Half an hour after reading the secret thoughts of six random souls from loaded and making us all go “Wooaahh, f*ckinell!” a lot, Derren brown tells me I’m special. The 31-year-old mind-reader has spent the morning performing brain-bending stunts on us and he’s now sitting with me upstairs, in the studio’s empty canteen.
“You caught me out consistently,” he says. “I know the predictable pattern, and you didn’t follow it on either occasion.”
The experiment started with Brown asking us to stand up and hide a coin in one hand, behind our backs.
“I’m going to try and influence which hand you put it in, so don’t make a decision yet. You can either put the coin in the hand on one side, which, if you’re opposite me, would be your left, I guess. It’s not my left, but your left, if you’re opposite me.”
We’re all shooting each other very confused looks.
“It’s entirely up to you. So, give it some thought and when you’re ready, bring your hands out.”
For the first time that day, the six of us are silent. Having recently watch Derren brown’s Mind Control TV Specials that were filmed for Channel 4, we’re tense with expectation. In the shows, he made a cashier at the dogs pay out on a losing ticket, made a medical student’s hand go numb and pushed a needle through it, and guessed almost exactly the concept two advertising execs would come up with after being locked in a room and told to create an ad for a taxidermist (a bear playing a harp). And now, the little posh man with the funny beard has us enthralled.
“This is a test just to see what you’re like. I’ve told you that I’m going to influence your behaviour, then I make a point of slightly over-emphasising the left hand, and I count on most of you picking up on that and doing the exact opposite. So if you did that, and put it in your right hand, you’re out of the game. Sit down.”
Four sit down. There are two of us left.
“So you are the challengers. The ones most likely to catch me out. You didn’t fall for it. So put your hands behind your back and do it again. Now bring them back out.
“Great, OK. So the second time I tell you that you’re challengers and that should appeal to your pride and you make you want to catch me out again. When I say you will do the same thing again, I’m making you try to put the coin in the same hand again. If you did, sit down.”
And then, there’s just me.
“Marvellous. That leaves you as the least predictable person here. You’ve caught me out twice in a row. Fifty quid says I can guess you right fives times in a row.”
Rather than studying Law and German, as he was supposed to in his first years at university, Derren Brown worked on hypnosis. “I was inspired by a stage hypnotist, but I didn’t really want to do that – I didn’t want to make people look stupid. So I started doing magic. But the trouble with magic is that it’s either naff or, however good a trick it is, you know it’s just a trick. It’s inherently quite patronising. If you say, ‘When I click my fingers the coin travels through the air,’ you know it’s rubbish.”
Twelve years since he saw that stage hypnotist, brown, a fiercely intelligent and charismatic Bristolian, has developed his own unique act. It’s not magic, it’s not hypnosis, but the exploitation of the extraordinary complexities of the human mind.
“It’s difficult to explain,” he says. “I’m going for an effect, so I will stack things in my favour and cheat a bit through psychological techniques. It’s like when two people are in conversation, one person talks about the family and pets, then the other person talks about their family and pets. It’s two people talking about themselves. If you listen and watch, they tell you everything about how they see the world, what their triggers are and what their filters are between them and the rest of the world, what their predictable patterns are, how you can influence them. So, when you all walked in this morning, I was watching you and deciding, who’s the challenger? Who’s the joker? Who’s the cynic? I’m building a profile. Once I’ve done that, I know which effect I’ll do on whom.”
Derren keeps his £50. not only does he get me right every time, but he explains precisely the thought process that has led to each decision. I sit down, feeling dunceful, obvious and haunted. It’s as though the disembodied goatee-bearded mouth of the psy-controller was floating around behind my eyes and whispering secret instructions to me.
“Think of a number between 30 and 100,” he says, turning his attention to my boss, Danny. “Write it down and read what you’ve written a couple of times. Now get rid of it, put it in your pocket or something. You’ve now got the number right in front of your mind. Statistically, people will go for certain numbers. I’m going to write a few down, so be careful you don’t react in a big way.”
Brown opens a pad and writes eight number down.
“A lot of it works on introverts and extroverts. An extrovert, classically, will choose these numbers. I think you would have reacted to one there if it had been one of them, so I’m guessing it probably isn’t.”
Danny sits watching, giving nothing away…
“Why did you pick Danny?” I ask later, fishing for damaging psychological info that I can use against him at a later date.
“I knew he was going to be much more cynical, much more detached. He’s the type who’ll keep calm and solid and have explanations for everything.”
He’s right. Danny is exactly that type of person. B*stard. The ability Brown has to read people so quickly must be an excellent life skill. Imagine, for example, being able to tell if a girl’s mental or not within ten minutes of meeting her. “Ten minutes?” he says. “I could tell in two. Every conversation they have is a microcosm, a tiny version of how they are going to react to things in life and what their natural patterns of things are, what chains of thought they go through, how they represent things to themselves and then react to those things with an emotional response.”
I wonder about other situations where Brown uses his skills. He coyly admits to using the fake-payout stunt at the races to make money, getting away with free meals in restaurants, and says he used to use his knowledge to persuade women into going out with him. But that was then. He’s single now, describing himself as “quite a loner around Bristol”, and he doesn’t enjoy the experience of being stopped in the street by lady fans. He says the “Oh my God” reaction from women is exactly the thing that turns him off. “What you want,” he says, “is somebody who is just not going to pay attention.”
Women and money may be out these days, but there are other, more unexpected, occasions where his knowledge has proved vital.
“I was coming back from this gig in Wales and this guy walked past. He was really drunk, and I’m wearing a velvet suit, not looking good. And he was like, ‘What the f*ck are you looking at?’ and he came up close, really nasty. So I said to him ‘Well, the wall outside my house isn’t four feet high.’ And he was like, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘When I was in Spain, the walls were really tall, but over here they’re really way down here.’ And then he just looked at me and went, ‘Aargh!’ and broke down in tears.
“I was completely calm and in control. What I said made sense, but his brain was going: ‘Have I? Is it? What if…?’ and the rug was completely pulled from under him. It’s all about bending and pushing a situation without making it seem like you’re doing anything at all. It’s these weird states of mind we get in where we become massively suggestible.”
We’re not sure at which point Brown put Danny into a suggestible state this morning, he’s obviously done something spooky.
“So it’s none of these numbers?” he says, noting Danny’s lack of reaction to the eight numbers he’s written down. “Well, an introvert picks very different numbers.” He writes down another eight numbers. “Again, you’re not reacting to any of them, so I’m guessing it’s none of these or any obvious combination of them. Look at me, just think of the number. I’m getting one and four. Is it 41?”
“No.” says Danny, smiling. We all sit up. Hang on…
“Oh. So 41 isn’t right. But I’m guessing it’s none of the numbers I’ve written down and no immediate combination of them.”
“There is a combination,” Danny says, pointing at the three.
“Was that the number you were thinking of?” Derren says, frowning. “Thirty-three? Hmm, I’m clutching at straws a bit here, but that” – he points at all the numbers in the bottom line – “adds up to 33. That works. If you go along the top, that adds up to 33. If you take a diagonal like that, that adds up to 33, too. If you take that box there, that adds up to 33. The box in the middle adds up to 33, and the numbers in the corner, 14, 10, eight and one, add up to your number.”
“Does everyone pick 33?” Danny says, sounding a little crumpled.
“You’re going to worry about that for the rest of you life.” Says Derren
The refreshing thing about Brown is that he doesn’t claim to be ‘magic’. Unlike his irritating pal, the repellent David Blaine, he doesn’t draw eyeballs on his hand with a biro on breakfast TV and imagine he’s fooled everyone into thinking he’s got special powers. In fact, brown’s journey into areas that are traditionally drowned in half-boiled spiritualist cock-water has convinced him not to believe in the supernatural.
This pragmatic approach engages the audience in a unique way, as he gives out real clues about what’s going on while he’s doing each stunt. For instance, earlier he said to the pale man of loaded’s picture desk. “Simon, I can’t read your mind. This is not about mind-reading. I want you to think of a hobby or interest that you’ve been into that nobody else knows about.”
“OK.” Simon says, peering up nervously from under his startling eyebrows.
“Well, you’ll have gone for something that you think will reflect well to your group. It will be something creative, something you do with your hands. Don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s not going to be anything sociable. It’ll be something you would do on your own. You still keep things associated with it. Are you making stuff? Like aeroplanes stuff? Like, models?”
“Jesus, yeah.” Simon says, smiling.
Two days after out interview, I’m transcribing the tape I made of the coin trick Derren did on me. The one where he told me I was special, that I’d caught him out every time. Something about it makes me suspicious. I write him an email:
Just been reading through the coin stunt and I’m now convinced that you actually whittled me down as the person most open to suggestion, and all that stuff about being the “least predictable” was just flattery and part of the smoke and mirrors.
Two hours later, I get a response
you might be right. but that would be telling.
Derren’s Guide to…
Not paying Parking Tickets
“This will work with all sorts of situations, but you need a very natural and confident manner to carry it off. This is essentially what I did at the dog track to make them pay out on losing tickets. This is bad. Illustration purposes only of course…”
Approach the warden saying “No problem – I do apologize, entirely my fault. You clearly have a job to do and I should have been more careful, and I should learn to shake my hand.” This last bit, which makes no sense, is said quickly and casually, as you extend your hand in a friendly gesture. He should take it, which he wouldn’t otherwise. Then as he does, say, “Hey, I met your dad yesterday. He’s looking well.” You are going to induce a state of confusion and suggestibility.
Don’t quite shake hands with him. Take his wrist with your left hand and slowly bring his hand up in front of his face. Point at his palm with your right forefinger. Firmly but calmly say, “Look here. And of course you’ll wonder what the ticket is, just like waking up out of a dream three minutes from now and not sure what you’re doing. That’s fine, you can just throw it away wherever you like. Or put it in your pocket, it’s up to you.”
If you’ve done step 2 right, he’ll be very tranced out and just staring at his hand while you drive off. His unconscious will act upon your instructions as a relief from the utterly blank mind-state which you have induced. And giving him the double-bind option of whether to throw it away or putting it in his pocket is like asking a kid whether he wants to go to bed at 7:30 or *pm. Either way he goes to bed early, but he feels like he’s making the decision.
Derren’s guide to…
“These techniques only work when combined with a natural charming manner. But if you are still a bad person then use them.”
Maintaining a distance and a lack of obviously coarse interest, hold eye-contact and talk in a calm, rhythmical manner. As soon as is natural, get her on the subject of something she passionately enjoys.
Be interested in how this activity/interest makes her feel. You want her to really experience that state as she’s talking to you. The more details you ask for, the more she has to create it to answer.
Wait until she’s psychologically involved in that good feeling. You need to anchor that state to you. This works in the same way that a soon might take you back to a good or bad time and recreate that state. At the right moment, make a gesture, like straightening your tie or touching your ear, and repeat this every time she’s fully caught up in her ‘good’ feelings. After three or so times, you should have a good trigger.
Now change the subject, be your normal charming self, and at some point say something like, “I’m sure that you, like me, could do with a top up…”. As you say the words “you like me”, slow your voice down a tad and make your trigger gesture.
She should return to that state, and start to attach it to you. Use sentences like, “Do you have to read before you go to sleep? With me, I rarely have trouble getting off smoothly.” Watch for pupil dilation and for her feet to remain pointing to you, even if she appears uninterested.