Derren Brown: Science Trick or Treat?

Would it matter if Derren Brown faked a demonstration on one of his TV shows? If a sequence, presented as a legitimate science experiment, had been edited to deliberately mislead the viewer?

Surely, that goes with the territory. He’s an illusionist and his shows should be treated as entertainment – they’re not meant to be taken seriously. The problem is, vast numbers of people do; they believe they’re watching something more than just an illusion by a skilled showman.

His latest programme, Fear and Faith, was presented in the style of a factual show exploring the power of the placebo effect. Taking on the role of a science based self-help guru, Derren Brown took ordinary people’s problems and ‘fixed them’ with a few taps of his psychological wand.

The overall message wasn’t much different to that of an evangelical preacher – you can achieve whatever you want, as long as you believe. You can cure dermatitis, remove phobias, defeat addictions; even change your personality – all through a little Derren Brown inspired self-belief. And a dab of instant hypnosis.

So where does Channel 4 stand on this kind of thing? What if his seemingly legitimate demonstrations of science and psychology aren’t always what they seem? The broadcaster has clear guidelines in their charter covering this area. Here’s what it says:

“Simply because a programme is primarily designed to entertain or is ‘formatted’ does not mean that there is a licence to mislead the audience. Our viewers are entitled to respect and that means they must feel confident that they can take what they see or are told in a programme at face value.”

So a programme featuring a science based demonstration of hypnosis which misled viewers would presumably be a serious breach; not something a publicly owned broadcaster would turn a blind eye to – even if it involved one of their most valuable assets.

In Hot Water?

Which is why it’s interesting to look back at one particular Derren Brown show – The Assassin. This was broadcast as part of last year’s series, The Experiments. This was a series Derren Brown talked about in previews as being an attempt to move away from ‘tricks’ and towards a more science-based approach.

Like Fear and Faith, the programme didn’t come with any on-screen disclaimer to warn viewers that this was anything other than factual. It was based on a real-life murder case; the assassination of Robert Kennedy by a man called Sirhan Sirhan. It included archive footage of the murderer and an interview with a family relative; all the hallmarks of a factual programme.

It explored a theory that Sirhan Sirhan may have carried out the assassination while in some kind of induced hypnotic state. To test if this was possible, Derren Brown took a member of the public, somebody called Chris, and took him through a process of hypnotic ‘treatment’, to turn him into a potential assassin.

To demonstrate the power of hypnosis he carried out an experiment on Chris in front of a studio audience; this was referred to as the Ice Cold Bath test. It was presented as a way of exploring whether hypnosis could help Chris control the pain of exposure to the icy cold water.

With a click of his fingers, Derren Brown put Chris into a hypnotic slumber and told him to believe the cold water was warm. Protected by this mind control, Chris submerged himself in the cold water as Derren Brown’s voiceover explained how this was a life-threatening test, something never attempted before.

An electronic gauge showed the water temperature as Chris stepped into the icy bath. It started at 3.6C, after a minute it was 2.3C and just before he stepped out, it had dropped to 1.4C. Derren Brown’s voiceover dramatically stated:

“The water is just 1.4 degrees away from turning into a solid block of ice and his heart rate has dropped to 85 bpm. He’s clearly very able to disassociate himself from the freezing temperature. The test is a success.”

To add authenticity to this demonstration, it was monitored by a scientist from the University of Birmingham, Dr Stuart Derbyshire. So it seemed a particularly impressive sequence; a legitimate scientific test showing the powerful ability of hypnosis to enable people to manage pain.

But one of the strange things about this demonstration was the way the temperature plummeted. You might expect that when a big warm human gets into a bath of cold water, the temperature would gradually increase; especially when the bath is placed in a hot studio.

And that’s what a member of the studio audience remembers happening. Andy Linton, a fan of Derren Brown, was sat opposite the electronic temperature gauge during the test; filmed at the London Oratory School. Here’s what he remembers:

“On television they showed the digital display with the temperature falling while he’s in the bath but it wasn’t falling – it was rising. So what they showed is really not what happened and I presume they must have used those shots out of sequence to make it look more dramatic for television.

“I was on the front row and sitting right opposite that meter. I had a clear view of it. I’m a technical kind of guy so I was interested in that side of things and the temperature was definitely rising – it was going up. The temperature started at around 3C and then it crept up to around 4C or 5C.”

If this is correct, you could understand the temptation to try and make the test look slightly more extreme than it actually was. Without the plunging temperature you have a bloke sat in a bath of cold water which gets a bit warmer; not the kind of death defying act required for mind-blowing television.

Because sitting in an ice cold bath isn’t unusual or particularly dangerous. They are used in many sports as a way to help athletes’ bodies recover after exercise. It’s not a pleasant experience but it’s something routinely used and without any need of Derren Brown’s hypnotism.

But what about the scientist observing the experiment, surely he was monitoring the temperature? Unfortunately not; this is what Dr Derbyshire recalls:

“I wasn’t paying too much attention to the temperature. I know the water was uncomfortably cold and I remember it being around 3C but I don’t have any recollection of it going up or down.

“I was surprised to see the temperature did appear to be dropping and I can’t come up with any obvious explanation. I would be concerned if they had edited it because it would start to call into question the validity of everything else.”

The programme makers, Objective Productions, completely reject any suggestion that they misled the viewer. A spokesperson said:

“The water temperature dropped from about 4 degrees to 1.4 as shown in the programme. The studio audience were not near enough to read the temperature clearly – that was being viewed by Derren and the scientist and the director and producer from the production gallery.”

So we’re left with a mystery. It’s a question of which version you believe. But seeing as Derren Brown’s role as an illusionist is to twist and manipulate the truth; it’s tempting to think this was edited to heighten the effect.

Second Time Lucky

But there’s another quirk about this sequence; one which questions whether Channel 4 should be allowing this type of thing to be presented as a legitimate scientific test.

The finished item showed Chris submerging himself into the cold water, having no ill-effects and then getting out again as Derren Brown’s voiceover declared the test to be a success.

What actually happened was a bit different.

The first time Chris dropped himself into the water, he had to get out again because he found it too cold. This was witnessed by both the audience member and the expert, Dr Derbyshire.

Andy Linton said:

“They actually filmed him doing it twice. The first time they tried Chris had to stand back up again because he said he was having trouble breathing. So then he came out, they put him in a robe and sent him off to warm-up.

“Then there was a bit of a kerfuffle and after a while Derren came back and said there had been some kind of a cock-up with the recording of the thermal imaging camera so they would have to do it again. So they dragged this poor bloke back out again and he tried it again.”

Dr Derbyshire confirms this:

“He got in the first time and was obviously not comfortable, so he had to get out. The explanation was, which is not untrue, that you hit that cold water and there’s a shock to the system. You can’t breathe easily – everything constricts. So he stepped out.

“It’s a tricky thing because hypnosis is not magic, it doesn’t rip your nervous system out, and you’d expect a physiological reaction. But I accept that the effect would have been much more powerful if it could have been done first time.”

By editing this genuine reaction out of the sequence it’s hard to see how it can be viewed as anything other than misleading. Hypnosis may or may not be able to help people control pain but it’s not something Derren Brown demonstrated and he shouldn’t be allowed to claim it.

It needs to be remembered that Derren Brown is an illusionist who practices a form of magic known as mentalism. This is magic – tricks and misdirection – but packaged as a demonstration of some kind of ‘genuine’ power. Derren Brown uses science and psychology as the chosen wrapping for his illusions.

For this to work his TV shows have to be plausible. Which is why he uses all the trappings of a factual TV show and why he will often use experts like Dr Derbyshire; it’s a way to heighten the effect. But being used in this way, as a prop for a trick, was something which left Dr Derbyshire uneasy about his role in The Assassin. He said:

“I have a lot of mixed feelings about it. On the one hand it’s just entertainment and it shouldn’t be taken too seriously – and I don’t think Derren Brown takes it seriously. The science is just there to make it more interesting.

“On the other hand, he’s using a guy who committed a major crime – a man who shot somebody. And he’s presenting him as an innocent man who has been imprisoned for a crime he’s not responsible for – which is pretty serious.

“He’s also planting the idea that we can turn ordinary people into killers – fairly easily. Both of which I think are highly dubious positions to take.

“The problem is that people are given no way of knowing if it’s a serious show dressed up as entertainment or an entertainment show dressed up as something serious. And because it’s so hard to tell the difference – that makes it morally awkward.”

Sceptical Skeptics

It’s a general unease shared by some within a community that Derren Brown is seen as representing – skeptics. This is a loose group of scientists and academics with a shared interest in using logic and scientific reasoning to challenge extraordinary claims – whether they’re psychic or pseudo-science.

Derren Brown’s popularity within the skeptic community comes from his work exposing the fraudulent methods of psychics and spiritual healers. In his 2010 series, Derren Brown Investigates, he took a critical look at three people claiming to have psychic powers.

He has publicly lambasted psychics for using fraudulent methods to give people an unfounded belief in the existence of an after life or in special healing powers. But it’s hard to see how his own illusions are much different.

Derren Brown’s TV shows give people a similarly unfounded belief in the power of psychological ‘powers’ such as hypnosis, ‘anchoring’ and subliminal messaging. His presentation of himself as a self-help guru gives fans false belief that his brand of ‘mind-control’ can transform and improve lives. It sells the idea that our brains are like simple calculators which can be easily repaired and reprogrammed.

But it’s an illusion – a sophisticated trick.

And it’s hard to see how Channel 4, a publicly owned broadcaster with a clear commitment to not misleading its viewers, can continue to allow this disinformation to be spread in the guise of factual television.

Professor Chris French, a leading skeptic and Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths College, said:

“I have a great deal of respect for Derren Brown; both as a performer and as a skeptic. He’s somebody who has helped shine a light on some of the more questionable practices used by those who claim to have psychic powers.

“But I do fear that he’s pushing things too far with the way he’s presenting himself as using science and psychological techniques on his television shows.

“I’m sure many people accept it as entertainment and realise that he often uses science as a form of misdirection for more conventional tricks, but a great many of his viewers don’t see this subtlety. They take his explanations at face value and believe that what they’re seeing is genuine.

“The problem, from a science point of view, is that it’s muddying the waters and creating a false perception about the way these things actually work.

“I wish these psychological effects were as powerful as Derren Brown makes them appear – but they’re not. The effects are subtle, mild and unreliable and of little use from the point of view of a television performance.”

So, for somebody who has built his career on performing magic wrapped up in a tissue of impressive scientific twaddle, Derren Brown’s greatest ever illusion could be his acceptance within society as a respectable man of science.

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  • http://twitter.com/Pluvialis William Russell

    Nice article, exactly how I feel about him.

    • http://twitter.com/Pluvialis William Russell

      In fact, his latest shows actually creep me out, the way he really pretty seriously brainwashes people (or pretends to) with heavy-handed traumatic experiences, all the meanwhile standing around a corner or in some dark monitoring studio smiling broadly and congratulating himself for changing their lives forever, as if he’s some sort of miracle worker going around making people’s lives better.

      Remind us of anything?

      • http://www.hoofindan.co.uk/ hoofindan

        Yes, I agree. Some of the comments his fans post on his Facebook page are pretty sad/scary. People with problems who leave their mobile phone numbers hoping they can be ‘cured’ by Derren Brown. I think it’s Channel 4 who should take more responsibility but they’re not too fussed because he has been so successful for them.

  • Ben phoenix

    I think this article hits true in some places and faux in others.

    Firstly, there is no doubt that hypnosis is real. It is not a trick or a form of magic. However, not everyone can be hypnotised. If you study Derrens shows, you will note he uses fairly dull, blank minded and not very clever people. What he does with those people would be impossible with me or, presumably, the writer of this piece. So that is a large part of the “trick” if you will. He even shows us how much effort goes into selecting just the right blank minded and fairly stupid individual for the task.

    Also the placebo effect has been well documented, if not understood. This in medical trials. We even use forms of placebo in day to day life. If you have ever gotten rid of a headache using a paracetamol, you have just engaged the placebo effect. There are no pain nerves inside the brain, so a headache does not in fact exist at all, and so there is no way a conventional pain killer would be able to have any effect on it at all.

    However, he is a trickster. Many things he does not show the audience. He makes many claims which are obviously a stretch of the truth. He exaggerates rather than lies, misdirects. I personally find some of his work mildly offensive, as it makes me feel as if my being stupid and suggestible is assumed. This is precisely what everything he does relies upon. If you ever watch his tricks and his shows, you will see him reject people with free thought. You can even see the cues Derren picks up on to recognise when someone isn’t playing along with him, and those are the ones he laughs off, edits out or simply rejects.