Coco con couple masterminded £280,000 VAT con on fashion stores | Mail Online

Crime pays – they only have to pay back £53,000

By SAM WEBB

PUBLISHED: 18:48, 17 February 2014 | UPDATED: 09:16, 18 February 2014

A couple on benefits ran a £280,000 VAT scam on luxury fashion brand Chanel in order to fund a luxury flat in London’s exclusive Chelsea, private schools for their children and gambling at casinos.

Emmanuel and Behnaz Scotts bought items at one of three Chanel stores and later return the goods to a different shop to obtain a refund or an exchange.

The couple, who claimed £32,000 in benefits, posed as wealthy tourists in order to claim back tax on returned goods  They also misled staff into supplying VAT export claim forms for goods they had not bought.

Fraudsters: Behnaz Scotts, who ran a VAT scam with her husband Emmanuel. The pair would pose as foreign tourists in order to claim back tax on returned goods

Last week Emmanuel Behnaz was told to repay £27,672 and his wife £25,622 – or they would be handed 15 months in jail – at an Old Bailey confiscation hearing, reports the Evening Standard.

via Chanel scam couple masterminded £280,000 VAT con on fashion stores | Mail Online.

The psychology of spiritualism: science and seances – The Observer

The idea of summoning the spirits took thrilling hold of the Victorian imagination – and has its adherents now. But the psychology behind spiritualism is more intriguing

As the evenings get darker and the first hint of winter hangs in the air, the western world enters the season of the dead. It begins with Halloween, continues with All Saints’ and All Souls’ days, runs through Bonfire Night – the evening where the English burn effigies of historical terrorists – and ends with Remembrance Day. And through it all, Britain’s mediums enjoy one of their busiest times of the year.

People who claim to contact the spirit world provoke extreme reactions. For some, mediums offer comfort and mystery in a dull world. For others they are fraudsters or unwitting fakes, exploiting the vulnerable and bereaved. But to a small group of psychologists, the rituals of the seance and the medium are opening up insights into the mind, shedding light on the power of suggestion and even questioning the nature of free will.

Humanity has been attempting to commune with the dead since ancient times. As far back as Leviticus, the Old Testament God actively forbade people to seek out mediums. Interest peaked in the 19th century, a time when religion and rationality were clashing like never before. In an era of unprecedented scientific discovery, some churchgoers began to seek evidence for their beliefs.

Salvation came from two American sisters, 11-year-old Kate and 14-year-old Margaret Fox. On 31 March 1848, the girls announced they were going to contact the spirit world. To the astonishment of their parents they got a reply. That night, the Fox sisters chatted to a ghost haunting their New York State home, using a code of one tap for yes, two gaps for no. Word spread and soon the girls were demonstrating their skills to 400 locals in the town hall.

Within months a new religion had emerged – spiritualism – a mixture of liberal, nonconformist values and fireside chats with dead people. Spiritualism attracted some of the great thinkers of the day – including biologist Alfred Russel Wallace and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who spent his latter years promoting spiritualism in between knocking out Sherlock Holmes stories. Even the admission of the Fox sisters in 1888 that they had faked it all failed to crush the movement. Today spiritualism thrives in more than 350 churches in Britain.

The tricks and techniques used by mediums have been exposed many times by people such as James Randi, Derren Brown and Jon Dennis, creator of the Bad Pyschics website.

Last week I spent 40 minutes with a telephone spiritualist who passed on messages from four dead people. Like all mediums, she was skilled at cold reading – the use of probable guesses and picking up of cues to steer her in the right direction. If she hit a dud – the suggestion that she was in the presence of a 40-year-old uncle of mine – she quickly widened it out. The 40-year-old became an older person who felt young at heart. And then someone who was more of an uncle figure. She was also skilled at the Barnum effect – the use of statements that tend to be true for everyone.

Among dozens of guesses and misses, there was just one hit – the correct name of a dead relative. Their relation to me was utterly wrong, as were details of their health. But the name was right and, even though it was a common name among that person’s generation, it was a briefly chilling moment.

Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist and magician, says my response to this lucky guess is typical. People tend to remember the correct details in a seance but overlook statements or events that provide no evidence of paranormal powers.

Derren BrownTV illusionist Derren Brown has often used his act to denounce paranormal practices. Photograph: David Yeo

Wiseman’s work has also shown that we are all extremely susceptible to the power of suggestion. With colleague Andy Nyman, co-creator of Derren Brown’s television illusions, Wiseman used contemporary descriptions of Victorian seances to recreate an encounter with spirits in a disused prison. Over eight seances involving 152 people, volunteers sat around a table in the dark holding hands while luminous painted bells, balls and maracas moved before their eyes. Surveyed afterwards, a fifth of the volunteers believed they had witnessed the paranormal.

“These things are often very simple,” says Wiseman, author ofParanormality. “We had a man creeping around with a stick. We thought when we read the original accounts of how seances were carried out that they wouldn’t fool anyone. We were wrong. A lot this is do with framing. Once you think you have an explanation for an event you don’t have any other ones. Once you think it’s a spirit you don’t look for another explanation.”

During the seance, Nyman, taking the role of the medium, announced that the spirit would raise the table. Soon afterwards he encouraged the spirit by saying “lift the table higher” and “the table is moving now”. Two weeks later a third of the participants recalled wrongly that the table had moved.

“Suggestion builds over time. If you ask people immediately after the event it is not so effective. You don’t want to solidify the memory immediately after the event,” says Wiseman.

The trappings of the seance increase its success. Holding hands prevents participants from disrupting the trickery. Darkness increases sensitivity to sound and movement and makes people more scared – which may, Wiseman says, increase susceptibility.

The seance can be explained by stage magic and human frailty. But what about phenomena such as table tipping and Ouija boards?

Table tipping, or turning, has gone out of fashion but is easy to replicate with four or more people, a small table, dim lights and a relaxed atmosphere. The group place hands on the table and wait. After 40 minutes or so the table should start to move. It soon appears to have a mind of its own, sliding, swaying and even pinning people to the walls.

The reason why household furniture can appear to be possessed was exposed more than 160 years ago by Michael Faraday, the discoverer of the link between magnetism and electricity. In 1852 Faraday was fascinated by the new craze of table tipping – and whether people or spirits were responsible. So he took bundles of cardboard roughly the size of a table top and glued them weakly together. Each sheet got progressively smaller from top to bottom, allowing Faraday to mark their original positions on the card above with a pencil. He then placed the cards on a table and asked volunteers to put their hands on the cards and let the spirits move the table to the left.

Ouija boardOuija boards were debunked by psychologist Joseph Jastrow in the 1890s. Photograph: Corbis

This experiment allowed Faraday to see what was moving the table. If it was spirits, the table top would slide out the cards from the bottom up. But if the participants were doing it, the top cards would be the first to move. By examining the position of the pencil marks Faraday showed that people, not spirits, moved the table. He had demonstrated the ideomotor response, the movement of muscles independent of deliberate thought. This also explains table tipping’s sophisticated big brother, the Ouija board.

In a Ouija seance participants place fingers on a glass on a table surrounded by letters and watch as it eerily moves – and occasionally spells out words. Psychologist Susan Blackmore is best known as the proponent of memes, but early in her career she was a parapsychologist. At Oxford she ran the student Psychical Research Society, carrying out experiments using Ouija boards. Time and again the glass spelled words and sentences. Her confidence began to be shaken when she modified the board.

“We turned the letters upside down because surely spirits should see the letters underneath,” says Blackmore, now a sceptic. “And of course it spelt out rubbish. It cannot work unless all the people can see what is going on.”

The ideomotor effect is also at play with the glass. “With a Oujia board, your arm is getting tired and your ability to judge the location of your finger is compromised,” says Blackmore. “When the glass moves you naturally adjust your movements and go along with the glass. To start with it moves hesitantly, but after a while as soon as it starts moving everyone’s hand follows.’

But what about the glass’s ability to spell? That was investigated by the American psychologist Joseph Jastrow in the 1890s. He used a device called the automatograph made of two glass plates separated by brass balls. Any involuntary movement of hands placed on the top plate causes it to move. The movement is recorded by a pencil attached to the device.

When Jastrow asked volunteers to imagine looking at an object in the room the automatograph revealed that their hands involuntarily moved in that direction. Just visualising the door was enough for the hands to drift towards it.

And that’s what’s happening with a Ouija board. If the participants look at a particular letter – because they expect it to follow next – they unwittingly nudge the glass towards it.

If the Ouija board has shed light on unwitting movement, then another technique, channelling of spirits, has questioned free will.

Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner, who died this year, is best known for his work on the rebound effect. Tell someone not to think about white bears and they immediately think about white bears. The more we try to actively suppress a thought, the less likely we are to succeed. But he also investigated automatic writing, where people claim to write without being aware what they are doing.

The most famous automatic writer was Pearl Curran, an American who knocked out more than 5,000 poems, novels and plays while claiming to be channelling the spirit of Patience Worth, a 17th-century Englishwoman.

Automatic writing has traditionally been explained as the action of the subconscious mind. But Wegner argued that the reason lay in the illusion of free will. Most people have a sense of their inner you – the conscious self that makes decisions about day-to-day life. According to Wegner this sense is an illusion. There’s evidence to back up this seemingly unlikely idea.

Arthur Conan DoyleSir Arthur Conan Doyle, who spent his latter years promoting spiritualism. Photograph: Getty Images/BBC

In the 1960s, neurophysiologist William Grey Walter got volunteers to operate a slide projector while their brain was monitored with electrodes. The participants were told to press a button to change slides. But the button was a fake – the projector was controlled by electrical activity in the brain. The startled volunteers found that the slide machine was predicting their decisions. A fraction of a second before they decided to press the button, the part of the brain responsible for hand movement burst into activity and – through the electrodes – moved the slide on.

Grey Walter showed that there was a fraction of a second delay between the brain making a decision and someone being aware that they were making a decision.

In the 1980s, Benjamin Libert of the University of California , San Francisco,made a similar discovery after attaching volunteers to electrical monitors and sitting them in front of a screen displaying a dot in a circle. The participants were told to flex their wrists whenever they liked, and report the position of the dots at the moment they made the decision to flex. Again, there was a surge in brain activity a fraction of a second before the volunteers were aware they were making a decision.

Wegner’s solution was that our deliberate, thinking brain – the inner me that makes decisions – is an illusion. Instead, the brain does two things when it makes a decision to raise an arm. First it passes a message to the part in charge of creating the conscious inner you. Second, it delays the signal going to the arm by a fraction of a second. This delay generates the illusion that the conscious mind has made a decision.

Wegner argued that automatic writing occurs when something goes wrong with this process. The brain sends the signal to the arm to write – but fails to alert the inner you.

There’s something a little ironic about his conclusion. The early spiritualists believed they were shedding light on the transition of the human spirit from the physical body to the afterlife. Wegner suggests that it’s not just the distinction between mind and body that is false, but the whole concept of the “conscious” decision-making mind is just another piece of trickery played by the brain.

And meanwhile, 150 years after Faraday showed that table tipping was hokum, we continue to frighten one another in the dark.

‘What is remarkable is that the stuff written in books 100 years ago still works,’ says Richard Wiseman. ‘If you think of all the technology and science and education and yet a group of people sitting in the dark can scare the living daylights out of themselves.’

via The psychology of spiritualism: science and seances | Science | The Observer.

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A teaspoon of PEANUT BUTTER helps detect the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease

A teaspoon of PEANUT BUTTER helps detect the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease

Researchers at the University of Florida have found that patients lose sense of smell in their left nostril faster than their right

Peanut butter was used as a ‘pure odorant’ in tests to determine loss of sense of smell

Test subjects had all been diagnosed already, but the study revealed that one day smell may be used to detect early stages of Alzheimer’s

Read More: Diagnosis in a jif? A teaspoon of PEANUT BUTTER helps detect the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease | Mail Online.

‘My mum had dementia at 29′

Louise and her grandmother, Julie

By Helen Briggs

BBC News

 

When Louise was three, her mother Zoe, who was then 29, was diagnosed with dementia. She is now 42, and living in a care home unable to walk or talk.

Zoe is one of the 17,000 people in the UK living with “early-onset dementia”, which is defined as cases diagnosed before the age of 65.

For Zoe’s family, the first signs something was wrong came when Louise and her sister were on holiday with their grandmother.

While they were away, another relative noticed Zoe – clearly confused – out in the park searching for her children.

Louise’s grandmother, Julie, says she still misses the everyday moments she can no longer share with her daughter – going shopping or a day at the beach.

“It’s one of the worst diseases going,” she says. “It’s all been wiped away.”

After being in and out of hospital for some time, Zoe was eventually diagnosed with early onset dementia.

Doctors could not say why it had happened to someone so young.

“Right at the outset, when she was first diagnosed, they said unfortunately sometimes these things happen,” says Julie.

“They’re like a one-off and Zoe’s the one-off.”

Zoe managed to live with her daughters at the start of her illness, but soon became too ill to cope.

She now lives in a care home in Ashford, and is on a special early onset ward, where she is by far the youngest person.

Louise was only a baby when Zoe became ill, so has few memories of living with her mother.

But she now raises funds for the Alzheimer’s Society, and recently took part in one of the charity’s Memory Walks. She hopes research will help prevent the same thing happening to another family.

“I can’t help my mum now it’s too late – there’s nothing anybody can do to help her. But if it means I can help other people then it’s worth it.

“It’s also to raise awareness. When I meet new people and I tell them how my life is, and I explain my mum’s got dementia, no-one I’ve met has ever really known what it is and how it affects people.”

The family is also having to cope with dementia striking again.

Julie’s mother Ruby, 85, was found to have Alzheimer’s five years ago, and is now in a care home.

She was diagnosed after slipping out of the house at night and walking several miles along the local canal.

Julie – who has therefore seen both her daughter and her mother battle the disease – now focuses on supporting her granddaughters.

“The miracle we’ve been waiting for, hoping to happen hasn’t happened,” says Julie.

“When the girls were little and asking, ‘Why is mum ill and when will she get better?’ we just had to say, ‘We’re hoping for a miracle’.

“We haven’t got our miracle, so perhaps we can help in other ways.”

 

Early onset dementia

People diagnosed with dementia under the age of 65 are often described as ‘younger people with dementia’ by health and social care professionals

Other terms used include ‘early onset dementia’, ‘young-onset dementia’, and ‘working age dementia’

In the UK, an estimated 17,000 people under the age of 65 are living with dementia

This number is likely to be an under-estimate, and the true figure may be up to three times higher

To be diagnosed at a young age is very rare

Getting an accurate diagnosis of dementia can take a long time for younger people, often due to lack of awareness that dementia can happen in younger people

Anyone worried about any problems with memory, at any age, should consult their GP

Source: Alzheimer’s Society

 

via BBC News – ‘My mum had dementia at 29′.

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Stories and your Brain (from ‘How To Forget’)

“Stop or I’ll Shoot”

 The next time you hear this shouted, perhaps you will pause for a moment; if only to appreciate what a beautiful, well rounded and articulate phrase it is.  It is a warning honed to perfection, it is how all warnings should be: clear, concise and terrifying enough to scare the bejezus out of a bejesuit.

This book is a warning. I wish it could be as unambiguous as, “Watch Out” or “Duck” or “I’m going to have to work late at the office again dear.”  I wish it could be as brief as “Stop,” “Danger,” or that road sign which simply says “!” and waits to accrue its meaning after the event.  But at 437 pages, it is a little more complicated – and not the sort of warning that requires the same speedy attention as ones made by a weak bladder.

Unfortunately the same blinding ambition which propelled humanity forward in the exploration and domination of the planet, sprinting ahead in the race to evolve when other species couldn’t be bothered, inclines us to ignore most warnings in favour of learning from experience. Despite having developed our primitive guttural belching in to speech, despite having created the most fantastically complex warning system the planet has ever seen, today eighty percent of communication is still non-verbal and though you know when your boss, parents or teachers are talking, it’s almost impossible to listen to what they’re saying.

“Stop or I’ll shoot!” is more than a warning though.  It’s a whole story in just 4½ words; with a clear beginning, middle and end, conflict, drama, life, death, action, resolution. Stories are warnings but somehow we’re more amenable to them, more willing to go along with them.  We don’t just listen to a narrative; we ‘suspend our disbelief’, we put our natural scepticism on hold and experience it.  We allow ourselves to learn because we’re not being told.

Since long before Aesop, stories have been used as warnings when the clear threat is simply not enough.  And we love stories because with each one, we can forget everything for a while and be born again as wide eyed children unwittingly ready to learn life’s important lessons: not to talk to strange wolves in transvestite’s clothing; how true toffs will know if you have a pea in the bed; or how you can sell beef for beans, thieve your way out of poverty, murder the victim of your robbery and still live happily ever after.

But the true power of stories, and why this warning comes as one, lies in your brain.  More precisely in a part of your frontal lobes which it took a hungry capuchin monkey to discover.  He lived in a lab where, in a doomed attempt to bring a lighter side to vivisection, all the capuchins were given coffee related names. Starbuck had teeth the colour of earwax and halitosis like mustard gas and on the day of his discovery he had been grabbing at snacks all morning.  He’d been wired up to brain activity sensors, studying the components that register hunger before, and pleasure in receiving, food.  Valuable research for the hunger-inhibiting diet pill trade.  After all, we certainly don’t want an epidemic of obese monkeys.

At lunch time, Starbuck’s lab technician stopped for her break and happened to be absently watching the monitors as she reached for her sandwich.  Which is when she noticed an amazing thing.  As Starbuck watched her, she saw the same brain patterning light up on his monitors as when he had been reaching for food himself.  She quickly realised that he was empathising and she could see exactly the parts of the brain where this happened.

From that one sandwich, we not only found that monkeys were capable of empathy, so just how far men have evolved away from monkeys, but also that the brain’s ‘mirror neurons’ extend into the premotor cortex, where we weigh intentions, and our parietal lobe where we register sensation.

Now we know why we wince when we see another person punched.  Empathy is hard wired into our brains.  We experience just by watching others’ experiences.  We tell stories to stimulate the mirror neurons.  We watch a film and become the characters, we read someone’s story and for the time we’re in it, the connections within our own brains actually reshape, they begin to mirror the connections in the character’s brain.

So this book, like every story you’ve ever read, heard or watched, will alter the shape of your brain.  Whatever you think, this book is guarenteed to change your mind.

Losing Memories

Put your phone down now, before Digital Dementia sets in

If you’ve ever witnessed the under-the-table fumbling that breaks out during pub quizzes you’ll know how smartphones are affecting our ability to remember information. Who bothers to remember things like the make of James Bond’s car in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ or the name of the flower-devourers in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ anymore? And why should we? What use could information like that be anyway? 

According to a recent study though, our Google enhanced memory may have more serious long term consequences in a condition known as ‘Digital Dementia’. Doctors have found that persistent smartphone use can result in the sort of deterioration in cognitive ability that’s more often associated with patients suffering from head injury or psychiatric illness.

South Korea, epicentre of last year’s plague of Gangnam Style, is one of the most networked nations on Earth where 64.5 percent of teenagers own a smartphone. This year the country has seen a surge in cases of cognitive deficiency among young people. Apparently, many have become so reliant on digital technology they are no longer able to remember simple information such as their phone numbers.

Byun Gi-won, a doctor at the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul, told the JoongAng Daily newspaper, ‘over-use of smartphones and game devices hampers the balanced development of the brain.  Heavy users are likely to develop the left side of their brains, leaving the right side untapped or underdeveloped’.

The left side of the brain is generally associated with rational thought, numerical computation and fact finding, but the right side of the brain is the centre of creativity and concentration. Its underdevelopment can affect attention and memory span as well as emotional development, especially in children whose brains are still growing.

If the right brain remains under developed in the long term, it may lead to the early onset of dementia. ‘Ten to 15 percent of those with the mild cognitive disorders develop dementia,’ said psychiatrist Park Ki-Jeong.

These findings follow a UCLA study, published last month, which revealed that young people were increasingly suffering from memory problems. They found 14 per cent of people between 18 and 39 complained that their memory was poor.

The study pointed the finger at our modern lifestyle. Our ever increasing screen time leaves us unable to practice focussing on, or memorising, information. Our stress-filled hectic lifestyles prevent concentration or information retention.

Experiments at Columbia University by Psychologist Betsy Sparrow suggest a more pernicious cause. In her 2011 paper, ‘Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips,’ she found that Google and other search engines are changing the very structures of our brains and their ability to process and retain information. According to Sparrow, rather than remembering things, we now simply retain the knowledge of how to find the information we need when we need it. The internet has become our own ‘transactive memory’.

With every development of new or better tools, humans have changed and evolved as they used them.  Perhaps we are witnessing the first tentative steps of Homo Digitalis Bionicus and can only look on with the same trepidation that the Neanderthals felt witnessing the coming of Cro-Magnon Man.

When parchment and ink became accessible enough to write down the massive memorised, and verbally passed down, works of the epic poets like Homer, did they fear what would happen to the memorisation abilities of the next generation of poets and writers? If they did, maybe they were right. Like everybody else today, they struggle to remember where they put their keys.

Now, just as then, we are sensing that something is happening to us. We, connected, humans are changing but we have no idea if these changes are permanent, or dangerous, or hereditary; we simply fear the unknown as we always have. And, by the time we know the answers to these questions, I suspect  we will care as much about them as would the lotus-eaters, from Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, who revelled in forgetfulness produced by the flowers they ate. Now how did I remember that?

Marius Brill lectures on the uses of forgetfulness. His book, ‘How To Forget’ (£6.99) is on sale in all good book shops now.

via Put your phone down now, before Digital Dementia sets in – KensingtonChelseaToday.

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The Best of 2011! « virginbooks

The Best of 2011!

December 8, 2011

Whenever you walk into any bookshop, it’s always overwhelming just how many new books there are. So many hundreds of titles are published each year that it can be a hopeless, thankless, even soul-destroying job trying to keep on top of which ones are worth reading.Luckily for you, we’re here to pick out the best, so you can make sure you know what to ask Santa for, or indeed so you know what to buy for the book-lover in your life. After all, Christmas is only thirteen days away and-Thirteen days? OMG.

Anyway, where was I? Presented for your delectation, and in no particular order, here are the ten books we’ve really, honestly loved in 2012.Today’s book is How To Forget, by Marius Brill.Brill’s second novel arrives almost ten years after his amazing debut Making Love: A Conspiracy of the Heart, and the good news is that How To Forget is just as funny, just as clever, and just as enjoyable.

Brill is as clever as Douglas Adams, as intrusive and humourous a narrator as Terry Pratchett, but writes convoluted thrillers which are dunked in a vat of jet-black comedy.

As with Making Love, another book about romance, spies and international pursuit, this is a novel which will delight men and women equally, even if it looks to be aimed more squarely at the male reader.

Magicov the Magnificent, once a great illusionist, earns his living entertaining the geriatrics of Lotus House Care-home. But Mr Magicov also known as Peter envies them – they’ve mastered a trick that eludes him. They can forget. There are so many things Peter yearns to forget: the shameful moment an eight-year-old wrecked his life; the FBI agent who hunted him like a dog; that suitcase stuffed with a million pounds. More than anything Peter wants to forget Kate, the expert con woman. The one he loved and left. For renowned brain-scientist Dr Chris Tavasligh, Peter’s craving to escape makes him the perfect candidate for his bold experiment in changing minds – forever. Faced with such an opportunity, will Peter go through with it? And if he does, who will he become?

Magic meets crime, while love meets psychology. It’s one of those rare novels that feels too full of great ideas and subjects, and what’s satisfying is the way each is fleshed out and pursued. In a nutshell, it’s big and clever, extremely funny, very romantic, and the laughter goes to some very dark places along the way, so adults only please!

Available at selected Virgin Megastores for 84 AED

via The Best of 2011! « virginbooks.

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Derren Brown, Hallowed Be Thy Name

Derren Brown, Hallowed Be Thy Name – openDemocracy

The success of TV conjuror Derren Brown tells of our vulnerability to the magic of pseudo-scientific explanation. While researching the brilliant comic novel, How to Forget, the author joined the ranks of the conjurors and came away with a degree of healthy dis-illusion

‘How did you do that?’

Let me tell you.

In these straitened times I’ve found myself occasionally exploiting an extra revenue stream: extracting coins from youngster’s ears. I also read their tiny minds, vanish hankies and offer myself up for trial-by-toddler, fairy cakes and cash. You find work where you can these days.

It all started when I set out to write a book about magicians. It quickly became clear that the only way I’d get any conjurers to open up to me was to join their ranks.

A hastily researched performance for my son’s fourth birthday and some parents at his school looking for a cheap party entertainer, launched my alternative career in deceiving, at first the young, and then older, easier, far more compliant and surprisable adult audiences. So this is just to assure you that I talk here from experience; even if some of it is bitter.

There is a phrase more commonly encountered by conjurers than, ‘Abracadabra,’ ‘Alakazam,’ or ‘Bugger off we’re talking.’ Whenever I produce a lost card, or levitate a borrowed bank note, the first utterance, after the look of astonishment, is almost inevitably, ‘How did you do that?’

Despite the Daily Mail’s regular warnings about encroaching fundamentalism, we still, apparently, live in a rational age. The response to one of my magic effects is never a terror filled scream or falling to the floor or ‘Get thee behind me,’ histrionics. Americans occasionally predicate it with ‘No Fucking Way,’ but even they then ask the question every magician both yearns and fears to answer: ‘How did you do that?’

Everyone recognises that, somewhere along the line, I ‘did’ something that they missed; something a rational mind, through a process of logic, would eventually be able to work out. It has just been, for the moment, obscured by some nefarious sleight or misdirection.

Almost universally, even for the most gullible or prone to dodgy belief systems, the first response to my magical mysteries is to challenge it through the prism of rationalism. Even the most fervent of religious believers will choose a sceptical route and never simply blindly believe that I am the agent of a higher power. (I will resist the ‘of course my wife knows otherwise’ quip I’m dying to make at this point.)

From my time at the coalface of astonishment I can happily, anecdotally, report that, for the overwhelming majority of us, without a plausible explanation, reason is our default mystery solver. Like Scooby Doo.

The trouble only comes when conjurers start giving their tricks plausible explanations as part of their misdirection.

No magician alive today does this better than Derren Brown. Having just concluded a series of ‘Experiments’ on Channel 4 based on classic psychological and sociological investigations and concepts, he performs a precarious balancing act in explaining his own effects.

On one side, through his activities blogs and writing, Brown promotes scepticism: he challenges mediums and spiritualists, just as Houdini did; he promotes a scientific approach; he embraces Dawkins and writes about his own lapsed Christian beliefs. He encourages the asking of questions and disapproves of blind belief.

On the other hand, the Derren Brown that countless TV viewers and theatre audiences encounter does not simply create mystifying effects, his explicatory rhetoric in performance is steeped in a belief; not in a god or an afterlife but in a fuzzy set of behavioural dynamics that we non-experts call ‘psychology’. Something which, we may need to remember; just because it is an ‘ology’, doesn’t make it any more scientific than ‘astr’, ‘graph’ or ‘crani’.

 

Brown often explains his ability to predict words or behaviours, to duplicate drawings or influence people to act in certain ways, as achieved through a mastery of the understanding and exploitation of ‘psychological techniques’[1].

I must here state my own belief that, though some of his effects may have a loose psychological component, these explanations, as you might expect of any conjurer, are mainly bogus; misdirecting attention from his real methodology.

The truth is, no matter how hard you studied psychology, no matter how expert you became in understanding human motivations and frailties you still could not possibly repeat Brown’s effects without the use of age-old conjuring smoke and mirrors.

Brown recognises this tightrope he walks between promoting sceptical disbelief and exploiting his audience’s belief in ‘psychology’. In the conclusion to his book Tricks of the Mind Brown writes, ‘For a while now I have concerned myself with engaging people’s beliefs. A large part of me wishes to have people retain a scepticism about what I do and apply that to other areas in life where our beliefs are manipulated in ugly ways. Meanwhile, the ‘performer’ part of me that enjoys the dramatic and the mysterious needs to balance that scepticism in the audience with a belief in my skills…’[2]

Robert Houdin, the 19th century magician whom Houdini named himself after is considered by most magicians as the father of modern magic. He defined a conjurer as, ‘an actor playing the part of a magician.’ In Brown’s case he is closer to, ‘an actor playing the part of a… master of psychology’ or even more recently, ‘…a scientist.’

Oh, I realise that Brown preambles his performances with his, ‘achieved through a combination of illusion, magic, psychology…’ so more fool anyone who believes otherwise but tumbling out in to the night air in front of the Shaftsbury Theatre, where Brown’s latest stage show ‘Svengali’ enjoyed an extended run, his still entranced audience seem only to have believed that last word.

Steven, a young professional web designer, tech savvy, stripy Jack Will’s boxer-shorts peeping out above his baggy hipfallen jeans, is convinced, “Well, obviously it’s not magic,’ he says, ‘it’s psychology, he’s just very very good at it, it’s amazing.”

‘You can see he picks people who are more likely to do what he’s asking,’ says Mi-Li, an app developer and Steven’s girlfriend. She is equally enraptured, ‘I mean some people are easier to read aren’t they. But then he just does incredible things. Really clever. I wish I could read people like he does.’

What has made Brown such a paragon for modern magicians is not his effects which, from a conjurer’s point of view, are certainly no more extraordinary than an Annemann or Thurston, but the way he dresses them in the irresistibly credible and contemporary beliefs that we hold to be self-evident.

It seems a shame that ‘psychology’ remains a rather catch-all idea about human behaviour which, without substantial evidential proof, remains in a limbo no closer to science than it is to pure belief.

It seems to have materialized amongst some other, more dubious, beliefs that emerged in the late 19th century in the wake of Darwin and the mechanisation of the industrial revolution; ideas like phrenology, eugenics, fascism and communism, the sort of human reductionism that helped set the tone[3] for the following ‘century of war’[4]. Within these concepts, man was no longer that central almost divine creature of Humanism but increasingly a part of the mass, an automaton to be wound up, studied, controlled and, if necessary, destroyed.

To my mind one of the more pernicious of those new mechanistic ‘beliefs’ was the flowering of the ‘science of psychology’ spear-headed by German physician Wilhelm Wundt who founded the first psychological laboratory, at Leipzig University, in 1879. It was a theory of the mind and mental health that seduced the twentieth century, creating amongst other things today’s world-wide therapy industry worth billions.

All this despite the fact that, in all this time, no actual psychological experiment has been found to be scientifically 100 per cent repeatable. When working with populations on a sociological scale, psychological experiments can repeatedly find figures that are close – ie most people do X not Y under Z circumstances – but there is no individual psychological response or action which is universally repeatable. Psychology remains a numbers game.

Derren Brown’s psychological rationalization for his extraordinary effects is his masterstroke. It very cleverly buys into and perpetuates a belief that so many of us maintain to this day, that we are, beneath it all, a mechanism, we are machines just waiting to discover what makes us tick. Dehumanised in this way, it would logically follow that it must be possible to reduce anybody to a set of behaviours and reactions; theoretically we are all potentially predictable and malleable in the hands of someone who has a thorough enough understanding of ‘psychology’. It’s the same reason we thrill to Sherlock Holmes, with his instant in-depth profiling, or even feel awkwardly attracted to the inevitability of Dawkins selfish gene. It is man as unwitting reductionist victim rather than master of his own destiny. Man as programmable machine. Drone to democracy. An automanton.

To me, the belief that anyone, even Derren Brown, could influence or predict anyone with pinpoint accuracy, considering how the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association puts the entire population somewhere on its scale, is almost as barkingly misleading and misguided as the belief in pixies and ghosts of the Victorian era.

Because, of course, it was also in the 19th century when modern spiritualism began, a belief that there is not only an afterlife but those who are in it can be communicated with and be summoned at the command of the living.

All civilisations seem to create their own death cults, from the ancient Egyptians to the Third Reich, but the Victorians appear to have taken it to another level entirely. In their time, in their way, they were the master race, bequeathed the wealth and dominance of the globe by industrialisation and the legacy of the East India Trading company. They ran an empire that spanned the earth; only one last frontier remained beyond their control, escaped their dominion: death.

Spiritualism chimed with a need of the times just as ‘Psychology’ has chimed so clearly with ours. A walk around any British cemetery bears witness to what necromaniacs the Victorians were, centuries of simple gravestones suddenly surpassed by vast mausoleums and elaborate angel-laden tombs. They even created their own Necropolis railway to usher the dead from Waterloo to the enormous Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.

Over a century later and still with no scientifically confirmed evidence of an afterlife, mediums continue to thrive today. Despite having had all their tricks, their cold, warm and hot readings, exposed by a succession of magicians and sceptics from Houdini, through James Randi and even Derren Brown himself, mediums still draw crowds of believers looking to make sense of that last horror, the indisputable finality of death.

So Derren Brown walks this tightrope between being a hero of scepticism, exposing old ‘ugly’ beliefs like spiritualism, and actively seeking to encourage belief in his skills and in a system that he knows he cannot prove, just pretend to.

Brown has recently started distancing himself from his earlier shows, ‘I have largely moved on from performing those sorts of tricks,’[5] he blogged the other day. He sees his recent work in the ‘Experiments’ as more indicative of his present career.

Every jobbing magician knows that when an effect is just too baffling, you introduce it with the words, ‘I want to try a little experiment.’ This phrase is both pseudo-scientific and very ‘old school’ in conjuring terms and it’s interesting to see Brown returning to it.

Though he appears to sometimes be blurring the edges between science and his own pseudo-science Derren Brown is neither ‘psychologist’ nor ‘scientist’. Nor does he claim to be despite the language he uses in his shows. Sadly, each of his latest ‘Experiments’ seem to have been more interested in faking the successful outcome of famous concepts, like Milgram’s notorious dehumanised cruelty investigation[6] or the Manchurian Candidate’s question as to whether a hypnotised subject can be made to act against his will.

Witness Browns ‘Experiment’, ‘The Guilt Trip’ in which he attempts to drive a man, through guilt, to admit to a murder he did not do. Somehow one feels he missed the point, we never find out anything about why people really admit to crimes they didn’t commit. This may be because science asks questions wheras magic uses answers to create questions. The scenario Brown produced carefully controlled what the audience witnessed and only gave enough to encourage them to believe he had succeeded. Closer analysis: a man is paralytically drunk and wakes the next day to find someone has been killed, he then confesses to the police that it ‘could’ have been him as far as he knows, is far from conclusive. Of course it might have been, just as much as it might not have. Derren Brown produced a very watchable program about someone more willing to just tell the truth than be caught in some horrible lie further down the line.

Brown creates a belief in his successes from very partial revelations of the facts. Something I suspect a real scientist would find frustratingly pointless unless the real experiment was an investigation of the gullibility of TV audiences. But there seems to be no attempt to gather statistical evidence on that.

In the end, even if Brown parenthesises his performances with protestations of ‘illusion and magic,’ we all know that many in his audience will believe these things simply because his ‘psychological’ dressing is such a plausible answer.

There is no doubt that Brown is aware that his success is based on generating belief, ‘we must seek to absorb the model of real magic at the level of belief,’ he writes in Absolute Magic, ‘then allow it to leak through in the way in which we approach our audience and the thought behind the structure of our routines.’ Much like the TV evangelists he has exposed probably do. It is no more honest to say it is a magic trick before you start, only to foster a counter belief during the show than it is to claim that Christ was a man, oh but also God. As a lapsed Christian perhaps Brown ought to know how damaging it can be to monkey around with what people believe. Sometimes I wonder if all this could just be some huge revenge for the hurt to his own beliefs? I couldn’t possibly say. You, on the other hand…

So in the same way that I fear for the people who still take mediums and spiritualists seriously, I fear for those who take Derren Brown seriously, and they do, like Steven and Mi-Li.

‘Psychology’ is a brilliant cover for his illusions, it is the apparently rational belief of our day and age, but I do wonder if there, a hundred years from now, there will be people who have to be disabused of this belief. I fear that some twenty-second century HoloTV magician with a goatee will be declaring, ‘In the twenty-first century people really believed that you could predict what someone would draw on a piece of paper just from knowing their job and where in Indonesia they went on holiday, it was called “psychology”. And there are some deluded fools even now who believe it. But I can show you it was just tricks, the same good old fashioned gimmicks and forces, cups and balls that have been going for millennia. Can you believe their gullibility? Weren’t they ridiculous? But now let me show you something which will really blow your mind…’

And what do I believe? I have faith that, after that magician’s mind blowing effect, there will be someone shouting out, ‘How did you do that?’

[1] Frequently in his treatise on the effective performance of magic, Absolute Magic, Derren Brown, London, 2001 (OOP) http://www.amazon.co.uk/Absolute-Magic-Powerful-Close-Up-Performance/dp/B001C1Q6BS/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1320955269&sr=1-1

[2] Tricks of the Mind, Derren Brown, London, 2006

[3] John Carey suggests these were a direct response to the emergence of an educated middle class created by the 1870 and 1876 Education Acts and fears amongst the intellectual elite of population explosion. The intellectuals and the masses: pride and prejudice among the literary intelligentsia, 1880-1939, London, 1992 http://www.amazon.co.uk/Intellectuals-Masses-Prejudice-Intelligentsia-1880-1939/dp/0571169260

[4] The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred. Niall Ferguson, London. 2006 http://www.amazon.co.uk/War-World-Historys-Hatred-History/dp/0713997087

[5] http://derrenbrown.co.uk/blog/2011/11/claim-claim-2/

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

From: http://www.opendemocracy.net/marius-brill/derren-brown-hallowed-be-thy-name

 

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Astonishing Diversity

An extraordinary and delightful five star review just popped up on Amazon which must be worth sharing as it is probably better than the blurb on the cover of the book…. read on…
5.0 out of 5 stars Astonishing Diversity, 5 Nov 2011

Your Christmas shopping this year has just been made easy. Imagine a guy in a black tee-shirt working in a bookshop trying to puzzle out which section to place a book in. Should he put it in Comedy? Or Science Fiction? It could go in Romance, but then again it would fit just as neatly in Action Thriller. At the same time, he knows it transcends all these genres and could happily settle in Literary Fiction. Marius Brill’s second novel, ‘How to Forget’ is that book – an astonishing combination of several genres – a crossover book which gives a whole new meaning to the term. It’s not surprising, then, that the cast of characters is equally as diverse. A magician, a doctor of neurology, a collection of six-year-olds, an Australian widow with a sheep farm and an Hispanic maid revolve around the main characters, who themselves – a timid hero with a failed career and an Amazonian heroine with the instincts of a crack SAS officer – are thrown together in an unlikely, yet engaging, romance.
Hounded by an evil genius and a lumbering American cop and crippled by their own emotional make-up, the pair animates what is a thoroughly researched and fascinating study of the nature of emotional memories and how they affect happiness. Kate, a heroine without soft spots, suffers an internal crisis on finding herself on the brink of love and her predicament is recorded with a delicacy that puts one in mind of the best of Jane Austen’s heroines. Touching, intellectually challenging, magical, hilarious, serious, fast-paced and gripping, but above all witty, ‘How to Forget’ really is the book with something in it for everyone. This novel deserves a place in just about every section of the bookshop – with the exception of cookery. There is nothing in ‘How to Forget’ about cookery.

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