Written by Books

Tricks of the Mind

I tend to avoid cash-in books to accompany popular TV series; you won’t catch me buying the complete Little Britain Scripts or whatever (OK, so Little Britain is well past its sell-by date). But I’ve always been intrigued by Derren Brown.
It’s true that his last special – The System – I found to be a little suspect. In particular, the inclusion of camcorder footage that I don’t think could have been supplied precisely as advertised. But overall in his Channel 4 series (with one exception – Trick or Treat) and particularly his specials, I’ve been very impressed. It’s amazing how much publicity he got for his Russian Roulette programme which was evidently a magic trick not dissimilar to a famous Halloween trick that Paul Daniels once ‘conjoured’ up. But full marks for generating so much PR puffery around it.
Anyway, readers of regular TV tie-in books might be a little disappointed with this as Brown has quite a lot to say. At first, his language is deliberately irritating, and he comes across as not a little cocky. Of course, that’s precisely what a magician has to be, and Brown admits this.
This language calms down a little in due course and Brown takes us through some of the areas he’s interested in, teaching us a basic coin trick and a card trick, but importantly, explaining some of the other elements beyond the basic techniques which make the tricks work better. Perhaps some illustrations at this point would have been useful.
He also takes us through some memory techniques that can be usefully deployed to remembers tasks, facts and names. And there are also sections that look at some basic statistics (questionning our expectations and understanding of the likelihood of events occurring) and bodylanguage.
Of particular interest to me was a chapter that examined hypnosis and NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming). These are inter-linked areas that I still have some significant questions over. Brown cleared a few things up – there’s not a single thing called “hypnosis” in the same way as something called a “magic trick” might employ any number of different techniques to bring off an illusion. But I was still a little unsure at the end, and questions remain about how real these things truly are.
What is evident is that Brown has clearly been influenced in much of what he practices from his early experiences as a devoted Christian. He’s since become an atheist, and now has a much more sceptical attitude than he perhaps once did. I won’t get into the rights and wrongs of this – although it seems that he’s gone from perhaps one extreme to the other, but it has certainly left him with a questioning mind. And that informs enormously when he tackles such subjects as psychics and beliefs in unproven alternative remedies.
This is not, then, an especially easy read, and although the book has sold well, I’d be surprised if it has been read to such a great extent. It is, however, fascinating and well worth spending some time with. At times you wish that Brown would get into some areas more – I’m fascinated by the art of cold reading for example. But Brown does provide a fulsome list of recommended further reading.
I’m not sure about the value of the emails he includes at the end. In my paperback edition of the book they were all but illegible, and while, as someone in the media, I’m sure he does get perhaps more than his fair share of weirdos writing to him, I’d be inclined to ignore them rather than encourage them in print.