Derren Brown's Tricks of the Mind: book explains magic, hypnosis and the rationale for rationalism

I've just finished Derren Brown's absolutely charming and fascinating book "Tricks of the Mind," which is one of those impossible- to- pigeonhole, eclectic nonfiction books that pulls together its subject matter in a genuinely novel way and ends up influencing how you see the world around you.

Brown is a "mentalist" -- a magician and street-hypnotist who uses misdirection, hypnotism, sleight of hand, and other tricks to achieve astonishing and delightful effects. Tricks of the Mind starts off explaining many of the mentalist's techniques for remembering things, from long lists of numbers and names to grocery lists to memorizing entire packs of cards. Brown delves into simple mnemonics and goes all the way up to memory palaces, offering a tantalizing glimpse into the kind of memory you can develop if you set your mind to it.

From there, it seems like a straight technique book that explains the principles behind Brown's flavour of magic, the way that magicians can exploit out brain's own blind spots, minor malfunctions and quirks to fool us about what we've seen. This section is engrossing as anything, coming across as a kind of owner's manual for your brain, illuminating much about how we know what we know -- and how much of what we think we know is not real.

This segues neatly into an even-more-fascinating section on performing hypnosis on your friends and yourself and what hypnosis can and can't do. I've used clinical hypnosis and self hypnosis to solve some of my most pernicious problems in life (writer's block, smoking, stress) and while I've done a lot of reading on the subject, I found Brown's take on it more lucid -- and practical -- than pretty much anything I've read in the field.

This section leads into the concluding third of the book, which is -- improbable as it may seem -- an impassioned manifesto for rationalism, empiricism and respect for science and the scientific method over newage, faith healing, crystals, homeopathy and other hokum. Brown uses all the material he's taken you through to this point to explain the plain old explanation for many of these "miraculous" experiences, the way that our brains, our friends, and unscrupulous hucksters conspire to make us think that the anecdotal trumps the real. Combining statistics, cognitive theory, and applied magic, Brown makes an excellent case for the natural world as being perfectly miraculous -- quoting Douglas Adams's maxim, "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?" Link

See also:
Derren Brown's Tricks of the Mind video -- baffling mentalism
Derren Brown, mentalist
Hypnotist kidnaps gamer and drops him into real-life shooter


  1. Mmry plcs…

    Ths srt f “mmry plcs” (mnmnc trcks) g bck s fr s ncnt gypt, Chn, tc

    Fr th nttd…

    mgn hvng t gv spch…ch prt f th spch wld b “cntnd” n sprt rm f lrg hs (r “plc”)

    s y gv th spch, y wlk frm rm t rm gthrng th vrs prts nd VL! th spch ccrs!

    Mnmnc dvcs r bsclly mnd-bsd rprsnttns f wht w’d lk t rmmbr. t’s ll n th wy w fcs r thghts. Mst ppl r t bsy scrnng thr ppls’ ds n thr hds – th frst stp s t thnk ndpndntly nd thn lf bcms hckv lt mr fn (nd fld)


    gt brnd-t n mdrn mgcns bcs f ll th GNZ MGC bng prctcd ths dys…y knw, ths mgcns tht stck thmslvs wth bldy rlrd spks nd strggl ndrwtr fr dys n SPHRS F C…hw dll s tht?

    Gv m gd ld flck f dvs mrgng frm txd slv ny dy.

    PS –

    Cry, dn’t knw hw y cn dscrb HMPTHY s bng “HKM”! f ll th thngs y mntn (p thr) HMPTHY s bt th mst dwn-t-rth prctc thr s…nt nly n mdcnl prctcs, bt ls n th scncs f th mnd.

    n wy, HMPTHY s 3-dmnsnl dscrptn f KRM (“n th smll lms th lrg”)

    h, wll mst f th stff pstd t BngBng cld b cnsdrd hkm (f vwd t skwd ngh ngl) – h wll.

    Yh, dn’t cnt t HMPTHY…t’s wrth srs gndr!

    Grt pst!

  2. Warren there is not a single reliable scientific study that shows that homoeopathy works beyond the placebo effect. Sympathetic magic and potentisation are both readily disproved bunk. Not surprisingly, like all peddlers of pseudo-science, homoeopaths don’t like ‘biased’ scientific study. Homoeopathy can quite easily be described as ‘hokum’ because frankly it is.

    PS – I liked your last typo, ‘Homeapathy’. Excellent!

  3. Captain Kibble: With around 100,000 Americans dying each year from the effects of the drugs they are prescribed, I think that even if homeopathy is only triggering a placebo effect in the people who use it, it is achieving something. First do no harm….

    I have read Derren Brown’s book (last year… taking you a while to catch up with your reading, Cory?) and have watched his programs. He is, without a doubt, a very talented and unusual performer, although I felt that his most recent TV series verged on the abusive, where for example, he hypnotised a woman to believe she was having an out-of-the-body experience following a car crash, apparently in order to demonstrate the dangers of her driving style.

    There were assurances that the young woman in question suffered no lasting after effects, but I am not convinced that Derren Brown is qualified to say this… how the mind might react in future to past experiences is something that I do not think even he can control. It seemed that he was doing rather extreme things to her mind in the name of entertainment, and I found it distasteful.

    That he is completely opposed to any hocus pocus, seems to lead him in the book to argue that hypnotism is not a real thing… unless I misread it. For someone who seems to have made his name by the use and misuse of what anyone else would call hypnotism, to deny that it exists, seems a tad strange. But then if you were asked to sum Derren Brown up in a pithy phrase, a tad strange would do it for me!

  4. how does he expect to sell a book when the front cover has a picture of him apparently attempting to rip out my soul with his eyes?

  5. There are surprisingly many magicians who, off the stage, are strong advocates for rational, empirical thinking — Harry Houdini, James Randi, Penn Jillette all come to mind. I find that to be an interesting correlation. What is it about the work of an illusionist that makes them want to dispel illusions outside the theatre?

  6. Fee –

    “That he is completely opposed to any hocus pocus, seems to lead him in the book to argue that hypnotism is not a real thing… unless I misread it. For someone who seems to have made his name by the use and misuse of what anyone else would call hypnotism, to deny that it exists, seems a tad strange.”

    I think what he’s trying to show is that “hypnosis” is really about the subject’s own willingness to follow suggestions, rather than about the hypnotist’s supposed power to control a person or send them soaring off into a different state. Penn and Teller did a whole show about how hypnotism “doesn’t exist”, but they did it very confusingly, I thought.

  7. I’ve seen Derren Brown live a couple of times now – he’s a fantastic showman, and I get a real kick out of rational magicians. There’s something far more impressive about someone who can outfox you while he’s telling you he’s doing it, than there is about someone who simply owns a big mirror and pretends he doesn’t.

    Penn and Teller’s live show is also fantastic, but I heard several people on the way out of the theatre in Las Vegas complaining that it wasn’t the sort of show they’d been expecting. I suppose there’s still a large market for ‘traditional’ magic – I doubt we’ll ever get to a point when people stop wanting to believe that David Copperfield is really flying.

  8. To offer a counterpoint of view – I read Tricks of the Mind and found it scattershot, indulgent and unfocused. The style and subject matter vary widely and the structure seems entirely arbitrary. There are useful and interesting, practical sections early on. The later chapters dealing with religion, alternative medicine and so on read like poorly thought through blog rants, backed up only with anecdotal evidence. And I come from a position where I largely agree with his viewpoints.

    There are the seeds of three or four properly researched books in this volume.

  9. Crash, I think the idea with stage magicians is that what they do is entirely for entertainment, and they never seriously claim to be workers of supernatural wonders. Hence the term Illusionist that some prefer. With this point of view, they see anyone who does pretend to real supernatural powers as almost certainly (99.9999999% or some such)phonies and charlatans, often criminals bilking gullible folk out of lots of money. That was Houdini’s crusade- fake spiritualists and mediums.

  10. “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

    Which is also the quote at the beginning of Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

  11. Debunkers, especially the magician type, seem to specialize in generalizing that because there is no tree in my house today, therefore never, on any December 25th in the past, could there ever have been any tree in my house. Is this guy just another of those who think that because they can prove it’s possible to fool people some of the time, that the people they disagree with are ALWAYS fooling people?

  12. @15: The generalization that debunkers make is based on sound Bayesian reasoning. It is not that there is no tree in your house today: it is that many people over decades have claimed to have powers that cannot be detected by any instrument we can build, and that cannot be explained in any way other than attributing to them some ability that is not possessed to any significant degree by the vast majority of other people (an improbable claim on simple evolutionary grounds.)

    When subject to empirical testing under properly controlled conditions, the powers these people claim to have never manifest themselves.

    So a more appropriate analogy would be: you claim your house is full of trees that are unlike any tree on the planet Earth, and that they got into your house via means that no one can explain or account for, but when investigators from the Committee for the Arborial Investigation of the Paranormal show up they find a truck from the local nursery out back unloading potted palms that have been spray-painted blue.

    And this has happened hundreds of times to hundreds of people making similar claims over the course of more than a century. Under these circumstances no rational (that is, Bayesian) individual would suggest that the next person to make such claims has anything more than a negligible probability of being truthful.

    No empirical effect is beyond the reach of scientific investigation. If an empirical effect exists, it has a statistically significant impact on the behaviour of matter (sometimes the matter in question is people.) Scientists and others have limited time and money to spend debunking charlatans, and at some point it becomes pragmatic to simply ignore them. If they can predict the future or read minds, let them make a killing on the stock market and then tell us how they did it.

    Until that happens, there is no reason to listen to them: no one who makes a living promoting themselves as a mentalist or whatnot is the real thing. The real thing would be on Wall Street, or retired rich.

  13. #15: Is this guy just another of those who think that because they can prove it’s possible to fool people some of the time, that the people they disagree with are ALWAYS fooling people?

    No, he’s just one of those guys who like to stay in touch with reality. There are no better tools for this than skepticism and the scientific method. You know, as opposed to gullibility and wishful thinking.

  14. I think I get it now, Tom: everything was earth, air, fire, and water until something better was found, just as the atom didn’t exist until it was discovered by man. At least when real scientists approach this problem they realize that unproven does not mean non-existent, and they keep an open mind.

  15. Or to put it another way: skepticism as a tool is healthy; as a way of life, it’s just another form of mental disease that materialists are prone to.

  16. I think, at the level of reading most BoingBoing readers are at by now, this book either preaches to the choir or is a lost cause.

  17. M, what exactly are you proposing might exist that mentalists claim doesn’t exist? I’m genuinely curious.

  18. “Boys, boys, boys, there’s no need for this unseemly squabbling. I’m sure the punters are carrying enough loose change for all of us.”

    -Alan Moore

  19. I heal sick people with energy! I’m a Reiki Master. So, what is possible and what is the — so-called impossible!

    The whole stage of life is an illusion…
    Blog this!

  20. quoting Douglas Adams’s maxim, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

    It’s worth asking why our mental wiring appreciates the sight of a garden. Maybe we like the sight of ordered flora, but a wild patch of inedible blossoms can still hit our brain’s resonant beauty frequency.

  21. #28 – since when isn’t it? Burden of proof, matey.

    Regardless, searching, say, PubMed turns up many clinical trials on homoeopathy. From my quick rummage, they all find nothing statistically significant in terms of the effects of a homoeopathic “remedy” vs a placebo.

  22. I haven’t read this book (which must surely be interesting if only for its subject matter) but I was expecting a comment like Smithereens’ above.

    The archetypal magician was (and is) a sensitive, withdrawn, highly intelligent boy who used tricks and a stage persona to compensate for shyness. From there it’s a short step to manipulating people on a grander and grander scale–anecdotally, at least, you can’t find a “con man” or other social-engineering type who doesn’t know a dozen great card tricks. Of course, there are plenty of people who end up using their insights into how humans work for “good” as with Randi, Jilette, and apparently this guy.

    But if you look at that class, it’s pretty clear that familiarity with how the brain works has bred a great deal of contempt. If you’ve ever seen your local IT guy simmering with rage over having to work with inadequate equipment, you get some idea of how Randi et al approach people with harmless but irrational beliefs. Actually, I should say you get the idea if you’ve ever seen an Inquisitor sitting in judgment over an apostate, but they’re curiously resistant to the idea that there are elements of religion to what they do–all empirical evidence notwithstanding.

  23. Re: cover

    I think the devil on his shoulder is telling him that if he added more fiber to his diet he’d be able to finish the task at hand in a more timely, less infuriating manner.

    “…thr s nt sngl rlbl scntfc stdy tht shws tht hmpthy wrks bynd th plcb ffct.”


    Rlty s slly ptty – w mld t nt mny shps ccrdng t hw r wn ndvdl mnds r strctrd.

    Thr s n sch thng s N rlty (t’s mlt-dmnsnl!) – hmpthy r n sprn r fl sht wrk ccrdng t n’s blf systm.

    5 ppl cn fw n sngl t ccdnt nd gv 5 dffrnt pnns bt hw t hppnd

    Mntl fnctnng s vry ntrstng tpc – mst ppl r n t-plt (h, xcpt fr Bng Bng fns) nd cld cr lss bt hw thr mnds wrks.

    TKN SD:
    “n n cn fl y lk yrslf”

    Hw bt th fllwng:

    1) ntrnl Rvn Srvc
    2) yr prnts
    3) yr frnds
    4) rlgs fgrs
    5) ntwrk nws nchrs
    6) Nw Yrk Tms
    7) L Tms
    9) WlMrt Cs
    10) schl tchrs

  25. from the sutras of Puraisu-Roshi:

    “if you have a friend on whom you think
    you can rely – You are a lucky man!
    If you’ve found the reason to live on and
    not to die – You are a lucky man!
    Preachers and poets and scholars don’t know it,
    Temples and statues and steeples won’t show it,
    If you’ve got the secret just try not to blow
    it – Stay a lucky man!
    If you’ve found the meaning of the truth
    in this old world- You are a lucky man!
    If knowledge hangs around your neck like
    pearls instead of chains – You are a lucky man!
    Takers and fakers and talkers won’t tell you.
    Teachers and preachers will just buy and sell you.
    When no one can tempt you with heaven or hell-
    You’ll be a lucky man!”

  26. #34 “homeopathy or an aspirin or a flu shot work according to one’s belief system.”

    If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.

  27. Of course homeopathy is bunk. It made its reputation back in the 18th and 19th century by being the only system of drug treatments that wasn’t actively unpleasant or harmful. That was because it didn’t do anything. It still doesn’t do anything, except provoke the placebo effect.

    It’s just as well that homeopathy doesn’t work, because otherwise none of us would dare go near seawater. After all, tiny amounts of all the substances homeopathists consider therapeutic get dissolved in seawater in tiny quantities, and shaken repeatedly by wave action. If homeopathic potentiation works, it should happen spontaneously in seawater.

    Crash (9), if I had to venture a guess as to why stage magicians make talented debunkers, it’s that their art is based on understanding how easily most people’s proof-checking faculties are led astray.

    M (15): You are mistaken. Debunkers observe that there is no tree in the house today, and conclude that if a tree exists, it isn’t present at all times. Deciding that there can never have been a tree is making an unfounded assertion and taking on the burden of a negative proof.

    No one needs to prove that it’s possible to fool people some of the time. What they prove is that homeopathy is as efficacious as any other placebo.

    All was not made of earth, air, fire, and water until something better was found, and the atom existed long before it was discovered. You say that “unproven does not mean non-existent,” which is true; but you’re the one seeking to prove that something exists, and you have no proof at all.

    Warren Camishen, Reality is not silly putty. The more we accept this, and take the real world on its own terms, the higher our success rate.

    It is not true that “homeopathy or an aspirin or a flu shot work according to one’s belief system.” If belief systems were the key to effective chemotherapy, no junkie would ever get burned on a purchase.

  28. Never thought I’d see the homeopathy supporters here on BB.

    Aren’t there wizard and troll message boards that need their “scientific” input?

    I’m still waiting for the homeopathy pushers to show us the double blind, unbiased studies to prove ANYTHING they claim….

  29. can we accept that homeopathy works in some cases for some people? (Especially if we all keep quiet and let the suckrose and akkwa work?) What’s wrong with headololgy?

  30. shhh! keep blabbering and you will ruin a useful medical therapy! What cost human vanity when health is concerned? “Nyah nyah nyah! I’m smart, yer dumb, sorry your spontaneous remission stopped”

  31. Of course the placebo effect works for some people Ernie. Which is why I’ve always argued that we should be able to prescribe sugar pills – which do as well as homeopathy in clinical trials. But apparently that’s UNETHICAL. I recently wrote as thorough a take-down of homeopathy as I could, but as it’s not online, could all supporters of homeopathy please read one of Ben Goldacre’s recent offerings on the subject?

    He’s a better writer than me anyway.

  32. “M, what exactly are you proposing might exist that mentalists claim doesn’t exist? I’m genuinely curious.”

    I’m proposing that the person who allows a stage entertainer to define the limits of reality for himself is, indeed, a fool.

  33. There’s quite a bit going on in the field that debunkers maintain has no evidence. One interesting source is , working in research of what you might call fringe phenomena, who published, a year or so ago, a study in which subjects were able to anticipate by several seconds, by internal signs such as heartbeat, the showing of upsetting photos shown randomly by a computer.

    Homeopathy didn’t work for me, and I don’t have an opinion on it, but in Europe it’s a covered (insurance, public health, whatever) treatment, and doesn’t get the distain it does in the US. How the American AMA took over medicine, and forced out all competition, at the beginning of the last century would make a good organized-crime novel, and is worth reading about.

    Dean Radin, of, has a minor treatment on uninformed skepticism on his website:

    I don’t know what I personally believe, because I’m smart enough to know I don’t know everything, so I like to keep an open mind and follow this stuff so that I don’t miss things like the photo study. Most of my friends regard me as a skeptic, but I’m not a stupid, blind one.

  34. I revert to my argument that despite good clinical trials, a lot of conventional medicine does a lot of harm – something that cannot be claimed about homeopathy. Anyone who thinks medicine in any form is scientific is deluded… it is much more close to an art because our genetic inheritance, lifestyle choices and the perception of our symptoms varies infinitely.

    Those who believe in the current scientific paradigm point out that none of us would like to take untested drugs which are not safe. Those of us who feel that science has a long way to go before it can explain the palpable effects of acupuncture, for example, and the fact that many drugs affect women and men in different ways (as reported in New Scientist), are also free to think that a placebo effect from a harmless and possibily ineffective homeopathic preparation is preferable to an unknown drug interaction from well tested allopathic drugs.

  35. Alternative medicine opinions are too much of a blanket opinion across the board in his book. The term, more often than not, is a subject that they try to tie into quackery when there are cheaper and safer methods of healing and treatment that are quite measurable with before after medical records, which should warrant further study.

    However, the book is a comprehensible overview of what he specializes in, which is about communicating with people with a heightened awareness of how to trigger human behavior with suggestion to the suggestible. I am a big fan.

    I recommend the book.

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