Freaking Out

I am increasingly aware that half the people I know regularly ‘freak out’. I don’t know precisely what this involves, but it happens a lot. It seems to be an interesting mixture of catch-all emotional reaction and a way of responding to the unknown. I’ve been trying to classify the different types:

  • An exaggeration of “I had a negative emotional reaction”. People get ‘freaked out’ in films that make you jump, but saying ‘it freaked me out’ sounds more primeval, mysterious and uncontrollable than ‘I jump when things frighten me’1.
  • The basic “I didn’t like it”. Put a fork anywhere near your eye and half the table will ‘freak out’. I think this is just another way of saying squick.
  • Unknown emotional reactions / cognitive dissonance; for example, coincidences. The brain doesn’t know how to resolve coincidences as there’s no pattern to detect, even though it seems like there should be. There’s no particular emotion associated with cognitive dissonance, so ‘it freaked me out’ substitutes as a way to react.
  • Related to the previous one – “I don’t understand what’s happening.” I know of people who won’t watch Derren Brown because he freaks them out.

That’s all I’ve picked up on so far. Anything else?

  1. this is not to mock – I jump at everything. Close a car door on the other side of the street and you’ll find me at the top of the nearest lamp post []

Derren Brown – Mind Reader: The Evening of Wonders

Derren Brown programme coverHalfway through the second act, Derren Brown called out my name and told me the first song I ever played on a guitar. It was quite the thing.

Derren Brown is a ‘psychological illusionist’ memorably described by Charlie Brooker as ‘clearly the greatest dinner party guest in history’. His TV shows regularly feature a mixture of street magic/psychology and elaborate, often controversial, events. He’s certainly the most interesting TV magician of recent years, and last night I saw him at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

Like his TV shows, the act was described as a mixture of ‘magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship’1, and lived up to the billing. We were told that during the show a gorilla would come onto the stage, steal a banana from a stand at the front, and most of us wouldn’t notice. So it proved. We saw an audience member forget information given to her moments before, a floating table drag four volunteers around the stage, six rapid-fire games of 20 questions in which he never asked more than 4, and a series of baffling three-digit-number predictions. Somebody’s phone rang and he said “don’t answer, it’s really bad news”.

Derren Brown is unquestionably on the side of Good. He says up front “I do not have psychic powers, and I may well trick you”, then proceeds to do so. People who claim to have psychic powers and use the same tricks to make money are unquestionably Evil2, the opposite are great entertainment. Some have questioned whether he goes too far: there’s plenty of genuine psychology, but also a fair amount of magical trickery wrapped up in the same patter. I was lucky enough to get an insight into this. At the end of the first act we were told to watch out for ushers with 150 cards. Recipients were asked to write a question for Derren on the card, seal it inside the supplied black envelope and note their initials and row on the front. They were then to check the envelope was truly opaque before walking onto the stage and placing it into a glass bowl, which remained in full view of the audience throughout the interval.

Obviously, I wanted to do this. So I did. I moved fairly quickly and was able to grab a card before they ran out. The card asked for my name, birthday and a question for Derren. He’d said it could be literally anything, so I wrote “How did the bee ‘waggle dance’ evolve?”. The back of the card then asked for a private piece of information to further test his abilities, so I filled this in too then quickly headed to the stage, dropped my envelope into the bowl and made it back to my seat just before the lights dimmed.

After a couple of tricks he explained the procedure. By looking at the handwriting on the front of the envelope he hoped to ascertain the personality type of its owner. We were to stand up, and he’d then read our body language and try to figure out what we’d written. And then proceeded to do so. He picked out apparently random cards, sometimes using them, sometimes discarding them, and called out the initials so the owner stood. He told people the pets they had, the password for their computer, their occupation and what they’d been doing that day. About half-way through he took off his microphone earpiece, in case anybody thought he was being fed answers, and wrapped bandages around his head to completely blind himself. And then continued with the act. The following exchange (transcribed as accurately as I can remember) happened shortly after:

DB: [picks up a card] A guitar! Andy..Andrew…does that match anybody?
Me: [standing up and receiving the microphone from a scurrying usher] Yes, that’s me.
DB: A Taurean, right?
Me: Yes. [gasps from audience]
DB: This is something musical, something to do with the guitar. I’m getting…It’s the first song you played on the guitar, am I right?
Me: Yes.
DB: Ok. About fifteen years old, right?
Me: No.
DB: It is older?
Me: Oh, me or the song?
DB: Never mind, one question at a time. Sing the song over in your head. Over and over. Try to project it to me.
Me: [actually doing so]. Ok.
DB: I’m getting something about…pain, is that close?
Me: Yes, very.
DB: And lots of pain. I can’t quite figure it out. There are many people in pain? Something like that?
Me: That’s very close.
DB: I can’t get the title I’m afraid, what is it?
Me: Everybody Hurts. [audience go into shock]

I was very, very impressed. The rest of the show was most entertaining, but I couldn’t quite get over him managing to detect that kind of information from what must have purely been the tone of my voice – it’s astonishing that people can give away that much information!

Later, I changed my mind. There’s no doubt that the guy has an uncanny ability to read people, and I was prepared to accept that handwriting could give away very obvious facts like gender, leaving him to discern the rest from body language, but blinded he couldn’t possibly have known my guitar fact and name. So it must have been trickery, rather than psychology. I’m confident I’ve worked out how it was done, starting from the age-old magical principle that there is no limit to the trouble a magician will go to. I’m not going to go into it here – I see no reason to, and am still bound by the old magician’s code anyway – but the clues are there if you want the intellectual exercise.

It is momentarily crushing to realise you’ve been fooled. I bought into the psychological aspect, and when I realised this was a falsehood I felt tricked. But not for long. Once you figure out the secret you can see the myriad of ways he worked to throw people off the scent, and it was remarkably well done. The subtlety and panache of just that one trick was stunning, and his performance impeccable: I believed every second of him not being able to figure out the song title. There was plenty in the show that was clearly trickery, but I have no idea as to the mechanics. Other effects gave every impression of being purely psychological. I had the advantage of extra knowledge in the routine I was involved with, and if each of the others was as carefully constructed, which they must have been, it was a hell of a creation. My admiration far outweighs the initial resentment.

Derren Brown’s obfuscation of psychology and trickery is edgier than most magicians’, but I don’t have a problem with it. You don’t have to be a great logician to realise it’s impossible to get a psychological reading of somebody’s handwriting if you’re blindfolded, and throughout the show he was at pains to say he doesn’t believe in psychic ability and is highly skeptical with regard to the paranormal. I can’t think of any statements that were outright lies and not magician’s misdirection. There’s plenty in psychology that is astonishing – much of it is well highlighted in his more spectacular TV work – and anything that draws attention to it is fine with me.

A good magic show is a wonderful thing, and there aren’t many classier than this. Highly recommended.

  1. the programme is also “100% natural: we have used organic paper and done away with nasty chemicals or artificial inks.” Gotta love those natural inks. []
  2. it’s likely that some believe they have some genuine ability, but that’s not an excuse []