The stories behind magic and the mind.

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.


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)

[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

[4] The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred. Niall Ferguson, London. 2006






Ladies who Launch

Thank you to everyone who attended the launch of How To Forget at Daunt’s Bookshop on the Fulham Road last Wednesday.  It was a night of old friendships reacquainted, ink and magic – a huge number of you turned up and depleted a very large stack of books.  Those who forgot to come missed my slightly odd book-reading which, in deference to the magic in the book, I performed through the medium of someone else’s mind, read verbatim from a page which was never in the book she read.

The magicians Laura London and Russell Levinson performed incredible feats of prestidigitation and since some of Laura’s magic involved balls of fire, Daunts showed admirable restraint in not pointing out the obvious dangers to their combustible stock.

I had a marvelous time, I hope everybody who came did, and as a little taste for those who didn’t – witness the mandatory awkward proxemics of this trade paper/Publisher’s Weekly style photo from the do featuring my brilliant editor Jane Lawson, Laura London and me… I’ll leave it up to you to decide who’s who.

Meanwhile… a report from the local newspaper sounds rather familiar:

Magic at Daunts

Thursday, 6th October 2011

Magic was the theme at Daunts Bookshop on the Fulham Road as partygoers gathered to celebrate the launch of Chelsea author Marius Brill’s new novel How To Forget – A book of Laughter and Regretting.

To honour the book’s themes of conjurers and con artists, burlesque magician Laura London, from ITV1’s ‘Penn and Teller’s Fool Us’, and local card expert Russell Levinson performed miracles of magic for the guests.  Even though Laura had packs of cards bursting into flames just inches from the bookshop’s highly flammable stock, manager Max Porter appeared amazed but, ironically, un-daunted.

Marius Brill welcomed guests including ‘Chancer’ actress Lynsey Baxter and a melange of notable writers and artists (of all varieties).

To promote this literary thriller about illusions and the mind, Brill turned his hand to magic to by performing a reading from How to Forget.  He chose not to read from its pages but from a spectator’s mind who had been asked to memorise any passage they liked.  He then revealed that the page his volunteer had read had been torn out of the book before she had even opened it. We’re still trying to work out how he did that.

“You hang about with magicians long enough and some of the pixie dust rubs off,” Brill said.  “Along with the rip-roaring adventure, readers will discover the secrets behind many of the world’s greatest magical ideas.”How To Forget by Marius Brill, published by Doubleday, is for sale at Daunts and all major bookshops now. £12.99.

via Magic at Daunts – KensingtonChelseaToday.

VIDEO: Welles on Cold Reading

Orson Welles talks about the art of cold reading.

“Cold Reading is the secret discipline behind the art of phoney fortune telling, of faking talking to the dead, of voicing the impossible and convincing the gullible. It works by making a little knowledge go a long way.  But, my friends, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing….”

Chapter 16 How To Forget

The term cold reading is an old one, and predates Orson Welles’ talk here.  It is used as the background to the novel and film Nightmare Alley and not only does it feature in my book but in A.L. Kennedy’s recently published Blue Book which I’m reading right now… and enjoying immensely.  Let Orson explain.

I have my doubts that Welles did half the things he claimed to.  This looks more like well informed wishful thinking to me.  An imagination thank fully unchecked by my sort of cynacism.  And what a genius for story.

He did like to pose

Improve Your Memory

(From the preface of: What The F*** Did I Do With My Keys – What our brains are really telling us when we forget things., London, 2009)

What about that memory of your Dad, when he used to tell you you were stupid and how worthless it made you feel  Years after the event you’re still feeling it and, in your lower moments, blaming it for holding you back from pursuing your dreams or actually believing that you deserve success.

What about the memory of your first great love when they waltzed off with someone better looking? Or the parent who walked out leaving you with the psycho one, and all the hurt that went with it?  Could that memory, that embedded fear, have anything to do with why, now, you seem to bugger up all your relationships before anyone gets a chance to get too close?

Or, what about those happy childhood memories of carefree roaming, endless summers and Enid Blyton?  What happened when you grew up and real life turned out not to be full of magic, adventure and cream teas but stress, monotony and utter shit?  Is there possibly some connection between your nostalgic memories and the disappointment, the resentment, that you won’t admit to but still drives you to infantalise yourself with Harry Potter, Friends Reunited or pretending that you’re ‘mates’ with your own kids?

Maybe you find yourself inexplicably clinging on to relationships long past their sell-by date or in terror of asking your boss for a raise or relying on the blissful oblivion of drink or drugs – but if you ever get the sensation that there is something irrational holding you back in life it is, usually, something from your past that is doing it.

But the past isn’t really there, it doesn’t exist, it’s not another country, it is just one thing: a memory.

It seems incredible that the current ‘brain training’ racket, which seems almost to solely exist to justify the sales of hand-held gaming consoles to adults who should know better, is based on such a trivial gain.  Being able to remember faces, or shopping lists, or the capital of Lithuania is, no doubt, helpful but it is nothing that the possession of a pen and piece of paper couldn’t do equally well.  On the other hand, we all have troubling and intangible things in our heads which, if we could only completely forget them, we could really improve the quality of our memories.

So many of us believe that we’ve buried our painful pasts but, with no knowledge of how to forget effectively, we’ve usually just stored their sleeping shadows in the deepest recesses of our minds, ready to surface again when they will be least helpful. –  The field of psychiatry is almost entirely based on the tyranny of inexpertly buried childhood memories rising from the grave, like zombies, to menace us in later life.

In this book I aim to give you the right spade and the best plot, so that you can bury your own, no longer relevant or needed, zombie memories – to forget them completely, effectively and once and for all.