June 3, 2007
Derren Brown: Tricks of the Mind
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