Being a Hypnoweasel and Why That’s a Bad Idea.

I greatly enjoy the television shows and, as it turns out, the writing of Derren Brown. Mr Brown is a successful conjurer, hypnotist and showman who performs stage magic and a range of deceits and experiments, including trying to turn a random member of the public into an assassin or convincing people that they committed a murder.

This is Derren hypnotising you into believing that this is the best post ever.

His combination of trickery, showmanship, claimed psychology/neurolinguistic programming and hypnotism makes for an interesting show – he has been guilty of over claiming in earlier shows and, these days, focusses on the art of misdirection, with a healthy dose of human influence to tell interesting stories. I am reading his book “Tricks of the Mind” at the moment and the simple tricks he discusses are well informed by the anecdotes that accompany them. However, some of his Experiments and discussions of the human aspects of wilful ignorance of probability and statistics are very interesting indeed and I use these as part of my teaching.

In “The System”, Derren shares his “100% successful horse race prediction system” with a member of the public. He also shows how, by force of will alone, he can flip a coin 10 times and have it come up heads – with no camera trickery. I first saw this on a rather dull plane flight and watched with interest as he did a number of things that, characteristically, showed you exactly what he was doing but cleverly indicated that he was doing something else – or let you believe that he was doing something else. “The System” is a great thing to show students because they have to consider what is and what isn’t possible at each stage and then decide how he did it, or how he could have done it. By combining his own skill at sleight of hand, his rather detailed knowledge of how people work and his excellent preparation, “The System” will leave a number of people wondering about the detail, like all good magic should.

The real reason that I am reading Derren at the moment, as well as watching him carefully, is that I am well aware how easy it is to influence people and, in teaching, I would rather not be using influence and stagecraft to manipulate my students’ memories of a teaching experience, even if I’m doing it unconsciously. Derren is, like all good magicians, very, very good at forcing cards onto people or creating situations where they think that they have carried out an act of their own free will, when really it is nothing of the kind. Derren’s production and writings on creating false memory, where a combination of preparation, language and technique leads to outcomes where participants will swear blind that a certain event occurred when it most certainly did not. This is the flashy cousin of the respectable work on cognition and load thresholds, monkey business illusion anyone?, but I find it a great way to step back critically and ask myself if I have been using any of these techniques in the showman-like manipulation of my students to make them think that knowledge has been transferred when, really, what they have is the memory of a good lecture experience?

This may seem both overly self-critical and not overly humble but I am quite a good showman and I am aware that my presentation can sometimes overcome the content. There is, after all, a great deal of difference between genuinely being able to manipulate time and space to move cards in a deck, and merely giving the illusion that one can. One of these is a miracle and the other is practise. Looking through the good work on cognitive load and transfer between memory systems, I can shape my learning and teaching design so that the content is covered thoroughly, linked properly and staged well. Reading and watching Derren, however, reminds me how much I could undo all of the good work by not thinking about how easy it is for humans to accept a strange personally skewed perspective of what has really happened. I could convince my students that they are learning, when in reality they are confused and need more clarification. The good news is that, looking back, I’m pretty sure that I do prepare and construct in a way that I can build upon something good, which is what I want to do, rather than provide an empty but convincing facade over the top of something that is not all that solid. Watching Derren, however, lets me think about the core difference between an enjoyable and valuable learning experience and misdirection.

There are many ways to fool people and these make for good television but I want my students to be the kind of people who see through such enjoyable games and can quickly apply their properly developed knowledge and understanding of how things really work to determine what is actually happening. There’s an old saying “Set a thief to catch a thief” and, in this case, it takes a convincing showman/hypnotist to clarify the pitfalls possible when you get a little too convincing in your delivery.

Deception is not the basis for good learning and teaching, no matter how noble an educator’s intent.

2 Comments on “Being a Hypnoweasel and Why That’s a Bad Idea.”

  1. This is the best post ever. It was better than Cats. I will read it again, and again, and again.


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