Language Of The Mind
Derren says that there is no real name for what he does, though it has some characteristics of what other performers call 'mentalism'. This draws on the idea that we are all born with basic thought structures in place and are conditioned to rely on intuitive forms of communication – a kind of universal body language, if you like. Derren has referred to this simply as 'thinking inside the box'. He has spent years studying these universal responses, learning their 'secret language' as a way of tuning in to our thoughts, and thereby appearing to read our minds.
Harder Than It Looks
Sounds easy, doesn't it? But while even Derren would admit that what he does is 'not down to natural talent' and that, in theory, anyone could do it, he is keen to point out that it took years to develop his skills. 'It's all about working at it,' he says. 'It took me 10 years to learn this stuff.' Uri Geller also believes that 'psychic powers' are only an extension of our normal powers, and that everyone has the capability to possess them. For him, it's all about concentration, which is rather like working out in the gym. 'If you lift weights for a day or two,' says Geller, 'nothing happens. But if you lift weights every day for one or two years, then you will see the change.'
But although these performers share certain approaches, each act is unique to the individual. Sheer force of personality is key. 'It's very rewarding to see what one can achieve without any fakery at all,' says Derren, 'but I also have a few things of my own design that I use to help me along the way.' What really matters, he believes is 'how you commit to the material; what you decide to believe you are doing, regardless of what the actual real-life method might be.' Ultimately, he says, the answer is to 'be inspired to go your own way and think originally in line with who you are.'
A Long Tradition
Performers like Derren and his contemporary David Blaine have undoubtedly been inspired by the likes of Harry Houdini, probably the most famous illusionist of them all, who attracted worldwide attention through his famous public feats of escapology in the early 1900s. Acts of psychic phenomena however, were recorded as early as the 1600s, when they were commonly viewed as witchcraft or sorcery.
By Victorian times, psychology was becoming increasingly significant in medicine, and psychic happenings were often attributed to the subconscious mind. This was thought to be particularly true of people who had experienced some sort of emotional trauma. The Victorians believed that shock resulted in an unconditioned part of the brain – the subconscious – taking over and was thought to explain some people's apparent ability to make crockery fly around a room.
'There can be no doubt of the fact that when suggestion is actively and intelligently employed, it is always effective ...' said Thomson J Hudson in 1893 in The Law of Psychic Phenomena. The Victorian medium Daniel Dunglas Home seemed to have commanded his subconscious or 'free will' to spectacular effect. He became famous for such mind-boggling acts as washing his face in red-hot coals, and floating in and out of the windows of high buildings. The 19th century physiologist Charles Richet, meanwhile, came up with his own explanation for the phenomenon of 'cryptesthesia' – the act of reproducing drawings in sealed envelopes. He said: 'In certain persons at certain times, there exists a faculty of thought which has no relation to our normal means of knowledge.' He labelled this faculty the 'sixth sense'.
Sixth sense? Free will? Mentalism? Psychological illusionism? Call it what you like, talents like Derren's are extremely rare. And while Derren and his contemporaries admit to having laboured long and hard to perfect their art, their amazing ability to entertain, fascinate and even terrify us, remains undiminished because what continues to elude us is their magic touch.
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