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?"