What Derren Brown Taught Me About Learning

Tricks of the Mind is a book by Derren Brown, an eccentric British mentalist/magician/illusionist/TV star. The book had been sitting in my bedroom for the last decade almost completely unread. The only section I had perused shortly after I bought it as a teenager was about how to detect a liar. Evidently, I was less than impressed and put down the book and never picked it back up until now.

Inside Tricks of the Mind are interesting instructions on how to learn some ‘magic tricks’ and the main principles needed to engineer an impressive one. But what really amazed me about this book was the section on memory.

Unsurprisingly, Brown invites us to memorize a list of 20 words in consecutive order. I said the first six words out loud several times before closing book to try and recall them. As I went to write, my mind went blank, and I ended up writing the first five words but in completely the wrong order. A complete fail.

The chapter then went to give instructions on how to remember the list of words. It used a process called linking, whereby you imagine vivid associations between the consecutive words. For example if the word “baby” follows the word “wigwam”, you can imagine a gigantic baby that is inside a Native American abode, tearing it apart as it woke up angrily from a nap. The more outrageous the story, the easier it is to remember.

Within two minutes, I had memorized the list perfectly. I was amazed. By inputting the words into my long-term memory, it became easy to remember the list. In my first attempt, I was attempting to cram my short-term memory and was destined for failure.

I could have been there for a full day with my first method learning the 20 words, but with a more effective method I managed to memorize it in a fraction of the time. I felt empowered and elated.

Within the next hour, I managed to remember a different 20-word list and their corresponding numbers, and a list of nine generic to-do tasks. I managed to memorize a 21-digit number and recite it. It’s 876498474505773498724 by the way. I did each of those with various methods such as the loci method and the pegging method, all within minutes of reading it from the page. I can still remember all of the above lists and numbers now.

I began to ponder: What other things are we trying to learn, but just learning with the wrong method? Where could we seek coaching from an expert, instead of wasting our time and energy trying to learn by ourselves? What long-accepted ways of learning could be transformed by changing the way we do things?

Please comment your thoughts and ideas below!