The psychology of magic: Where do we look for meaning in life?
The desperate search for a narrative opens the door to the wonders of magic.
Derren Brown began his UK television career in December 2000 with a series of specials called Mind Control. In the UK, his name is now pretty much synonymous with the art of psychological manipulation. Amongst a varied and notorious TV career, Derren has played Russian Roulette live, convinced middle-managers to commit armed robbery, led the nation in a séance, stuck viewers at home to their sofas, successfully predicted the National Lottery, motivated a shy man to land a packed passenger plane at 30,000 feet, hypnotised a man to assassinate Stephen Fry, and created a zombie apocalypse for an unsuspecting participant after seemingly ending the world. He has also written several best-selling books and has toured with eight sell-out one-man stage shows.
DERREN BROWN: We live in a world now where we've comfortably dispensed with most myth and superstition for the last few hundred years. That's the enlightenment project, you know, we have embraced a very rational approach to life and that's wonderful and it has brought us many great things, but it's also left us with a sort of a meaning gap.
So, for example, we've removed any meaning around the idea of death so particularly morbid superstitions are the first things that we sort of got rid of. So, if death now doesn't really have any meaning it means we don't live comfortably with the idea of death, death is an unwelcome and absurd and terrifying and alienating sort of stranger when it comes rather than a companion to life that's something that's present and in the background that we sort of make our peace with, which plenty of other cultures do. And then when it happens we really struggled for a narrative. The only narrative we have really is the brave battle that someone is fighting. That's sort of our cultural narrative around death, which is really not helpful. It's not helpful for the person that's dying, it just adds failure to another list of problems that they've already got. It's more helpful for the people around them. And that's sort of the problem our need for narrative and meaning at that point has been, well it's there but the narrative, our sense of authorship has been jettisoned and the people around us are making the decisions. They're taking authorship of this point in our life when we need maximum authorship really. We start to feel like or can start to feel like a cameo part while the doctors and loved ones and people are making decisions.
So, there's an example of meaning and myth been taken out of something where it's psychologically important, it's important for us to have some kind of sense of meaning in those times. So, it's no coincidence that psychics and spiritual mediums and all of that world come in with a fairly tawdry sense of meaning, they don't really offer anything useful, but they kind of seem like they do so they become very popular in our sort of society where we're desperate for something, we're desperate for some sort of narrative that just gives us a sense of something bigger. So, I think that's very important because magic is in a secular way is promising those kind of things. And we know it's theatrical, we certainly do with a stage magician, we don't if it's a medium where perhaps we believe in them maybe. But I think they're always going to tap into our need for that element of life, that kind of feeling of wonder, of the thing that's bigger than ourselves, of transcendence. I mean that's what it's tapping into. And that's a hugely important thing in life; you only find meaning in life by finding the thing that's bigger than you and throwing yourself into that thing. That's how you find meaning. And meaning is more important than happiness. When people's lives mean nothing that's when they throw themselves off buildings, which we all deal with unhappiness all the time so meaning is the most important. And when we lack a sense of transcendence or when we lack a sense of narratives that are bigger than us that we can lose ourselves in we're going to try and find it where we can and magic in it's silly vaudevillian often childish way I think tends to appeal to that.
- By embracing a rational approach to life, society at large has stripped away meaning from psychologically important elements of life, including death.
- A lack of meaning leads to discomfort, which results in a desperate search for narrative in things that feel transcendent and bigger than ourselves.
- For some, the wonder of magic fills that void and provides the meaning and structure that has been lost.
- Derren returns to the stage with his new live, one-man show, Showman. Check it out here.
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