June 3, 2007

Derren Brown: Tricks of the Mind

Posted in Brown Derren at 11:15 am by John Self

It’s worth saying at the outset that the last hundred pages of Derren Brown’s Tricks of the Mind contains a vigorous and highly readable critique of ‘bad thinking’ in many forms – from spiritualism through alternative medicine to religion. It’s a sort of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Fallacies. I say this because otherwise you could do as I did when the book came out last year and read the blurb and the first few pages and decide it’s not for you. In About the Author, we are told “Derren Brown was born in Croydon in 1971. It was a difficult birth – his mother was in Devon at the time.” Oh Derren, no! And if we excuse this as rich with self-aware irony, then nothing can forgive the excruciating embarrassing prose in the opening sections of the book, which one can only presume Brown proofread in a hypnotic state designed to suppress the cringeing instinct. His humorous technique – all very surprising from one who uses intelligent wit sparingly and effectively in his TV shows – is to rely on elaborately circuitous locutions and archaic synonyms. The effect is that of someone trying to sound like Stephen Fry but ending up like Russell Brand*.

Imagine if you will, or apprehend if you won’t, that you are out shopping one rainy Monday or Thursday afternoon, and you quite literally pop into your friendly local high-street out-of-town clothes-store in search of new duds and toggery with which to sheathe your fiddle-fit bodyshell. You see a dazzlingly fabulous cardigan for sale, of unquestionable quality and exquisite design. As you delight in all things floccose, its perfect pocket ribbing and flattering unisex diamond accents prove an irresistible combination and in a state of some discomposure you hunt for a price-tag. Reduced to a mere thirteen Great British pounds sterling and twenty-eight bright new penceroonies!

…etc. etc. for a very long time indeed. Fortunately, for a book which might as well have DON’T PANIC inscribed in large, friendly letters on its cover, after a while the style settles down a bit.

When it does, Brown is fascinating on the various approaches to how our mind can trick us, for good and bad. In the first substantial section, Magic, he teaches us a couple of simple tricks with coins and cards. But the key is not in the sleights of hand, but in the additions which Brown brings to them, layering details around the main moment of trickery to make one’s spectators more likely to miss the cheat, and even to encourage them to misremember a miraculous magic effect where none existed. In other words, as we might have known from his TV programmes and live shows, he is less interested in the mechanics of magic than in the psychology.

In Memory, he opens (after the obligatory toe-curling Brandisms) with an amusing account of the fraudulent side of memory training: a course on ‘photo-reading’ which he attended, and which “promised to give me powerful unconscious abilities to absorb the content of a book at immense speed.” This turned out to involve first reading the contents list, then flicking through the book forward and backward, and finally seeking the answer to a specific question within the book by skimming through it until it leapt out at you.

Everybody seemed happy with this process, and presumably with the idea of paying the £300 the trainer normally charged for this horseshit. I put up my hand and asked, “Erm, I don’t want to seem rude, and perhaps I’m missing something, but aren’t you just showing us how to look something up in a book?

Then Brown provides us with some real memory-training techniques. I rolled my eyes and thought we were in for the boring old ‘make a story out of unconnected words’ method, but was pleasantly surprised (and can still remember the lists of objects in his examples, several days later).

The next section of the book gives us a rigorous analysis of Hypnosis and Suggestibility. Brown is clearly not just well practised on the subject but also very well read, and details the different academic approaches without getting too dry, and then moves on – while making clear that this is not, horror of horrors, a self-help book – to offer some impressive systems for improving concentration and relaxation which a ‘hypnotherapist’ would charge several weekly fees for. One friend of mine already reports sleeping better as a result of the contents of this section, and even though this section did go on a little too long for my tastes, I didn’t mean it that way.

Throughout the book, Brown comes across as open and self-aware (“How many magicians can you honestly say wouldn’t benefit from a good smack?”), and not just interesting on the subjects he addresses, but as interested in them too as we are. He also talks about his past as a devout Christian, university cha-cha dancing champion, and all-round pub bore. It gives him a credibility which becomes a sort of paper version of the charisma any successful performer needs to display, and makes his arguments the more persuasive as a result.

The final section is the full hundred pages mentioned far above, of passionate denunciation of psychics, homeopathy, and other faith-based systems of belief, where Brown holds to Christopher Hitchens’ dictum that ‘what can be asserted without evidence, can also be dismissed without evidence.’ It’s in part a lighter-hearted (but no less sincere) God Delusion, although it comes with a decent analysis of the problems humans have with probability – including the first ever explanation of the infamous Monty Hall problem that I have really understood – suggesting that this is what lies at the heart of unreasoning belief. And Brown is not above giving us anecdotal examples of such things, designed more to amuse than to persuade, but who could resist a story like this?

A woman at a Christian house-group I once attended was telling us how she had dealt with getting a cold. She had sat on her bed and shouted, ‘No, Satan, I will not have this cold. In the name of Jesus I tell you to get out. Get out!’ Stern stuff. ‘And do you know,’ she continued, ‘after a few days it was gone.’

—–

*Note to future readers: early 21st century TV/radio personality of no importance

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31 Comments »

  1. sara said,

    I was really excited when I learnt that this was coming out as I have been intrigued by Derren Brown for, ooh, 7 years ish. I received it for xmas, yay, I read about 10 pages, then put it down. I really must pick it back up…

  2. John Self said,

    Well, as I suggested above, sara, they may well be the worst ten pages. Try again and you might be pleasantly surprised. I was!

  3. sara said,

    Yes, your review really has rekindled my interest. Strangely my enthusiasm for his programmes has waned too, I”m very jaded obviously, all been there seen that, despite knowing that he is jaw droppingly stunning.
    Plus, obviously, I would like to have his spooky mind powers ;)

  4. amner said,

    It’s odd, sara, becaues I’ve also drifted away from Derren’s TV shows, despite considering myself a big fan. Then I caught the ‘out of body’ car accident episode and kicked myself – although this may have been an hypnotic suggestion instilled in me from reading the book – that I’d missed so much.
    Top review Mr Self, very entertaining. I wonder if, like Christopher Priest, Derren would like to drop by and say hello.

  5. margaret said,

    i personally believe that derren brown is a fake. all those people in his show are actors others are his relatives or whatever. i can bet u 5000 quid none of his bullcrap can work on me. so derren if u happen to come across this comment consider this as a challenge.
    contact me on: margaret_ombayo@yahoo.com
    or call me on:+60162730662

  6. John Self said,

    I doubt you’ll be hearing from Derren, margaret. Of course he’s a ‘fake’ – doesn’t it say at the beginning of his TV shows that “what you are about to see combines magic, psychology, suggestion, misdirection and showmanship”? And you’re right to say that none of his, ahum, effects would work on you, if you didn’t want it to. On his live shows he regularly turns people away if he thinks the effects won’t work on them, either because they’re too nervous or too bullish.

  7. Ash said,

    I have read a lot about NLP in last few years. I must say Derren is the finest practitioner I have ever seen. I have read a lot on suggestibility (and I think its a gem of a thing to learn) but the way Derren covers it up is just incredible. I think he is one of the most honest magicians/illusionists out there. There is nothing “fake”. Its all science (well, sort of anyway).

    • johnkooz said,

      Ash,

      YES YES YES!! I totally agree! I’ve read a LOT on nlp, all the way back to its founders, bandler and grinder, and basically consider it to be the most valuable subject for me to study right now at this point in my life. However, all the swish patterns, and phobia speed cures, and strategy elicitation and all of that is GREAT GREAT GREAT!!.. BUT………What derren does, derren’s application of the NLP described in like 90% of NLP books is literally like probably 500-600 times as advanced (I don’t know where I got those numbers ;) as the typical nlp techniques. He is truly as far as I can see and from what I’ve seen of his work and of others, TRULY the most masterful NLP practitioner ever, that I have ever seen, that has ever existed, etc. Milton Erickson was incredible at inducing trance and definitely is a noteworty figure in the “amazing NLP or NLP-like practitioner” clusters, but Derren brown truly is like the apex, top-notch, the best. He is definitely the Pele, the Michael Jordan, the (i don’t want to use bill gates as to computers because I don’t think bill gates is an apex of computer proficiency) of NLP. Derren’s skills are simple insurpassible and imcommensurate. Like he’s just like completely on his own level of NLP. HOW did he accomplish those things is my question. Like HOW did he get from like “swish pattern and submodalities topics duscussed in most NLP books” to THAT. to what he does. to going up to a person on the street and repeatedly getting them to give him his keys and wallet and phone as a prank or how he gets that one woman to change her internal representaiton of “yellow’ so she like calls yellow “red” et.

  8. Michale Vine said,

    I don’t tell people that Andy Nyman directed his show performance – that is one of the secrets I keep from people.

    Derren is amazing to people who don’t know the truth…and idiots!

  9. John Self said,

    Thanks Michael – I have no idea who Andy Nyman is, but I thoroughly enjoyed the Mind Reader show when Derren took it to Belfast last month. I look forward to his next TV show and tour … and book! These renaissance men are really annoying to us mere mortals aren’t they?

  10. Accroyer said,

    I think Derren Brown is entertaining at best. I enjoyed his show on the Sci-Fi channel. I always wondered how long it actually took him to find people on the streets that were susceptible to hypnotism, the show aired for 30 minutes but could have taken hours if not days to find the right crowd. I dont think actors were involved, but i do think he went through alot of editing to produce those 30 minutes.

  11. John Self said,

    That’s a good point, Accroyer. As I mentioned above, in the live shows he occasionally rejects volunteers, though both times I’ve seen him he’s never got it ‘wrong’ when he does a routine.

    As for entertaining at best, perhaps so – but I’d give him credit too for foregrounding – and in his entertaining way, attacking – the culture of superstition and irrationality that’s so prevalent these days (and always has been, I suppose). What I would really like to see next from Brown is a layman’s book on the history of spiritualism and other hoaxes of that ilk.

  12. Dylan Roy said,

    I find it hard to believe that his zombie game episode was real does anyone know for sure if this was real or not? I was just thinking if I woke up there and I had a paintball gun in my hand I would know it wasn’t a real gun immediately. If that kid in the show wasn’t an actor I would love to know how he managed to do that/

  13. paulbrooker said,

    He has a blog wich seems to give religion a run for it’s money. lotz of christianity bashing and poking fun at scientology. Good place to pick up on new stuff of his too. http://derrenbrownart.com/blog/

  14. Howard Male said,

    I have personally leant how to do the pendulum trick which is explained in the book:

    You dangle, say, a watch on a chain from your hand and then just ‘will’ it to move in whatever direction you want it to. It apparently works due to the subconcious activation of tiny muscles in the hand, or something. But it damn well feels like magic, as you watch the watch go from left to right, backwards and forwards, or round in a circle according to your whim. Go on, try it, it’s great fun!

  15. John Self said,

    That’s right Howard, it’s called the ideomotor effect, though I’m not sure if Brown writes about this in the book. I first heard of it in an article by James Randi, discussing water dowsing.

    Thanks for visiting and for your comment!

  16. Howard Male said,

    He does write about it, John. In fact it’s worth the price of this sporadically entertaining book just to find out about this curious relationship between one’s subconscious mind and a few muscles in your fingers which you didn’t even know you had.

    I suggest you all have a go. Any piece of string with a heavy ring or set of keys on the end will work just as well as a watch on a chain.

    Even when the watch is merrily swinging from side to side, backwards and forwards, or round in circles – and you are changing its direction at will – you will still be unaware that your hand is moving at all, or that your hand has anything to do with the phenomena.

    What I find most amusing about the ideomotor effect is that not everyone can achieve this curious state of passive non-concentration ( I liken it to a proffessional dart players way of thinking a dart in to the triple-twenty) needed to do the job.

    And so when my wife sat there staring patiently at the stubbornly still watch dangling from her hand, I sat smugly by her side, childishly contemplating the notion that I was truly a new kind of human being, capable of doing great things with my watch-moving abilities.

  17. johnkooz said,

    I dislike a lot of the literary criticism revolving this book. I just ordered it and plan to read it. I am not reading it for it’s literary composition to see what beautiful and eloquent phrasing and clever punny words he uses; I got the impression that some people were reading it and criticizing the grammar or punctuation? Frankly I dont care if every word is spelled incorrectly as long as I can understand it. I’m reading it for the content. Just about EVERY concept that derren brown commands revolves around things that I’ve had a fascination with and have pursued (From hypnosis, to ideomotor, to the dissolution of fallacies) I’ve studied those off and on and then come across this derren brown character, who, has devoted his life to what appears to be the APEX understanding and application of all these fascinations I’ve had. By fascinations I mean the stuff that’s stuck that’s endured. history dates, chemistry equations, stuff from school was great and elucidating but you forget the dates eventually, what’s left is how you use and apply your mind and that’s exactly what derren’s all about. So i’m stoked to get anything and everything I can out of it regarding ideomotor, memory techniques (something I’ve studied and practiced), fallacy dissolution (again studied numerous logical fallacies). I’m in the process of writing a book on NLP and plan to include 2 extension chapters discussing all of these techniques as well. so this book likes informative, relevant to my life and interests, and exciting to read!!!

  18. John Self said,

    I sort of agree, johnkooz – in that I am interested in Brown’s subjects and the book is certainly worth reading for that. However the literary qualities of the book do matter, not because it contains grammatical errors or misspellings (I’m pretty sure it doesn’t) – but because rather than write plainly and clearly of the things he talks about, Brown has a tendency to over-write and indulge in too many “clever punny words”, which actually distracts from the valuable subject matter. But anyway, I hope you like the book.

  19. johnkooz said,

    That’s a good point, Accroyer. As I mentioned above, in the live shows he occasionally rejects volunteers, though both times I’ve seen him he’s never got it ‘wrong’ when he does a routine.

    As for entertaining at best, perhaps so – but I’d give him credit too for foregrounding – and in his entertaining way, attacking – the culture of superstition and irrationality that’s so prevalent these days (and always has been, I suppose). What I would really like to see next from Brown is a layman’s book on the history of spiritualism and other hoaxes of that ilk.”

    Yeah, I totally agree and have congruent interest. I’m most interested in his ideomotor effect work though. I’ve come across some GREAT atheist-logical-fallacies sites and they’re fantastic and I’m interested in learning more of those, however, ideomotor and his application of nlp is my greatest interest.

  20. johnkooz said,

    wow. your reply was practically instantaneous. we’re both responding simultaneously lol! cool.

  21. johnkooz said,

    i’m sure I’ll like it. I’ve actually gotten into the idea of rereading valuable books. This may be off-topic to this thread, but does anyone else do that? I’m interested in having like a handful of 10 or so books that i find valuable to reread. I think “only reading a new book” ALL the time, and constantly just reading new new new books, is a mistake. Eventually certain topics repeat themselves in books. No books are identicla but some can be very similar. This has branched into a literary topic of absorbing reading, but I hope tricks of the mind proves to be one of the select few books that I reread. I’m such a slow thorough reader, I think rereading a book or two would be refreshing because I did all the intense processing nad note-taking after the initital read. In other words, I think there’s a balance between always reading the new or just reading books you’ve already read, either of those extremes results in diminishing returns eventually. A good balance of some highly valuable, highly well-written, and very quality and relevant to your life books should be reread as well as interjecting and expanding with new reads.

  22. johnkooz said,

    John self “These renaissance men are really annoying to us mere mortals aren’t they?” renaissance man = derren brown? yeah, I can see that I guess. Think of him as more of renaissance, sorcery, i don’t know.

    • sarwar said,

      hi – i am desparetely trying to find out some answers to the question that are raised after seeing derren brown on tv. the summary of those question is how does he do that? I have been trying to find out answer to that question but no success so far – I think it would be a good idea to form a FORUM of some people who are really interested in finding out the techniques that he uses. May be we should have a meeting to discuss it further. And if we can make a proper group who could invest in sharing ideas based on reading material which are available on the internet. Of course getting this material might cost us money but together we can divide the cost – OR may be we can take the question direct to the horse’s mouth ie getting derren brown to ask whether he runs a training course etc. CAN ANYONE HELP

  23. Steven Fullman said,

    A simply wonderful review, John. Thank you!

  24. John Self said,

    Thanks Steven. Curiously, I heard the other day of a new book by Brown, titled Memoirs of a Mentalist, but it was listed in a publisher’s online survey of ‘would you like to read these books’ – so I’m unsure if it was a real book about to be published, or simply a proposal that they’re trying to judge the market for.

    Incidentally, this review has become the third most popular post on my blog, after Anne Enright’s The Gathering and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

  25. sarwar said,

    hi – i am desparetely trying to find out some answers to the question that are raised after seeing derren brown on tv. the summary of those question is how does he do that? I have been trying to find out answer to that question but no success so far – I think it would be a good idea to form a form of some people who are really interested in finding out the techniques that he uses. May be we should have a meeting to discuss it further. And if we can make a proper group who could invest in sharing ideas based on reading material which are available on the internet. Of course getting this material might cost us money but together we can divide the cost – OR may be we can take the question direct to the horse’s mouth ie getting derren brown to ask whether he runs a training course etc. CAN ANYONE HELP

  26. John Self said,

    Sarwar, I don’t know how Derren Brown achieves his effects but I am firmly of the belief that they’re mostly tried and tested magicians’ tricks, on which he puts a new presentation. The lottery numbers one was typical – how many times have we seen the trick where an envelope or box which has been in view of the audience at all times, turns out to contain a precise set of numbers, or a precise object, which is relevant to a random member of the audience? The lottery trick is exactly the same, just presented with balls – as it were.

    • sarwar said,

      Thank you for your comments. I was thinking more about the persuation and controling people’s mind – eg where DB makes a person do what he wants them to do. Looks a bit magic, but there must be SOME merits to it.

      • John Self said,

        I don’t know, sarwar. I think he pretends there’s a lot of ‘suggestion’ going on (eg the giraffe thing in the toy shop a few weeks ago) but that that is just a cover, for what is really a conjuring trick. Really we shall probably never know, which is as it should be, otherwise the effect would be spoiled.

  27. John Kooz said,

    Yeah the 3 questions + stone in box trance was so simple and inexplicable. That one is really interesting. Any ideas on how it was done are welcome.


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