Tricks of the Mind by Derren Brown

A book review by Bobulous.

Derren Brown is an entertainer in the UK, with numerous TV shows on Channel 4. In case you're having trouble picturing him, he's the man who can seemingly put people to sleep over the phone, predict which word, card or envelope a person is going to choose, and trick people into executing an armed robbery on an armoured truck in broad daylight.

Derren makes it clear in his shows that he achieves his impressive illusions with a mix of "magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship". Tricks of the Mind offers an insight into some of these skills, but the book certainly isn't a step-by-step guide to setting yourself up as a Derren Brown tribute act. In fact, Derren starts the book off by talking about how he drifted away from religion as a teenager, as he started to question his beliefs. A lot of the book is dedicated to the discussion about irrational belief and how charlatans such as mediums can take advantage of some people's desire for easy answers to difficult questions.

The next chapters discuss magic, memory, suggestion, NLP, and reading unconscious communications. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about memory, which offers techniques for memorising lists of items or tasks, and explains Derren's system for remembering numbers and the order of a deck of cards. Derren insists that the reader take the memory exercises seriously, but I approached them half-heartedly, expecting to fail miserably. Instead, I was fairly surprised to find that I really could remember a list of twenty items without trying. And I can still rattle-off the whole list without even working at it. The same is true for an arbitrary list of nine tasks found in another exercise. I think you need a very elastic brain to memorise lists as quickly as Derren Brown himself, but the techniques are still very effective.

Derren's discussion about hypnosis was rather surprising. He seems to suggest that hypnosis may only produce results when the subjects are either eager to perform for a crowd, or are too polite to reject the suggestions put to them. And he doesn't believe that a subject in a "trance" is in an elevated state of mind, just in an agreeable mood that allows them to comply with certain suggestions. He's not even sure that subjects are really experiencing the effects that they claim to experience, such as being able to see something that doesn't really exist, or suddenly being unable to see the hypnotist who has become "invisible" to them. This wasn't at all what I expected to hear about hypnotism, and just served to demonstrate how down-to-earth the author is.

Derren may not claim to know what is going on in the mind of a subject during a hypnotic session, but he offers a guide to hypnosis, with suitable warnings about being responsible towards your subject. While I have no interest in finding people to hypnotise, it did interest me to learn how simple it can be to put someone into a hypnotic state and make them ready for a post-hypnotic suggestion.

A section on NLP again shows how sceptical Derren Brown is towards wild claims. He offers information about the basic ideas of neuro-linguistic programming, but also expresses serious doubt about the big-money industry that has grown up around those basic ideas. Even so, he explains a couple of techniques designed to help you overcome phobias and improve your self-image. The techniques are interesting, and quite amusing (the theme tune from Benny Hill being played backwards would make anything seem daft), but whether they'd rid someone of a long-held phobia, I don't know.

After a brief chapter on reading unconscious messages that people give off with hand gestures, body language, and changes in speech pattern, Tricks of the Mind comes to an end with a lengthy discussion about the dangers of unfounded belief in things such as the supernatural, alternative medicine and religion. Derren tries to remain respectful, but his tone occasionally seems to betray a disdain for people who rush to throw time and money at such things, possibly because he sees his younger self in such people.

A lot of the time it sounds like Derren is hoping to open the eyes of such believers, urging people to always look for evidence to support their beliefs and their arguments. But I think his lengthy pleas are doomed to fail. People who already eschew such beliefs will agree with what he's saying, but wish that less time was spent on the subject; and people who do deeply hold beliefs are very unlikely to be turned away from them, if they even read so far into this book in the first place.

As if to provide proof that his attempts are futile, Derren finishes the book by including a selection of letters and emails that he's received over the years. Despite his show frequently reminding the viewers that it's all just illusion and showmanship, he has received many letters from people that seem convinced that Derren Brown is a supernatural being.

I found Derren's writing style very readable, I found his stories very amusing, and I enjoyed his discussions about the techniques he deploys to produce his performances. I have to admit that I thought the philosophising about the foolishness of people who cling to beliefs that have no evidence to support them did go on too long. Overall, though, I'm glad to have read Tricks of the Mind. It offers an insight into the techniques and thoughts of a talented entertainer.