Derren Brown Explains How We All Use Magic Without Even Realising

September 03, 2019 6:00 AM ‐ Psychic Readings

This article is more than three years old.

Speaking at his TED Talk about 'mentalism, mind reading and the art of getting inside your head', psychological illusionist Derren Brown explains how "magic is a great analogy for how we edit reality and form a story - and then mistake that story for the truth."

In a clever talk wrapped around a dazzling mind-reading performance, Derren explores the seductive appeal of finding simple answers to life's complex and subtle questions.

He begins by explaining that, "2e are all trapped inside our own heads, and our beliefs and our understandings about the world are limited by that perspective, which means we tell ourselves stories."

Derren says although we are in an "infinite data source" and there is an "infinite number of things that we could think about, but we edit and delete. We choose what to think about, what to pay attention to. We make up a story to make sense of what's going on."

And according to the British illusionist, we all get it wrong. He continues, "we're all trying to navigate with our own skewed compasses, and we all have our own baggage, but the stories themselves are utterly convincing."

Apparently we all do this, Derren says, "a lot of the stories that we live by aren't even our own. The first ones we inherit at a young age from our parents, who of course have their own skewed beliefs, their own frustrations, their own unlived lives. And for better or worse, we take all that onboard, and then we go out into the world thinking maybe we have to be successful to be loved; or that we always have to put other people's needs first; or that we have some big terrible secret we couldn't possible tell people."

But Derren says all of this is just fiction, "it's just stories, and we'd worry a lot less about what other people think of us if we realised how seldom they do."

Derren likens this storytelling to magic, "I feel that magic is a great analogy for how we edit reality and form a story and then mistake that story for the truth."

Derren told the audience at the TED Conference that he's had a 20-year career in the UK staging big psychological experiments on TV, and now that's on Netflix. Plus his new stage show hits Broadway this year. He says that in his shows he tries to "do something new with mentalism." Mentalism is the dubious art of getting inside your head. He continues, "there was a heyday for this kind of stage mind-reading, which was the 1930s."

He explains that there was an act known as the Oracle Act, "in the Oracle Act, members of the audience, as I know you have done, would write down secret questions, the sort of questions you might ask a psychic, seal that question into an envelope, and on the outside of the envelope they would write their initials and then roughly where they sat in the audience."

The Oracle, or mind reader, would take an envelope one at a time, he wouldn't open it, but he would attempt to divine what question was sealed inside. Derren says, "if he got that right, he would try and answer the question for the person too."

Derren says, "it's a testament, I think, to the seductive appeal of some powerful figure offering you easy, simple answers to life's complex and subtle questions and anxieties."

Despite admitting that he doesn't have any special psychological gifts, let alone any psychic ones, Derren attempted to recreate the act with the envelopes written by his audience.

Not only did Derren correctly "divine" the audience member's name, age range, where she's from but also guessed her questions, which was "will I sell the farm in Virginia?" Derren went on to tell the now shocked audience member where she studied and about a recent trip overseas.

Derren went out to successfully read the mind of one more audience member, or at least imply that he could. The final two Derren did while blindfolded. He said, "I'm going to blindfold myself. And I'm doing this now so I don't have the clues as you stand up."

This time Derren guessed the audience member's name was Allan and was able to some how obtain his computer's password. He exclaimed, "your password is 'ariboy'. A-r-i-b-o-y? Is that right?" The impressed audience member confirmer this was his correct password.

Summing up the act, Derran told the audience, "my job is to sell you a story, right? I try and do this to all of you, to get you to pay attention to one thing that I want you to find important, ignore other things that I want you to ignore, and then join up those narrative dots to tell yourself a certain story about what I'm doing, and this only works because we are story-forming creatures, which means we do this every day. We go out into this complex and subtle world full of a complex and subtle people like you and me, Allan, and we reduce them to these neat characters that fit whatever story we're telling ourselves, and we say, 'she's insecure,' 'he's arrogant,' 'they can't be trusted.' And these are just stories like the story that I can somehow read your mind."

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