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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 Mesmerism – or hypnosis, 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 skeptical 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 skeptical of New Age things like Tarot or psychics, which my church literally demonized, so that made me skeptical 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 skeptical.

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 skepticism 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 skepticial 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 skeptical 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 skeptical 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 adrenalin experience – adrenalin 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 skeptical 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 cirrhosis, 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 adrenalin. So all in all, that’s a lovely day, who wouldn’t want to do that.

You can watch the Channel 4 screening of Miracle 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, which is published by Canongate in May 2017.

Review: Cure, by Jo Marchant

700x373Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body, is an excellent new book by science journalist Jo Marchant, which explores the healing (and harming) power of the mind and emotions over the body. It succintly brings together a lot of recent evidence in areas sometimes dismissed as ‘pseudoscience’, such as the placebo response and hypnotherapy, to argue for their medical efficacy and the need for a medical model which better incoporates the mind.

Marchant argues: ‘Conventional science and medicine tend to ignore or downplay the effect of the mind on the body. It’s accepted that negative mental states such as stress or anxiety can damage health long-term…But the idea that the opposite might happen, that our emotional state might be important in warding off disease, or that our minds might have ‘healing powers’, is seen as flaky in the extreme.’  Her book succeeds in its aim of rescuing this area ‘from the clutches of pseudoscience’. 

The book is very much in line with a new research project I’m involved with at the Centre for the History of Emotions, calling Living with Feeling, which also explores the interaction between emotions and health. I’m going to summarise the main points from each chapter of Marchant’s book.

Brain scans from Benedetti’s research

Chapter One looks at the placebo response, in which fake or dummy medicine still has real healing effects on patients. Mainstream science has tended to dismiss the placebo effect as a trick or mental anomaly that mainly works for ‘unintelligent or inadequate patients’, as The Lancet put it in 1954. In fact, the placebo response has been shown by researchers such as Fabrizio Benedetti to have powerful physiological effects. For example, Jan Stoessl, a neurologist at the University of British Columbia, found that dopamine levels tripled when patients with Parkinson’s were given placebo pills. Fabrizio Benedetti has used brain scans to identify the effect of placebo – the effect of belief – on motor neuron cells, which fire more slowly in Parkinson’s sufferers following a placebo. The power of belief and suggestion appears to release natural healing chemicals in the brain such as endorphins, which help counteract some illnesses like Parkinson’s and MS, as well as psychiatric illnesses like depression. Indeed, another placebo researcher, Irving Kirsch, has suggested wonderdrugs like Prozac work mainly through the placebo effect – his book The Emperor’s New Drugs explores this. Benedetti has also found that valium ‘has no effect unless patients know they are taking it’, which surprised me.

Chapter Two explores how placebos even work when patients know they are taking a placebo. A 2010 study by Harvard’s Ted Kaptchuk – a leading researcher in this field – gave placebos to patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (which affects 10-15% of the population) and told them  ‘that although the capsules contained no active ingredient, they might work through mind-body self-healing processes’. They did significantly better than those who received no treatment. Marchant highlights the market in ‘open-label placebos’ like Placebo World, Universal Placebos and Aplacebo – the latter set up by Simon Bolingbroke, who manages his own pain from Lyme disease using placebos. ‘It sort of started as a joke’, Bolingbroke says. ‘But it’s a joke that’s real.’

Marchant deepens her analysis of the placebo effect in this chapter, exploring the power of ‘feeling cared for’ – patients who receive their drugs when their doctor is present apparently get 50% more pain relief. She suggests that placebos tap into ‘ancient evolved pathways’ in our brain which persuade our brain ‘that we are loved, safe and getting well’. She also begins to explore the connection between placebo, ritual and symbols – bigger placebo do better than smaller ones, two pills work better than one, coloured pills work better than white, blue helps us sleep, red is better at relieving pain, green is better for anxiety. ‘We are symbolic animals’, says Benedetti. We’re also ritualized animals, and the ritual interaction between healer and patient affects the placebo response. ‘Words, gaze, silence, body language, all are important’, says Kaptchuk.

In Chapter Three, Marchant explores another mechanism for the placebo effect – physiological conditioning. She writes about the relatively new field of psychoimmuneology (which includes QMUL’s Fulvio D’Aquisto), which has proved that our autonomic nervous system is connected to our immune system, and that the placebo effect (or beliefs) can impact immune cells through neurotransmitters. She writes about a new medical intervention called Placebo Controlled Drug Reduction, where patients are given a drug in combination with a placebo, and then subsequently the drug is reduced while the placebo remains. The physiological association between the drug’s effects and the placebo’s effects means the placebo keeps working  – a 2010 study by Adrian Sandler found PCDR to be effective in treating children with ADHD.

Chapter Four covers the highly contentious area of fatigue and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Marchant explores how fatigue used to be understood as an automatic physiological response, but which some researchers argue is actually more like an emotion. Sports psychologist Tim Noakes of the University of Cape Town has ‘proposed that the feeling of fatigue is imposed centrally, by the brain’. A ‘central governor’ in the brain makes us feel tired before our body gets damaged, as an early-warning system, Noakes argues. However, the central governor can get it wrong, and can be modulated through training, and through belief – Chris Beedie at Aberystwyth University found cyclists given a pill they believed was performance-enhancing could cycle 2-3% faster.

Marchant then highlights the research of QMUL’s Peter White on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. White’s research argues that CFS can be treated with a combination of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Graded Exercise Therapy. A 2011 study found that 22% of patients recovered after a year of CBT and GET, while patients trying ‘adaptive pacing therapy’ (in which you adapt to the new circumstances of having CFS) did no better. CBT and GET appears to be a way to re-train the ‘central governor’ of your brain when it gives you the false information that your body has reached its fatigue limit. The suggestion that CFS involves the mind is, however, hugely unpopular with some sufferers of ME (Myalgic Encephalopathy, patients’ preferred name for the condition) , who have been stigmatized for decades as suffering from ‘yuppie flu’ or ‘Raggedy Ann syndrome’. A Guardian article by Marchant on CFS has already attracted the ire of ME groups. Perhaps it’s the mind / body paradigm that’s at fault – it’s rarely just the mind or just the body, but a complex interaction between the two.

Franz Mesmer

Chapter Five looks at hypnosis, a medical intervention with a chequered history ever since Benjamin Franklin’s 1784 trial of Mesmer’s animal magnetism dismissed it as ‘imagination’. The Lancet was initially a fan of John Elliotson’s early research into animal magnetism in the mid-19th century, but then rapidly and publicly dismissed it as mere ‘suggestion’. But can suggestion still be very healing? Part of the problem is there is still argument over what hypnosis actually is and what it does. On one side are those who argue it induces a hypnotic ‘state’ in the brain – a trance or altered state. On the other side are those who argue it is simply role-play, people going along with suggestions, particularly if given by a high-status figure. It’s probably both. In support of the ‘state’ theory, neuroscientist David Spiegel has found that brain scans of people hypnotized to see black and white as colour show the colour-processing parts of their brain are activated – if this is just ‘make-believe’, then it’s make-believe at a neurological level.

Marchant highlights the research into the healing power of hypnotherapy visualization for sufferers of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which helps 70-80% of IBS sufferers, according to the research of Peter Whorwell. Visualizing and imagining apparently affects our physiology – a study by Karen Olness found that children who imagined heat going to their hands really did heat up their hands. I find that fascinating, considering the importance of ‘warm healing hands’ in charismatic Christianity and alternative medicine. It also reminds me of how people using Tibetan Tummo meditation manage to heat up their body, and even endure ice baths for long periods, by visualizing a candle burning in their chest.

Chapter Six takes this idea of the healing power of visualization into the realm of virtual reality, by exploring a VR programme called Snow World, which has been found to help burn victims to cope with pain, apparently by distracting them with an interesting immersive world. VR can also be used to manipulate people’s body awareness, mitigating the symptoms of phantom limb syndrome, and even inducing out-of-body experiences. Below is a video on Snow World:

Chaper Seven deepens the analysis into the importance of caring relationships in healing, showing how mothers giving birth who have the same care-giver helping them throughout the birthing process tend to have less complications and easier births – an important finding when one third of women feel traumatized by birth. Marchant also looks at the use of Comfort Talk by medical practitioners. She takes up the importance of caring relationships in Chapter Ten as well, highlighting the Tecumseh research project, which explored the importance of social connections to the immune system.

Chapter Eight looks at how stress is bad for our immune systems and even ages us, and how growing up in poor, rough neighbourhoods affects our bodies. Stress is apparently connected to our imaginations too – we remember past adverse events and expect them in the future, so our bodies are stuck in defense mode. Chapter Nine looks at how we can counteract this with mindfulness, bringing our mind back to the present moment rather than worrying about the past and future. Marchant also discusses the Relaxation Response, first highlighted by Herbert Benson, who looked at how chanting a mantra (or any word, it doesn’t have to be Hindu) helps kick in the parasympathetic nervous system response, enabling our bodies to relax and heal.

In Chapter Eleven, Marchant looks at the role of the vagus nerve as an important transmitter between our mind and body, particularly through Heart-Rate Variability (HRV). Those with higher HRVs are apparently better able to adapt and respond to adverse events. We can modulate the HRV through techniques like meditation, and train our response through biofeedback mechanisms – in one app, for example, as your HRV goes up, you see on an image change and the sun rise over a tree! That kind of live feedback makes training much easier. Marchant also looks at the ground-breaking research of Kevin Tracey into Vagal Nerve Stimulation, using implanted electric nerve stimulators which are controlled via iPad.  It’s been found to be helpful in treating arthitis, MS, depression and other disorders. Is electric healing the future? One more device to charge!

The faithful at Lourdes

Finally, Chapter Twelve brings these various strands together to look at the role of ritual, care, belief and faith in healing at Lourdes. Marchant visits Lourdes and takes part in the healing ceremonies. Despite her atheism and skepticism, she is struck by the physical power of the ritual, and the deep caring connections that visitors feel. ‘Quite unexpectedly, I feel a powerful sense of connectedness, as if I’m at the centre of something much, much bigger’, she writes. Exeter’s Paul Dieppe, another key researcher in this field, has also studied the Lourdes effect – I interview him here.

But do visitors to Lourdes experience  ‘miracles’? Maybe, maybe not, but it certainly unlocks many of the healing responses Marchant’s explored throughout the book. She also highlights the healing power of spiritual beliefs in HIV patients – a 2006 study of HIV patients found 50% throught their religion / spirituality was helping them live longer. Another study found that 45% of HIV patients became more religious after their diagnosis, and those who did ‘lost CD4 cells much more slowly’ over the four years of the study than those who didn’t. Religious belief isn’t always healing – those who believe in an angry or judgemental God are more stressed and heal less well.

Marchant concludes by noting the scientific community’s ‘ingrained resistance’ to much of the research she has explored, how difficult it is for the researchers to get funding, how the NHS website still says ‘there is no strong evidence’ for hypnotherapy’s effectiveness for IBS, when there actually is. She puts this down to the success of the materialist paradigm in giving rise to modern medicine, in which the physical is taken as real and measurable, while the mental / emotional / subjective is seen as slippery, hard to measure, and best ignored. As a result, we put much more faith and funding into surgical or chemical interventions than mental ones, despite the huge cost of drugs which may work mainly through the placebo effect, and despite the sad fact that half a million people die each year in the western world accidentally through psychiatric drugs. We have replaced spiritual healing with chemical healing, even though the latter is still, to some extent, a faith-system.

We need to go beyond the mind / body split and find new terms, like ‘psyche’, or mind-body continuum, or even the dreaded ‘holistic medicine’, particularly in the treatment of chronic conditions like IBS, CFS, MS, and depression. It reminds me of meeting Professor Qasim Aziz, head of QMUL’s gastroenterology unit and an expert on IBS, last month. He told me that, although it is now official NHS policy to combine mental and physical care within hospitals, in reality this isn’t yet the case at all, and many IBS sufferers are passed from department to department without proper treatment, until around 40% contemplate suicide, and some go through with it. I hope this changes, and we can reincoporate the mind into medical care. This excellent book is a hopeful step towards that change, and essential reading for those interested in the medical humanities and the fascinating interplay between belief, meaning, imagination, emotion, ritual, relationships, and our material bodies.