March 28, 2005

Mind-Reading? No, Just Head Games

Derren Brown, it seems, can read the minds of pedestrians.

He can beat half a dozen world-class chess players in simultaneous games, determine how many fingers people are holding up behind their backs and talk a London cabdriver out of being able to find the London Eye, the huge Ferris wheel that looms over the Thames.

Naturally, none of his clever tricks will work on this psychologically astute interviewer, who plans to use mysterious journalistic techniques to unearth his darkest secrets. But the coolly charming Brown decides to try anyway. He produces a sheet of blank paper and issues an instruction: Draw a picture.

"Try to catch me out; make it a bit obscure," he orders. "Don't draw a house; don't draw a stick man." Walking to another room and out of sight, he decrees that the picture should be concealed until the end of the interview whereupon, he claims, he will reveal what it is.

Right.

Brown, 34, describes himself as a psychological illusionist, meaning that he uses a mix of techniques, including sleight of hand, misdirection, hypnotism and subliminal suggestion, to perform feats that seem impossible, even supernatural. He has become a British media star, unnerving audiences with his "Trick of the Mind" television programs and sold-out stage performances. But he is no David Blaine, shrouding himself in smoke and mystique, no show- bizzy David Copperfield.

He admits to possessing no magical powers. He is not psychic. He cannot read your thoughts by staring into your eyes. Everything he does, he says, can be logically parsed.

"I could sit someone down and take them through an episode of my show and explain everything," he said recently. (He could, but he will not.) It was a rainy evening and Brown, slender, with thinning hair and a goatee that can look menacing on television but not in person, was speaking over white wine at a London hotel.

Dressed in an expensive-looking suit, he seemed strikingly free from Blaine-style otherworldliness as he described how he became interested in magic when, as a student at Bristol University, he was riveted by a stage magician who came through town. Brown taught himself hypnotism, branched out into standard forms of magic and began performing in pubs and at parties.

One night, having just performed a particularly elaborate card trick, he realized that what he had enjoyed most was not the trick's execution, but its psychology, the interplay between magician and subject.

Brown devised a new approach that combines magic and psychology, tricks of the hands with tricks of the mind. Each of his programs starts with a disclaimer in which he asserts, essentially, that he is not supernatural, only clever.

In one episode of his show, Brown determines which of a number of used-car salesmen are lying about their pasts. In another, an undertaker hands him a stack of photographs of people, some of them dead, some living, and Brown successfully separates them into "deceased" and "live" piles. In yet another, he gives three men the task of moving a complicated set of random pieces of furniture from one room to another having successfully predicted exactly where, and in what configuration, the volunteers will place the pieces.

How does he pull it off?

Another difference between him and his trickster colleagues is that he is willing to reveal his techniques up to a point and sometimes dissects a stunt after the fact on his shows. But his ultimate coyness makes you want to grab him by the sharp lapels of his pinstriped suit and demand some answers.

"I'm purposely ambiguous, I realize," Brown said, "but the moment I explain something fully, the level of amazement disappears."

Brown is a born-again skeptic, a one-time fundamentalist Christian who renounced his religion in his 20s when he saw how uneasily his fellow Christians responded to his delvings into the unconscious.

Though the history of magic is also the history of those who want to debunk it, that is not Brown's aim, exactly: He is not setting out to expose or humiliate.

But at a troubled time in which the uneasy and the unfulfilled often seek extrasensory explanations for life's mysteries, Brown is a committed rationalist. In one program, he traveled to the United States and persuaded professional psychics and spiritualists that he was a bona fide practitioner of their arts, presenting himself at one point, for instance, as a man who learned to read minds after being struck by lightning.

That he always fooled them made him a little bit wistful. "I would love to be proved wrong," he said. "I would love to see a ghost. I would love for somebody to sit down and give me a psychic reading that I just can't explain."

Brown has little time for a social life these days; he split up with his last serious girlfriend several years ago. But he does not, as he says with a laugh, "use my powers for evil" he stretches the word out into "eeeee-VILL" by, for instance, transforming his powers of suggestion into powers of seduction. On the other hand, in his poorer days Brown was not above occasionally talking his way out of a restaurant check by convincing the waiter that he had already paid. Recently, he said, he used his talents to defuse a situation in which an aggressive youth approached him on the street, yelling, "What are you looking at?" (Brown responded with a rapid series of diversionary non sequiturs, he said; the man burst into tears.)

Now, back to the interviewer's hidden drawing. It is supposed to be a dress but looks more like a triangle decorated with circles and lines. Afraid that she would give it away, the interviewer has scrupulously avoided talking about dresses or indeed women's clothing of any kind.

Brown explains that some people are almost laughably simple to read, while others are more suggestible easy to influence into thinking or doing things. A third group, to which I am sure I belong, is neither.

Instructing me to concentrate, he pulls out a blank sheet of paper and begins sketching, chatting all the while. He tells me he "sees" a conical shape with spots on it some sort of decorated lamp with a blob on top. And knock me down if he does not produce a near- exact replica of my drawing, the only differences being that his has more dots than mine, and his stripes are horizontal, not vertical.

It is now clear why the actor, director and keen amateur magician Stephen Fry, snookered by a fiendish card trick, said, "I just want to burn him at the stake and watch his witch's heart bubble."

By way of appeasement, Brown explains a bit that I am sitting near a rug with geometric patterns that might have unconsciously inspired me, for instance. But he leaves me pleasantly unsatisfied.

Clearly, none of my obfuscatory skills worked on him. But maybe I should not feel too bad.

"Journalists tend to be very easy to do this with," he said.