The psychology of secrecy

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Everyone wears masks to hide their identities, all are sworn to never reveal what they have seen, and no-one knows what's on the agenda until they turn up…welcome to a meeting of Edinburgh Secret Society. Tim Cornwell goes undercover to find out more

LAST month, in the midst of winter snowstorms, a gathering that had given few hints what was in store saw a sell-out crowd of about 70 people clustered eagerly round the tables of the Voodoo Rooms in the heart of the capital. Donning white masks to hide their identities, for an "evening of illusion and disbelief", they were subjected to optical tricks and audience manipulation, heard a probing history of the world's greatest magic trick, and agreed their new, meaningful motto: "The king cannot be saved, the king cannot make custard."

The group came together, almost flashmob style, soon after the celebrated psychologist and magician Richard Wiseman, who has 60,000 Twitter followers, sent a tweet: "Whatever you do, don't click on this link". "This got more hits than any other thing I've posted," he says. They included a Scotsman reporter, who shall remain anonymous.

The inaugural meeting of the Edinburgh Secret Society, in a city that's long been fond of exclusive societies and clubs, was all very hush-hush: attendees were sworn to a vow of silence over what they had seen. The ESS holds its second session this month, and tickets for two evenings have again sold out within hours. A website hints of what's in store, from astrological predictions by "Madame Zara", to how to get a good night's sleep, but there are no details of the line-up.

Professor Wiseman, who has worked alongside Derren Brown and is known for his mass psychology experiments and best-selling books, and Peter Lamont, an Edinburgh University researcher and author and former president of the city's Magic Circle, launched the Edinburgh Secret Society together. Both are public performers and speakers who blend expertise in psychology and magic with a skeptical, tongue-in-cheek tone.

The ESS – though with its tongue firmly in cheek – reflects the history of secret societies in Edinburgh such as the Speculative Society, whose membership dates back to Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.

It is part of a national trend for rapid-fire, entertaining evenings that explore all manner of subjects. Taxidermy, spiritualism, how to lay floors or spot a fake artwork – all could be on the agenda. Open to anyone who can snap up a low-priced ticket in time, the society, after all, is not quite as secret as it pretends.

The Scottish Enlightenment helped produce a 19th-century social trend, "rational recreations" of talks and societies partly aimed at disseminating useful information, bringing culture to the common man in the name of "mental improvement". "It was lots of people going out and giving talks and presentations as a way that was deemed to be informative and entertaining," says Peter Lamont, who adds that the ESS goal is "lighthearted enlightenment".

While the two men have compered proceedings so far, almost anyone could be invited to speak, as long as they can inform and entertain. The ESS was partly inspired by the Catalyst Club of Brighton, a monthly event where three speakers talk for 15 minutes on subjects close to their heart. Founded in 2005, it has soared in popularity recently, partly on the heels of social networking, which can rapidly assemble people curious about bizarre topics. Bees, Victorian Lantern Shows, "The Exciting World of Slime Mould", giant squid and "The Dawn of Civilisation" have all featured. In the 5x15 club in London, in a similar format, five prominent speakers get 15 minutes to have their say, with talks by the likes of travel writer and MP Rory Stewart. The Ted Lectures in New York are 18-minute appearances that have included the likes of former president Bill Clinton.

"They are not lectures," said David Bramwell, founder of the Brighton-based Cheeky Guides, who put the Catalyst Club together. "When the Catalyst works at its best, our ideology is for people to talk about their passions." It has featured a Kate Bush fan who sang Kate Bush songs, a woman named Sarah Angliss, also known as Space Dog, who did a demonstration of Edison's first recording device, a speaker who did a talk on life-drawing, who brought out a naked model for the audience to draw and talked them through what to look for. This kind of event's attraction, he suggests, is for a generation used to clubbing that looks for its intellectual spark in a cabaret or comic setting.

The Edinburgh society has adopted a quirky, secretive twist on the format that is already spawning imitators of its own. Wiseman has been contacted by a friend in San Francisco planning to launch an "Edinburgh Secret Society" in that city.

The first meeting's line-up finished with mind-reader, Colin Mcleod, a veteran of sell-out runs at the Edinburgh Fringe. But the two men stressed that the society will lead anywhere – with self-help on the agenda this coming week. It is for those "of a curious disposition", notes the website, with verbal, theatrical and experimental presentations that will "inform, entertain and bewilder".

"We don't take ourselves too seriously, and if you look at the website and the history of the club on it, you will see that," said Lamont. "All we want is someone to stand-up, and be interesting on any subject at all."

The table seating at the Voodoo Rooms, for about 70, is meant to bring an informal atmosphere of exchange where strangers can meet and talk, he adds: "It's about arousing curiosity. We ask people not to tell what happened because you only know if you attend. We didn't think there was anything in Edinburgh to learn about interesting weird stuff. It's about anything as long as it's curious."

Wiseman explored the pleasures and pitfalls of self-help, and research on what does and doesn't work, in his book 59 Seconds, Think a Little, Change A Lot. He has plenty of other research to draw on – he also wrote on humour in the World's Worst Jokes – but it won't just be a double act. The duo plan an Edinburgh Secret Society event at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, but stress this is a year-round society centred firmly in the city.

The director of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, Simon Gage, notes the society isn't really about secrets. "The interesting bit for me is it's about science, technology, psychology, but with people spending their evenings in popular entertainment. It's the inexorable nudge of science into the mainstream culture which I think is a great thing. It's also part of the rise of science and comedy," which has seen stand-up comics like Dara Briain involved in science festivals, for example.

"I like the esoteric mix of people just standing up and talking off their head for 20 minutes or so and thought it might work," said Wiseman. "It's getting people away from computers, getting them face-to-face, and listening to this really interesting mix of speakers, we hope, that will kick off interesting ideas and mixes."

"I'm very keen on slightly unusual stuff. I would love something on taxidermy, something on the history of Garibaldi biscuits or Battenberg cakes," he said. "I also like practical stuff. I would love someone to come along and tell us how to lay a floor, or find out how a picture is genuine or fake. I love the random mix of ideas, people wouldn't normally go out for a two-hour lecture on taxidermy, I'll give it 20 minutes of my time.

"The whole thing is set on a mystery. You don't know who is going to be there before you turn up and I think that's quite attractive to people. The one thing we guarantee is that they should be good speakers. I think it's a lucky time with Twitter and Facebook, and online it's very easy to get a community of people."

"I think there's a berth for events where people actually meet up, because people are getting slightly fed up with things getting at their computers all the time. The fact we have sold out again so quickly, it seems to work."