Psychological illusionist Derren Brown notes that humans tend to have two (or more) competing narratives about who they are, and that it is in the dialogue between these two stories, both of which are largely illusions, that we locate the truth. I have two competing feelings about Derren Brown: Sacrifice: Part of me thinks everyone should be subjected to the experiment depicted in this program, and part of me is infuriated at the thought of being manipulated like that while hidden cameras track my every move. I’m still struggling with the ethics a little bit, actually. But while I mull that over, let me just say this is a bizarrely gripping hour of television.
A man from Florida is told he is one of six people who have been chosen to participate in a life-changing experiment involving a microchip implant that will influence his pituitary gland to make him more decisive and effect positive change in his life. He eagerly accepts the challenge. He does everything that’s asked of him. He trusts the process. He listens to the conditioning audio and records his thoughts in a video diary. He’s excited about it, prepared to challenge himself. He has no idea how challenged he is actually going to be.
In real life, there are not six experiment subjects, just one. And there’s no chip. Phil, the guinea pig, has been selected because, during an intake process that involved hundreds of applicants for the “enhancement,” he stood out for his bigoted views about “immigrants,” especially immigrants from Mexico and Cuba. Brown’s plan? To recondition this “but I’m not a racist or anything” dude so that he will literally take a bullet to protect an undocumented Latino “immigrant.”
One phony medical procedure and a psychological conditioning and triggering app later, they’re off to the races. Brown is depending on a combination of placebo effect, conditioned response patterns, and exercises designed to increase empathy, to give a man with deep-seated xenophobia the ability to jump in front of a gun to protect an undocumented Mexican migrant. Brown himself has no idea if it will work.
The results are honestly kind of staggering. I’m not going to describe it. Just watch. And do watch it, because everyone can and should take an hour to contemplate the questions raised by this oddball program. What weird little stories am I telling myself about who I am? And who other people are? What am I truly capable of, and what holds me back from accomplishing that? Does everyone in fact have infinite potential? What am I afraid of and why? How would my life be different if I could simply stop being afraid? How would the world be different if hundreds, thousands, millions of people chose to stop being afraid? Is that choice available to everyone? When it matters most, would I have the courage and the empathy to hold someone else’s needs, someone else’s safety, as a higher good than my own? If not, should I make some effort to cultivate that?
You don’t actually have to be an illusionist to understand, at least intellectually, that what we call reality is a collage of illusions. Some illusions are adaptive, good for us; some are not. Believing people who do not practice your religion are wrong, bad or threatening has demonstrable negative effects you don’t have to look very hard to locate. Believing the tumor will not spread to your brain has a documentable, statistically relevant impact on whether or not it does. Being told you cannot feel your hand can actually cause your hand to become insensate. The term “impossible” has been redefined so many times it’s ridiculous. Derren Brown: Sacrifice is a completely fascinating exercise in testing the boundaries of what people are capable of when they shift their beliefs even a little, and it’s a pretty powerful testament to how beliefs also change in response to finding out what you’re actually capable of.
Would you be capable of jumping in front of a bullet to shield a stranger? The real, basic answer is yes. And the real question is, what does it take for a person to get out of his own way? I know I have often wished for an easy answer to that question. I’m tempted to suggest I could even get over Derren Brown recording me without my knowledge and rigging up situations I have no idea aren’t real, because the reactions are entirely real and pretty damned interesting.
Derren Brown: Sacrifice premieres Friday, Oct. 19 on Netflix.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.