Book review: ‘Tricks of the Mind’ by Derren Brown

'Tricks of the Mind' by Derren BrownFirstly, a disclaimer: I haven’t seen any of Derren Brown’s TV shows. Mr Brown has had a series of very successful television specials in which his manifold skills as a conjurer, “mentalist”, hypnotist and charlatan-buster are put to great effect, on members of an unsuspecting public. His book Tricks of The Mind was recommended to me by a friend who enjoyed these shows, spanning, as they do, more than just close-up sleight-of-hand magic and making people unwittingly act like chickens.

Derren Brown is a lifelong student of the mind, of human nature, of psychology, and of magic – from both the performer’s and the audience’s point of view.

So what is to be found inside the covers of his book Tricks of The Mind?

And perhaps more importantly (from your perspective, anyway)… what on earth does it have to do with winning game shows?

Well, it’s a very personal offering, and its double-edged title provides a clue; over six sections, Brown explores the tricks that can be played on our minds, and the tricks that our minds can play on us, while peppering the discourse with a lot of his own thoughts, anecdotes and philosophies.

The early stages of the book are both autobiographical and instructional. In Part One – Disillusionment – Brown relates the genesis of his career as a magician, as he transforms from an awkward and under-confident proselytising Christian university student to a popular entertainer and lifelong student of Magic. His early adult journey is interesting, and there are times when the stories are very funny indeed. I wasn’t prepared for such an absurd, confident and yet self-deprecating sense of humour here, and it was a real treat. Then in Part Two – Magic – Brown demonstrates some of the key principles of conjuring; the sleight-of-hand, the misdirection, the manipulation of the audience’s observations and even their actual memories. This is done ingeniously, as he takes us step-by-step through the mechanics of a simple coin trick, returning to it time and again to build on it, as he illustrates each of the elements discussed.

However it’s Part Three of the book – Memory – that for me, and perhaps for our purposes here, was the most fascinating and useful… if not indispensable! This is

an absolute master class in how to memorise facts, names, and long lists of seemingly unrelated bits of information. I read and re-read this section with great delight. In a series of exercises, Brown begins to train you to use three main techniques to unlock some of the truly amazing things that your brain – that anyone’s brain – can do.

He starts with Mnemonics. Most of us are familiar with this technique, where we consciously link a seemingly disparate set of information to an easier-to-remember, more “logical” sequence of words or images. A classic example of this, familiar to music students, would be the notes on the lines of the treble clef; E,G,B,D,F, and the attendant mnemonic “Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit”.

This concept (of associating – or even temporarily replacing – hard information with something easier-to-remember) is then expanded further, and segues nicely into an extremely powerful memory aid: The Linking Method.  The Linking Method requires the practitioner to create some very absurd and creative mental pictures which lead from one piece of information to the next; effectively creating a story. For example, if I needed to remember the sequence: “Teacup / Monkey / Car / Fire / Church / Spaghetti”, I would use those words, and the things they represent, to create a story full of striking, memorable images and events, where one leads logically to the next. Something like:

A giant Teacup is on top of a Monkey (he’s wearing it like a hat) while he’s driving his Car. A sudden backfire from the car creates an enormous burst of flames from its exhaust, which sets Fire to the Church he was just driving past. A priest, also on fire, frantically runs out of the church, and dowses it by diving into a swimming pool full of cooked Spaghetti and meat sauce.

The general idea is that the story should be absurd, striking, exaggerated… and therefore memorable. Brown’s example stories in this part of the book are always striking, sometimes even scatological, but also always very memorable.

I tried the exercise in this part of the book, in which he lays out 20 unconnected objects, and tells you a story that connects them all. It works! I had very little trouble remembering the 20 objects, and then with almost no extra application, remembering them in reverse order! The Linking Method really is an enormous boon for learning lists. He then goes on to illustrate that with an example of how to use it for memorising previous FA Cup winners over a number of years, and then explains how it can even be used to memorise an entire pack of playing cards! (Although that’s certainly for more advanced students, who are really willing to put the time in.) The applications for this in game show training are obvious – learning lists of sporting triumphs, Oscar winners, Nobel Prize winners, historical events, Time magazine’s person of the year... you get the idea.

There’s also an explanation and exploration – of The Loci Method (sometimes referred to as “Memory Palaces”), where certain pieces of information to be memorised are deliberately linked to specific locations. This technique dates all the way back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and involves mentally attaching the piece of information you want to learn to a specific place that is familiar to you. Let’s say you want to memorise the the planets of our solar system, in order of their distance from the sun (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune*). And let’s also say that you walk to work each day, via the same route. The idea is that each time you pass a point on your journey, you link it, in your mind, to one of the pieces of information. For example, perhaps…

You walk past your letterbox (= Mercury, the messenger god), and down the street, past the beauty salon (=Venus, the goddess of love), then it’s left at the construction site they’re digging up (there’s a lot of dirt – or Earth – there), and past the convenience store (where you could buy a Mars bar if you felt like it). After that, you turn right and go behind that supermarket that has Red Spot Specials (just like Jupiter has a red spot), and through the park past the public toilet (Uranus)** and the duck pond (which would have been the jurisdiction of Neptune the god of the sea, if it were a bit bigger).

A crude example there (particularly in the case of Uranus), but you get the idea. This, too, is a really powerful memory aid. And the idea is that, after a while, you can simply relive the journey in your mind, and all the bits of information will just fall into place, as you picture yourself treading the familiar path, as they always do. This method can also be used in just one location, assigning the information to various physical objects; hence the term ‘Memory Palace’. It’s a method that’s even used by Hannibal Lecter in the novels Hannibal and Hannibal Rising. So, with endorsements like that….

In Part Four of the book – Hypnosis and Suggestibility – Brown offers a fascinating insight into what “hypnosis” actually is, how it works, and the grave responsibility it infers on its practitioners not to misuse it. This was a real eye-opener, and if it’s true, completely lifted the veil on the whole hypnosis industry. He teaches you how to do it, too – and while I didn’t have the time (or inclination), I would perhaps be interested to give it a try one day…

Part Five of the book – Unconscious Communication – is one part primer in body language, one part layman’s psychology lesson, and one part How To Win Friends and Influence People. It’s certainly interesting, and contains some really good tips, well told, but perhaps ultimately not super-useful for our purposes here.

And in the final part, Anti-Science, Pseudo Science and Bad Thinking, things take a very personal turn, as Brown gives us his opinions on ‘Neuro-Linguistic Programming’, Clairvoyants, logical fallacies, circular belief systems, and even organised religion as a whole. He’s a true sceptic, and while his arguments are both logical and passionate, I do wonder exactly how much effect they’d have ultimately have here. Particularly in the case of espousing Atheism and rationality. If you’re an atheist, then he’s preaching to the converted here, and if you’re religious, then you’re hardly likely to do a sudden 180 degree switch, and renounce your beliefs after reading this (that is, if you’ve kept reading this far).

The book is rounded out with an extensive bibliography and an amusing selection of some emails Derren Brown has received from some of his fans, who are – to put it kindly – nuttier than a fruitcake.

All in all, Tricks of the Mind is a fascinating read. The early, anecdotal pages are entertaining, but it really comes into its own when discussing and explaining how magic is performed, using the anatomy of a sleight-of-hand trick outlined above. The Memory section is absolutely indispensable for aspiring game show contestants, and worth the price of admission alone. I found my interest waning a little in the last third of the book, in which the true sceptic in Mr Brown takes full flight, and the humour seems to evaporate somewhat.

However, I do highly recommend Tricks of the Mind. And so, in my (just-invented) rating system, I’m giving it 3 Game Show Buzzers out of 4.

3 Game show buzzers out of 4 - colour


Next week, a round up of my answers to all of the many game show-related questions that you’ve been sending in recently. So thanks very much to everyone who’s sent one (or more, in some cases), and please, by all means…. Keep ’em coming!

* Let’s not get into that whole “Is Pluto a planet or is Pluto not a planet?” debate. As everybody knows, he’s a cartoon dog.

** Snigger!

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