The Human Lie Detector

The Human Lie Detector

By Melissa Pandika


Because you don’t need to be psychic to read minds.

By Melissa Pandika

Video by Tom Gorman

In person, bespectacled, wavy-haired Jay Alexander seems nervous, even a little shy. You wouldn’t guess that he’s performed for rock stars like Bono and the Rolling Stones, done live shows for the CIA, or appeared on Good Morning America and the Today show.

His claim to fame? He can read minds.

Yes, really. Well, sort of. Alexander uses micro expressions — extremely subtle, split-second facial expressions, like swallowing or twitching at the corners of the mouth — to decipher our thoughts, including whether we’re lying or telling the truth. Alexander learned about micro expressions more than 25 years ago when he stumbled onto a book by psychology researcher Paul Ekman, who’s worked with the CIA to read faces and solve crimes. Ekman is the inspiration behind Tim Roth’s character in the Fox series Lie to Me. Fascinated, Alexander devoured other books on the topic and memorized countless micro expressions before taking his studies to the stage.

He breaks the cardinal rule of magic, revealing the mind-reading secrets behind each act.

Among his most popular acts is guessing where an audience member is hiding a ring. As one volunteer holds out her balled-up fists, he stops and looks at his audience, gathered around the red-curtained stage at Showroom 42 in San Jose, California. He points out how her nose is turned toward her left hand, which, sure enough, holds the ring. As another pair of volunteers holds out their fists, he asks each one, “Do you have the ring?” over and over before pointing out how one of them adamantly insists, “I do not have the ring,” yet nods her head yes — catching her in a surefire lie. In another act, he recites the alphabet, trying to guess each letter in an audience member’s best friend’s name. As she responds “no” to each letter, he gauges her baseline vocal pitch — when she’s telling the truth — and detects when it changes. 


Alexander breaks the cardinal rule of magic, revealing the mind-reading secrets behind each act. “When we have a conversation with someone, there are three conversations that go on: the words we use, our vocal intonations and our body language,” he explains soon after stepping onstage. But he still retains a hint of mystery, blending psychology with classic magic show elements — not only guessing which card a volunteer picked, for example, but making it inch eerily outward from the rest of the deck — so that his audience can’t always tell the difference. Despite his soft-spoken demeanor, he’s a masterful performer. His mentalist feats, sprinkled with a healthy dose of slapstick, routinely send the crowd erupting into giggles.  

Alexander admits that he doesn’t always guess correctly. But that’s OK. He says that since the audience is in on it too, they feel invested in him getting it right. “The audience is with you,” he says. Whether he nails it every time is beside the point. “It’s the connection with people.”