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Derren Brown on hypnosis, faith-healing and religious experience

22578_fullI’ve been exploring the history of ecstasy in modern culture. One of the ways the Enlightenment tried to naturalize ecstasy was by developing the concept of hypnosis. In the 18th century, Franz Mesmer showed that he could achieve just as miraculous healings as a priest through his own rituals, the success of which he attributed to ‘magnetic fluids’. Then, in the late-19th century, psychologists like Pierre Janet and William James thought that hypnosis – or Mesmerism, as it was then known – tapped into a ‘subconscious’ or ‘subliminal self’ beyond our rational control, the existence of which explained many religious and paranormal phenomena, like faith-healing, visions, and trances. Like Mesmer, they thought that hypnotic states could often be profoundly healing, and could perhaps connect us to God.

Today, few academic psychologists explore this fascinating terrain, but one person who does is Derren Brown, the mentalist and stage-magician. I went to Derren’s extraordinary house, the interior decoration for which includes a stuffed giraffe and a fish-tank with moray eels, to ask him what he thinks is the relationship between hypnosis and religious experience, and how his new show, Miracle, explores faith-healing.

You were Christian when you were a child?

Yes. I went to a Crusaders Class when I was six or seven. A teacher who I really liked said ‘do you want to come along?’, and I was too young to think that was weird, I thought that was what everyone did. My family wasn’t religious, and I had one Christian friend, so there was never any cultural pressure. As a teenager, I went to church called the New Life Christian Centre in Croydon, a big happy-clappy church. I became more sceptical while I was at Bristol University, partly because I became fascinated by hypnosis, which my church friends deeply disapproved of. They thought it was from the Devil. I thought ‘if the human mind is the pinnacle of God’s creation, why is exploring it bad?’ I also became more sceptical of New Age things like Tarot or psychics, which my church literally demonized, so that made me sceptical of the church too. And I went on a ‘Christian gay cure’ course  – sort of a basic psychology course – and it didn’t work. So all this made me more sceptical.

Did you ever have a ‘Holy Spirit encounter’?

A photo from a New Life church service
A Pentecostal church service

No not really. I had a lot of scepticism towards those kinds of charismatic services. I think this is quite common among people who attend those services. Talking in tongues, for example – it was quite evident, if you were at all intelligent and not just hyper-suggestible and caught up in the whole thing, that there was a lot of crowd manipulation going on. There would be a point in the service when the Holy Spirit was moving through everybody, and every week the same woman stood up and talked in tongues. And then someone else stood up and offered an interpretation, which was largely a series of general statements, you know ‘the door is open…revival is coming’. It was always the same people, and the tongues always sounded the same. It became a bit comical. One time, we were told we were all going to be given the gift of tongues, so we all stood up, and the pastor said, ‘just start making a noise. That’s tongues. If a little voice tells you this is stupid, that’s the Devil.’ It seemed so blatantly manipulative.

Do you think charismatic churches are doing some form of hypnotic suggestion?

Channel-4-Upfronts-Conference-2010-Derren-BrownYes, I do. But it’s complicated. It’s difficult to pin down what hypnosis is. In a show, for example, you have a wide range of experiences in the audience. At the end of my shows, I used to make myself invisible [to hypnotized participants on stage], then I’d move a chair through the air. And the participants would all react, jump back, and so on. Later in the show, I’d often get those people back up, and say ‘what were you experiencing?’ And you’d get a range of experiences. Perhaps a third would say ‘I could see you were there, but it was very easy to go along with it and sort of play-act’. Then you’d get a middle third who would say ‘looking back on it, of course you were moving it, but at the time, I really believed you weren’t there, and was just focusing on the chair’. And then you get people at the upper extreme saying ‘no idea what you’re talking about, I assumed you moved the chair with wires’. They couldn’t believe I was there at all. And you never quite know if they’re just saying that, to appear the most hypnotized.

It’s so difficult to tie down what hypnosis is – there’s a lot of work asking if hypnosis is just role-playing. A famous example is that you can hypnotise people to eat an onion as if it was a juicy apple. It looks very impressive. But I was talking about this to Andy, the director of my stage shows, and he said ‘I bet I can do that without being hypnotized’. And he went to a fridge, took out an onion and took a big bite. And all that is, is another motivating factor, another story you’re telling yourself.

He enjoyed it? He didn’t wince?

No, he was fine. He was trying to prove a point, and that gave him a different motivating story. Even the things that look terribly impressive – people being operated on, for example – it looks amazing, but when you break it down to what layer of skin actually feels pain, actually, once you’re removing organs, it’s a bit uncomfortable but not actually painful.

So in a religious meeting, there might be that whole range – people who are completely swept up, and people who are sort of going along with it, ‘as if’ it was true. As a sort of co-created fantasy.

Yes. You’re there, you’re having a really good time, you’re with a bunch of like-minded people…

And the Holy Spirit is after all a sign of God’s love and favour.

Yes, but I think plenty of people are a bit scepticial about some of that. I find that most intelligent people who also happen to be Christian probably sense that a lot of it is a bit of a scam, stage-craft, crowd manipulation. But it’s sort of ingrained and difficult to object to.

Do you think hypnotism or suggestibility plays a big role in religion in general?

Audiences at rock concerts can exhibit some of the trance or mania aspects of religious revivals, as in this example of 'Beatle-mania'
Audiences at rock concerts can exhibit some of the trance or mania aspects of religious revivals, as in this example of ‘Beatle-mania’

It depends. There is a range of human experiences clustered around belief, suggestion, the stories we tell ourselves. Those experiences might include hypnosis in alternative therapy, or placebo responses, or religious experiences, or charismatic revivals, or rock concerts – it’s just a range. The trouble with going ‘is that just hypnosis?’ is that it’s difficult to define what hypnosis is. It’s like defining a magic trick. I think of magic as a short-hand for an experience you have, and you know the magician isn’t actually doing magic but the magician gives you an experience, and you know what to call it, and that makes sense and gives him a role. With hypnosis, there’s a similar thing going on – there’s a certain context, with a guy who’s called a hypnotist, and it’s done with the familiar tropes of hypnotism, and it’s recognized as such. But actually it’s a short-hand for quite different things – if you go to a hypnotist to stop smoking, if you’re trying to get on top of your unconscious processes, that’s quite different to going to on stage and being persuaded to dance like a ballerina. If someone’s hyper-suggestible, they may respond to both, but it’s difficult to lump the experiences together.

Can one really provoke a religious experience in an atheist with an NLP session? I mean, can one brainwash people to do or believe things almost against their will?

Well, I did that in a show. I found a highly suggestible person. It’s not like you can just walk down the road and make that happen. A TV show like that is a specific context, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the conditions of real life.

Tell me about your experiences with faith healing in your latest show, Miracle.

In the second half of the show, I say ‘we’re going to do some faith healing, and I will heal you’. This is a sceptical audience, but I say ‘you’ve just got to go with it, you’re obviously not the right audience for this, you’re not primed for it, and it’s OK to be sceptical and even repulsed by it, but beneath all that, there are some aspects that are useful, so if you go with me on this, it has the power to profoundly change how you feel, emotionally and physically’. And the show progresses in the way that those healings do – I offer out the Holy Spirit, as it were, but I don’t talk about it in religious language initially, it starts off secular. So I throw out this adrenaline experience – adrenaline heals pain. That’s why faith-healing only ever heals functional conditions that respond to pain relief, no one’s arm ever grows back.

Does it work?

The first shock was that it worked at all. Not only does the healing work, but I’ve also ‘slayed’ people, so they’re falling down [when people pass out in charismatic churches it’s called being ‘slain in the Holy Spirit’]. Some shows are better than others, but essentially it’s working as a mechanism even with a sceptical audience. It’s difficult to quantify the effect. But I’ve had a couple of tweets, people jokingly saying ‘well, my condition is back again, so much for that haha’. I tell people, this will stick with some of you, and for others it won’t. But also I’ve had letters from people saying ‘I don’t know what you did, I understand it isn’t faith-healing, but this condition is still gone and I feel amazing’. Someone on stage had a series of strokes when she was very young and had never been able to feel the left-side of her body. And now she could. One guy said he had terrible psoriasis, his arm was covered with it, and within five minutes, that was gone. One of the stage-crew has a teenage daughter who suffered from depression, and she’s been really helped by it. So sometimes it’s been quite transformative.



You can watch a  clip of Derren ‘curing’ a woman of blindness in the show here.

How does it work?

The way I see it is that William James thing, acting ‘as if’. You give yourself permission to act ‘as if’ a thing isn’t a problem. There’s this story you tell yourself every day – ‘I’ve got a bad back and it’s a thing I live with’. The healing stops that story in its tracks, makes you stop and question it.

Like a religious conversion?

Yeah, a bit. There’s an adrenalin lift as you get on stage, and there are other people around you talking about it. Even if it is only a temporary thing, it’s a glimpse out of that story.

What about people getting ‘slain in the spirit’?

victorian postural sway - CopyIt’s not with quite the vigour and hysteria you see at revival services. Sometimes people are just complying with it. But sometimes their eyes roll back, they start shaking a bit. Sometimes people can’t stop shaking. I always imagine that people are sort of playing along, it’s just a sort of unconscious playing along. But then you see things that people wouldn’t know to play along to do. Sometimes people pass out and are out for the whole of the second half of the show.

Given some of these remarkable results, do you think hypnosis should be used more in the NHS?

I think what we need is a more people-oriented medicine – finding a softer, more caring middle-ground, without endorsing treatments that are claiming to do something they’re not. Let’s say you see your GP for your allocated six minutes, and he says ‘relax and take it easy’, you’ll feel ignored. If you have an hour with an alternative therapist, they’re taking an interest in you, sympathizing with you, there’s a ritual to it. Even if they’re essentially still saying ‘relax and take it easy’, it’s more likely to work. You feel like you’ve had attention paid to you. That’s what’s key: the bed-side manner. I never really recommend people see a hypnotist for smoking. If they are suggestible, it’s amazing, it’s like a magic pill. But for 50% of people it’s a waste of time.

OK, on a different note, how did you get into Stoic philosophy, and how have you found it helpful?

It started with Montaigne, who kept mentioning Stoic writers. So that made me pursue the Stoics, and I discovered a love of the Hellenistic philosophical world, and the Stoics in particular. I realized that it chimed with what I already felt was important and true. For example, when I was at university and afterwards, I had zero ambition. I was doing hypnosis and magic because it was a fun way to spend the day. I had no desire to get on TV or anything. It was a very ‘in the moment’ thing. So that chimed with the Stoic idea of focusing on the present moment and not getting attached to ambition or reputation. Then I gradually discovered new things in Stoicism, and it shaped my character in new ways. That led to me wanting to write a book on these things, it’s such a different voice to mainstream culture. [He’s just finishing a book on happiness, to be published in the next few months].

What’s the best thing you’ve learned about happiness in your research?

I think it’s the clarity of Epictetus’ maxim that you’re only in control of your thoughts and actions, and everything else you can let go. For me, that’s become a mantra. If something is frustrating you, what side of the line is it on? Obviously, it’s always on the side of things I can’t control. And then you can go, ‘it’s fine’ and let go. It makes me feel like a kid when it’s Saturday and you realize you don’t have to go to school. It’s just a very visceral feeling of relief. For example, things that your partner does that annoy you or get under your skin, you realize it’s actually fine, you don’t have to try and change them.

Do fame and wealth really not make you happy?

Well, we know there’s a watershed moment at around £40K where you’re comfortable and money is not a trouble, after that you don’t get much happier with more money. The people who aren’t happy with fame and wealth are the ones who are always chasing the next big thing and who have quite addictive personalities. There’s not a moment when you become successful. And it’s never permanent. Your goal just moves a bit further on. As for the fame thing…everything gets more extreme. The nice things become nicer – you get to travel first class, you can book tables in nice restaurants more easily. But the horrible stuff becomes much worse – you might have stuff about your private life written in newspapers, and you think everyone is thinking about it. You get stalkers, or people who just hate you, or mentally disturbed people who are out to destroy you. So I think it balances out.

You seem to have a very strong work ethic. What motivates you?

I never feel particularly motivated. Motivation is one of those words which people use when they feel they don’t have it and they sense it in others. I’m actually very lazy. I love it when there’s nothing in my diary. I go on tour because I love doing it, and it lets me live like I did in Bristol – I get my days free, so I can sit, read and write in coffee shops, and in the evenings I go out and do a show which makes me feel amazing even if I’ve had a bad day. If I’m sitting and writing, that feels very good to me. And going and doing a show is also hugely enjoyable, and there’s a lot of adrenaline. So all in all, that’s a lovely day, who wouldn’t want to do that.

You can watch Miracle on Netflix here and on Four on Demand here 

Here is a link for Derren’s book on happiness.

For an alternative perspective, here’s an interview I did with Nicky Gumbel, head of the evangelical Alpha course, where he gives his take on religious experiences.

Here is another interview about hypnosis, faith and healing, with the medical professor Paul Dieppe

My interview with Derren features in my new book, The Art of Losing Control.

Please explore this blog at your leisure – it’s filled with great stuff. If you enjoy it, consider supporting it on Patreon. 

‘Get Out’ and the spell of racial supremacy

Warning: this post contains mild spoilers for the film Get Out.

I finally saw Get Out last night, and loved it. The film was laugh-out-loud funny, scary, and helped me somewhat imagine what it’s like to be a black man walking through a white suburb, or a black man talking to a white police officer. How on your guard you need to be, the feeling of constantly being in enemy territory. Get out! But where can you escape to?

Above all, I thought the film had a really interesting insight about racial power.

Chris, black, has been dating Rose, white, for five months. They go to visit Rose’s parents for the weekend. ‘Do they know I’m black?’ Chris asks. ‘No. They’re not racist’, says Rose. They’re certainly liberal, but they’re not colour-blind – Rose’s father greets Chris with ‘hey, my man!’ and enthusiastically tells him of his admiration for Obama. At an all-white drinks party, we see the subtly alienating ways white people interact with blacks: admiring his physique, asking him about ‘the African-American experience’.

But this is a horror film, not just a study in social manners. Rose’s mother is a psychiatrist, and she offers to hypnotize Chris to break his smoking addiction. ‘Don’t let her into your head!’ warns Chris’ friend on the phone. She manages to hypnotize him, and takes him back to his weakest and most painful memory. And then she leaves him there, paralyzed with fear and shame. He falls down, down, into his subconscious, more and more submissive and suggestible, looking up at her peering down on him like a goddess. ‘Now you’re in the sunken place’, she says. He’s in her power, under her spell. He’s got her under his skin, like the other black people he encounters at the mansion, who walk around like zombies.

The film evokes the experience of falling into the sunken place quite well. The sequence reminds me of Under the Skin, also about a body-snatching white goddes who puts her victims in a trance.

And it shows, once again, how effectively films can portray altered states of consciousness and evoke them in the audience. Think of how Hitchcock explores states like hypnosis, trance, vertigo, psychosis and so on, or how Danny Boyle explores altered states in films like Trainspotting, Trance and Sunshine. Or Fellini, Christopher Nolan, Andrea Arnold, Tarkovsky, Chaplin, Herzog, Jackson, Bunuel, Lynch…Cinema has developed a language of altered states.

One of the film-makers most interested in exploring altered states of consciousness is Stanley Kubrick, whose film The Shining is one of the defining influences on Get Out (according to director Jordan Peele). The Shining is a difficult film to pin down, it entrances and possesses you, it has ‘an attention to almost a subconscious level of perception’ as Peele puts it, so that people watch it over and over looking for hidden meanings (a bit like Get Out). But many of the fan-theories about the Shining suggest it’s about the dark magic of imperial power – how the elite can cast their spell on the weak and use them to do their bloody bidding, particularly for violent genocide (the film is filled with mini-references to genocides like the Jewish Holocaust or the American war on Native Americans).

Empire, the film may suggest, is a spell, a violent, evil curse, and its power carries on through the ages.

And that’s true. Empire is a spell. If you want to rule another people, make them feel dazzled, mesmerized, small and helpless when they look up at their conqueror. Put them in the sunken place. Put a curse on their minds and bodies, so that they feel their inferiority and submission in their guts, their bowels, their bones, in the way they walk, the way they tighten up when a white person walks into the room. Make them automatically have to smile, bow and serve, even if a part of them watches from the sunken place, and hates themselves.

How did tens of thousands of British manage to rule India, a nation of several hundred million? Through guns and violence, yes. But mainly through the spell of empire. ‘The prestige of race was the mainstay of the Raj’, writes the historian Lawrence James. The curse. ‘We are better than you. You are weak and helpless. We are gods.’ Repeat it over and over until it gets under their skin. Re-inforce it with all the props of power.

Put them in the sunken place

I woke up to the evil of the British empire late, aged 40, just this year in fact, when I visited Kolkata, and saw the Victoria Memorial. There, in the middle of this falling-down city, was a giant white palace, and inside it, a statue of the white goddess, Victoria. The whites all lived in ‘white town’ (seriously), and might have up to 100 staff for a family of 4. The empire was designed as a spell, to razzle-dazzle the natives and keep them submissive. ‘We are better than you. We are gods.’

We weren’t gods. We weren’t even very good administrators. We left India in 1947 with a literacy rate of 7%, a life expectancy of 27, 90% living beneath the poverty line. We allowed India to be repeatedly devastated by famines, in which millions died – the most recent was the 1942 Bengal Famine, in which 1-2 million died. The viceroy begged Churchill to send assistance, but he refused. ‘I hate the Indians. A beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits’, he said. Two million dead in one famine – four times the total British dead in World War II. Clearly, brown lives didn’t matter nearly as much as white lives.

British colonialists were prepared to sacrifice millions for the myth of our own racial superiority. The Nazis or the Belgian empire were more obviously evil, but our evil was more subtle – we didn’t just kill, we mind-fucked. We oversaw ‘the obliteration of the most precious possessions of the colonised, their identities and their self-respect.’

The spell of empire lasted until World War II, when Indians were stunned to see the mighty British army routed by the Japanese. By Asians. ‘Why are they running…they are sahibs’, asked one astonished Indian soldier in Burma. ‘They’re not sahibs, they’re Australians’, he was reassured by another Indian soldier, desperate to keep his faith.

Yet so effective was this spell, that it still exists. Any white visitor to India feels it – locals are desperate to take a selfie with you, people sometimes give up their seat for you on the metro, you get special treatment wherever you go. Some Indians are still in the sunken place, still under the spell of white supremacy. ‘Where are you from? Oh Britain! Good country!’ Huh? We fucked your country. We mind-fucked your ancestors. And apparently we’re still mind-fucking you. ‘I almost feel like a god‘, one white male expat declares in a recent article on India.

How do you break the spell? Through a counter-spell. The Indians were partly freed from the spell of the Raj by the even more powerful spell of Gandhi. They found something – or someone – they believed in more than the White God. In this case, it was the Hindu holy-man.

Kubrick thought the arts could also work as a counter-spell. To undo a curse, you have to be taken into a trance, shown the awful truth as in a dream, woken up to the evil – and the arts can do that. White people also need to wake up. We’re also under the spell, blind to the evil lurking in our basement. How many British people have ever heard of the Bengal famine?