Derren Brown: Underground – Review

I’ve been a fan of Derren Brown for a while. When I was 13 I bought Tricks of the Mind from Amazon for 1p. Although I had little idea who he was at the time after two weeks I’d watched every one of his TV shows and watched the recordings of his stage shows.

Tricks of the Mind is the book you have to thank for this blog. It was the book that introduced me to the ideas of scepticism, critical thinking and the power of our mind to mislead us. The book changed the direction of my life and gave me further motivation to study magic. A little over six years later the book is still one of my favourites.

I’ll be writing more on Brown and his books shortly but that’s not what this post is about. I hadn’t been planning to write this but on Saturday I went to see Browns latest show Derren Brown Underground and it blew me away.  Underground is a ‘best hits’ show featuring polished up versions of the best tricks from all his previous work built around a new theme.

Derren has asked us to keep the contents of the show secret so I won’t spoil anything but I’ll still try to get across how awesome the show is.

I’ve seen performances from some of the greats including: Penn and Teller, Paul Daniels and Gary the children’s magician from up the road. Underground blew all the others clear out the water so powerfully some went into orbit.

Browns performance will have you convinced that every single audience member present (except you) is in his pay but the scary thing is that this is simply not true. That’s what makes the show that much more mindblowing.

Brown is a master showman. His stage presence is powerful yet subtle. Intense but subdued. Forceful yet gentle. Every word and every pause is carefully accounted for. He had the audience in the palm of his hand throughout. Laughing, gasping and stunned in equal measure.

You’ll leave questioning whether everything you know about reality is false.  You might even swear that mindreading is real, psychic powers exist and that Derren Brown can see through a black envelope through a blindfold. You’ll also be very suspicious of any gorillas you see at the zoo.

Brown’s humanity and authentic respect is also evident throughout. He treats volunteers (well more like frisbee catchers) with kindness and humour. He doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence or celebrate his own brilliance. He just performs.

When you watch Brown you soon realise that in another lifetime he could be an excellent therapist just as he could be a brilliant conman if he wanted.

Brown is clearly a showman at the top of his game and in my view the best magician of his generation (sorry Dynamo).

If you haven’t already bought tickets to Underground (you only have a month left to catch it) then to borrow words from the magician Steven Bridges from when he interviewed Brown “you need to just make better life decisions.”

Methods of Mediums and Psychics

Trusting first impressions isn’t always a good idea.  Objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear and mediums who claim to be talking to the dead are probably just lying. In fact, when looking at the scientific evidence it is unlikely that any sort of genuine medium exists.

The psychic industry is worth billions and mediums can be very convincing. Below I’m going to list some common methods mediums use to con people so you can avoid frauds.

Cold Reading

Cold reading is the main technique that your garden variety medium will use. Wikipedia defines it as:

[A] set of techniques used by mentalists, psychics, fortune-tellers, mediums and illusionists (readers) to imply that the reader knows much more about the person than the reader actually does.

Cold reading doesn’t require any prior knowledge of a person and is therefore very useful for mediums. Performer and author Derren Brown describes it as “fascinating, powerful and hugely manipulative.”

This is a topic so large I couldn’t hope to cover it all in one blog post or even ten. One of the best books on the subject is the Full Facts Book of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland. I’ll draw a lot from his book for this post.

Rowland writes that within Cold Reading there are four major themes mediums draw on. These are: love, money, career, and health.  He also offers 38 elements that can go into a cold reading. These include elements about: character, events and facts, extracting information, and the future. Below I’ll go through seven of the 38 elements.

Seven Cold Reading Elements

1) Using greener grass statements that prey on our thoughts of “what if.” For example: “I sense that from time to time you find yourself contemplating your more domestic instincts, and wondering if they could perhaps be allowed more room to flourish.”

2) Using some fine flattery that dresses up a compliment with forays into excessive verbosity. For example: “The feeling I’m getting is that you are the sort of person who is often more caring than many people. You slip up sometimes, and you’re not perfect. However, on the whole, looking at the big picture, you care about the people around you and want what is best for them.” This is just a round about way of saying “you’re a caring person.”

3) Making good chance guesses such as “I sense some connection with the number 2, do you happen to live in a house with a 2 in the number?” Bear in mind that on a street with 100 houses this would apply to 19 of them. If the psychic is wrong they can always expand the search by saying “oh perhaps it is the house next door or across the street then” which brings us to 47 of the houses.

4) Using the rainbow ruse. This is when you make a statement about someone which contains “a personality trait and its opposite.” An example is “Most of the time you are positive and cheerful, but there are times  when you can feel quite upset.”

5) Using Barnum statements. These are statements that most people would say apply to them. An example would be “You are sometimes awkward around people you don’t know very well.” When mediums make Barnum statements they are a little like those ‘relatable’ twitter accounts which post (or steal) relatable jokes and content. The difference is that mediums pretend that what they’re saying isn’t relatable and only applies to you. If you agree with a Barnum statement mediums can use that as the spring board to further ‘insights.’

6) Using veiled questions such as saying adding a slight rising tone at the end of a statement such as “I see a connection with industry and finance.” On face value, this is a statement but with the rising tone, it can also sound like a question which a client may confirm or deny. Using incidental questions by ending sentences with ““… now why would that be?” or  “… is this making sense to you?” is also a strategy medium’s employ.

7) When making predictions about the future there are several tricks mediums use. For example telling a client what they want to hear or using what Ian Rowland calls “Pollyanna pearls”. He defines Pollyanna pearls as statements that “focus on one area of the client’s life, and say that things that may have been difficult lately will improve soon.”

This list is very far from exhaustive but it gives a flavour of the techniques used.

Mediums will also sometimes use shotgunning which involves a rapid fire of statements. For example “I sense a father figure – it might not be your father per se – who has had some trouble with pulmonary issues or something to do with his stomach area, he ended up in hospital for something” This statement contains so many pieces of potentially accurate information that it could apply to a wide range of people.  It is important to note that shotgunning isn’t necessary for mediums. There are far better techniques.

Mediums also use our memories against us by summarising readings. In the summaries, mediums can avoid all their misses and add power to their hits. This can be very effective if done right.

A further thing to note is that mediums will nearly always try to avoid quantifiable characteristics when performing a reading. Mediums trap themselves the moment they say things like:”you’re always late for work” instead of “sometimes you struggle with time management.”  If they leave their statements undefined they can later wiggle out of any mistakes by re-interpreting the words they used, saying they meant something metaphorically or suggesting they were talking subjectively, etc..

Hot Reading

Hot reading is cold readings cousin and it is even more useful despite seeing less use. Hot reading is the use of information about the mediums client that the client is not aware the medium has. The more famous the client the easier this is.

Mediums can gain information by “trawling the Internet or government records, overhearing conversations, or even lifting your wallet for a quick peek,” (Sleight of Mind, 2011). They can also collaborate with other mediums or get their assistants to go through your stuff while you’re in another room and then feed them the information.

 

 Demographic Data

Taking advantage of the wealth of demographic data available can elevate a chance guess to an (almost) statistically certain likelihood.

Saying things like there was a problem in a deceased person’s “chest area” or that they had “breathing difficulty” already covers a lot of ground. Problems in the chest area are the cause for most non-accidental deaths.  Pulmonary and heart disease are top 5 killers in both the US and UK. Mentioning these problems almost guarantees a hit.

Additionally, as this booklet points out, even if a person “died of ingrowing toenail the psychic can point out that ultimately their heart stopped beating – hence the chest.”

Mediums also commonly say they can sense the first letter in a name. Names starting with M, R (including Bob from Robert), S or J (or G as it’s so close) are common and therefore mediums will often throw out these letters knowing just about everyone will know a deceased person whose name began with these letters. Knowing which car colours are popular may also offer some useful fodder for a medium.

To illustrate this point when I was nine my parents took me to an event marking Halloween. One of the people present was a palm reader (who uses many of the same techniques as a medium).  I left the reading convinced in psychic abilities; the woman knew I loved animals, stories and toys. Knowing your demographic can make you look like a miracle worker!

The combination of all these techniques along with a healthy dose of confirmation bias in clients can make for a very effective medium.


Bonus: Some of the things mediums say are so common that they have led to psychic medium bingo sheets. Check one out here.

Note: This is the second post in a series of post debunking ‘Hollywood Medium’ Tyler Henry. Here is the first post. If you’re curious as to why we fall for these techniques then stick around for my next post.

Is Gregory House a Bad Person?

The TV show House starring Hugh Laurie as Dr Gregory House which ran for eight seasons, from 2004 to 2012 is one of my favourite shows. It played a major role in my initial interest in science. Before watching the show science and medicine seemed a boring if necessary abstraction. House showed me that science and medicine are vitally important and hugely entangled with the human condition.

Watching House may be an unorthodox path towards science and the show did get a lot wrong. For a break down of every episode see this. Some have even called the show “a dismal failure in regards to medical accuracy” and have argued that it has had a net negative impact on patients seeking healthcare. Personally, I think that there are greater concerns that need to be addressed in health care so those arguments hold little water for me. In the end real life simply can’t match up to a TV show and creative liberties need to be taken. As long as House is viewed only as a TV show and not an accurate portrayal of medicine I don’t see a problem; you don’t watch Game of Thrones to see an accurate depiction of medieval life.

With that out the way, I will note that the behaviour of Dr House may best be seen as a guide to what not to do as a doctor but it makes for good TV. His behaviour is unethical, illegal, dangerous and counterproductive and in real life would lead to the loss of his medical licence and possible jail time but that’s not what this blog post is about. It’s about a more complicated question: is House a good man.

I have grappled with that question as the show did over its eight seasons and I’m still conflicted. While I totally agree that in some ways he is a terrible person I think there is more.

Although he is a rude, mean and aggressive to his patients, to their families and his coworkers I think there is still good in him. If for one moment we accept the narrative that he is a brilliant doctor then we can see why.

In the book Unaccountable by Martin Makary he writes about a (real) doctor who sounds very much like House. Makary nicknames the doctor “the Raptor” and he and House could almost be twins. Just look at some of the stuff he did:

We were constantly adding new and more unbelievable chapters of how the Raptor offended patients. Our consolation prize for being collectively victimised by him was to swap stories in our moments of downtime. One intern was shaken to hear the Raptor, through a door, bellowing at a patient, “you’re not listening to me” and “you could die!” Once, the Raptor stuck a nurse with a needle on purpose. He told her, you stick me, I stick you. Hospital legend held that he once broke the news to a family that their child did not survive by walking into the waiting room and blurting, “Guess who just died?”

The Raptor may have looked like a jock, but he was an odd character, no doubt about it. I heard he once ate food directly out of the patient’s tray without asking, like a scavenging bigfoot, the patient staring on […] Rumour had it that on a short aeroplane trip he sat on the toilet for the entire flight, just to enjoy the extra leg room.

Just like House, however, the Raptor was brilliant at his job. He was the best surgeon in the hospital and the person all the doctors would go to visit if they needed surgery.

Although patients hated his bedside manner the Raptor was “known by all the other surgeons and staff for his superhuman surgical knowledge and gifted hands” and “to this day, the Raptor routinely performs some of the greatest technical operations in the country.”

Would we say he is good? I don’t know but I do know that if a surgeon saved my life or helped me overcome illness I wouldn’t care about his bedside manner. I think the Raptors talents outweigh his terrible treatment of people. I would say he is a difficult or problematic person but I would not say he is bad or evil.

In the same way, I don’t think House is a bad person. He is an addict suffering from pain and his addiction. He is self-centred, vain and cruel at times but he isn’t all bad.

His care for Wilson, his team and even in some of his more tender moments his patients shows he has some good buried deep inside him somewhere. House is just too afraid to accept what it could mean for him if he allows himself to care so he stays fixed in his bad ways.

I think the answer to the question “is House good?” is almost impossible to answer. There are arguments both ways. I think it probably depends on how you define good. Is a good person someone who performs good deeds, someone who maximises the good or someone with good intentions. I can’t answer that for you. You need to decide.

Taking everything into account I think that although House may not be a good person per se he does perform good deeds. In my view saving a life outweighs being an asshole any day. Therefore for me, House’s good deeds outweigh the bad. Perhaps you disagree.

Note: The rest of the Buzzfeed Tyler Henry medium series will be coming soon. I’ve got caught up in another story recently.

Tyler Henry Hollywood Medium Debunked?

Tyler Henry is a real life superhero or at least he plays one on TV. The charming 21-year-old ‘Hollywood Medium’ hosts a TV show now in its second season imaginatively titled “Hollywood Medium with Tyler Henry” in which he pays visits to the rich and famous and speaks to their dead relatives who can apparently see into the future and offer comfort to living relatives.

Hollywood Medium TV show logo featuring the man himself Tyler Henry

Although it has been established that teleportation is the best superpower, speaking to dead people and predicting the future has got to be pretty high up there too… If only those powers were real.

In the interests of not getting sued, I’m not going to tell you that Tyler Henry is a fake, a liar or a fraud but I will be taking a closer look at his recent appearance on Buzzfeed with the Try Guys.

In the video, Tyler gives a reading to the four Try Guys some of whom appear sceptical at the beginning of the video but end up in tears by the end.

In my next series of blog posts, I’ll be going through the video (practically) scene by scene to cover some of the issues it raises. I’ll also be providing a very brief summary of some of the methods used by mediums.

In Tricks of the Mind the performer and author Derren Brown writes:

A television programme that shows edited highlights of a medium or psychic giving readings to a tearful audience has far more visceral impact than a debunker on another show deconstructing the techniques of such performance.

So, I can only imagine how helpful this dry blog series will be in changing minds….

If you join me in this journey over the next few days you’ll hopefully leave more informed and better able to spot frauds and charlatans. I’m using this Buzzfeed video as a case study because it is easily accessible and not hugely long.

Today we’ll start off defining a couple terms and I’ll give a little background, more terms will be covered at a later date. I don’t want to overburden you.

Definitions

Medium: A person who claims to be able to communicate with the dead.
Hit: When a medium makes a statement that turns out to be true or accurate
Miss: When a medium makes a statement that is untrue, inaccurate or misleading
(Psychic) Reading: The name of the consultation a medium has with their clients.
Client: The person being read.

Anyone can look impressive with enough editing.

Most people will have seen examples of a video genre known as “trick shots.” Captain Disillusion defines them as “Videos of people throwing objects at seemingly impossible targets and hitting them.” One of the best examples of a channel that actually does real trick shots is the YouTube channel Dude Perfect. Their videos are mind blowing but they disguise a secret. The secret is the incredibly hard work they put into each and every scene.

What trick shot channels rarely if ever show is that to pull off the stunts that they do they require tens if not hundreds of tries. They just don’t include those shots in the final edit. The same goes for many television mediums. If they spend an hour with a person they will likely make hundreds of misses but the final episode of their show will only feature the 10-15 hits they make and maybe one or two misses. You’re not seeing true reality, you’re seeing the best version of reality.

To be a good medium you need a good video editor.

The same goes for this Buzzfeed video. I obviously can’t know exactly how long Tyler spent shooting with the Try Guys but I’d wager it’s at least double the runtime of the video unless he used hot reading (more on that in a future post). In the final video, the editors over at Buzzfeed put in the highlights, best hits and most impressive moments. Knowing this we can already mental discount some of the impressiveness of what we’re watching because we’re not seeing the full picture.

Not only this but we don’t know what happened before the camera’s started rolling. While the preparation for each scene was done there was likely time to have a brief conversation. The clues from this may not have meant much to the Try Guys but they could be significant. If he was so inclined Tyler would have been able to gain a huge amount of information out of the Try guys during the moments the cameras, microphones and lights were being set up and while makeup was being retouched etc.. The initial off camera meeting between Tyler and the Try Guys would likely also be a good time to do some subtle digging.

In Tricks of the Mind, Derren Brown recounts a story he was told by a friend who worked on the team for a television medium. Before the main shooting began the medium did a dress rehearsal with one of the people she read getting a lot of information wrong along the way. When it was time for the proper shoot the medium now had all the information she needed to make 100% hits by feeding back what she had just learnt during the rehearsal.

With enough editing, anyone can look like a psychic genius.

So, to clarify: we’re not seeing the full picture only an extended highlights reel. This is likely even more pronounced in Tylers TV show. No producer or editor would allow their ‘talent’ to look bad on camera particularly if they gain monetarily from the show. Buzzfeed motion pictures will have slightly different priorities but in the end, they’ll also be wanting to make Tyler look his best in this video otherwise they may lose out on future interviews with him or anyone his agent or team represents.

When it comes to mediums your starting position must be one of scepticism. What is more likely: a person who has paranormal powers is speaking to the dead or a person without powers is pretending to have paranormal powers and is pretending to talk to the dead for monetary gain? Considering no medium has ever been shown to have genuine powers the answer must be the latter until further evidence is brought to the table.

Next time we’ll be taking a dive into the methods psychics use to fool us.

A Fresh Start…

After my failed Youtube ventures I have decided to start afresh with a new name and this time I’m going to be blogging. I’ve never tried WordPress before so we’ll see how this goes.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey. I can’t promise you much in terms of incentives; I’m not even sure what I’m going to be blogging about yet.  I’m currently working on some investigative pieces so those may also make it onto here. Science, politics, philosophy and social commentary are likely to rear their controversial heads now and again but as of now, I haven’t decided what my main topic will be. 

My aims for the year ahead are to grow as a blogger and a person, make as few enemies as possible and meet and interact with new people both online and IRL. I’ll make mistakes along the way. I’ll get stuff wrong, I’ll say the wrong things and I’ll offend the wrong people. When I do I hope that you’ll be forgiving.

I’ll leave you with a picture of a cat for now. See you soon.