English mentalist and illusionist Derren Brown has tackled a lot of controversial topics in past specials, using his brand of mind tricks to uncover the psychology behind conmen, the apocalypse, robbery, and even murder. With his latest special Miracle, on Netflix now, he takes on faith healing, but how do Derren Brown's tricks actully work?
Brown made it clear in an interview with Christian Radio that his use of illusions to perform "healing" isn't a condemnation of religion, and he's "not in any way against the Church or religion, or even the idea of healing." But Brown believes that faith healing "is a scam that's carried out against the Church and exploits those with sincerely held faith," and he hopes that by debunking it, followers will pursue their spiritual healing separate from the physical.
Though currently an atheist, Brown was once an evangelical Christian who eventually left the faith due to lack of proof. He's since sought answers in human psychology, and the Netflix special Miracle is meant to show how the potent power of the human mind can be attributed to other causes. Throughout the special, Brown seems to heal arthritis, back pain, and both cures and causes blindness. But how does he do it?
In a neat bit of irony, one of the few places Brown has actually discussed his techniques debunking faith healing is in Premiere Christian magazine. In a 2016 interview, he explained that the majority of his "miracles" are exploiting the personal, psychological experiences of his audience to create an adrenaline rush. "If I could create some type of adrenaline then someone with a bad back is going to tell me that they can’t feel the pain. That’s a chemical thing," said Brown. "I found not only would somebody come up and say they didn’t have a bad back, but they would also hit the floor when I touched them on the face because they have a certain expectation. When you go to these events as a believer you know what’s supposed to happen."
Thre's also the heavy power of expectation and memory. Brown went on to explain how these elements of the human mind have even stymied him, saying that a magic trick he'd remembered and puzzled over for years turned out to be far more basic than the event he recalled — his mind had just taken over and gone with the more compelling story. "I would have sworn blind (no pun intended) that I saw the trick that never happened," Brown told Premiere Christian, proving that it's the viewer who's often doing half the work for him.
The most divisive (and secretive) trick that Brown performs in Miracle is the healing of the blind. During the special Brown "cures" a woman with very thick glasses, startling her so much with her newfound ability to see that she curses in shock. Another audience member professing disbelief has his own vision taken away; after Brown lays hands on him, he gives the man a page from a magazine that the man suddenly can't comprehend. Though some magic enthusiasts claim simple sleight of hand — giving the nearsighted woman a page with large letters and slipping the disbeliever a page with actual gibberish — the secret remains just that, though Brown as always is careful to state these are not actual miracles, just tricks.
In a clip from Brown's previous one-man-show on the subject, Miracles For Sale, it's explained that misleading audience expectations also plays heavily into "healing". Exploiting the gross misunderstandings most able-bodied people have about a wide variety of disabilities, including that deafness and blindness aren't all-or-nothing, Brown makes the audience misled into believing things that people can already accomplish are evidence of a miracle.
While taking on anything near the subject of religion may engender controversy, Miracle is no different from Brown's other specials in exploiting assumptions and the basic principles of human psychology. Seeing them applied to a belief system, though, should make for some very interesting viewing.