You are getting sleepy. . .
May 11, 2008 8:31 PM   Subscribe

Contrary to what you probably think you know about hypnosis, it can be done very quickly and can be used to convince someone to do something they normally wouldn't--like, say, giving away their wallet, phone, and keys to a stranger (English mentalist Derren Brown). What's happening here is known as a handshake induction, a technique pioneered by American psychiatrist Milton Erickson. There are other methods of rapid induction hypnosis. These methods, along with techniques of verbal suggestion, are used by practitioners of Neuro-linguistic programming, a field which some have associated with Mr. Brown's performances, though he denies it. I wonder, though, how he manages to get a cashier at a dog track to pay out on a losing ticket?

[Note: After you read up on handshake induction, watch the Derren Brown video again. . .]
posted by flotson (76 comments total) 79 users marked this as a favorite
I photographed a hypnotist that performed at my college for the school newspaper. Maybe it's because I'm pretty cynical, but it was easy to see how/why it worked. He said ahead of time that if you didn't think you could be hypnotized, don't volunteer, because then it wouldn't work, and he wanted others to be given the chance. Instead of randomly picking the volunteers, he had people rush the stage, assuring that only those who wanted to be hypnotized would be sitting there. After putting them in the trance, he told the volunteers that if they awakened that the hypnosis had apparently failed, for whatever reason, and that they would be returned to their seats so that he might continue with the others still in the trance. Those who did "wake up" were immediately and vocally ("are you awake? Alright well thanks for joining us, please take your seat") escorted off the stage to their seats.

Thus, only those who wanted to be hypnotized were up on stage, and were pressured to perform as the hypnotist/the audience expected them too, under the threat of being swiftly kicked off the stage and losing their fifteen minutes of fame.

It was kinda hard to watch without getting slightly... I don't know. Angry? Frustrated? They were all up there making fools of themselves because thats what the audience wanted to see, and the audience was guffawing away, and I was just shaking my head sighing and taking pictures.

I guess hypnotists just aren't my thing.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 8:48 PM on May 11, 2008 [9 favorites]

i didn't believe in hypnosis until i saw justin tranz :P x-rated hypmotist!
posted by kliuless at 8:49 PM on May 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

What happens when two hypnotic handshakers vie for supremacy? Probably like something out of a Three Stooges skit (with only two stooges).
posted by Swany at 8:52 PM on May 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I really don't understand how people believe things like that. Yeah, some guy shakes your hand so you're going to give him your wallet and keys? Come on. Does anyone believe this works?
posted by Justinian at 8:53 PM on May 11, 2008

I am never letting anyone touch me ever. again.
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:54 PM on May 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

What happens when two hypnotic handshakers vie for supremacy? Probably like something out of a Three Stooges skit (with only two stooges).

For some reason I envision it being like the famous I Love Lucy chocolate conveyor belt bit, only instead of chocolate its possessions (keys, wallet, phone, etc) and instead of a conveyor belt its each other's pockets, and they keep pointing and asking each other for directions and shaking hands and taking things and taking them back and so on.

I would pay to see it.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 8:55 PM on May 11, 2008 [7 favorites]

posted by yhbc at 9:03 PM on May 11, 2008

And there's talking to the dead just four threads down. This stuff never goes away.
posted by pracowity at 9:06 PM on May 11, 2008

People are mostly mechanical most of the time, actually.

What the heck does that even mean?
posted by pwally at 9:14 PM on May 11, 2008

Burhanistan has it. People hypnotize themselves all the time.
posted by JHarris at 9:14 PM on May 11, 2008

They can control *minds* and they are filching watches? What kind of pissant mind control is this compared with Erotic Mind Control (NSFW!)?

The description of "handshake induction" is unintentionally hilarious, and reminds me of some campy cartoon movie characters.
posted by meehawl at 9:17 PM on May 11, 2008

This reminded me of that hilariously phony video where this guy makes a video game that will put people in a catatonic state, gets a guy to play, and then recruits his (totally willing, non-question-asking) friends into helping him transport the subject to a new location where he believes he's in the game! And then I realized that's also Derren Brown.
posted by the other side at 9:19 PM on May 11, 2008

IANAH, but....

Okay pwally, whenever you do something mechanically just to get it over with, whenever you've focused on the road while driving and suddenly realize you can't remember the last ten miles, whenever you've done something a hundred times before and do it without thinking, these are all aspects of a hypnotic trance.

The important thing to realize, and really the thing that means articles like this do us all a disservice, is that hypnosis is Not. Magical. It is a voluntary state, and it happens all the time without your realizing. The way to guard against people taking advantage of these states is, simply, to recognize that it is happening. That you're being taken advantage of. To break the this-is-part-of-normal-life cycle. That's all it takes.
posted by JHarris at 9:23 PM on May 11, 2008 [5 favorites]

(Also, let's just say that videos like these probably feature extraordinarily impressionable subjects. They don't show you the people it didn't work on.)
posted by JHarris at 9:26 PM on May 11, 2008

Seconding JHarris. Though actually, on at least one episode of Derren Brown's Mind Control they show it not working and a right pissed chap pauses, then threatens Darren. Satisfying, though likely still part of the illusion.
posted by abulafa at 9:41 PM on May 11, 2008

The only reason I have an open mind about this stuff is because Richard Feynman described the experience of being hypnotized.

Of course, he was also a notorious practical joker, so there you go.
posted by tkolar at 9:57 PM on May 11, 2008

Some people are just very amenable to being ordered about and conforming to social expectations and peer pressure. Others not so much.
posted by binturong at 9:58 PM on May 11, 2008

It was much better than Cats. I will see it again and again.
posted by snwod at 9:59 PM on May 11, 2008 [5 favorites]

"You don't have to go into a trance, so you can easily wonder about what you notice no faster than you feel ready to become aware that your hand is slowly rising."

WTF? I almost went into a trance trying follow that sentence. IMO, that's a brilliant use of linguistic slight-of-hand.
posted by treepour at 10:03 PM on May 11, 2008

Darren Brown himself points out that he is an "illusionist" and an "entertainer".
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 10:03 PM on May 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

Hm. I was always taught in psych classes when we discussed hypnotism that you could not be convinced to do anything that you truly didn't want to do. No one can hypnotize you into killing someone, for example.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 10:05 PM on May 11, 2008

The scientific literature on hypnosis is interesting. Modern studies with fMRI show that something is going on in the brain during hypnosis. However, research shows that a very small percentage of the population can be hypnotized (depending on your definition, as low as 1 in 10). And when scientists examine whether hypnosis works as a medical treatment, the results are disappointing.

Is it real? Yes. But it's a small and not terribly useful effect, practitioners' claims to the contrary notwithstanding.
posted by sdodd at 10:11 PM on May 11, 2008

Hm. I was always taught in psych classes when we discussed hypnotism that you could not be convinced to do anything that you truly didn't want to do. No one can hypnotize you into killing someone, for example.

Well... unless, of course... *steeples fingers, glares knowingly*
posted by the other side at 10:14 PM on May 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm in the this-is-hogwash camp. People want to believe that they can be hypnotized for the romance of it, and so they play along.

I don't buy this whole handshake thing -- it sounds like he tries as many people as he can, and relies on statistical likeliness. I can just go to up to people and ask to hold their wallets, and there's probably going to be one that does it out of sheer curiosity.
posted by spiderskull at 10:21 PM on May 11, 2008

The only reason I have an open mind about this stuff is because Richard Feynman described the experience of being hypnotized.

I'm wont to give him the benefit of the doubt, and say that he was just entertaining the notion for the sake of it. I haven't read what he said about this, but I'd be willing to bet he knew all along what he was doing.
posted by spiderskull at 10:24 PM on May 11, 2008

Trance states exist, I have no doubt of that. People have been inducing it in themselves and others intentionally and unintentionally for millennia. Quick hypnosis is a con-job, though. Inducing a trance state takes two things -- time and repetition. No one is going to do that in a few seconds. I'd say it's more like 15-20 minutes, minimum, maybe less if you're intoxicated somehow. (Just from experience with trance states through playing video games, dancing or DJing.)
posted by empath at 10:40 PM on May 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

(and even in a trance state, I think suggestability isn't really part of it -- it's a totally different thing -- maybe a lack of conscious awareness, but that doesn't really make you pliable)
posted by empath at 10:42 PM on May 11, 2008

Hm. Already I'm wishing I had written this FPP differently. First of all, the meat is the videos, particularly the Derren Brown videos (the first and last links).

Secondly, I linked to some articles that begin to discuss the the theoretical basis for techniques that are apparent in those videos.

So, I'm hoping to start some discussion about the content of the videos. After watching them, what do you think is going on? I think he's using, in the first video, techniques of suggestion including something akin to the handshake induction described by Erickson (in the wikipedia link). Watch the first video and keep your eye on Derren's hands.

In the second video, I think he's using related but different techniques of suggestion. I don't want to give away too much, because it's fun to try to work it out for yourself. But pay attention to what Derren says and does at the window. Anything stand out? Anything odd there?
posted by flotson at 10:51 PM on May 11, 2008

the other side: wow, that video game thing is incredibly lame. The guy all of sudden thinks, oh my god, zombies! What a load of horseshit. And he's not smart enough to realize that he's holding a fucking paintball gun surrounded by bad actors? If he was really convinced that he was in the game being attacked by zombies, he'd probably shoot one down then run up and start smashing it in the face with the butt of his gun until it was just pulp. Now THAT is an illusion that I'd pay to see.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:54 PM on May 11, 2008

Bandit Hypnotizing Bank Tellers, Cashiers
. Podcast on the subject from Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.
posted by tellurian at 11:18 PM on May 11, 2008

After watching them, what do you think is going on? I think he's using, in the first video, techniques of suggestion including something akin to the handshake induction described by Erickson (in the wikipedia link).

No, man. You're being suckered in. He's an entertainer. Likely he filmed himself trying this on a hundred people and just showed the one guy who played along.
posted by Justinian at 11:18 PM on May 11, 2008

I cannot avoid thinking of Penn Jillette's response when someone asked him how a particular effect was achieved.

(I'm sure he's done this many times, since it's a great bit in itself.)

Penn asked the guy whether he could keep a secret, looked both ways, narrowed his eyes, leaned right in next to the guy's ear...

...grabbed the guy's head and screamed "It's a TRICK!"

Honestly, what kind of idiot would bother trying to devise a whole new field of human psychology to achieve an effect of the type that magicians down the fucking ages have achieved by just hiring some shills?

That's how you do all sorts of amazing tricks. The "volunteer from the audience" or "random guy on the street" is on your payroll. Then you just tell the rest of the audience that he isn't. Tah-daaah!

If you believe a handshake can put you in a trance, then I feel you're obliged to also believe that David Copperfield really did make the Statue of Liberty disappear, that one time.

I mean, you saw that on TV too, didn't you?

(I see no reason to believe there's significant value in NLP, either.)
posted by dansdata at 11:24 PM on May 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

Derren Brown - previously.
posted by tellurian at 11:27 PM on May 11, 2008

There are a number of different things at play here:

1) Derren Brown is an entertainer and illusionist; some of the effects that he attributes to NLP, hypnosis, photoreading, and other outre techniques he really is producing, at least in part, via clever re-workings of traditional mentalist tricks;

2) As he reveals in the excellent bit "The System," a major ingredient to his best filmed performances is that, well, he films over and over and chooses the best results to display;

3) Still and all, he really is a superb hypnotist.

Are things like handshake hypnosis real?


You're just confusing someone-- someone is getting confused-- and suggestions enter more deeply now, because of what you're doing.

The thing to understand about the state of "hypnosis" is that it's really better understood as "suggestibility"-- and the process of inducing it is better understood as "amplified, synchronized communication." Hypnotic communication is communication designed to interface with what you're already thinking, and what you're already wondering, and already certain of, and just starting to notice, in ways that cause you to pay more and more attention, so that the words you are hearing now affect you more deeply, so that you can think about things that don't make much sense in ways that help you to make sense of things in ways that make you feel annoyed, or feel confused, and feel good, or feel curious, or still a little annoyed but also suddenly amused... and more curious as a result.

And all this, so you're naturally motivated to wonder or imagine in ways that guide you to new, and more useful, ideas.

And even though the last two paragraphs are not entirely unlike mist, not wholly unlike cool mist, and not completely unlike more and now deeper mist, if you said them with just the right... emphasis... at just the right... tem-po.... the person listening might, unless he or she really could not, really start to pay attention... and that person might remember, or imagine, an incident that makes all of this somewhat provocative, and interesting, or perhaps not interesting in the least.

You might even notice things like pupillary dilation... a certain flattening of the cheeks... muscles softening... eyes staring. And blinking, or not.

And in confusion, simple suggestions are a relief, and are much easier to just go along with, because they're a relief, and... feel good, now.

>However, research shows that a very small percentage of the population can be hypnotized (depending on your definition, as low as 1 in 10).

And the usual source for that belief-- the 1-in-10 figure--, Hilgard's work at Stanford, was based around the work of really bad hypnotists. Actually, the hypnotic state is something we can all do, so long as we're not retarded; the more imaginative we are, the more easily we enter it; the more imaginative we are, the time we naturally spend in daydreamy, hypnotic states; and the more time we spend learning to go deeper and deeper in hypnosis, the better we get at enjoying hypnotic states more and more thoroughly.

Hypnosis is a skill; so is learning to recognize someone's usual thinking, feeling, and learning patterns, in ways that help you to help someone enter a hypnotic state more and more quickly, in ways that create more and more possibilities, possibilities you can explore more and more deeply, as someone really begins to think about hypnosis in a distinctly different way.

But no one has to-- after all, what kind of world would it be, if everyone did this, all the time? (Some would say let's not, and say we didn't, but who (else?) wants to go this far, just to keep learning more about hypnosis, which probably isn't real and could never make one keep thinking about that red wheel barrow, on which so much depends?)
posted by darth_tedious at 12:11 AM on May 12, 2008 [9 favorites]

Oh, and about stage hypnosis:

It's a combo of several things...

1) role-playing, and being put in a position to act out while denying responsibility
2) the hypnotist choosing people based on their responsiveness, and ignoring or discarding those who aren't sufficiently responsive
3) group pressure and social expectation
4) momentum (the more Wacky Stuff you've done, the easier it gets to let yourself do more Wacky Stuff)
5) and suggestibility

Remember: Hypnosis isn't about mind-control (unless combined with pain and/or drugs and in a context of long-term confinement and unending repetition)-- hypnosis is about changing focus of attention, changing expectation, changing attitude, changing emotion.

You're always aware, and enjoying thought, when you're in trance; and being aware, and being a human being, it's natural for you to change, and be aware of changing-- changing your thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes--, while you're exploring the experience of learning about how much deeper you can go while in your ever-changing state of hypnosis.
posted by darth_tedious at 12:27 AM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

darth_tedious: Eponysterical.
posted by WalterMitty at 12:29 AM on May 12, 2008

Are things like handshake hypnosis real?


If things like handshake hypnosis or NLP are real, why can't they be demonstrated and proven in a controlled setting? We don't accept the excuses of people claiming to be psychic and we shouldn't accept the excuses of people claiming to be able to do NLP.
posted by Justinian at 12:41 AM on May 12, 2008

>If things like handshake hypnosis or NLP are real, why can't they be demonstrated and proven in a controlled setting? We don't accept the excuses of people claiming to be psychic and we shouldn't accept the excuses of people claiming to be able to do NLP.

Handshake hypnosis is a confusion technique; by controlling the setting, let alone having someone expect the technique, you neutralize its effectiveness.

Remember, hypnotic techniques generally are about using communication to change emotion and internal states-- which is another way of saying that they are a form of communication... because communication conveys ideas from another person's mind directly into your mind and changes your internal state-- adjusts and changes what you are thinking, changes and adjusts what you are feeling, perhaps in useful ways.

Hypnosis, more simply, is about emotion-- and emotion is a subtle thing.

One way of thinking about this is to consider asking someone, "Do you remember a particular past or present lover, one who loved you very much, and who enjoyed kissing you very much? Do you remember that first truly passionate kiss, that kiss filled with undeniable intensity and emotion?

How well would that first passionate, emotional, even surprising kiss have gone-- or how would it have been different-- under a controlled setting?"

For that matter, one might want to consider that we don't really have adequate instruments for measuring subjective, emotional experience; we can track blood flow, brain activity, galvanic skin resistance, and heart rate, but these are crude, crude means of measuring and distinguishing the steps between different emotions and internal states-- emotions that move in natural progressions through hardened certainty, lingering skepticism, wisps of doubt, sudden curiosity, growing wonder, love, intrigue, and newfound openness to wider possibilities...
posted by darth_tedious at 1:07 AM on May 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

If things like handshake hypnosis or NLP are real, why can't they be demonstrated and proven in a controlled setting?

What "Some Random Guy Walking Down the Street With a Camera Crew" is insufficiently controlled for you? Wake up, sheeple! This shit is real!
posted by dersins at 1:09 AM on May 12, 2008

Personally, I love shit like this. Brown says on many occasions that he's only an entertainer, but folks continue to get upset like he's claiming to be Jesus or something. It's a good act, enjoy it people.
posted by Roman Graves at 1:12 AM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Handshake hypnosis is a confusion technique; by controlling the setting, let alone having someone expect the technique, you neutralize its effectiveness.

This doesn't mean the effect is invulnerable to detection by scientific trial. And anyway, I thought there had been some experimental evidence that it's real.

And I'm surprised that no one is thinking in more detail about hypnosis and its implications. What is the evolutionary advantage provided by it? Maybe it's that it provided us some benefit (maybe enabling leaders to lead more effectively) or, perhaps, that consciousness is an expensive psychological state and we gain some benefit by relaxing it.
posted by JHarris at 1:46 AM on May 12, 2008

There's really not a lot of point bringing NLP into it. If you really want to know what Derren Brown thinks about it, it's in his Trick of the Mind book. He isn't terribly flattering to it.
If it happens to contain the odd element of truthfulness it isn't a validation of the whole subject, least of all the more overblown claims. To me, the whole thing smells very badly of a poorly justified pseudoscience.
Hypnosis itself is remarkably poorly defined, although there's no doubt it's real, and little doubt that it isn't what 95% of the people reading this comment think it is. I'd just point people to Mike Heap's pages. He's also got NLP pages.
The whole description of the handshake induction pretty much sums up what I dislike about NLP. Overly technical language and a vaguely reasonable sounding explanation of what's going on without any hints of how it's been determined if that's the correct explanation.
posted by edd at 1:56 AM on May 12, 2008

[Note: After you read up on handshake induction, watch the Derren Brown video again. . .]

In Derren Brown's own words, from "Pure Effect" (a book for magicians and mentalists, explaining some of his magic):
I find that most intelligent spectators are more interested in the psychological techniques than the sleight-of-hand. Most would rather feel that they had only seen the card change because they expected to see it change than because I was adept at exchanging it under supposedly impossible conditions. So whilst I have no desire to present my effects as mere psychological chicanery, I will allow the possibility that a lot of subliminal suggestion is afoot. People find that fascinating, as do I. Now, later I offer to take the spectators a little deeper into the art and we embark upon a few mindreading and 'psychic' effects. Here I let them feel that I am using a heightened sensitivity to body language and a whole set of hypnotic skills to make the effects work. I don't spell it out unless someone takes me to one side and talks to me about it, but I base my own silent script and the belief I take on board about how I'm getting the information into or from another mind on the notion that these suggestion-based techniques really work that reliably.

This classic presentational ploy that Banachek calls 'psychological direction' allows for the illusion of enormous skill, as long as you let the participants figure out for themselves that you are employing such methods. I believe I earn their respect by denouncing 'psychic power' as woolly guff and I challenge those lobotomised flower-fairies who believe in such nonsense, appealing to their intelligence and belief in themselves as sceptical creatures.
Now that you've read Mr. Brown's thoughts on apparently using 'hypnotic' techniques while not spelling them out loud, so that people could look at his performance, notice them and be led to believe in enormous skill on his part, watch the Derren Brown video again...

With Mr. Brown what it comes down to is that what you see may not at all be what the participants see.
posted by splice at 2:31 AM on May 12, 2008

"Lobotomised flower-fairies" is my new favourite insult.
posted by idiomatika at 3:07 AM on May 12, 2008

I make somewhere between a quarter to half my income as a stage "mentalist" whose act somewhat resembles Derren Brown's--though not to his "magic handshake" level--so let me post a clarification, a bunch of caveats, and as much information as I can without making my colleagues mad at me.

(Paging The Deej! Hope me fellow magician!)

First, there are three very different forms of hypnosis being talked about here:

-Stage Hypnosis, which is 99-100% bunk. They're incredibly good at what they do, but what they do isn't's peer pressure. A subtlety from their act that I love is that they bring, say, seven people out of the audience, but there are only three chairs on stage. The message is unspoken but clear: "You guys better play along, or you're rejoining your friends in the audience."

-Therapeutic Hypnosis, which I know very little about but which I'm naturally skeptical of, as I am of most things involving therapy. (Cold reading with a fancy degree, if you ask me.)

-Neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP. A lot of people make a lot of really exagerrated claims about what NLP can do. (If you think entertainers like me and Derren Brown are bad, you should see what professional super-creep Ross Jeffries claims he can do.)

Personally, I think MOST of these claims are hyperbole at best, but I DO believe that there are a lot of subtleties used in NLP that have an effect in the real world. I'll misquote SDodd and say only: Is it real? Yes. But it's a small and not terribly useful effect.

NLP is not hypnosis in the sense of dangling a wristwatch in front of somebody's face. In fact, I *never never ever* use the term hypnosis in my act. Not just because it's an incredibly loaded term, but because I really don't think it IS hypnosis. As Darth Tedious' excellent first comment points out, it's much more about suggestion and confusion than anything else. In fact, a huge part of my "mind-reading" act isn't about reading minds at's getting my spectator to think what I want them to think. It's easy to know the lines if you wrote the play, you dig?

Here's a quick and very very basic example--pretty much what you learn the first day of NLP 101--that I think has been ruined by Mystery's VH-1 show to the point I can talk about it.

Say to someone "You're going to clear your mind, and I want you to think of a number between one and ten, just the first number that pops into your head. Don't change your mind...quickly, do you have it?"

While you said all this, you're doing a little bit of gesturing. Using your hand, make a mark in front of yourself when you say "one." Move your hand over about a foot to the left and make another mark when you say "and ten." Now, make it look like you've just casually dropped your hand, but actually slice it down and to your right: you've just drawn a 7 in the air right in front of them. (Obviously, from your angle it's a backwards 7...I do this demonstration so often that, when writing a check, I have to pause and remember which way 7s are supposed to face.)

On the phrase "POPS into your mind" snap your fingers in the air. Snap them about nine inches to the left of your first mark. Remember, you marked a "one" and then a "ten"? Snap your fingers exactly where the 7 would be on that spectrum. All that's left then is to caution against changing their mind or out-thinking themselves.

I'll make this promise to my MeFi friends: if you spend a good weekend practicing this--on strangers, not on your goofy friends--before Monday morning you're gonna be able to "read people's minds" nine out of ten times. Don't set it up as a mind-reading experiment or any sort of trick, just go into it casual and see if it works. If so, ta-da! If not, how about those Hornets, huh?

I'll now pause so 71,000 MeFites can point out that most people pick "seven" anyway. My response: yeah, no shit. But why treat that as a liability when you can make it an asset? Ask a lot of women to think of their "favorite playing card" and you're gonna get the Queen Of Hearts pretty regularly without doing anything. But if you juice it a bit through your judicious choice of words--"Just the first PICTURE that comes into your mind...see the LETTER in each see the COLOR of that WRITING, BRIGHT in your mind...finally, see the ONE symbol in each corner, right by the FACE of the card..."--not only will you make it significantly more likely that she'll say the Queen Of Hearts, but it will go from "dumb bar trick" territory and into the realm of "holyfuckingshit holyfuckingshit" pretty quickly.

(I've sort of written about a very distant form of this effect previously on Metafilter.)

What's that? YOU wouldn't have chosen seven? No, of course you wouldn' would have chosen six. Or three. Your belief in your individuality is my greatest weapon.

Jokes aside: yeah, you'll get really good at this but you'll never get 100%. Some people have personal lucky numbers so engrained in their heads that you'll never force a seven. Some people just genuinely won't think of seven. And some people will realize what you're doing and intentionally pick something else, because some people are dicks. (Which is why you need to present it as a kooky "hey, think of a number" game and not a demonstration of your amazing powers.)

My personal force is the five of diamonds, and after ten years of practice, I can force it maybe 75% of the time. The rest of the time? People aren't paying attention, or they're already thinking of the Queen Of Hearts (or, if it's a guy, the Ace Of Spades) and nothing I say is gonna change that, or they're just drunk. Or contrarian MeFites.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah, NLP. Now, I don't think using subtle hand gestures and force words is hypnosis by any stretch of the imagination, and neither should you. But it IS a form of suggestion, and that, in my experience, is what NLP is actually all about. I'm just as skeptical as everyone else in this thread about the more extreme NLP claims; on the other hand, I use some form of this stuff so much I'm seriously considering a tattoo of five diamonds on my forearm.

One more example that I unfortunately can only describe: I bring a spectator on stage and show her a playing card, then show it to the audience. I ask her to remember the card, hold on to it in her mind, remember the symbol, the color, the value, and at some point what I've actually done is segued into using the same sort of NLP tactics shown above to get her to forget the card I just showed her, not remember it. There's a point where I can see the confusion on her face, and my voice goes from gentle to forceful: "What was your card? You haven't forgotten it, have you?"

She usually stammers, which gets the audience laughing, which further confuses and upsets her, so then I put my hand down hard on the table. "What's your name? Did you forget your first name? What is it, quick?"

The confusion lasts about fifteen seconds, and is about the same as waking up in a strange bed on vacation and trying to remember where you are. It's a form of induced confusion, possibly a trance state, and about as close to hypnotism as I'm willing to admit exists.


Also, keep in mind that NLP is a good "scientific" explanation that, depending on the audience, makes the magic go down a little easier. I have two acts: in one, I'm demonstrating my psychic powers. In another, I'm giving a demonstration of how, using subtle gestures and heightened powers of observation, I can seem to read minds, though the method is purely scientific. The punchline? The two acts are almost identical...only the explanations differ.

(I recently had a show where I opened for two friends with an awesome dual-psychic act. I didn't want to step on their toes, so I went for my other schtick: "Everything you're about to see tonight will be performed without the use of sleight of hand or other parlour tricks. Through the careful in-depth study of body language, vocal cues, eye contact, and heart-rate, among other clues, I'm able to achieve insights that seem almost like mind-reading." I then proceeded to perform a half hour of sleight of hand and other parlour tricks. Ha!)


One point of personal pique, then I'll end this excessively long comment: Derren Brown uses a lot of sneaky tricks to make his effects happen, but let me say that no self-respecting magician uses "shills" or stooges, and Brown himself certainly doesn't. This isn't me using misdirection here, I'm being as honest as yr pal Ian AT gets: it's considered extremely distasteful, as bad as using camera tricks or post-production editing, and almost no one worth watching would even consider it. All of magic is a form of cheating, but using stooges is like cheating at cheating. What's the point?


If I'm known around Metafilter, it's because I own a taxi and I'm the exclusive New Orleans chauffer of visiting MeFites. (Many of whom were surprised to discover magic being foisted upon them. Uh, sorry guys.)

But if I'm known in the magic community at all it's because I own a taxi and I'm the exclusive New Orleans chauffer of visiting magicians. I've gotten to meet a lot of great performers this way, and a lot of professionals who had no business being at my shows have seen my act and given me literally priceless advice.

One of my absolute idols was in town for a show, and I had the privilege of driving him around and talking magic with him for two whole days. We'll just call him The Magi--99% of you wouldn't recognize his name anyway, and the 1% of you who did would accuse me of name-dropping--but he's about the only reason I believe in hypnotism and NLP on any level. Seeing one of his increasingly rare shows is one of the true highlights of my life.

A few other great performers were in town as well to see his show, and on his last night they went out to dinner at a Mexican place where they could sit around for hours and shoot the shit. I was invited along, even though I had no business even refilling their water glasses, much less listening in on their conversation.

A waitress brought us some chips and guacamole. The Magi is from the Southwest, and when he took the first bite he made a face. "How odd," he said. "They put wasabi in their guacamole."

What? We all tried it and The Magi pointed it out: "You can't quite taste it, but it's the background, that sharp, pungent taste of wasabi." (These aren't his exact words, which I would never reveal even if I could remember them.)

And he was right: there was a definite zing of wasabi in their guacamole. In fact, the more he described the taste of the horseradish, the more obvious it became. And, hey, it wasn't just a little was a lot. Holy shit, this was just a bowl of wasabi!

It hit all us almost at the same time...looking at each other's gasping, sweating faces, we realized at once that, by describing the taste of wasabi in a certain way, The Magi had conjoured the sensation of eating a big bowl of the stuff.

"This isn't wasabi," I was able to choke out, even as the very real taste of wasabi flooded my throat.

The Magi smiled over at me, resembling nothing so much as a slightly devious Santa Claus. "Are you sure? It certainly looks like you just ate a bunch of wasabi." He picked up some silverware and got a heaping spoonful of guacamole:

"Here, wash it down with some ice cream..."
posted by Ian A.T. at 3:32 AM on May 12, 2008 [263 favorites]

He must be great with the girls!
posted by Arnolfini at 3:34 AM on May 12, 2008

When I tried to quit smoking the first time in 1986, my employer offered free hypnosis sessions. I am and have been a sceptic for a long time. I didn't expect it to work, and ultimately, I didn't quit smoking for another 20 years (eeek!) However, there was two eerie things about the experience. I was always known as a bit of a sour person in my office. "Cheer up", everyone would say, even when I was happy. After every hypnosis session, I smiled harder than I ever had before and had no idea I was doing it until people said to me, "wow, you're so happy, what were you doing in there?" There is a possibility that that was a conspiracy.

The other thing, though, was not. I was required to close my eyes and listen to him talk and early in the session he told me a balloon was tied to my finger. He did ask about my favourite section of a department store (homewares, if you want to know) and he talked about me either travelling floor by floor to a better part of the shop until I came to my favourite part. Yeah, great, fine, I'm getting paid to imagine I'm shopping. I can live with this. Finally, he said something like, "you can open your eyes now." I did, and I felt about as relaxed as you would be for sitting in a comfortable chair with your eyes shut for half an hour imagining nice things. And then he said, "look at your hand." It was raised above my head, like I was a puppet answering a question in class. I don't know how long it had been there, I didn't even feel it go. I certainly didn't apply any will or choice to the matter.

If I was reading this, and hadn't experienced it, my response to this comment would be "sure... pull the other one, it plays a tune."

What I want to know is, if he could make me raise my hand over my head, why the hell didn't he get me to take the cigarettes out of my pocket and put them in the trash? It would have saved me about fifty thousand dollars over twenty years.
posted by b33j at 5:23 AM on May 12, 2008

Thanks Ian A.T. That is what I come to Metafilter for.
That and the laughing babies snark.
posted by asok at 5:26 AM on May 12, 2008

I love Derren Brown. I doubt the methods he tells us he uses are the methods he actually does, but it provides a good show.

Here's Wikipedia's description of a program he had called The System:

The System, a Channel 4 special in which Brown shared his "100 per cent guaranteed" method for winning on the horses, was first shown on February 1, 2008.

The show was based around the idea that a system could be developed to predict the outcome of horse races with total accuracy. Cameras followed an ordinary member of the public, Khadisha, as Brown anonymously sent her correct predictions of 5 races in a row, before encouraging her to place as much money as she could on the 6th race.

To demonstrate the system to the viewer Brown tossed a coin showing 10 heads in a row to prove it was not impossible, just highly improbable.

After Brown had placed a bet of £4,000 of Khadishia's money on a horse in the final race, he explained that The System didn't really exist. He had started by contacting 7,776 people and split them into six groups, giving each group a different horse. As each race had taken place 5/6ths of the people had lost and were dropped from the system. Far from Brown knowing which horse would win, he had a different person backing each horse in each race, and it was simple logic that meant that one individual, who happened to be Khadishia, won five times in a row. This was similar to the coin flipping earlier: rather than having a predictive technique, Brown had simply tossed a coin repeatedly until 10 heads had come up in a row, taking over nine hours to produce the required film. Brown expressed the opinion that the principle behind The System (essentially confirmation bias) is what is behind belief in spiritualism or homeopathic and alternative medicine.

After the selected horse in the final race lost, and Khadishia was convinced that she had lost all her borrowed money, Brown told Khadishia to look again at the betting slip in her hand. The ticket showed the winning horse's name, meaning Khadishia kept her stake and received winnings of £13,000. Brown did not reveal how this was achieved.

posted by flatluigi at 5:32 AM on May 12, 2008

didn't he just tell us how it was achieved? bet on all the horses with the same stake, and use sleight of hand to get the winning one into the persons hand later?
posted by garlic at 6:04 AM on May 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

Tagged as mesmerizing.
posted by tommasz at 6:07 AM on May 12, 2008

I went to see Derren Brown's last show and he performed tricks that I couldn't imagine him being able to achieve unless he was using stooges. For example, he would ask audience members to think of something they'd like to do in life (or something similar) and he would guess their thoughts correctly (natch). He would then randomly state a fact about them, without questionning them, like they had an allergy to soap. I would very much like to know how that's done.

Oh, and another trick that Derren did on TV. He was in a first-storey room, looking out of a window, and he made a passer by stop and look up 'just with the power of his mind'. If that was simply a TV set up, then what's the point? Am I naive in thinking it was anything more than just someone paid to walk past and look up at a certain time?

"Here, wash it down with some ice cream..."

Smug bastard ;)

didn't he just tell us how it was achieved? bet on all the horses with the same stake, and use sleight of hand to get the winning one into the persons hand later?

I think he actually said he'd filmed multiple people and only used the footage of the person that kept winning, just like with the coins. I love Derren. It doesn't matter how it's done really, it's having the confidence to make it work in front of a live audience that matters (and at ultra-fast speed in his case).
posted by Summer at 6:35 AM on May 12, 2008

My first thought when watching the dog race video was, "Why does he always go to that window, and why is there no line at that window?" So, being a cynic, I figured the girl was instructed to pay off if Derren came to the window, and people were warned away from that window when they were filming.

It's still a great trick, because it plays on what all cons (or illusions, if you prefer) play on: greed. Of course the guy with the losing ticket wants to believe, because he will profit from the illusion.
posted by misha at 7:20 AM on May 12, 2008

Summer - I'm not going to tell you how these things are done, and I'll explain why shortly.

However, I saw that same show and there was only one trick in it that had me baffled. None of the ways I saw for him to be doing things involved stooges.

With other things, I wouldn't necessarily assume you're wrong in thinking that person was told to look up, but it's maybe also not as simple as you'd think either (in other words maybe it isn't just timing). I don't know exactly how he did that though. All I can be confident in is that it probably took a lot more effort than it appears on the surface (I seem to recall a magician somewhere - Penn maybe - saying something like a fair bit of magic is people not believing you'd actually go to such ridiculous lengths to achieve an effect).

As to why I don't say - for one thing, it's not my profession. It is his, and it is the profession of many others, including as we've seen fellow MeFites. They do a good job, entertain lots of people, and it'd not benefit them to tell people how it is done. There are perfectly good ways of finding out how these are done, but there's a barrier to entry in that you need to find the right books in a good magic shop and so on, and the small amount of effort that requires puts most people off finding out. So I don't feel any obligation to spread something publically things which are in some sense public knowledge, but which most people would prefer are not general knowledge.

For another thing, as I was coming out of Derren's show I could hear lots of people saying "Oh did you see how he did that trick?" and then saying something completely wrong. They'd seen an explanation of some other trick, and misapplied the method of that thinking that they now understood everything that Derren does. They basically fell into the trap of applying things Derren had 'revealed' to other areas.

I now think it's much more educational if you don't say how it's done, but just say it's trickery. If I meet someone who believes in psychics and I convince them with trickery that I can replicate that feat, then if they get too confident in that particular piece of trickery then the next charlatan they meet with a better trick might end up convincing them they're psychic. I'd rather people realised that people can be incredibly skillful at deception and that they're unlikely to ever know all the tricks in the book.

Anyway, I don't believe he used stooges or would ever use stooges. It would like Ian A. T. suggests be far more damaging to him than the effect it would achieve, and he can do it perfectly well without them anyway.
posted by edd at 7:27 AM on May 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

A note to Ian A.T: When I read the sentence,

"You're going to clear your mind, and I want you to think of a number between one and ten, just the first number that pops into your head. Don't change your mind...quickly, do you have it?",

I immediately thought of seven without all the gesturing fooferall. I mean, think about why you would want to influence the subject to choose seven in the first place? Probably because it was the first number YOU thought of. It's way more likely that people tend to choose the number seven on their own without much prodding, and that you're running straight into Confirmation Bias.

I'm nth-ing all the people saying that there's an effect of some sort, but we have no idea what it really is, or how to reliably reproduce it.
posted by fnerg at 7:35 AM on May 12, 2008

Yeah, some guy shakes your hand so you're going to give him your wallet and keys? Come on. - Justinian

In the clip it would appear that the man Derren approaches wants to help, but is not sure he can due to whatever reasons (he says he is not from Blackpool, for instance). He wants to please Derren, but he is unsure of how to do so. Derren takes advantage (or abuses) that mindset in extending it so that the man gives Derren his possesions.

posted by asok at 7:38 AM on May 12, 2008

An interesting book is Trances People Live.

Mr. Mon Dieu is a hypnotist who uses it in a therapeutic setting. He does not "treat" people, per se, as he is not an M.D. He does help people quit smoking, get over fears, and feel better about themselves. He's also trained in NLP. Many therapists use NLP by doing things like mirroring patients' body posture, for instance, in order to establish a rapport. It's a lot easier to help a client if there is some rapport. NLP can't force rapport on someone, however, unless they already like you.

Hypnosis is all self-hypnosis. In a clinical setting, you are allowing the hypnotist to help you into a trance in order to reach a specific outcome. You can do the same yourself using a CD, as long as you're willing to let go, and practice, practice, practice. And it's true, often people will pay more attention to solving an issue if a) they are going to someone who's certified with hundreds of hours of training and certification and b) they are paying money for it. That doesn't make them bad people, though.

People who are interested in exploring hypnosis for themselves or to learn how to do it can look at the National Guild of Hypnotists site. Their code of ethics is under the "About Us" link in the nav bar (PDF file).

Darren Brown uses a lot of mentalist tricks, which are not hypnosis, but he's fun to watch.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:51 AM on May 12, 2008

Yeah, I don't get the winning ticket thing. Isn't the system automated ... she has to scan it in, right?
posted by itchylick at 7:55 AM on May 12, 2008

A lot of the time, I don't think Brown is using the techniques he's trying to make us think he's using. In no way is that a criticism.
posted by nthdegx at 8:46 AM on May 12, 2008

darth_tedious: Derren Brown is an entertainer and illusionist; some of the effects that he attributes to NLP

In the interest of fairness, Derren Brown claims he has never mentioned NLP in the context of his work, that he's just interested in it personally. I have seen no evidence to the contrary.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:51 AM on May 12, 2008

A lot of the time, I don't think Brown is using the techniques he's trying to make us think he's using

If you read my comment above, in Mr. Brown's own words, he does not. I expected some reaction to it, considering it's the performer himself essentially saying that he will throw in false explanations without drawing attention to them so that "knowledgeable" people see the "secret" and now "know how it's done" -- it's hypnosis/NLP/suggestion, obviously.

"Here, wash it down with some ice cream..."

Sounds like something Kenton would do, amirite?
posted by splice at 9:21 AM on May 12, 2008

I have mixed feelings about what NLP has become, and about its developers. But I have nothing but admiration and awe for what Milton Erickson was able to achieve in his therapeutic practice and with his investigations into hypnosis. He was an absolute genius.

Anyone looking for an excellent introduction to Erickson's approach could do no better than picking up Sidney Rosen's book on Erickson's teaching tales, "My Voice will go with You."

If you're looking for a good beach book or something to read on the plane (strange as it may sound) this summer, I can't recommend it highly enough as an introduction to Milton Erickson. (And if you're intrigued by his work after that, there is plenty of literature on and by him, including collections of his clinical papers on hypnosis.) He really was a kind of magician with the things he was able to accomplish with his patients, and one of my heroes.
posted by Auden at 9:41 AM on May 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

You're going to clear your mind, and I want you to think of a number between one and ten

I guess I really am a heathen contrarian. Anytime someone says something like that to me, my impulse is to pick a something with decimal places or fractions.
posted by juv3nal at 9:47 AM on May 12, 2008

Little Britain's take on this.
posted by w0mbat at 10:10 AM on May 12, 2008

Ignoring most of the meat of the post, I will thank you for posting a link to a film of Milton Erickson himself working. I did not know such a treasure was on the interweb.
posted by wittgenstein at 10:16 AM on May 12, 2008

>Sounds like something Kenton would do, amirite?

Yeah, "Kenton" also popped into my head, so I'm curious about that, too.

>In the interest of fairness, Derren Brown claims he has never mentioned NLP in the context of his work, that he's just interested in it personally. I have seen no evidence to the contrary.

It's possible that he never mentions NLP; for what it's worth, though, a goodly number of his bits are NLP demos, or apparent NLP demos that probably are actually propelled by old-fashioned carnie mentalism-- envelope switcheroos and so forth.

An example of this (maybe) is the "BMX bike" bit.
posted by darth_tedious at 10:27 AM on May 12, 2008

I became obsessed with the idea of Neuro-linguistic programming when I first heard about it, I wanted to be all Snow Crash and use my cleverness to force a state change in those around me.

But it never seemed to work, at least, not at first. I would walk up to people, grab their hand and say "Hi! I'm quin. Give me your wallet!" all while smiling broadly.

Most of the time they just seemed confused and pulled away from me, resisting my charms. So I did more research, and it seems that what is needed was some sort of personal totem. This isn't some kind of superstitious nonsense, it's just a focal point, so that when you are using NPL, it doesn't seem like you are doing anything "trick like" because people can always sense that and will naturally be averse to it.

Being a fan of guns, I chose an antique pistol that I kept in my waistband. Nothing really obvious, just something that I could focus on instead of the person when I delivered the programming.

So I tried again. I walked up to a stranger, grabbed their hand, placed the other upon the handle of my totem, and said "Hi! I'm quin, give me your wallet."

And it worked!

In fact, ever since I've started using this system, I've successfully gotten the wallets, jewelry, and watches from everyone I've tried it on. Hell, some of them are so impressed by my skills that they are crying in awe.

As a strange aside, it seems like the shinier and bigger a totem I use, the more quickly people seem to comply. I'll have to do some research into why that is.
posted by quin at 10:33 AM on May 12, 2008 [13 favorites]

You mean these are not the droids I'm looking for?
posted by omegar at 2:45 PM on May 12, 2008

Awesome comment Ian A.T.

I used to do a fair bit mentalism in a past life, and, although no one can know everything, (certainly not everything about how another performer works) I concur with Ian's comment. Very well put. If I can pile on a few things:

Most of us don't know how possible it is to manipulate other people's actions, as in a hypnosis act because we never try. There would be no reason to. It takes some guts and just 'diving in" to experience how absolutely miraculous it can seem. I used to do a couple demonstrations in casual settings that always impressed people. One was making someone fall over at will, and unlike the experience some people have at religious revivals, these people were told to be resistant to it, and yet still could not resist. The other was to convince the subject that once he closed his eyes, he could not open them again. Very simple demonstrations, but amazing responses. One guy, when he realized he could not open his eyes, panicked and started screaming and ran blindly around the room, slapping himself to make his eyes open. The reaction surprised even me, and had I seen someone else perform this, I would have sworn the subject was in on it. These are things that can't really be practiced. They can be learned, then they just have to be done. You can't practice in front of a mirror, or even on your friends, like a card trick. You have to have the guts to do them, and keep doing them. As you do them more and more your confidence builds until it's really easy to blur the line and start to think, maybe you do have something special. But, no, the only thing special you had was the balls and the ego to try it.

There are just so many things in the world that we don't notice, because there is no reason to. But a performer like Derren Brown, or James Randi, or Ian A.T. (or me in my performing days) could enter a room and, Jason Bourne-like, see 3 different places to plant a card, and 8 objects that can be used to perform a "spontaneous" effect, and we may have temporarily pocketed your keys or some silverware in order to prep them for possible use later on. Maybe we lifted your personal address book to memorize some things before returning it, unnoticed, to the desk. The dirty work is done before you even knew something was going to happen. There is no way to defend against that.

"Supernatural" performers collect below-the-radar information all the time. In addition to knowing you might pick the number 7 or the queen of hearts, they know that some of your keys will be slightly bent, just from normal wear, but you don't know that, because you have no reason to examine the straightness of your keys. That is, until he shows how he can bend keys with the power of the mind, and, hey, while we're at it, take out your keys and examine them! Are any of them bent? Even just a little? Amazing!

Anything you say (names, dates, relatives), anything they see (mail or a receipt on your table, the books on your bookshelf), is filed away for possible use to create a miracle later on. And you won't even know what hit you. It's not supernatural, but without the necessary abnormal passion, it wouldn't happen. The movie The Prestige had it right: the great ones live their act.

Great performers, (and Ian A.T. is certainly in that category) have so many weapons at their disposal that things will nearly always turn out in their favor. You didn't pick a seven? Well, that's ok, whatever number you picked, he could probably still end up convincing you that he knew all along. After all, the performer decides when the effect is done.

Derren Brown is an amazing showman and a fantastic performer. But don't believe anything he says when he "explains" how it works. It's part of the act. However, suggesting that it's not really NLP or hypnosis in no way denigrates his skill. What he does is actually much more difficult than "putting someone in a trance" on stage. He has to live his act, and hone his natural senses to fine point on an ongoing basis. If supernatural power existed, it would be much easier than what he has accomplished.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 9:49 PM on May 12, 2008 [5 favorites]

Summer - I'm not going to tell you how these things are done, and I'll explain why shortly.

However, I saw that same show and there was only one trick in it that had me baffled. None of the ways I saw for him to be doing things involved stooges.

Thanks Ed. I remember he asked people to write their row and seat number on a piece of paper before questioning them. I thought he might have used the ticket booking information to find out stuff about them. But then what if it wasn't them sitting in the seat? Oh I just don't know. It MUST be magic.
posted by Summer at 5:45 AM on May 13, 2008

This is the second awesome thread I've read on Metafilter about Darren Brown. The last one I read also had practicing mentalists/illusionists who introduced me to the work of some of the other important mentalists like Kenton and Banachek, and this one has just been interesting.

FWIW, it isn't *that* hard to find out how many of these illusions are performed. Many of the illusionists write about their effects for other magicians. In the age of the internet, nothing is hidden too far from view if you care enough to look.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:44 AM on May 13, 2008

FWIW, it isn't *that* hard to find out how many of these illusions are performed. Many of the illusionists write about their effects for other magicians. In the age of the internet, nothing is hidden too far from view if you care enough to look.

That's mostly true. However, there are many things that are only passed from magician to magician, almost never written down. There are other things that are written, but the manuscript is so expensive that only a serious performer would ever pay for it. (A short book might fetch hundreds or even thousands of dollars). The purchaser of such a manuscript would not give away for free what he paid for, much less post it on the internet. In addition, performers will often create their own effects, using new techniques that they don't share with anyone.

But the real secret is not in knowing "how the trick is done." The real secret is lies in the years of training, study, and learning that is required to set the psychological stage and read the audience, and have at your disposal all the tools needed to turn a trick into a miracle.

I know PeterMcDermott was not suggesting otherwise, by the way, but once I see an opportunity to blab on some more I can hardly resist the temptation!
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 11:26 AM on May 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Quite right. The analogy I use is that I know exactly how a violin works, but god help you if you're ever near me if I try to play one.
posted by edd at 1:58 PM on May 13, 2008

Popping in late to this discussion, but thought I'd relate the story of a friend's father, an NLP expert who had developed a severe drinking problem. His wife finally forced him to see an addiction counselor. When he emerged from her office after an hour, the counselor told the waiting wife, "He doesn't have a problem his drinking is normal... He doesn't have a problem his drinking is normal... He doesn't have a problem his drinking is normal...".

(He's since recovered, and they always have a good laugh telling the story.)
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:05 AM on May 19, 2008

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