In this article we will talk about what is hypnosis. To do this we invite you to listen to Derren Brown. Derren Brown is a famous entertainer who uses hypnosis for some of his work. As you will hear, he started his career doing stage hypnotism. In this interview he talks openly about that stage of his career. The discussion is relevant to stage hypnotism. Clinical hypnotherapy works differently. Click here for information about clinical and therapeutic hypnotherapy.
I hope this clip is helpful in explaining more about Derren’s story and explains more about what stage hypnosis is.
What is hypnosis
Here is a transcript of this interesting interview about stage hypnosis and whether it is real and also about faith healers.
And so when I first thought I might start my career as a hypnotist, I saw this guy performing at university and I just thought I’m going to, I’m going to do that. I just, I didn’t realize at the time all these boxes that it was ticking. Performing that sort of, you know, need for affirmation and love and being the centre of attention and also the control aspect of it, you know, the kind of the control aspect and also the kind of people that, particularly the sort of guys that would respond well to hypnosis and come up on stage. You know, and respond well to it tend to be exactly the kind of guys that would really have intimidated me before. So that was like at an unconscious level and I hope I’ve grown out of that now.
Mainly that yeah, it ticked a lot of boxes. So that’s how I started. Yeah, it was definitely driven by insecurity. Any sort of magic, which should have followed for me on from the hypnosis, it is the quickest, most fraudulent route to impressing people. That’s, because, you know, the subtext is ‘look at me, aren’t I great’, which is not that interesting after a while. So I tried to as I’ve grown up, I’ve tried to move into a different area and one that’s a little more resonant than just showing off.
That’s fascinating that you started out doing it. Hypnosis shows that are a comedy show.
No, it was sort of, I would mainly perform it like at colleges and I’d do a demonstration and then have questions and after questions and answers afterwards. I wasn’t making people look stupid.
It was an entertainment show and I guess it was kind of, funny. But it was just a really interesting thing and the trouble with doing it on stage is of course that it gets mixed up with people who are just playing along. But if you take that out of it, it’s just a really interesting era and I’ve done this stuff for, you know, 20 years back home. I’m not, I don’t think of myself as a hypnotist. That was just kind of where I started. But suggestion based techniques are, that is something I continued with and brought into different areas and I still don’t fully understand it. You know, you can have a quiet client, and inside someone’s head and know what they’re experiencing. Like I used to do when I used to do stage hypnosis shows. The last thing I did was to tell these people on stage that I was invisible, right.
And I’d float something through the air, right? Like this bottle I’ve got here. And it’s normally something bigger like a chair and they’d be freaking out, you know, running off stage and so on. But afterwards when I’d have Q and A, I’d ask them, what was your actual experience like? Since the show’s over and I’ll be honest, what were you, what were you experiencing? And you’d get some people that would say, well yeah, you were obviously just floating that you were just holding it, but I kind of felt like I had to play along. And then you’d get this interesting reaction, people would say, ‘well, I kind of, I know when I think back, yes, of course it was you, but I am emotionally, just completely, I could only experience it as a terrifying floating bottle or whatever it was.’
So that’s a bit like an actor, like getting caught up in a role, I guess. Like they know, they know they’re on stage and it’s a character, but nonetheless emotionally committed. And at the other extreme, people that would not accept that it was me floating. That it must have been on a wire or something. There’s no way that I can drop you back in the picture in my memory of that thing. So, how do you judge what that experience is when there are those people that are saying no, you are really invisible. They just saying that because they want to be the best subjects in that group. I mean how do you tease it all apart? It’s that which must be a real issue, right? The people that just want to please you and are playing along.
How can you tell if you were hypnotizing people? Yeah, I can tell, but the way I use it now, I use it in quite a sort of subtle way in the show. I don’t overtly, you know, hypnotize people. So that means it can mean one of two things. It either means I’m not interested in people playing along because I’m not just trying to create the effect of someone hypnotized. They need to genuinely be responding to this thing in order for the next bit to work. In which case I have to filter out anybody playing along. But occasionally it doesn’t matter. Like a lot of the time, I’ll get people up on stage and I’ll shake their hand. And there’s a rapid handshake induction that the guidance, you know, just falls to the floor. And there are times that that matters and they have to be, that has to be a really honest response.
Other times I can tell they’re sort of half into it and they’re just a bit intimidated, but for the 2000 people looking, that they kind of might look like the same thing and then it wasn’t that exact, how does exactly, does that work? The handshake induction? It’s I take no responsibility for explaining this deal. Tens of millions of listeners and viewers. Um, it’s, you’re interrupting an automatic process, right? This is the key to it. It was made popular by I guess Richard Bandler, who’s the guy behind NLP and so on. I don’t know if he created this thing, but perhaps Erickson did before him. I don’t know. Anyway, you take an automatic process and you interrupted in the middle. So when you’re shaking hands with somebody, it’s such a familiar process that when you start, you’re not thinking, okay, I’m going to grip this person’s hand now and I’m going to move my hand up and down with them a few times, then I’ll take my hand away.
You just kind of do it automatically. And there’s something about interrupting that which leaves people really flummoxed and they’re really, really caught off guard. Like imagine somebody comes up to you in the street and says, it’s not half past seven. You know, your reaction isn’t to go, yeah, yeah, I know it’s 20 past nine. You’re reaction is, you think like you’ve missed something, like you’re trying to make sense of it. It’s a strange and kind of puts you on the back foot. And at that point, if you’ve got somebody who’s fairly suggestible and people coming up on stage, it’s such an odd moment for them anyway. They’re naturally very suggestible that a clear instruction to sleep or whatever you want to give them tends to be taken very deeply. And very often you’ll see, I’ll shake hands and I’ll, I’ll break the pattern at the handshakes.
Well, I’ll often take their hand and lift it up to their face and say sleep and show them their hand like that and they just sleep and well it’s not sleep but it’s a kind of looks like, I mean, they, they’ll do anything from eyes closed, head drops down to just drop like a, like a dead weight on the floor. You know, I found this most interesting. Actually I’m applying this in slightly more useful everyday situations as a sort of a self defence technique. I was walking between, must have been like 20 or something and I was at a magic convention and I was walking from one hotel to another and I’m dressing like a three piece velvet suit as this skinny British. Like I might as well have, you know, punch me in the throat, tattooed across my face.
And this guy comes up and he’s drunk. It’s about three in the morning, drunk, aggressive with his girlfriend, clearly looking for a fight. And he comes up to me and he says, what are you, what are you f**king looking at? what you’re looking at? And because I’d spoken about this, how to deal with this sort of thing, but I never found myself in this situation. I kind of had it all mentally rehearsed. So I said to him, ‘the wall outside my house isn’t four foot high’. And I guess there’s an equivalent of this with the sort of adrenaline dump. I think it’s called in martial arts. But there, he’s got all this adrenaline and then a thing like that for me, which is just out of context. Like it makes sense.
I’m not like talking gibberish, since it makes sense, but it’s just out of context, right? So now suddenly he’s thinking, well, I’ve what? I missed something. So now he said, ‘what’? And I saw his girlfriend walked off and I said, ‘the wall outside my house isn’t four foot high. I spent some time in Spain, the walls there were very high, but if you look at the ones here that they’re tiny, then nothing’. And then he just sort of broke down. He sort of started crying. Well, no, it wasn’t quite crying, but it was just, it was like all the adrenaline and everything just, just flooded out of him. And he sat down and I ended up sitting next to him on the road side, asking him. So what I was, the plan was I was going to try and stick his feet to the floor and he had, his whole family just kind of collapsed and sat down.
So I started taking notice that was, because I knew it’d be like this highly suggestible state and either way, the moment of aggression passed, but I ended up, ended up weirdly sitting with him, asking him what had happened that evening and his girlfriend did. I think she’d bottled somebody or something horrible had happened, so he’d gone out with all this aggression. But it’s a good one isn’t it? If you just have like, it could be just a song lyric or just some, some weird kind of thing that you can just go into in those situations. I mean, if someone’s running at you with a knife, it’s a bit difficult, but you’re kind of strangely taking control of a situation. Otherwise what you’re going to do if they say, what are you looking at? You can’t, there’s no way you can answer that without being on the back foot. Kind of inverts the situation and puts them on back foot, which anyway, it worked. It was kind of fun.
Isn’t there a process required to hypnotize someone? You could just do it that way and saying it didn’t just talk them through some sort of a program that makes them think their foot is stuck to the floor. It depends on the moment. I used to hypnotize people in my room when I was a student. Right. So I was the guy that did hypnosis. I’d have people coming, you know, regularly coming to try it out. It was really early days, you know, 20 minutes, half an hour of relaxing somebody and maybe suggesting that their hands were getting light and floating or heavy and they couldn’t lift them.
So it was kind of basic stuff. But I would leave them if they were very suggestible with the instruction that when you come back, if I click my fingers, you’ll get back into the sleep state. And they kind of get conditioned to that and it’ll often work. Even like a week later. And this guy came and I thought I’d seen him before. I thought he’d been on a previous week. So he sat down and I went, okay, look at me and sleep, click my fingers and he went out, whatever that means. Right. And then we did whatever it was. Maybe, you know, perhaps you wanted to stop smoking or his hands floating in the air, whatever. It wasn’t at the end of it. I realized talking to him that I hadn’t met him before. So then I’m like well how did, why did you respond to me clicking my fingers and cause I don’t have magic fingers, there’s nothing like anything going on here. I realized it was just that moment of my kind of confidence with it and the fact that he was also very suggestible and put those two things together.
That’s what made it work. It was just that, that psychological moment for him that was more important than the nature of the 20 minute script that I had been learning and using up to that point. So that was kind of a step as my confidence, in that he had already been under. Yeah, I didn’t question it because I really believed he had it. So it just kind of, it just sort of happened and then he just, if he hadn’t been a suggestible type and it probably wouldn’t have worked. Yeah. But luckily he was and that kind of really, really changed the way that I thought about hypnosis. I’d also started this realization that ultimately my, my kind of toolkit with what I do, is the stories that people are telling themselves. That’s kind of, that’s really, you know, all there is even a magician showing you a card trick is just getting you to tell yourself a story, edit, edit this event in such a way that you go, oh you know, I picked a card and then it disappeared and it was, it was in my pocket.
He never went near me. And you edit out all the bits that don’t seem important. Like when he complimented you on your jacket earlier on in the day, it may have stuck a card in there or the bit where he took the card back from moment whatever. Cause you don’t, you know, you’re being sold a story with a particular sort of edit. To me that’s interesting because that’s what life is. You know, we have this infinite data source coming at us and we can, we just, we have to kind of reduce it to stories to make to make sense. I think stripping aside all the kind of Vaudeville and tacky associations of hypnotists and magicians I think that’s something interesting at the heart of it. I think that our storytelling capacity is kind of endlessly fascinating to me.
Well it’s fascinating in that regard, but it’s also fascinating that it seems there seems to be some cheat code to the human mind. Like there’s a way you can look into an admin panel and all of a sudden you’re doing things like telling people they don’t really want to be smoking or putting them into this hypnotic mindset by just snapping your fingers and sink sleep.
I don’t think, I don’t think it is that. I think it looks like that. And that’s the problem because it looks, you so often see it when performers are doing it, when they’re often going for kind of theatrical effect. If you go and look at it like a clinical, our environment where hypnosis is being investigated, either it isn’t like that at all. It’s much more kind of boring in a way, isn’t, it? Doesn’t have any theatre attached to it. It’s much more kind of intuitively understandable bit like being hypnotized yourself. I’m terrible. I’m a really bad, really bad subject. I had one experience where I was in a workshop. I wasn’t giving the workshop and I was sat with the exercise, it really worked for me.
It may work for others. So you’re split into pairs and the idea is you start to describe a scene. So you sat with this woman, you close your eyes, you started describe a scene and you go back and forth adding details, right? So she says, okay, I’m laying on a beach, I just imagine that and I go, okay, now I’m going to beach and I can feel the warmth of the sun on my face. So I’m just kind of imagining it and joining him with the story. And then I just remember somebody going, okay, guys, time up, time for lunch. And I had been on a beach and I had completely just, I’d been there like a dream. It was completely real. At some point it had tipped into that.
That’s the only experience I’ve had of it. Other than that, I don’t respond to it. I’m just not suggestible. It’s something about, and we get it when, you know, we would get it when a doctor gives us a placebo and we respond to that because this authority figure is giving us that or, or the way we absorb opinions of people that we admire and experts that we admire. How we just more easily take those on board on unquestioningly. This is all the same thing. It’s just suggestion. The trouble is, most of the time it’s done through the world of the performing hypnotist, which isn’t giving really very clear and fair view of what’s going on because it’s so theatrical. And so, yeah, because you’re relishing and things like, I click my fingers and this guy went to sleep. But that’s not really, what are they doing? I think just kind of, because you’ve just asked them to, and they know that when you click their fingers, they’re supposed to go to sleep. Is there’s a real range of possible experiences that you, it might look like a power that it doesn’t mean it is. They might just be just complying. I was going to do some of this stuff on stage without using the hypnosis to show that I don’t think there’s anything that happens under hypnosis that can’t be done without. I was, having this discussion with my friend Andy, who directs and co-writes my stage shows with me. And I was saying like that thing when you, when a hypnotist get someone to eat an onion and says, you know, this is a classic hypnotic stunt, gives them a raw onion and says it’s a delicious juicy apple. Now eat it and enjoy it. And you’d get somebody munching into an onion, having no problem eating it. And I was like, Oh, I’m sure that feels like if you’re just going to pull it off without hypnosis, would that just happen anyway? And Andy said, I bet you can just do it anyway. And he went to my fridge, took out an onion, took a big bite of it and it was fine cause he’s right. So he’s proving a point there, right? So he’s in a different mental state than somebody going, God, I dare you to take a bite at that onion when suddenly you’re like, you’re pre-empting the disgust and all the reasons not to do it. But the fact that he was just going, I bet you can do it. And trying to prove a point, man, you did it and it was fine.
So that that was a different mental state and it worked. So that wasn’t hypnosis. But the end result is still, if you do that on stage and pretended to hypnotize somebody first, it would look like you’ve done something amazing. So I dunno, to me it’s just that story that someone’s telling themselves. It tastes like an onion to him. It’s just, it would have, no, no, no, no. Would have tasted like an onion. I, there was no suggestion about whether the [inaudible] because it tastes like an apple to them. Well, I don’t know. It’s like in Monterey, I’m invisible. What are they seeing? I think for some of them it will, you know, taste and pain and things like that and discomfort. It’s all very subjective. But the end result of doing this thing that looks like it couldn’t happen without some magical process.
That’s the key. Even when you look at people undergoing surgery through hypnosis and being wide awake and being cut open. So you think, well that must be evidence that hypnosis is some special thing. Because that couldn’t happen otherwise. But of course it can, you know, the layer of skin that feels pain is actually sort of quite thin. So once you get through that, when you’re moving organs around, that’s not, that’s not a painful process anyway. Plus very fully tend to use a bit, a little bit of like a local anaesthetic anyway just to numb the very top layer of skin. So again, what looks amazing very often isn’t, it’s a really, it’s an endlessly rich and bizarre area to me. And I kind of, as I said, I don’t really think of myself as a hypnotist, but that process, that ability for people to get into this space where they can have that kind of experience is something I’ll always find interesting.
One of the recent stage shows I did -it’s called miracle. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but I’m faith healing in the second half. So using exactly the same idea. And I’ve got an audience that are like, you know, they don’t believe in that. And I’m saying, look, I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in this either, but will you just go with me or at least at the start, because the results are really interesting. I just started doing this, slightly not really knowing if it was going to work. I thought, well, I can get some adrenaline going. I know could see the techniques that the charlatan faith healers were using. And I thought, well, I’ll just do that. And I thought, well, the adrenaline kills pains.
I can get some adrenaline going. There’s bound to be people that said, oh, I had a pain in my back and now it’s gone. But the actual results, admittedly with small percentages of the audience, right? Not Everybody, but the people that were coming up and saying, I had this problem and now it’s gone. And there was a woman that had, she’d been paralyzed on one side of her body since a kid and she’s in her forties now, she’s in floods of tears going, I could move my arm. And this was, this is a sceptical audience like me that know that there’s kind of playing along with something. And nonetheless, again, a small percentage, not everybody, are having these kind of experiences. So that’s less a psychological component of suffering, which was really eye opening, doing that show night after night after night.
Well, faith healing has got to be a form of hypnosis, right? Yeah. It’s all this, exactly. It’s the same world is playing. They both, well, they’re both joined by us is the idea of suggestibility and it doesn’t, and sometimes those healings are sort of, I mean, if you take an x ray before and afterwards, nothing’s changing. But in as much as a lot can depend on this psychological component, it can, can really make a difference. Again, as the percentages are getting smaller. So 3000 people in the audience, 300 people come up, 10 people come up on stage and I’m, you know, involving them in the show but getting even smaller. There are people that like a year later we’re getting in touch and saying, just so you know, that thing did actually click. Like it hasn’t come back because I thought it would only last for 10 minutes while they’re on stage.
And then, yeah, which is why you don’t tell people to throw the pills away and so on. Right. But we’re probably like that half a percent now, which is always going to be kind of pretty extraordinary. But it was like a real, a real thing. So when, let’s see if you had 200 people and one of them actually gets cured from that, that is immensely bizarre. It’s immensely bizarre. And, and I’m like, I’ve had this bad shoulder for a long time and I got really used to, when I put a jacket on, kind of putting this in my left arm, putting it in, like letting my left arm go dead and then using my right arm to pull that thing up. Right now I don’t know how much I really need to do that anymore or whether I’m just doing it out of habit.
But if somebody got me up on stage and said, your left shoulder is healed, it’s happened now, and kind of made me feel a bit [inaudible] now go on, try it, try, move you, move your arm. I think in the surprise of it and the sheer kind of just snapping out of that habit of being like, this is my dead arm, I probably would be very surprised that I could actually move it as much as I can. You know? It’s just, it’s like when you break it down, it’s like, not that amazing. But when you, when you see the more kind of extreme and exciting ends of that. It’s mind blowing and then you realize how these performances, how you start to go mad yourself and think, well, I’ve got this special gift I could pack out stadia doing like that. I did think at one point, why don’t I do like a secular healing show? I can say, well, you know, it doesn’t work and everybody, and it may only work for 10 minutes, but it certainly works in some meaning of the word. Anyway, I didn’t do that, but you know, you can start to go, mad.