I’m a huge fan of Derren Brown, the self-described devil-bearded mind-fiddler who combines magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship in his television and stage shows in the United Kingdom to sometimes staggering effect. He’s a tremendously engaging performer, who has brought a sense of real mystery back to the art of illusion, with none of the pretension and self-importance of artists such as David Blaine. He’s also a tremendous proponent rational thought, and debunker of preposterous religious and new age thinking. Given that his skills mirror those of the peddlers of such nonsense, and create effects every bit as powerful (often more so) as those converting the gullible to such ways, he has the ability not just to talk about why such things are nonsense, but demonstrate how it’s done. I remember the jaw-dropping sequence in his one-off show Messiah (filmed in the USA, where he is mostly unknown outside of magic circles) where he acted the part of a man who could convert people to Christianity by touch alone. He demonstrated this in front of a priest, on a room full of genuine non-believers (who he later deprogrammed, of course) using his own techniques of suggestion and illusion, but dressing it up as a miracle. The effect was impressive.
Tricks Of The Mind is his first book for public consumption (although he has written trade books for other performers), and it’s a fascinating read. It covers some of the basics principles underlying his performances, including conjuring, card tricks, mentalism, and more, although it is far from a how-to guide. It also contains several extremely entertaining rants against anti-science, thought-traps, and more, that bring out the debunker in him. While Brown would love to believe in magic and other realms, he falls squarely alongside Richard Dawkins (who he name checks several times) in his thinking on how the world works, and gives forthright explanations on why new age nonsense is exactly that (he also encourages much thought about religion). I can’t imagine this book would be an easy read for the believer, but would be interested in any sensible counterpoints to Brown’s arguments.
The book is an extraordinarily entertaining read, as well as an enlightening one if you’re interested in how hypnosis and suggestion work, simple aspects of neuro-linguistic programming, belief, the principles of memory and how they can be tapped (memory palaces, for example), misdirection and it’s effects, self-image, and much, much more. I’m very interested in all of these areas, and found Brown’s thoughts on them clear, sometimes controversial, and always enlightening.
Finally, Tricks Of The Mind is simply very, very funny, especially when Brown (once a Christian of the happy, clappy variety, it seems) hits an anecdotal whimsy. My only qualm about the book is that I would have loved to see more of these biographical notes (perhaps someday, a full biography). Even if he considers his life quite dull (I doubt it – people who convince their university friends that they are invisible, and then freak them out by carrying objects around the room so it seems to the poor victim that they are floating of their own accord, is hardly the everyman experience of life), he tells it with panache as well as the self-deprecation to get away with it all. I don’t tend to read celebrity autobiographies, but I’d buy his, if he ever decided to write it, because he makes me laugh out loud.
So, yes, I recommend this book to enlightened thinkers, people interested in what is behind how Brown does what he does, and those who just want to be entertained. I would probably never have got round to picking it up myself, so must thank Santa for leaving it in my stocking.