Derren Brown has reinvented TV conjuring and amazed viewers with his mind control acts. So, is he a psychic or just a master manipulator of our need to believe? JACK PHOENIX met him to discuss perception, illusion and spoon- bending.
People often protest that they’re not mind readers, but Derren Brown is – or at least appears to be. Born in Croydon in 1971, Brown was an imaginative and precocious child who went on to study Law and German at Bristol University. Despite the formidable psychological skills which would have made him a demon lawyer, Brown abandoned the Law on leaving university to take up a career in magic and mentalism: “I saw a hypnotist perform in my first year at university and got very interested in the subject. I performed hypnosis for a couple of years, but I didn’t want to do full-time stage hypnosis as some of it struck me as a little tacky, so I started doing close-up magic. Slowly, what I was performing changed from classic magic in regular formats into something a bit different. Unlike card tricks, which you can do in front of a mirror and it won’t make any difference to the trick, with mentalism I don’t really know where it’s going to go when I start off with someone. I size people up as best I can, and then work with what’s going on. It’s a feedback loop – creating certain psychological effects in their heads, getting them into a certain state which isn’t necessarily ‘belief’ as such, but a matter of getting them to play the right sort of game with you. Maybe that partly grew out of the fibs and stories I told as a child.”
The walls of Brown’s house are adorned with his stunning, immense acrylic caricatures of, for example, Uri Geller, Franz Kafka, Orson Welles and Bertrand Russell. “I see somebody and can see a completed image in my head and want to paint it. I like faces – and obviously the face is the key to reading the psychology of a person – and I’m interested in what lies beneath the façade. It’s easy to think that you’re really capturing someone’s essence when really you’re manipulating the surface. Maybe in doing so, the illusion of some captured essence comes through – you get an illusion of depth. What I do in my act is manipulate the surface in a similar way; there’s an illusion of power, of depth, and it’s quite convincing – but all you’re doing is manipulating people’s behaviour. Hypnosis is just a mixture of social conformity, suggestion, response expectancy, charisma, and a whole load of quite ordinary surface phenomena given a shorthand name. Whilst I’m very passionate about what I do in performance, there’s a level where it does become a job and there’s a limit to what I can get out of it personally, and art is something else. With painting, wherever I go with it, it will always be something I do more for myself. I’m moving away from the caricatures now to do more serious stuff.”
In Brown’s shows, he has produced hypnotic amnesia, anæsthesia, command compliance, hallucinosis – and although it is currently illegal to show hypnotic induction on British television, he insists that there is no hypnotic induction anyway. “It’s about getting people in a psychological pattern of response which has to do with their belief in the situation and the way they are being handled. This can happen very quickly as opposed to taking half an hour with an induction script.”
His performances challenge widely held notions about both human behaviour and what hypnosis really is. For many years, an academic debate has raged over whether hypnosis is a distinct state, or simply a collection of compliant behaviours. Brown’s performances, and his statements about them, suggest that he subscribes to, and demonstrates, the latter viewpoint. Certainly his performances show that people are more compliant and manipulable than is commonly believed. In Mind Control 3 he got shoppers in a mall to raise their right arms by simply giving an apparently regular sales patter over a loud-hailer. But, in his patter were disguised embedded commands: “Come right arm up!” In another show, he predicted the exact campaign that two advertising executives would come up with, and in a rare departure showed us how he’d done it. Brown and his team had put pictures and phrases on T-shirts, parcels, and pub signs the execs would encounter on their route to the office. The execs were unconscious of the information they had absorbed on their journey, and amazed at how predictable their response was.
Brown says he has never really used hypnosis on himself. “I’ve attended NLP courses and things like that, and although there’s some interesting and useful aspects to them, they’re generally so evangelically packaged and full of self-fulfilling nonsense that it put me off. If you haven’t come across that way of thinking, it can, perhaps, be life-changing. But if you’re reasonably adept with other people and have a level of self-awareness, then it seems to suck the life out of those things. The classic example is people who learn ‘rapport skills’ and then use them on you; it can be extremely irritating to have all your body language mirrored back at you in an attempt to enter a rapport – and the irritation is the complete opposite of what’s intended. Also, the idea that each movement in body language always has the same meaning regardless of context is false. A person who scratches his nose may not be lying – he may just have an itchy nose.
“What I do is form a behavioural picture of the person I’m working with which doesn’t necessarily conform to those interpretive ‘rules’. I just look for the patterns in a person’s behaviour; if someone’s telling you something that’s happened and repeatedly performs one pattern, and then that pattern breaks, that may well be the point at which they lie. You can test this by trying to manipulate them into saying something that you know must be a lie. The trick is entirely about forming a picture of an individual and not having preconceived notions. With experience, it becomes more intuitive, but doesn’t cross over into anything esoteric. It becomes like driving a car: you’ve done it so many times you just don’t think about it. But with that comes the risk of laziness – that you fall into the trap of misjudging someone and getting them wrong.”
Television is a kind of illusion itself, particularly in terms of how material is edited, but Brown says that in making his Mind Control TV shows he always gets his editor to show things that don’t work. “Obviously, things have to be edited to fit time-wise. We spend two weeks rehearsing, then three weeks shooting. Occasionally, I will do an illusion with two groups of people, just in case one group isn’t interesting or their reactions are poor. But in most cases it isn’t practical for financial reasons to just film a stunt over and over again until the right response comes forth – that just doesn’t happen.”
Brown has made a point of saying that his powers are psychological, not psychic. I ask him how he feels about mentalists who do claim psychic talents. “I’ve seen performers like Uri Geller and there’s a real humour to what he does. There’s something really arbitrary, silly and funny about spoon-bending. To make millions out of that is fantastic – a testament to him. If you reduce it to an argument about whether he’s real or fake, you miss the fact that he’s very entertaining. I don’t personally believe in psychism, and I think Geller is backing off from that somewhat.”
I wonder whether Geller is unaware of the nature of his skills. “It’s complicated,” admits Brown. “My angle is sceptical and psychological – that’s why I did cutlery-bending in MC2.” (Brown’s ‘victims’ saw the forks bend, the viewer sees them stiff and unchanged.) “People will see and experience these things bending, but that’s not the same as things happening in the real world. The weak link is the mind of the interpreter, and that’s my attitude towards Geller; I find the idea of looking at what people are perceiving more interesting than the claim of psychic abilities. If you decide it’s fake, you lose sight of how effective it is; if you decide it’s real, there’s the danger of becoming a mindless believer. I avoid that polemic by saying I’m not psychic. The value for me is in the fact that this sort of thing happens, that people can behave in this sort of way; people betray their own thoughts and you can put ideas into their heads. I’d much rather present it as it is than pretend it’s something it isn’t.”
The problem with Brown’s assertion that he doesn’t use psychic powers in his performances is that like all good magicians he rarely reveals how he achieves his effects. He does say that he uses psychological techniques, but the examples of this he gives still allow audiences latitude to invent paranormal causes, particularly given his admission that he is “a good liar”.1 In the absence of widely distributed information about how his effects are achieved, the credulous are free to invent their own explanations rather than be left with the insecurity of having no explanation at all. Obviously, if Derren Brown reveals all his tricks, he risks losing the awe of the audience confronted by his talents, and it would be naive to suggest that he is unconsciously psychic himself.
Brown mentions that his friend, the illusionist Ian Rowland, was on a chat show demonstrating that he could achieve the same results as the other guest, a self-proclaimed psychic. “Afterwards they had a phone-in and everyone still wanted to speak to the ‘genuine’ psychic!” But of course, the fact that alleged psychic phenomena can be duplicated by a competent mentalist is merely suggestive of the idea that the psychic power does not exist, not a proof. Reviewing a duplication of ‘psychic surgery’ by James Randi, Robert Anton Wilson commented: “[He] claimed that because this performance was a fake, all similar performances must be fakes. There seems to be an undistributed middle in that syllogism; or does the fact that one duck is brown prove that all ducks are brown, and does one counterfeit dollar bill prove that all dollar bills are counterfeit?”
Asked whether his experience in hypnosis informs his opinion of alleged encounters with, for example, ghosts or aliens, Brown comments: “Definitely. Hypnotic phenomena can be quite fascinating because it’s so difficult to know whether a person is really experiencing what they’re expressing, or whether they’re really playing the role of a person who’s experiencing that. There’s such a wide range of experience with hypnosis. But I’m used to seeing how easily people will experience things that are suggested to them when they’re left to make certain connections for themselves, and how frighteningly predictable people can be with things that I know aren’t real, because I’m creating them as illusions. On the other hand, if I say that UFOs are hypnotic phenomena, I’m falling into the same pattern as people who see UFOs and say they are definitely alien craft. My feelings are certainly sceptical. I’d need to experience it or be close enough to make an informed judgement. I’ve worked closely enough with the whole New Age crystal healing scene to have very clear views that I feel are well informed, to be able to defend my scepticism and not feel I’m spouting some materialist rant. You can be as much a true believer in scepticism as you can in anything else. However, I know a couple of people who claim to have seen ghosts, and they’re serious, solid people who don’t strike me as particularly hysterical. It was really interesting to hear, and I avoid making any rash judgements about meaning. I’ve had no such experiences myself. You see, I do one trick where I hold a card and ask someone to name their favourite card. If they guess right, I show them and move on. If they’re wrong, I find the card in the deck and do a trick with it. If they’re right though, they see it as an absolute miracle. Such ‘miracles’ can sometimes permanently affect the way people perceive the world. Coincidence, perception, false memory and anecdotal autosuggestion are all things I’m familiar with and use in my work. On the other hand, one guy I know worked in a yoghurt shop where a spectral woman in period dress walked in every Friday. It’s interesting, and very specific – but it’s still in the context of his memory of it, his embellishment of it, and the kinds of things that happen to memories.”
“I’ m open-minded, but you can be open-minded to the point where your brain falls out. For example, you don’t want to be too open-minded about the laws of gravity if you’re flying a plane with hundreds of passengers in it! You have information, so make use of it. With regard to the New Age thing, we have information; we understand processes like suggestion, placebo, and coincidence. A refusal to bring that knowledge into play isn’t really open-mindedness. The idea that you can intuit your way, that what feels right must be true, frustrates me. It’ s not open-minded, it’s horrifically narrow-minded and ultimately arrogant. Criticisms may be made against Western scientific method, but in essence it’s based on constantly trying, testing and moving forward. If it made for worthwhile performance I’d have taken a very hard line debunking some New Age stuff – but it just doesn’t work; you end up seeming an embittered person. The key is to pursue your own positive line, but a line that is incompatible with psychic ability – which is what I do. I feel very strongly about the whole area of woolly thinking.
“My performance does rely on people’s willingness to be deceived, but at the same time, the message is that though it may look paranormal, it’s actually based on ordinary, everyday things that we do all the time. I’m just good at them. I’ve practised a lot. However, people are resistant to changing their beliefs. It seems to me to be a lively thing that there are con men out there, as long as they’re not hurting people. Equally, you’ve got to have the other side striving to debunk them – that’s a healthy dynamic. But, when you look at it, there are huge moral problems with the psychics and a lot of witless unpleasantries associated with the debunkers.”
Brown has no interest in the occult side of magic. “I was quite religious when I was younger,” he says, “so I found all that stuff rather ‘dodgy’. I’m no longer religious, but I do feel that the possibly intriguing and stylishly macabre façade of the occult dissolves on touch into the same circular, vapid nonsense that any New Age True Believers will spout. I imagine that the occult appeals more to the social outcast with a grudge, rather than the standard do-gooder, lobotomised flower-fairy. And possibly the former is more interesting. Certainly few things are as genuinely funny as seeing modern-day British witches doing a bit of PR for the coven on Trisha-style chat shows!”
Brown views other claims of psychic phenomena with similar scepticism. Discussing remote viewing (RV), he comments: “Like so many apparently psychic demonstrations, there arises that curious phenomenon that a man in a tuxedo doing it on stage is not as convincing as a scruffy, nervous type doing it away from a theatre – especially if it can be shown in grainy documentary footage. As if the clothes one wears, or where one stands, makes any difference to whether the known laws of physics can be upturned!”
I comment that in the USA, the CIA and NSA were involved in RV research (Operations Stargate, Grillflame etc), but Brown is unimpressed. “The US government is enormous, sprawling, and full of people wanting to spend their budgets researching various schemes. There’s a world of difference between what passes as ‘government funding’ for a project, and any sense that the White House or the CIA are actually engaging in important, priority research. People who confuse the two make the same mistake as those people who say that the healing properties of crystals or other nonsense have been ‘scientifically proved’ – and they normally say this in the same breath as denouncing every aspect of the Western scientific method.”
Does Brown ever get taken in by what other illusionists do? “Sure – yeah. But what really excites me is good performance, not so much being tricked. I may not really care how a trick is achieved, but a good performer will make you care about it. I’ve made a decision to leave behind traditional conjuring. My interest in it is still there, and I’ll still watch good magic on the telly, but it doesn’t feel right for me any more – I find it a little bit silly. Perhaps that’s unfair – certainly there are a lot of magicians who wouldn’t care to hear me say that, but I find I care less and less about card tricks and things disappearing and appearing. It’s whether the performer brings it to life – which is one of the reasons I do what I do now.
“I felt I wanted to make something new out of magic, make it more interesting and connect with people more, so that the audience isn’t suspending disbelief, but really engaging in belief and being made to think. Of course, if you make the Statue of Liberty disappear it’s fantastic, but it’s also something that is obviously ‘just a trick’, whereas I wanted to get under people’s skin more. This meant downplaying it a lot, letting people in, but not quite far enough to explain exactly how it’s done.”
Broadcast on Channel 4 last year, Brown’s ‘live’ Russian roulette stunt was rather atypical of his work: a large-scale spectacle, which divided his audience into those who were sickened, and those who were exhilarated by his showmanship and nerve. As to the issue of whether he used live bullets or not, he is limited in what he can say about it due the risk of a police inquiry. But again, the impact of the spectacle itself is more important than its ‘reality’. “People like to be fooled,” he comments, “but resent being cheated.”
This year Brown returns to what he does best: a tour of live shows followed by a West End run, a new TV series, Trick of the Mind, and a TV special going out at the end of May. The latter, involving 12 participants filmed in a secret location, will be an attempt to recreate a séance on television. Brown is reluctant to give away any details at this stage, but says that while he will employ some of the props and paraphernalia associated with the traditional séance, his intention is neither to hoodwink nor to debunk:
“I love the whole interaction of genuine psychological techniques and fraudulent psychic ones. I’m not interested in debunking spiritualist claims about contact with the afterlife, so much as replicating some of these techniques and providing alternative explanations. Debunking is essentially negative, and not as interesting.
Instead, I’m working with a group of modern, sceptical people and seeing to what extent they are taken in by it. It’s a psychological experiment, and it’s ultimately the psychological trip that the participants take, their own journey through the experience, that will, I hope, make it fascinating.”
Talk of the opportunity for viewers at home to get involved, and a live phone in, put me in mind of Uri Geller’s TV appearances in the 1970s, but I suspect Brown has something rather different up his sleeve.
I for one am looking forward to being further deceived and enchanted – but Brown’s version of magic is not merely entertaining, it challenges you to examine your own beliefs. To me, it also suggests that a radical shift in the way we examine and interpret many fortean phenomena is long overdue.