sleep in, one to shower in and one to walk around in. He started his experiment on the Q Morning Show in the recording studio of hit radio station 97.9 in Portland. Two videographers, Alex Forcillo and Ben Resek, accompanied him, filming his experiment for a documentary they called BLIND.
The walking around part, was perhaps the hardest. He didn’t use a cane, but instead, relied on his film crew to verbally guide him. The few times he went out to dinner with his family, he found it to complicated to explain to the servers, so just told them he’d gotten out of eye surgery. Testing out his theory, Lawson ventured onto the street in the first few days and began trying out his mentalism routine on strangers.
As someone who has interacted with the public as a performer since he was 14, Lawson didn’t care if what people thought he was doing was strange.
“I have had a lot of experience making a fool of myself on stage, on the street in front of people and that’s how I learn,” he said. “I would be at 10 percent of where I am in mentalism now if I were afraid to make a mistake.”
While he was very adept at visually “reading” a person on the street, a blindfold put him back to square one. “The first time I ever did street magic transitioning into mentalism, I was petrified, but I got over it,” he said. “I learned through trial and error to pinpoint the ‘right’ person to approach and the ones who would just shut me down.”
But, with the blindfold on, it was impossible to detect who would be receptive to his act on the street.
“I had to go back to the shotgun technique, approaching everyone to get a few people who had time for me,” he explained. “I had to start all of my methods from scratch.”
Another side effect of keeping his eyes shielded for so long were the hallucinations. “In the last two days of the experiment I began seeing shapes and colors vividly,” Lawson said. “It’s called Charles Bonnet syndrome, in which blind people experience visual hallucinations.”
He had to work through the distractions of these hallucinations while performing mentalism on the street, another obstacle that he said he overcame.
In his street performance/experimentation, he would hold the person’s hand and ask them to think certain things. Reading infinitesimal motor response in the way the person’s hand responded, he could discern what they were thinking. He called that micro contact reading, a completely original method of mindreading he invented himself. He could also lay a finger against a person’s neck and ask them questions, ascertaining the answerer’s truthfulness by detecting the carotid pulse.
“I become a human polygraph machine,” Lawson said.
After nine days, he took off the blindfold back in the studio of the radio show, where blurriness dominated his field of vision for hours. All in all, he found it to be an extremely useful experiment.
“I messed up the first 12 performances on the street, but it got consistently better, so that by the end I was asking questions and getting nearly 98 percent of the guesses right,” he said. “Since then, I’m happy to say none of the progress has gone away. Because I did it when I was 16 and my brain was still developing, I think I was able to make permanent neural pathways.”
In a matter of weeks Lawson is taking a gap year to Argentina through the Camden and West Bay Rotary clubs. There, he will immerse himself into speaking only Spanish and going back to high school for the year. That alone, is amazing. What kid wants to go back to high school? But, it gets better.
While there, he plans to develop an entirely brand new show based on his last experiment in both Spanish and English.
“Mentalism isn’t well known outside of English speaking countries, so it’s going to be another challenge for me to try to learn the correct words in Spanish that most closely resemble what mentalism is and then try to translate that for the audience,” said Lawson.
I have a mentalism prediction of my own. I see Nat Lawson working a big stadium show in about 10 years. Do you?
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org