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Derren Brown: The Experiments - The Assassin
As I sit here writing this article, I wonder why I am doing so. The answer? I want to talk about some of the points raised in the TV programme and give the perspective from a hypnotherapist. I am not here to pass comment on Derren Brown but I do want to address a few things I felt were left unclear in my opinion.
The purpose of the programme was to conduct a psychological experiment to investigate how easily behaviour can be manipulated and whether or not it is possible to train someone to become an assassin without them becoming aware of it.
Derren started the programme with an audience based setting of members of the public who had applied for his show. This is an important point for me to start with because it is important for everyone to understand that you can never be made to do anything you do not want to do. In fact, this was actually stated in the documentary. What this means is that those people who applied to be on the show wanted to be hypnotised and in some way like the concept of being involved in stage hypnosis. This means that they are already willing to do whatever they are asked to do regardless of the lack of knowledge.
The show started with a number of suggestibility tests conducted by Derren Brown in order to whittle the audience down to the most suggestible of them. I have to admit; I did find it a little frustrating because Derren kept referring to this as hypnosis rather than suggestion. Everyone who wants to be hypnotised can be, but not all those who are hypnotised are highly suggestible. I think this could have been made clearer throughout the programme because there is a risk people could misinterpret and get the wrong impression of hypnosis and hypnotherapy. So to be clear, he was not talking about how easily hypnotisable those people are but how suggestible they are.
Hydrochloric Acid Test - a test of obedience
The show went on to use an acid demonstration as an experiment to see whether a person or group of people can be hypnotised to commit anti-social behaviour. The four participants selected from the audience because of their high levels of suggestibility were hypnotised and told that when they saw a certain spotted cloth they would throw a glass of acid in a person’s face. Of course it was only water but the participants were told it was acid. This experiment was not a true experiment looking at the effect of hypnotic suggestion. It was an experiment looking at obedience.
Milgram was a famous psychologist who researched obedience and compliance in great detail. In one of his most famous studies Milgram demonstrated that human beings will follow instructions even if these go against social moral expectations. This is possibly because receiving instructions gives them permission to break social norms. Overall, the results of his electric shock research demonstrated that humans are essentially obedient creatures. An overview of the experiment can be found here. Another famous study is the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Zimbardo. When participants were given the role of prison guards, they readily dished out violent punishments despite not being normally violent people. The role gave them permission to behave this way. Those who had no inclination to behave like this withdrew from the experiment within days.
Not only was the hydrochloric acid test a test of obedience rather than hypnosis, it was also flawed because those people participating, no matter how suggestible, were aware they were on a stage show and so at a basic subconscious and even conscious level would have been aware that they were not really being asked to do anything dangerous. This was actually pointed out in the programme but it was slipped in gently rather than being a major point. It links back to my earlier point about not being able to be to do something you do not want to do. Being on a Derren Brown show would leave you with certain expectations before you even arrived at the studio for filming.
Ice Ice Baby!
Once Derren had whittled his selection down to two participants, he used ice to demonstrate how powerful hypnosis can be in pain management. Hypnosis itself is just relaxation and once in hypnosis you can allow your body to relax so much you can override the natural fight or flight instinct and effectively switch off or dull your pain receptors in the brain. It also involves the human belief system.
I was tweeted over the weekend by someone asking 'Can't people be operated on under hypnosis? So ice cubes no big deal? The odd bit was the audience reaction'.
Yes hypnosis can and is used for pain management. Hypnosis for pain management can be split into two areas but are essentially the same: hypnoanalgesia (decreasing your sensitivity to pain) and hypnoanesthesia (numbing the sensation of pain). It is a huge demonstration of the mind body connection. It is used to help IBS, arthritis and many other ailments involving pain and discomfort. Hypnosis is now being employed by more and more Dr's and Dentists. There is plenty of research and anecdotal evidence demonstrating this. In operations it will be more towards the hypnoanalgesia and in dentistry, more towards hypnoanesthesia. In fact, the NHS is now employing hypnotherapists in their gastroenterological departments and training midwives in hypnotherapy for childbirth.
Are the ice cubes no big deal? Yes and No. Obviously the two participants were naturally highly suggestible and able to go into am deep state of hypnosis easily (just so you know, the more you are hypnotised, the quicker you can go into hypnosis). It is unlikely (in my opinion) that the ice section was saw on TV was the first time they had practised this element. It takes some training and practice of the participant to enable them to achieve that level of pain dissociation. As for the audience reaction, as on game shows I'm guessing they were encouraged to react so dramatically. Of course whenever I am at a spa and see people go in the cold pools I always think they are slightly crazy ;-) and probably have a look of shock on my face. Derren Brown also said that this was the first time an experiment like this had happened. I am pretty sure I watched a programme recently about a man who swims in the arctic freezing waters because he is able to control his heart rate and body temperature etc. We know it can be done.
You'll have no memory of this experience. Really?
I often get asked by clients whether they will remember what happens during the session they have. The simple answer is yes if you want to. On a stage show, because you want to go on it and because Derren Brown is so famous, if he suggested you wouldn't remember what happened, chances are you'd chose not to remember. That does not mean you have no memory of the event. Merely that you are choosing not to access it in the present situation. So the final participant chosen really didn't remember being trained as an assassin but this is most likely because Derren Brown told him he wouldn't (back to obedience again) and as it’s a stage show, he would allow himself to go along with it. The memory was still there. I think the programme implied that anyone could be trained in hypnosis to commit any act and hold no memory of it afterwards. In realiity - you cannot be made to forget, you only chose to agree to forget until you are ready to remember. Derren actually showed us this by getting the participant to recall what had happened even though he claimed he couldn't remember. I think it was more slight misrepresentation due to editing but quite misleading for the general public who do not know much about hypnosis, hypnotherapy and suggestion.
He shot Stephen Fry!!!
Yes, the show apparently 'demonstrated' that a highly suggestible individual could be trained to become an assassin during hypnosis whilst being completely unaware of the whole thing. Yet earlier in the show, we were also told that you cannot be made to do anything you do not want to do. This is true but do NOT interpret this to mean that the participant had a subconscious desire to kill someone. Because he knew of Derren Brown and his reputation as a stage hypnotist and because he applied to be on the show in the first place, it is more likely he had the desire to be hypnotised and found the concept of doing whatever Derren Brown asked him to do quite appealing. Therefore happily taking part and feeling he was able to take no responsibility for his actions. In actual fact, a willing volunteer who knew he would never really be asked to do anything truly dangerous or life threatening and playing along. This was more an experiment demonstrating obedience and compliance.
A true experiment would have used hidden filming and an unknown hypnotist not forming part of a stage show.
On the plus side :-)
As much as I think the programme was cleverly edited and did not actually demonstrate a true experiment or true evidence that someone can unknowingly be trained as an assassin, there were some positive points to take away.
Derren Brown was able to show how powerful hypnosis can be as a tool when combined with suggestion and NLP (The negative side to this is that more people might go to hypnotherapists expecting a magic wand and it’s not). Hypnosis alone would have done nothing other than allow the participants to be very very relaxed.
The show explained how confusion and compliance - the saying 'Yes' part, can help deepen the hypnotic state. I use 'Yes' a lot in sessions because it helps the client not necessarily deepen the hypnosis, but it does help their subconscious focus on the positive changes they want to achieve.
The ring tone, touching and spotted handkerchief and dress demonstrated the NLP technique of setting triggers and anchors. This is creating the association of a feeling, action or behaviour with a certain item or action. This is actually cleverly done but also takes practice and often repetition. We saw it as if it only happened once, but in reality chances are these parts of the programme were practiced multiple times behind the scenes.