Day: September 12, 2009

Why I Love Derren Brown

This week, Derren Brown predicted the lottery numbers.

Well, that’s what he said he was going to do, and that’s what he presented. He showed a set of six balls, kept them in full view throughout the live lottery broadcast, then revealed that the numbers on the other side of the balls were the winning numbers. Then he said his show on Friday would show how he did it.

Following the ‘revelation’ a lot of people are disappointed. They genuinely believed he would reveal the technique he used.

Strangely, they’re disappointed because they’ve believed everything he’s ever said previously, when the only thing they should actually believe is his standard ‘disclaimer’: That he uses ‘magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship’.

The prediction was a traditional mentalist prediction in every form. The performer has a ‘prediction’ which he places somewhere he can’t tamper with it, the event happens, then the performer reveals his prediction. This has been the form of this trick for decades.

I don’t think I’m revealing any deep secrets when I say that it’s impossible to guess the numbers, and almost impossible to accurately rig a lottery machine. So if you discount those possibilities, all that’s left is how to get the numbers onto the balls after they’ve come up on the broadcast. There are several ways this could have been done, ranging from an enormously complex split screen camera effect (which I doubt because it would break Derren’s ‘rules’) to electronic balls, laser etching, projection or (my theory) a hidden printing mechanism under the balls.

But how he did the actual trick isn’t really important. It was a perfectly performed illusion, and got a lot of people watching. Which is good, I think.

But the ‘revelation’ on Friday was problematic for me. I was fairly sure he wouldn’t go anywhere near the actual technique (because, frankly, magical techniques are clever, but ultimately mundane, compared to the effect they have). So how would he fill an hour while a) not talking about how he did it, and b) not outright lying.

I have a lot of respect for Derren. I think he’s one of the good guys. His book, Tricks of the Mind, was a fascinating look at mind, belief, memory and ended up almost as a fluffier version of Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’. And he’s never claimed to have (or believe in) psychic powers, even when presenting effects that seem to require them.

In ‘The System’ he appeared to be saying that it was possible to predict horse races, but the revelation was actually satisfying (topped off by a genuine magic trick). In one of his Tricks of the Mind he appeared to have hypnotised someone into being able to play piano like a virtuoso. I grew more and more uncomfortable with that show, as I knew it was impossible, but the revelation at the end actually moved me to tears.

I have an expectation that Derren will ‘play fair’ with the audience. Within the context of a magical performance, that is, where you expect the performer to declare that he’s doing something that appears impossible.

So I do get uncomfortable when he starts talking about the PEAR experiments. These were experiments performed (in part) to detect psychokinesis, the ability to affect the random behaviour of a machine using the mind. They initially said they were successful, but later analyses showed that their results weren’t as good as they suggested.

Derren then showed a nice trick with coin tossing that appeared to show an effect, but then explained it was a maths trick. Then, significantly, he said something like ‘and it turned out that the PEAR results didn’t really stand up’. Now, he said that casually, almost throwaway, so most of the audience probably didn’t really notice, so the strong suggestion that it’s possible to affect things with the mind remained, but he did that while still telling the truth about the experiments. That pleased me a lot.

Then came the main part of the programme, where he had a group of people harnessing ‘the wisdom of crowds’ to predict the lottery numbers. I’ve got an idea how this was done, but it’s enough to say this was another trick. But basically, this was just another piece of misdirection.

Then, just as you think he’s saying that’s how he did it, he did a very funny description of how he might have fixed the lottery machine.

And right at the end, with an almost straight face, he said ‘So I couldn’t possibly admit that I fixed the machine – which I didn’t – so now, when people ask me how I did it, I’ll just say “It was a trick”.’

Perfect. He managed a whole hour of fun and misdirection, and yet he genuinely did say how he did it.

And that’s why I love Derren Brown.