While most of the seemingly impossible things Derren does are really just cleverly disguised magic tricks, we can't say the same about hypnosis. Derren actually is a long time practitioner of hypnosis, and uses it in combination with magic in exciting and innovative ways. However, there are still a few things you should know about hypnosis to really have a clear picture of what is going on. Most importantly, you should understand some of the most common misconceptions about hypnosis, and be able to distinguish hypnosis from magic in Derren's shows.
So, what hypnosis actually is? It turns out there is still no consensus on this tricky question. As he explains in great detail in his book Tricks of the mind, even Derren is not really sure what is going on in the mind of a hypnotized person. He writes on his website:
“It seems to me that [hypnosis] is best understood as a process by which the subject allows herself to become highly responsive to the hypnotist, in a way similar to the responsiveness that we tend to exhibit when we go to a doctor or interact with most authority figures.”
Also noting that:
“…nothing can be done under hypnosis that a person cannot achieve when not hypnotised.”
Probably the most misleading illusion that hypnotists create is the impression that the hypnotized person enters this whole new state of consciousness, something more similar to deep sleep that waking consciousness. This is simply not true. When Derren covers the spectator’s eyes and tells him to “sleep”, it certainly looks like the spectator instantaneously falls into some sort of “trance”. However, all you are seeing is the spectator closing his eyes and relaxing, just like he is told to do (and just like he has probably seen hypnotized people behave on TV). Having been hypnotized myself, I remember thinking through the whole thing how much more impressive it must have looked like to the other people watching. The image of the hypnotized person being in some sort of a deep trance is created in the minds of the people observing the hypnosis from a third person perspective – it does not correctly resemble the mental state the hypnotized person is actually in. It is of course possible to achieve a state of enhanced concentration and relaxation with different kinds of meditative techniques – hypnotic suggestion can be used to help with this process. However, this is not what is going on in stage hypnosis.
Another important question concerns the seemingly increased susceptibility of the subjects. How much of what we see in stage hypnosis is genuine manipulation with the subject, and how much is just the subject playing along? This question doesn’t have a simple black or white answer, but the playing-along part is certainly a much more important factor than most people think. Imagine, for a moment, yourself being a subject in a stage hypnosis stunt. You are sitting on a stage, with a large audience watching you and maybe even cameras filming. With you on the stage is a well known hypnotist. He has performed this stunt many times before, and maybe you have even seen him perform it on other people. He is very confident, and says with complete certainty that you are going to fall asleep the moment he counts to ten and snaps his fingers. He starts counting. You know exactly what is supposed to happen – as he snaps his fingers, you are supposed to fall into some sort of a trance. You are supposed to close your eyes, let your head relax and fall down, and stay motionless in your chair. But what if this doesn’t happen? What if, after the hypnotist claps his fingers you don’t close your eyes and fall asleep? You can only imagine the awkwardness of the situation – all the people watching, the cameras filming… everyone is expecting you to fall asleep. So, when the hypnotist counts to ten and claps his finger, you do what you know you are supposed to do – you close your eyes.
Nothing special has happened. The sound of hypnotist’s fingers didn’t magically pull your eyelids down. You didn’t actually fall asleep, you aren’t in a trance. You are simply playing a role of a person being hypnotized. And when, in a few minutes, the hypnotist tells you to laugh uncontrollably, you will do it. We humans are very socially conformist creatures. Rare among us are really prone to social pressure and expectations of others. Ask yourself, would you play along or would you be willing to embarrass the hypnotist and risk ruining a fun hypnosis show for everyone? After all, it’s just entertainment.
So we see that while hypnosis may not be, to quote Derren, “entirely dismissed as role-playing or fakery”, a very large part of it certainly can be.
I cannot possibly go through all of the countless situations where Derren used hypnosis and try to explain each one separately, so let me end with what I think is key to understanding hypnosis in the context Derren uses it – being able to distinguish hypnosis from magic. When Derren makes people “stick” to their chairs, makes them forget about their name or makes them unable to feel pain – that probably is actual hypnotic suggestion. However, when a hypnotized girl suddenly acquires what seems like psychic powers – then you can be sure you are looking at a magic trick.