Sunday 26 April 2009

Book review: Tricks of the Mind – Derren Brown

One thing any book needs to be to win me over, whatever its subject, is well written. A few years ago I read several articles by Sam Harris on the web, and regardless of his message, his prose delighted me. I wanted to read more of his writing, so I bought a copy of The End of Faith and wasn't disappointed.

Derren Brown's Tricks of the Mind isn't quite in Harris's class, but it is well written, its scope is definitely wider(!) plus there are more jokes. Brown relishes the literary trick (likely beloved of conjurors) of setting up a paragraph clearly pointing in one direction then entirely undermining it in the final sentence.

Wry humour and amusing tricks aside, this is a serious book from a master illusionist, mentalist and showman. Brown not only tells how a trick is performed, but goes on to analyse its underlying psychology, explaining not just how it works, but why. Don't expect him to reveal the intricacies of more complicated tricks, but his discussion of the psychology of conjuring is revealing in itself. He includes personal anecdotes throughout the book, though how much of the "real" Derren Brown these truly reveal is impossible to know, considering the man's profession.

Later on Brown explains memory systems, with many practical exercises that demonstrate they do actually work. He also covers hypnotism in depth, even inviting the reader to try it out. I've had my suspicions about the true nature of hypnotism, and was pleased to see them confirmed (though I appreciate that's hardly conclusive proof of what I suspected). After a diversion into self-help motivational techniques he moves on to unconscious communication and lie-detection, describing how it is possible for a skilled, practised and perceptive operator to tell whether or not someone is speaking the truth.

In the last part of the book he looks at pseudo-science, alternative medicine and scepticism in general, including critical thinking, statistics and probability. From there he moves on to comprehensive and passionate coverage of psychic mediums and cold-reading – laced, however, with irony and wit that make these serious chapters a pleasure to read. Finally we have a generously annotated reading list, plus references and an alphabetical index.

My recommendation? Read it – you'll be entertained as well as informed.

Tricks of the Mind, Derren BROWN, Channel 4 Books (Transworld) pb, 416pp, £7.99 ISBN 978-1-905-02635-7