Tricks of the Mind by Derren Brown

Derren Brown is a stage illusionist, extremely well known in the UK, less so further afield. He’s on television here quite often and is always worth watching. His stage personality is quite different from the norm. While many illusionists thrive on projecting the image that they have psychic abilities, Brown openly admits that he’s not in the least bit psychic. This approach works a treat when he goes on to perform the most baffling tricks that make you think, “This guy’s got to be psychic.” I’ve often wondered if he has a genuine psychic ability and he’s fibbing us that he hasn’t. But after having watched some recordings of his stage shows a few times, and relying on some of the information imparted in this book, I’ve been able to figure out some of his tricks. I would call Derren Brown the master of misdirection. He really is a marvel to behold. And his book is a terrific read, on many levels.

Tricks of the Mind is divided into six parts. Part 1 is entitled “Disillusionment” and is a short account of how Brown became an atheist after being a born-again Christian in his teens. Although I’m personally not a Christian, I found Brown’s reasoning not entirely satisfying. He clearly aligns himself with the “physical reality is all there is” brigade and this is something that colours his entire thinking. My personal view is that the reliance on evidence is a worthy scientific discipline, but there may well be many things out there that are true but simply don’t bow down to our personal requirement for proof. “Evidence only” is not something to shape your entire worldview on, in my opinion.

Part 2 is entitled “Magic” and this is where the book really takes off. I’ve amused countless people (and myself) by demonstrating a simple card trick that Brown takes us through. I’ve even developed my own variation on it, where I can do it blindfolded whilst letting the other person handle the cards. The trick is mesmerising, but really hinges on the most beautifully subtle piece of audience misdirection. Here’s me having a go …

Part 3: “Memory.” Now we go from the fun to the practical. Brown explains several memorisation techniques in depth. I’ve tried some of them and they work a treat. They all function on the little known fact that it’s far easier to remember pictures than it is to remember words and numbers. In short, you create visuals to represent words. For instance, a few months ago I committed several facts about Albert Einstein to memory, as a test. I can now effortlessly regurgitate the following facts and more about him: he was born in 1879, died in 1955, received Nobel prize for physics in 1921. He was Jewish, but raised in a Catholic school, and lived in Germany. To remember Einstein’s birthday, I have the mental image of myself sitting at a table wearing a jersey with the number 7 on it, in front of a birthday cake with seven candles. I’m posing for a photo and Albert Einstein is peering over my shoulder, looking silly and giving the camera a thumbs up. “Say what?” you cry. Well, here's how this works. I want to remember Einstein's birthday, so I'm interested in associating the number 79 with Einstein (I can drop the 18 to make things easier, since I know it certainly wasn't 1979 that he was born). The birthday cake in the image reminds me that the picture has to do with birth. It's my seventh birthday, which would have been 1979. So, when I want to recall Einstein's birthday, I simply bring this image to mind and quickly deduce the number 79 from it. For the Noble prize date, I picture Einstein receiving his prize while drunk. So, when I recall this image, I naturally ask myself, "Why did I store an image of him drunk?" And it becomes easy for me to recall: "Ah! Because 21 is the legal age for drinking in the US. 1921!" It sounds overly complicated, but when you realise how readily distinctive images stick in the mind, it becomes far easier to remember things this way than to memorise by constant repetition. If I had had this book when I was at school, I would have aced my exams.

Part 4: "Hypnosis and Suggestibility." Here you'll find instructions for how to actually carry out hypnosis and put someone in a trance (although Brown in not a believer in such a thing as an actual trance state, only in suggestibility). I have no idea how valid the techniques are as I haven't tried them, but judging by Brown's stage work I would have a lot of confidence in them. There's a lengthy section on NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming). My favourite section was on phobia cures, as these are personal exercises you can perform on yourself.

Part 5: "Unconscious Communication." This is all about reading people through their body language, and also exerting some level of control over another's perception of you by deliberately controlling your own body language. One simple observation can be that a lot of blinking indicates stress, and the frequency of blinking shows the speed at which we're processing information. Brown is also careful to note that the science of telling when a person is lying to you is not exact or easy.

Part 6: "Anti-science, Pseudo-science and Bad Thinking." This, for me, was the most disappointing part of the book. Some of it was excellent, such as the detailed explanation of a technique used by fake psychics called cold-reading. But Brown is attempting to make a blanket statement on the unreality of the whole arena of the paranormal, using only a few examples. I'm definitely a believer in the paranormal. My view comes as a result of learning how to do telekinesis and obtaining definite results under rigorous test conditions. I was amazed that Brown could spent so much time researching the esoteric and end up a disbeliever in everything beyond a purely physical nature. I was also alarmed by how readily he employs Ouija boards in his stage shows, believing the results to be nothing more than the unconscious mind. I'm not so easily convinced in the safety of them, as I have personal experience that there's more to life than known physics.

An almost brilliant book and definitely life-enhancing, written with wit and insight. Highly recommended for the excellent things you can learn about the workings of your mind.