Derren Brown
October 12, 2019 12:30 PM   Subscribe

Adam Green profiles British mentalist Derren Brown for the New Yorker.
posted by wittgenstein (45 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have no idea what mentalism is about or how it's done and how Brown can possibly get 2 hours of minor suggestions to lead up to a fail-proof show ending moment. It's cool he can do that, though.

This was an excellent medium-length read on a topic I never think about and a person I've never heard of before, but I'm mighty glad I read it. Thanks for posting!
posted by hippybear at 1:00 PM on October 12, 2019 [3 favorites]


“No!” Brown said in a stage whisper. “No, it’s not. It is not fair. It is inevitable.”

The technical term is "forced", so yes inevitable as it was a carefully planned element of the show. Sounds like a great fun show!

Rather long ago I dug into a very scientific book about psychic phenomenon, impressed with the careful discussion of possibilities -- very academic, and dug back into the notes about the methodology and what did I see, an explicit description of a magic trick I'd been thinking of buying.
posted by sammyo at 1:01 PM on October 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


and how Brown can possibly get 2 hours of minor suggestions to lead up to a fail-proof show ending moment.

He doesn't, any more than David Copperfield really escaped from a detonating building or made the Statue of Liberty disappear. That's what the profile hints around, because Brown isn't going to come out and tell you exactly how he does the trick, as much as the explanation is part of his stage act.
posted by muddgirl at 1:23 PM on October 12, 2019 [7 favorites]


That piece went somewhere completely different to where I expected. I really liked it.
posted by Kattullus at 2:05 PM on October 12, 2019 [2 favorites]


It ends with the author and Derren going to a "legit" psychic:

It’s lovely. I felt really sort of warm toward her, and you could sort of imagine people going back and having a chat. Though a little bit of ectoplasm would have been appreciated.”

I think it's possible that some psychics are just very good cold readers, get intense feedback from their marks, and just don't fully realized it, reinforcing a personal belief that some spirit is working through them, a bit delusional.
posted by sammyo at 2:06 PM on October 12, 2019 [8 favorites]


I’ve winced at the way Brown has, at least in the past, claimed that his little bits of auto-suggestion are genuine psychological hacks instead of magic tricks. There’s a fine line with magicians; they say, without saying so, that they’re lying to you. They don’t give the game away, but they don’t insist that there is no game (if they did, paradoxically, the audience might trust them less). But that doesn’t include claims that they are telling a truth about psychology, which Derren Brown does. In short: please don’t believe you’ve learned anything about human nature from Derren Brown.
posted by argybarg at 2:08 PM on October 12, 2019 [9 favorites]


I’ve winced at the way Brown has, at least in the past, claimed that his little bits of auto-suggestion are genuine psychological hacks instead of magic tricks.

As described here, isn't that pretty much his schtick? If it's different from what magicians usually do, it's mostly because people are generally more predisposed to believe a bit of pseudo-psychology than they are to believe that you're really vanishing people.
posted by atoxyl at 2:14 PM on October 12, 2019 [8 favorites]


I think it's possible that some psychics are just very good cold readers, get intense feedback from their marks, and just don't fully realized it, reinforcing a personal belief that some spirit is working through them, a bit delusional.

This describes a close family friend to a T. She comes across as a bit kooky, and there's no doubt in her mind that the tarot taps into the deep mysteries of the universe. She is also a very self-deprecating person, sees herself as a vessel for universal energies greater than herself, etc. And, importantly, readings of various sorts are not her livelihood, so she isn't operating under any sort of profit motive. But. She is easily the most talented cold reader I've ever met. She is fully present when she listens/observes, and picks up on visual and verbal tells other folks miss. I've found that there's no point in telling white lies as part of the ordinary social niceties of casual conversation, because she's so good at picking up on them and digging deeper that's it's less awkward to just talk straight with her.
posted by belarius at 2:15 PM on October 12, 2019 [13 favorites]


belarius, the funny thing about all this is that if you try to set it up as a double-blind randomized trial, it will fail, because you've meticulously removed all the little clues that the person doesn't even know they're relying on. :-)
posted by Belostomatidae at 3:32 PM on October 12, 2019


Adam Green profiles British mentalist Derren Brown for the New Yorker.

In Britain, the word “mentalist” has quite different connotations.
posted by acb at 3:39 PM on October 12, 2019 [8 favorites]


I met him once, on the street in London, ooh back around 2003, when he was HUGE in the UK, doing loads of incredible TV specials etc.

I was with my then boyfriend, who knew him, and we bumped into him, I was introduced, we made polite conversation and that was that. Just a nice guy wearing cream and beige, totally unremarkable and unsurprising. But I spent the whole conversation slightly on edge, wondering what he was really thinking, what he might say or do next. It made me think, it's a hard route to choose for yourself, makes it tough for people to get close to you. Not because, as his friend, you'd necessarily feel like he was about to literally start doing tricks on you. Just because of that sneaking feeling that he always knew more, saw more, had some greater insight, more powerful observation or memory about any given situation than you did. It could be unsettling to know that he had the potential to unnerve you and make you feel controlled, even if he didn't use it socially.

Think he's a genuinely nice guy, though. There's a lovely tale, which I'm struggling to find a reference for now, about how one of his sidekicks is a guy who was just a fan and enthusiast and they got to know one another and he totally took him on and gave him the chance to be a part of his team.
posted by penguin pie at 3:41 PM on October 12, 2019 [5 favorites]


In Britain, the word “mentalist” has quite different connotations.

Ha - thanks almost entirely to Alan Partridge, I think... (at least that's always been my association).
posted by penguin pie at 3:48 PM on October 12, 2019 [3 favorites]


I love tricks!
posted by Ideefixe at 5:13 PM on October 12, 2019 [2 favorites]


I always liked his schtick, but I thought he was fairly well known here in the States. I saw him on TV quite a few times.
posted by bongo_x at 5:50 PM on October 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


After reading that article I watched his special where he

*spolier alert*



persuaded several subjects to push someone off a roof presumably to their death. I searched in vain for any information about the mental health of the subjects afterward.
posted by PhineasGage at 6:25 PM on October 12, 2019 [2 favorites]


A few weeks back I saw an early preview of his Broadway show. I went in expecting not to enjoy it—I guess my preconceived notion of mentalists was very trickstery and “haha, I got you.” But I REALLY enjoyed the show—nothing seemed at the expense of the audience. It was more like, “we’re all in this together.” And the dude is an amazing showman; he’s got a whole pile of stage presence.

On my way home I was texting a friend who worked on the show, who is similarly skeptic. “It’s good, right? Derren is a genius,” was his response. Chatting with my coworkers the next day (we got free tickets through work) they also all seemed to have enjoyed it.

Anyway. It’s a fun time, and hasn’t been selling well, so you can probably pick tickets up for cheap. Totally worth it.
posted by mollymayhem at 6:34 PM on October 12, 2019 [4 favorites]


It's fun. Mentalism is a blurry blend of psychological suggestions & magic tricks, with some audience selection helping along. My fave old school Mentalist (mentioned in the article) is The Amazing Kreskin! Who was famously denounced by Penn & Teller for claiming that all of his tricks were done by "purely scientific means"... which is totally hilarious!
posted by ovvl at 7:10 PM on October 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


I’ve winced at the way Brown has, at least in the past, claimed that his little bits of auto-suggestion are genuine psychological hacks instead of magic tricks.

As described here, isn't that pretty much his schtick? If it's different from what magicians usually do, it's mostly because people are generally more predisposed to believe a bit of pseudo-psychology than they are to believe that you're really vanishing people.


I feel like what Derren Brown does is, in some really important ways, different from what regular magicians do, and close to what fraudulent psychics like Uri Geller do:

A regular magician does a trick with misdirection and some misonformation, but there is expected to be a shared understanding that they are tricking us: They did not really make that thing disappear or get teleported. We all understand that it's a game, and that there will be some playful misdirection.

A sham psychic tells us a lie with the intention of us actually believiing it, and gets that result from a lot of people.

I feel like Derren Brown's work crosses that line into lying. He tells a story about the amazing psycholological methods at work his tricks, which, at least in some cases, feels like it aims (and succeeds) to get people to believe that those methods are at work, in cases where it's just a magic trick.

To me, that's not playful misdirection. It's lying. And it's lying in a way that leads the audience to be misinformed about how the world works (in the same way as sham psychics). The lie isn't "psychic powers exist", it's "this psychological phenomenon exists and can be used in this way, to this effect". But it's still a lie...
posted by ManInSuit at 7:13 PM on October 12, 2019 [10 favorites]


Derren Brown’s TED talk, April 2019 — Speaker intro and video: Mentalism, mind reading, and the art of getting inside your head.
posted by cenoxo at 7:57 PM on October 12, 2019 [2 favorites]


I saw his show today with my 13 year old daughter. I also know the mechanism of more than a few hypnotic techniques, cold reading and mentalism/magic tricks.

Both of us really enjoyed the show, as did a very appreciative audience, but there were definitely times that I was more aware of what he was doing as a magician than I wish I had been.

His stage presence and sense of humor were great though, and I didn’t get the feeling that anyone really thought that they were more than magic tricks. For me the ‘lying’ about the mechanism is just another sort of misdirection and misinformation to make the tricks more compelling.

Credulous people will be credulous even if you can prove that their misapprehensions are false.
posted by Calibandage at 8:41 PM on October 12, 2019 [3 favorites]


There’s a fine line with magicians; they say, without saying so, that they’re lying to you.

Penn and Teller make it a point to tell you explicitly in their performance that they are lying to you, tricking you, without giving away any of the details of the mechanisms by which their tricks work.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 8:44 PM on October 12, 2019 [3 favorites]


Penn and Teller have a few interesting bits where they show you an old trick (like ball in cup), then purportedly show you how the trick is done (like by using glass cups where you can see the sleight of hand), THEN finish with a twist that looks like real magic. It's a really impressive way to play both sides of the performance.

I do think a lot of people believe that Brown is doing his tricks the way he's claiming to do them. A lot of his recent bigger specials (like the one where he convinced people to commit fake murder, or the recent one where he convinced a racist guy to save the life of someone who was the fake victim of a hate crime) are closer to improv than mentalism - the people involved are often amateur actors and it's really hard to believe that they don't realize they are on a Derren Brown special since they, you know, auditioned to be in a Derren Brown special.
posted by muddgirl at 8:56 PM on October 12, 2019 [5 favorites]


> Derren Brown’s TED talk, April 2019...[link]

Some interesting comments there, including:
...
An explanation [of how Brown does this] would've been nice. Look up Mentalism as related to psychology and do research. Also, remember that just because he says he doesn't cheat, doesn't mean he isn't lying. Just because he's standing up there talking for TED doesn't mean he won't lie. And I don't think they put any precautions in to prevent him from cheating, so... Take what you will from this...
Is Mentalism a process of astute cold reading, showmanship smooth lies, and trickery, or is it merely harmless pretexts to reach a satisfying (and entertaining) result?

Skip the waterboarding: perhaps skilled Mentalists would make good interrogators.
posted by cenoxo at 10:51 PM on October 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


I'm more inclined to believe mentalism is a magician doing classic tricks delivered in a wrapper which implies manipulation and/or extraordinary insight.
posted by hippybear at 11:09 PM on October 12, 2019 [4 favorites]


I love Derren Brown. Here are the previousier posts here, including one of mine with a borked link.
posted by growabrain at 11:45 PM on October 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


He seems like a very genuinely nice dude, but the sheer contempt for the audience in the show where they spent a month on TV hyping that he was going to predict the lottery numbers, and he did - on "tape", shown of course after the draw - soured me on his act significantly.
posted by ominous_paws at 1:05 AM on October 13, 2019


Netflix has six of his shows right now! Here is Something Wicked This Way Comes on youtube
posted by growabrain at 3:47 AM on October 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


persuaded several subjects to push someone off a roof presumably to their death. I searched in vain for any information about the mental health of the subjects afterward.
This sort of thing makes me want to move to a forest somewhere, out of range of TV signals, and let the world kill itself. I just don't see the entertainment value - it just makes me want to die.
posted by winterhill at 3:52 AM on October 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


His laying on a bed of broken glass (in my last link above, 40min. in) and letting an audience member stand on his face is quite disturbing.
posted by growabrain at 4:25 AM on October 13, 2019


Muddgirl: I do think a lot of people believe that Brown is doing his tricks the way he's claiming to do them. A lot of his recent bigger specials (like the one where he convinced people to commit fake murder, or the recent one where he convinced a racist guy to save the life of someone who was the fake victim of a hate crime) are closer to improv than mentalism - the people involved are often amateur actors and it's really hard to believe that they don't realize they are on a Derren Brown special , since they, you know, auditioned to be in a Derren Brown special.

I found Gustav Kuhn’s book Experiencing The Impossible about the study of why magic works and it’s relation to human perception, psychology, and other disciplines to be a great read. He mentions Derren Brown quite a bit in the book as someone who had applied perceptual tricks (misdirection, suggestions, etc) in a novel way to bring a fresh look to the old mentalist routines.

That said, showmanship is number one in magic. If a scientific principle, gimmick, outright lie, or some combination of the three is needed to get over on the audience, that’s what they’ll do. Misdirection isn’t just for the stage; I’d take anything Derren Brown says about the workings behind his tricks with a grain of salt. If there is a emerging field of magic study as Kuhn’s book describes, I don’t know how that is sustainable when the practitioners that you’re looking to examine aren’t up for airing the details behind their work.

Back to Derren Brown specifically, this bit with using “suggestion” to convince an audience member to try to kill Stephen Fry with a blanked pistol ala The Manchurian Candidate stretched the suspension of disbelief too far.
posted by dr_dank at 5:47 AM on October 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


If you haven't please check out some early Derren Brown on youtube. He has some fantastic early tricks where he uses misdirection to buy stuff with blank pieces of paper, approach strangers and asks for their wallets and watches, gets an entire mall to all stop mid-stride at the same time and raise their hands, primes some people to rob an armored truck (they do it), etc. It's really fantastic stuff, and has genuinely changed how I think about marketing and messaging in daily life. In one show he uses a placebo pill to get people to overcome their fear of heights, people, etc.

In one of my favorites Derren Brown works with a man who feels guilt over being fearful of other people. At the end of the show, he arranges a set up where a man steals a stranger's purse. The man gets up, shouts at the guy to stop, and then chases him into an abandoned building, through alleys, confronts him, and takes away the purse. As he's standing there, it's revealed that all of his friends and family are there too - astonished.

In another he primes a bunch of people using subliminal messaging during a week long seminar to rob an armored truck. Will a bunch of random people who sit through a presentation go out and rob and armored truck after? Go find out :-)
posted by xammerboy at 7:16 AM on October 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


There is one of these with Simon Peg where Derren uses subliminal messaging to basically program Peg into thinking something that is not true. It involves a bicycle. I never believed this is how the trick was actually done. If someone knows how the trick was actually done - can you memail me? I've thought about this for a long time. Or if you've figured out other cases where there was lying about the technique used to do the trick?
posted by xammerboy at 7:19 AM on October 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


Xammerboy, that’s exactly what concerns me. He “genuinely changed how [you] think about marketing and messaging.” But I don’t believe those stunts. I don’t think subliminal messaging and suggestions do what he claims they do. I think some combination of instant stooges and outright staging actually do what he says they do. But he presents it all as documentary evidence of how people can be manipulated. It isn’t. It’s a magic show. Don’t believe it.
posted by argybarg at 7:41 AM on October 13, 2019 [5 favorites]


Derren Brown does not use subliminal messaging to do anything. Period. Here is Brown saying that in his own words. I haven't read his book Tricks of the Mind but I probably should and so should anyone interested in Brown's supposed revelations about the human mind.
posted by muddgirl at 8:19 AM on October 13, 2019 [5 favorites]


The problem with Derren Brown's tricks (and mentalism in general) for me is that I do two things while watching them; I assume he is lying when he says things like he is not using a plant or stooge and I assume he uses the simplest, most obvious route to achieve his goal. For example, if he convinces someone to do something ridiculous, then they're probably in on the trick even if he claims he just met them. If he claims he has no idea what's written on the card in the envelope, he absolutely has read the card in the envelope and has probably read the details of the audience member's credit card used to purchase their seat. Because of this, mentalism tricks leave me cold. There's too many points in the performance where if you assume the magician is lying/using a stooge, the trick falls apart.
posted by dazed_one at 9:33 AM on October 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


There's a point in this article where Brown's manager comes out to where Green (the profiler) is waiting and pretends to know him, the entire point of which seems to be to confuse and distract Green, I guess? Throw him off his game? That's the point where I just noped out of ever consuming Brown's media in any way ever. I have spent my entire life getting gaslit, fucked with, but-what-did-I-do-wroooong-ed by men for their amusement and profit and no, just get in the god damned sea with your bad faith headgame shit.

If there's someone out there legitimately dissecting manipulation culture without participating in it as a stage show and a lifestyle, I'd love to know who those people are.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:47 PM on October 13, 2019 [5 favorites]


I’ve winced at the way Brown has, at least in the past, claimed that his little bits of auto-suggestion are genuine psychological hacks instead of magic tricks.

If you mean how he does this on stage/on voice-over (when he "explains" how the trick works), he's doing that on the stage and therefore it's part of his act. Brown's conversation with Jamy Ian Smith back in 2003 pretty much confirms what he's doing, which is taking the old "I'm psychic" patter from old-school mentalists and instead saying "I'm using NLP/priming/body language, look how I inserted these words into the conversation". But it's still just patter. They even have a discussion about how far it's permissible to let the people who come up to him in the street think that going on a body language reading or NLP course is going to help them do what Brown does.
posted by pw201 at 12:56 PM on October 13, 2019 [5 favorites]


Yeah, in the era of trump and ultra-marketing and fake news, I'm really uncomfortable with the "look what I can make people do" content. I've watched all three of his shows available on Canadian Netflix and I admit to kind of half-consciously believing that there are advanced ways that 'mentalists' manipulate people and really can hold power over them and I don't know if that's true or not despite reading a bunch of people here saying it's not, and I think someone who doesn't have metafilter levels of introspection is going to come away with a much stronger message about manipulation.

Thought experiment: how much would Brown need to tweak his style and his approach to "manipulation" to fit in perfectly with the alt-right dudebros, the red pills and MRAs: the answer is a tiny, tiny amount. Brown is playing ambiguously with what quickly becomes ideology in other men's hands. Inherently reductionist and nihilistic ideology—the only type that can arise from the too-common principle that other people exist to be used.
posted by sylvanshine at 5:30 PM on October 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


As the author of the profile, I was never going to flat-out expose Derren's methods, but I definitely hoped to get across that old-fashioned deception and magician's tricks are very much in play when he does his thing. He says as much.

That said, early in his career, he was a little cheekier about passing himself off as the real thing--i.e. that he actually used cutting-edge psychology to manipulate and read people--and it got him publicly spanked for intellectual dishonesty. He's much more playful--and, with the caveat that being a magician involves lying, honest--about what he does now. What he does better than anyone else, IMO, is make the purported method plausible, mind-blowing, and entertaining.

Which may be why a lot of people continue to believe that he posesses ninja mind-control abilities, uses NLP, etc. To me, he is a superb entertainer, with a genuine ability to put into play our beliefs about what is possible.
posted by adgnyc at 10:04 AM on October 14, 2019 [32 favorites]


Thanks for that extra perspective, adgnyc!
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 11:21 AM on October 14, 2019 [2 favorites]


> As the author of the profile...

Dang, I love Metafilter.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:29 PM on October 14, 2019 [6 favorites]


calling a stage magician "lying" is almost on the same metaphorical level as calling someone who downloads a file exactly same thing as stealing a car.
posted by ovvl at 6:19 PM on October 15, 2019 [1 favorite]


People don't seem to think of Brown as a stage magician, though. They think of him almost like the TV version of Malcolm Gladwell. They think he's doing pop-science demonstrations.
posted by muddgirl at 6:27 PM on October 15, 2019 [3 favorites]


A Mentalist like Brown is a fancy stage magician, who shifts frames of reference around in order to seduce the audience into thinking for a moment that illusions are real, for entertainment purposes. Malcolm Gladwell also does something like that, but not exactly the same.
posted by ovvl at 5:13 PM on October 17, 2019


Yeah, in the era of trump and ultra-marketing and fake news, I'm really uncomfortable with the "look what I can make people do" content.

Urgh, not to derail, but I've had this with that "What Would You Do" TV show, where we're supposed to be entertained by a premise of "How does it feel to think someone you were afraid to chase just stole your phone, sucker? We totally lied to you and you fell for it!"
posted by rhizome at 5:30 PM on October 17, 2019


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