Does NLP work? Is it the basis of Derren Brown's "mind control" act?

In reference to the article “Does NLP work? Is it the basis of Derren Brown’s “mind control” act?”, perhaps I can help, having studied psychology, and NLP, and (to a much lesser extent) Derren Brown.

A more helpful definition of NLP might be "an attempt to discover what, if any, were the commonalities of three “master psychotherapists” - Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, and Milton Erickson - who, when personally practicing, were capable of inducing significant changes in patients in a single session. Bandler and Grinder then attempted to “distill” the elements in common - in theory the “effective core” as opposed to the overlying (and conflicting) belief systems of the individual therapists.

This definition highlights the oddity of asking whether NLP “works” - as psychology students study the techniques and practice of all three of these psychotherapists (among others) - and certainly no one makes claims that their techniques “do not work.” If one has studied NLP and watches videos of Perls, Satir, or Erickson conducting therapy, it is easy to identify techniques used in NLP that are used by these therapists - who are still presented today as appropriate learning models in graduate psychology classes.

Additionally, NLP specifically adopted an explicit, “well, if something doesn’t work, do something else” strategy from Perls and Satir, who both practiced that style of therapy - thus confounding the question of what, exactly one would “empirically study” to determine whether NLP did or did not “work”. Neither Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir, Milton Erickson, or the founders of NLP believed that any particular techniques would invariably “work” with every single patient.

Most people seem to be unbothered by the fact that some individual psychologists are effective, while some are not effective, quite regardless of the “branch” or overall “theory” of psychology that they adopt in order to understand the reasons behind their actions. Empirically, there is little to support the idea that any particular theory of psychology is more effective than any other - as none is capable of producing adherents who are uniformly more effective than any other theory. NLP differs mainly in failing to adopt an explanatory theory at all, preferring to say, essentially, “these tools seem to have proven effective, we make no claims as to a unifying theory behind their effectiveness.”

As for Derren Brown and NLP, the “apparently erroneous belief that Brown achieves some of his effects via NLP” stems from watching Derren Brown implement recognizable NLP techniques on his shows. While there is certainly a question as to whether the recognizable NLP techniques that he implements are a major source of his success, or whether the success is attributable to tricks of mentalism is another question - but in as much as the practitioners of any art tend to be able to identify it when practiced (just as the speakers of a language recognize it when it is used) it is relatively silly of Brown to claim that NLP is not part of what he does in his performances.

The question raised by those who recognize NLP techniques when they are used is, of course, if the NLP techniques were not an effective part of what Brown does, why would he faithfully reproduce them, when the actions performed would have no meaning whatsoever to, and would be missed by, the vast majority of the population. Thus, since the NLP techniques have no particular “mystical” appearance to the normal viewer, then their use by Brown would appear to point to efficacy, rather than showmanship or camouflage.

Guess somebody has to ask. What “NLP techniques”, specifically, have you seen Darren Brown use?

Sorry if I’m resurrecting an old thread, but anyways:

I’ve always thought that “NLP techniques” that Brown appears to use were just him concocting convincing explanations of his feats. I mean, if people think he’s using NLP (and are amazed/entertained by that) why not let them?

Hi Dex Sinister. Ianzin here. I wrote the original article on NLP and Derren Brown to which you refer.

I do not know on what basis you assert that the definition you offer is any more ‘helpful’ than the ones to which I referred.

In the article to which you refer, I clearly stated that there are limits to the empirical verification of claims made by NLP proponents. However, some NLP sources make some claims that clearly can be tested empirically, and I mentioned one example.

Of course, we need to know if something is effective before we need to concern ourselves with explanatory theories. I agree that NLP does not offer any coherent explanatory theory. It is also the case that there is nothing to explain.

This is a non-sequitur. Whether you think you recognise some NLP techniqes and whether ‘Brown achieves some of his effects via NLP’ are totally separate issues. In my article, I was addressing the question of how Derren does what he does. What you think you see when Derren performs his tricks is irrelevant.

The absurdity of your suggestion is made clear by a simple comparison. You might well see a magician saw a woman in half while waving something that you recognise as a magic wand. I doubt that you would therefore conclude that waving a magic wand has anything to do with making it possible to saw a woman in half. Nor would you start selling ‘waving magic wand’ courses to people on the basis that they will then gain some amazing power to sever and restore human tissue.

Not for anyone who knows what they are talking about. Derren is a very good exponent of a branch of magic called mentalism. I happen to be an expert in this field. In fact with regard to at least one aspect of Derren’s work, I can legitimately claim to have been his mentor and teacher, which is why he cites me in his books.

Experienced mentalists such as myself know how Derren does what he does. NLP is not, and never has been, part of the method. I’m sure you can find rare instances where Derren has used some phrases or gestures that you associate with NLP, but so what? The question I addressed in the article was whether NLP was part of the method. Answer: no it isn’t.

Incidentally, some NLP fans claim that it helps people to communicate and use language more successfully. Your careless sentence construction (‘question… question’) suggests otherwise.

First of all, ‘part of what he does’ is unhelpfully ambiguous. If you mean he has occasionally used some phrases and gestures that you associate with NLP, this may or may not be true. If you mean that NLP is part of the method, the means by which he seems to be able to influence or predict human behaviour and choices, you are wrong. It isn’t.

Secondly, your analogy with a native speaker recognising a given language is flawed in at least one way. It ignores the phenomenon of projection. Since you seem to have an interest in this field, you will probably be familiar with psychology experiments concerning the so-called ‘backward-masking’ effect. If you play a song backwards and display the words that the listener is supposed to be able to hear, the listener will ‘recognise’ words that are not actually being used or spoken. The same thing can be seen in amusing YouTube clips where people take a performance of a song in a foreign language and add jokey subtitles that can sound plausible.

It would be more accurate to say, “…those who think they recognize…” .

To repeat my earlier point, this could only be so for someone who hasn’t a clue what they are talking about. Derren uses many wonderful and interesting techniques to create illusions of mind control and influence. NLP is not one of them, and wouldn’t work anyway. It is simply not possible to achieve the same effects using any form of NLP.

I don’t agree. Certainly NLP is only some of the the techniques his using, but NLP is not about deception or manipulation.

You have apparently never heard of Speed Seduction by Ross Jeffries. Google it. I don’t want to link that filth.

NLP is not only a psychiatric model, but also a sales technique. I’ve seen Derren use it, but only in the context of making you believe the trick, not actually causing the trick. Just like most of the stuff that claims to teach you to use it is actually using it to try and get you to buy.

Oh, and I almost forgot. It’s really hard to say that someone does not use NLP, as the concept of what is and is not NLP is so ill-defined that the statement is unfalsifiable. I’ve seen ERT, classical conditioning, and other CBTs touted as NLP techniques. What do you expect in a discipline where “Do it if it works; don’t if it doesn’t” is the main philosophy?

Dex Sinister said:

ianzin said:

I think the point was not so much the lack of an explanatory theory, but rather the lack of a coherent framework of how these methods are related to each other.

It’s sort of like trying to explain how to fly. “You can flap your arms, or you can wiggle your toes, or you can think light thoughts, or you can hold your breath, and maybe you’ll fly.” There’s no reason to connect any of those options to each other, much less an explanation of why wiggling your toes might help you fly. From what I gather, NLP seems to be a random collection of practices that seem to work for some people in some cases.

Dex Sinister said:

That is a completely useless definition of NLP. It would be like defining physics as “an attempt to discover what, if any, were the commonalities of three “master scientists” - Aristotle, Isaac Newton, and Richard Feynman - who, when personally practicing, were capable of significant achievements in explaining the actions of nature.” It may be technically true that physics involves common practices of all three of these scientists, but that definition tells of nothing of those common practices, or what actions of nature they dealt with, or how those methods relate to each other, and it covers a vast field from dropping objects off buildings to subatomic behavior and composition.

I was not familiar with NLP or Derren Brown before reading this thread and the excellent article, but I did come across a video, by obvious means, that claims to demonstrate Derren Brown’s use of NLP. Mr Brown does not himself make this claim, but there are techniques that are revealed and comments on the video seem to recognize those techniques as NLP.

Again, I am not familiar with NLP or Derren Brown so I’m only offering this as a possible connection. I should also add that the commentary in question is YouTube commentary, so take it with a grain of salt.

Wow, you’re cited in his books? The only book of his I’ve read is Tricks of the Mind, and I’m trying to remember anyone who he lists as a mentor or teacher, and I’m drawing a blank. Can you please tell us more about your experiences with Derren Brown in this regard?

Great, please tell us! For example, in the link that SiXSwordS posted, can you explain how he did that, if the given explanation isn’t true?

The more and more of Derren Brown I see, the more convinced I’ve become that it’s far more about “magic”/sleight of hand and far less about psychology. His recent trick where he “predicts” the lottery is, I’m pretty sure, just a split-screen camera trick, for example. As you say in your staff report, he writes in his book that his act is a mixture of “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship.” But is there really any suggestion or psychology, or is it all just traditional “magic”?

Hmm. A few thoughts.

Why I wonder do the NLP guys think that they invented any claimed mentalist techniques? It is very much more likely to be the other way around, if anything at all. One predates that other by decades if not centuries. Cold reading would be a very very useful skill for an analyst, so early practitioners that stumbled upon mentalism acts should have been very excited at approriating some of the skills.

In the linked video the viewer is making a lot of assumptions. Including assuming that the explanation at the end has anything at all to do with how the trick is done. Which I seriously doubt. The critical issue is the contents of the envelope. We are led to believe that the subject has been tricked into changing his mind from what he wrote in the envelope. Yet stage magicians have been switching the contents of sealed envelopes for centuries. The subject is amazed that the envelope contains “leather jacket” because he is sure he didn’t write that. Probably because he is right. He didn’t. So how did the BMX bike come about? Cold reading of the subject earlier perhaps. All we know from the video is that the subject was primed for the task on the phone some days/weeks before. There is ample time to discover what he chose by more traditional mentalist techniques.

I really know sod all about the subject, but from the clues given about the nature of mentalism this makes vastly more sense to me than the rather difficult to believe idea of an NLP based implantation of the idea.

Derren Brown’s trick with the BMX bike is a trick. A beautiful, entertaining, brilliantly conceived and executed illusion. It does not use NLP, or indeed any form of subliminal suggestion, except as part of the elaborate “false explanation” portion of the illusion.

My hat is off to Derren Brown, as he’s found a whole new way to perform mentalism, as a series of “mind control” demonstrations. Well, I’m sure someone must have done “mind control” effects before, but he’s really taken the idea to the next level. But he’s a magician, and his pieces are entertaining magic tricks.

I remember when I first saw the “BMX bike” trick, and I was blown away by the brilliant way he took what is, perhaps literally, the “oldest trick in the book” of mentalism, and turned it into a fresh and original presentation. Wonderful.

But I must say, I don’t know whether to be amused or appalled that people think he really has the ability to “hypnotize” Simon Pegg into forgetting what he really wrote down and wanting something completely different. Yes, it’s a good trick. Subliminal mind control it’s not.

As to how he did it, Francis Vaughan is most of the way there. If you can’t follow his line of thinking to its conclusion, pick up a book on mentalism; Annemann’s Practical Mental Magic can be had for $10 from Amazon, and while it won’t tell you specifically how Derren Brown’s trick works, all the basic principles are in there.

Regardless of their relevance to the trick that’s been performed, are the techniques from the revelation at the end of the video NLP techniques?

Well I have been doing some reading, and I think I have it close to worked out. Curious really, I feel a little contaminated by some the slightly secret bits of the magician’s art. So I’m not going to go into detail either. I guess I worked a lot out myself, so I’m not an insider exposing anything. The trick is just straight down the line magic and, as observed, one of the oldest tricks. But very artfully wrapped up. You can see exactly the same mechanics of the trick on stage or in a TV show, with no pretense of mind control. And you probably have. You just didn’t realise it is the basically the same trick.

This whole argument does however cut close to my heart. My main concern is for critical thinking and good science. And, as is well documented, there is a bit of a gap between solid, evidence based science, and a lot of fringe psychology. Especially psuedo-science that maintains a slippery, ill-defined, definition of itself and what it can achieve. So, my take on the question is this. Why do the NLP adherents keep claiming that Derren Brown uses NLP techniques? The mind control act is clearly nothing to do with NLP at all. It has nothing to do with mind control. Any NLP practitioner who sees NLP in the act is deluding themselves. They should probably take a long look at their ideas, beliefs and professional ability if they persist.

The BMX bike isn’t the only mind control act Derren has done, but the others look to be pretty much the same deal, with even more impressive showmanship.

Let’s try to agree on a couple of things since we are dealing with some nebulous concepts.


Considering that NLP is itself difficult to define, how would we define what an adherent is? And, is it NLP adherents who claim that Derren Brown uses it? Is it possible that people who do not understand NLP are actually the ones perpetuating the idea that that is the crux of Mr. Brown’s performance?

On the latter point there is no question. As for the former, I do not yet have enough information and I would reiterate Baldwin’s question:
What “NLP techniques”, specifically, [does] Darren Brown [supposedly] use?

My reading has not proceeded much beyond wikipedia and a few NLP sites, but I can see nothing that discusses subliminal suggestion or manipulation.

In fact, what I have seen seems to focus on understanding that other people may see and experience the world far differently than one might imagine. Because of that, what we would otherwise assume to be a motivating factor may be irrelevant and vice versa.

I should mention that I have found some vague discussion of Body Language Modeling (my term) that could be interpreted to mean something like: placing the target’s hand on the table in a certain way, or tapping them on the shoulder when you say specific words. But that is a real stretch.

And absolutely nothing about color cues or subtextual references or any other type of linguistic programming. From reading the comments on the video, I have to wonder if those who don’t know what NLP is hear the name Neuro-Linguistic Programming and, assuming what it is based on the name, apply the term to the window dressing (the artful wrapping) Derren Brown uses in his performances?

I apologize for not providing any cites, but I do have an answer for this (and someone with a stronger google-fu or involvement with NLP can perhaps provide a cite).

My understanding is that Darren Brown did indeed study NLP at some point, as he apparently indicates in one of his books. I believe he also said that he mostly discarded it for various reasons. Regardless of what he actually claimed himself, this point was much discussed on a few NLP sites I looked at a couple of years ago.

NLP practitioners have also pointed out that many magicians use NLP in their “patter” - as others have mentioned above, it is part of the window dressing that sets up the illusion, as opposed to an integral part of the trick. Some practitioners have claimed that they can detect specific NLP concepts used in Darren’s patter, even in recent demonstrations that have come long after he (allegedly?) discarded NLP.


Or, since stage magic is much older than NLP, the assertion should perhaps, more honestly, be: Amongst other techniques, NLP uses stage magic patter.

Perhaps some magicians realised the commonality, and learnt a bit more about NLP and, as in the case of Derren Brown, later dismissed it as not useful. Which is not surprising.

NLP suffers from a lot of the same ills that beset Fruedian psychology. Lack of any credible underpinning theory, a slippery definition of its ability, claims that constantly moved to fit the evidence, and an inability to survive statistically meaningful scientific trials of its core theories or claims.

Having done a little bit more reading, it is important to split Derren’s work into two parts. This is made harder since he will overlap them in some tricks. First, those that are straight out stage magic. In his case, mentalism. Secondly, those that have some level of psychological mechanism. The obvious one being cold reading. But he does other things as well. Some of which are little more than clever takes on human nature (i.e. the abandoned wallet.) Cold reading is the one that I think clearly crosses the boundary between stage magic and other professions. I note that some magicians are comfortable that this is so. Cold reading has its genesis in fortune telling. And it is still used by psychics and their ilk today. Sometimes being pedalled as actual paranormal ability. But it is useful to police, legitimate counsellors, psychologists, and similar professions. It is also clear that many of the skills have been re-invented many times.

NLP does not lay direct claim to cold reading so far as I can see. Its specific claim is that it can “program” the human mind via the language mechanisms. Thus it makes specific claims that differentiate it from other psychological methods. Further, it make claims based upon a very specific model of human cognition. One that, it might be added, has no basis in modern understanding of neurophysiology. Some overlap with cold reading may exist in the idea that certain mental processes are revealed by observable actions. But, this is the critical thing. NLP claims that these stem from a specific (and discredited) notion of mental processes. Cold reading predates the NLP ideas by centuries, makes no claims about the underlying processes, and current practitioners make no use of NLP’s ideas.

If I had been more precise, I would have said that I’ve read claims from NLP practitioners that some stage magicians who have studied NLP report that they used some of the concepts of NLP in improving their patter.

So, not as grand a claim as anything that might suggest that stage magic (or just the concept of “patter”) is in any way derived from NLP, to be sure. Your statement, “Amongst other techniques, NLP uses stage magic patter” is (IMHO) also true.

I think your comparison of NLP to Freudian psychology is fairly apt. I do note that what you characterize as “ills” are sometimes cited as strengths by NLP practitioners, except, of course, with phrasing that has a positive spin and probably a few exclamation points.

Despite the fact that I agree with your conclusion regarding how Derren Brown accomplishes his magic, I think you are making assumptions, begging the question and “mind-reading” by explaining what others– in the abstract-- are thinking.

I may well be wrong in this, but NLP does not seem to mean programming human behavior neuro-linguistically.

What it means is that there is a kind of program in the human mind that is not akin to C++ or Java script, but rather, it is like a hard wired program. The benefit of studying NLP is not the ability to program, it is the ability to understand the existing “programming.”

I suspect that the same error is taking place in those who attribute NLP techniques to Derren Brown. The assumption being that the P in NLP refers to causing people to do or think something rather than referring to the existing “programming” in the brain.

None of this lends any greater credence to the concept of NLP. And, I am still learning about the concept myself… I really get that the trick is not accomplished using ANY psychology beyond cold reading and other tricks.

Not even that. That was me being careless. You could perform the trick with a robot. Cold reading isn’t mind reading (it is just stage mind reading), and you wouldn’t get the answer without the subject knowing that they told you.