Hypnosis & Martial Arts - Part One

As an avid student of hypnosis, I have frequently noticed and contemplated many areas of overlap between hypnosis & taijiquan.

Hypnosis SpiralHypnosis Watch Induction

I had my own hypnotherapy practice for a few years in Brentwood, California, mostly as a passing fancy rather than a career or major source of income. I’ve also dabbled in stage hypnosis for nearly a decade, performing in hypnosis “edutainment” demonstrations for crowds of 5 – 50. In all cases, I’ve always been a fan of the fine art (and science) of hypnosis, and through the course of my interest I’ve had a chance to study with some of the greats.

Today, I’m drafting a post in response to several requests on Facebook regarding an excellent and often befuddling martial arts meme:

Derren Brown’s Response to the One Inch Punch

In Derren’s trick, he uses his traditional combination of “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection, and showmanship” (not to mention a bit of TV magic in the editing room) to produce a “Zero Inch Punch” -  causing the subject to keel over as if powerfully struck – without ever touching the man! Here’s the video:

Now, before I break this effect down into little bitty details, relating it back to stage hypnosis, showmanship, and TV magic, I wanted to put forth this {hypnotic} suggestion:

When reading this now, perhaps you will imagine how you’ve experienced many of these effects in your own martial arts training.

By reading these words, you can vividly recall your own experiences of hypnosis in the martial arts – perhaps as a student … or perhaps even as the {hypnotic} teacher!

I am of the opinion that martial arts instruction (high level internal martial arts instruction in particular) uses a lot of hypnosis & similar “mind tricks” to get the message across. This can be a good thing (when genuine skill is passed along by the process) or a very bad thing (when students are led into a cult-like LGAT environment, hypnotized into believing they possess skills they really do not).

Now, without further ado, my analysis & breakdown of the Derren Brown stunt.

Rather than repost the video with time-links a dozen times, I hope you will take the extra effort and scroll up when you need to fast forward, rewind, and pause the video (or just open it on Youtube in a separate window / tab by clicking here).


First of all, to understand this whole effect, we have to recognize the period of “set-up” and “pre-induction” … Remember, Derren Brown is a performer that specializes in the fine arts of trickery & showmanship.

Think about it: there is a whole back-story to this event of which we are completely unaware. Plus, by the time the cameras are rolling, Derren & accomplices have already achieved a subtle hypnotic effect, inducing some level of compliance & suggestibility just because there is a TV crew and a “famous” magician or “hypnosis expert” in the school. Hopefully we can all agree that people have a tendency to behave differently when the lights, camera, and boom mics come on (not to mention when someone “famous” is around).

Additionally, you can see many sections where this short clip has been cut & edited. These are not necessarily negating or discrediting the skillfulness required for the effect, but we have no idea what Derren and his staff have already said & done to the group before the clip “begins.” We also do not know how many other schools they had to visit (and fail) before finding this “ringer” where they were able to achieve such an impressive result. While I’m sure Derren’s success rate overall is quite high (compared to most), he does readily admit that many of his tricks don’t work every time, and encourages his viewers to consider the power of TV magic. He even devoted an entire special to exactly that, called “The System.

The Hypnosis Pre-Talk (and Past Sessions / Post-Hypnotic Suggesion?)

By my estimate, I would imagine that before this clip “begins” … Derren and / or his staff would have already spoken to the class as a group, saying something to the effect of “Derren is a performer who uses a combination of magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection, and showmanship. Today Derren will be demonstrating an effect which he has refined over much testing that is similar to the Teacher’s one-inch-punch. It is, however, much safer than the one-inch-punch, and you are fully safe from all risk of injury. Also remember, we are airing this spot on national TV, and we want this to look good. We don’t want to spoil the surprise, but please feel free to get into it and go with the performance as you like.”

Now, that might be over the top compared to what they actually said … but it also might be far subtler! For all we know they said: “He’s going to pretend to hit you. If you are the demonstration subject, even if you don’t feel anything, please play along, as there’s a hefty £5,000 in it for the best stooge!” Judging by the reactions of the people in the room, unless somehow they have a room full of brilliant actors, I don’t think the latter is the case. If I did, I wouldn’t be taking the time for this detailed analysis.

Beyond the fact of what was said shortly before this clip, we also do not know Derren’s previous relationship to the students in the class. All we know is they are “a class of British students” (0:22 – 0:25), and not the Grandmaster’s students (as he has been “invited” to come & demonstrate). Assuming this is truthful, we could reasonably postulate that Derren has already covertly worked with this class ahead of time.

Clearly, the students have some amount of kung fu experience, so I don’t imagine they are 100% stooges or plants in that sense. But considering their British location, it is entirely possible that Derren has hypnotized them on previous occasions, planting post-hypnotic suggestions for re-induction. He may have also had a chance to get to know the students individually, giving him off-camera foresight into his choice of subject for the stunt (be aware of his subtle approach to this, mentioned a few paragraphs down).

The point is simple: from long before the start of this 3 minute clip, the students are being (and have already been) subconsciously prepared for the effect…  all the while consciously and subconsciously learning what to expect.

Derren is well known for (and admits to) using “pre-talks” in the “off camera” segments of his “tricks” or “illusions” or whatever we want to call them. Judging by the “zoned out” expressions on the student’s faces & their sluggish / relaxed body language from the start of the clip, I wouldn’t be surprised if Derren had already done some type of “formal” group induction in the classical hypnosis sense (before asking them to do a “kung fu demo for the cameras” or whatever, which we see as the clip begins).

We also see, when he is having the Grandmaster choose a student, that Derren clearly singles out the people on the far “left” of the group by moving behind the teacher (focusing the Grandmaster’s view in that direction). Now, if there was no pre-arranged agreement as to who would be Derren’s subject for the demonstration, this subtle bit of maneuvering is *very* expertly done, as choosing the right subject is ~75% of the battle for “stage hypnosis” effects of this sort.

Long story short, we have absolutely no idea what has been said before this clip, nor how many “one-inch-punch” masters or kung fu schools Derren had to visit before achieving this “TV Ready” effect we do get to see.


Now, when talking about what we actually DO see in the clip itself, it is much easier to get specific & {somewhat} less speculative. Barring the fact that the whole stunt is a set-up, using all stooges / paid actors (a possibility I doubt), the rest of this post will be devoted to what is actually happening (from a stage hypnosis / mentalist perspective).

For one, it is clear that (as always) Derren is doing his best to exude an air of mystery. He is dressed flamboyantly, and his non-verbal communication & body language would certainly have him standing out as the odd-ball even if he too was dressed in the same kung fu uniform as the rest of the students.

Derren Brown: Safe … NOT Dangerous / Violent

Derren also emphasized several times that what he does is “safe.” You’ll notice, on one hand, that he vocalizes his opinion that what the Grandmaster is doing is “violent” (subtly indicating that what he will be doing is in contrast to this). For instance:

1:08 – “You’ve volunteered to be *chuckle* hit.”
(as in, you’re crazy to volunteer to get hit)

1:29 – “That was very violent.”
(building the contrast & expectation)

1:32-1:36 – “.. something I do, which is similar, but it’s non physical. It’s a little easier on the knuckles. It just uses the mind.”

Thank You For FALLunteering

You will also notice the subtle cues Derren gives throughout as to what WILL be happening with his effect (as opposed to what will not be happening – namely, something dangerous / violent). My favorite example of this which Derren works in quite expertly, is the “FALLunteering” line (as opposed to volunteering). This is a classic stage hypnosis trick that is used in many effects (FALLunteering, “don’t hurt yourself when you fall,” etc – subconscious embedded commands)…

Both times when Derren says “volunteering” (to the first guy who gets punched for real, and to his “subject” Archie) he emphasizes it as if it starts with an “F”:

1:06 – Fall-unteered to get hit..

1:46 – Thank you for FALLunteering…

Now, the rest of this is where things get more impressive (in my opinion), and where Derren demonstrates his extreme skill-level for stage hypnosis & hypnosis in general. From the moment Archie (the subject) is brought up to meet with Derren, he is beginning what is largely a non-verbal induction.

The Non-Verbal Induction: Creating the “Trance”

Derren begins here (starting ~1:45 – 1:50) with the classical Handshake Induction. In fact, here is a video of Derren accomplishing exactly that (in a much more “traditional” fashion). And, for good measure, here is another one! This technique was developed & made famous by the great Milton Erickson, who was perhaps the undisputed Grandmaster of hypnosis in the modern era. Unfortunately it is quite difficult to find any videos online of the great master himself performing this induction, but aside from Derren Brown videos, there are quite many passable clips of others doing it & achieving a similar effect. Believe it or not, it’s actually fairly easy to learn.

It may, however, look and sound crazy if you haven’t experienced it directly. There are prerequisites to accomplishing an effective handshake induction (or any non-verbal hypnotic induction), and without them, it is unlikely one can achieve the effect. Disregarding the essential prerequisites for the sake of brevity, the idea is that by combining subtle non-verbal cues, the subject can be rapidly induced into a state of trance.

You will notice in the times mentioned (1:45 – 1:50), Derren does 3 things:

1 - Pattern Interruption. From the initial “casual” handshake to “positioning” the guy, Derren never lets go of the subject’s hand. This is a “pattern interrupt” … the guy is expecting a handshake, but instead gets pulled around to be placed into a different place & position all in the same fluid movement.

2 – Non-verbal compliance. Not only does Derren get Archie into position, he also gives him non-verbal cues as to what he wants him to do … and doesn’t stop until Archie responds. Derren even includes one verbal cue (“Come stand here”) which, in comparison to all the non-verbal communication going on, is just icing on the cake. The point is, the subject is cued to do what Derren wants, and he unconsciously agrees to go along with Derren’s game plan. Of particular note is the “pat on the shoulders” reward when Archie gets it right at 1:51 – after he uncrosses his arms and stands in a relaxed position without any verbal instruction whatsoever.

3 – Inducing catalepsy. Normally, this would be done with some effect like getting the subject to keep an arm floating in the air (or using the hand to cover the face, as in the handshake induction videos above) … however in this case the catalepsy is induced through Archie’s whole stance & demeanor. This continues as Derren deepens the trance throughout what I have called “PART THREE.”


In my mind, by ~1:50 – 1:51 the induction has already been completed, but if Derren just went for the effect from that point, it is highly unlikely that it would achieve such an impressive result. This next part is (IMO) the most difficult of the whole stunt (not counting the unknowns of the set-up & lead-in efforts).

Starting at 1:52 / 1:53, Derren goes into the whole “can you feel this” part of the Induction / Deepening. This is also a very classical technique from stage hypnosis, and if you have rapport with the subject, anyone can learn to do this quite easily. In fact, this short section is probably the easiest part of the whole “trick.”

The idea is that Derren is combining a physical “anchor” (the touch on the guy’s chest) with an embedded command (“Can YOU FEEL THIS“). You can find the embedded command concept used in every form of propaganda & advertising as well as a wide range of influence & sales training courses.

When it comes to setting the anchor, the idea is that a physical response can be elicited with non-physical cues (think Pavlovian Classical Conditioning, rapidly induced through an altered state of consciousness). Usually, it would take many more repetitions to produce the same effect in the Classical Conditioning model. Even the “average” hypnotist would require several repetitions to achieve the outcome Derren is able to produce with just one physical touch, then 2 non-physical “touches” or non-verbal cues (excluding the possibility that Derren has previously worked with this subject, making the effect far less impressive, but still valuable for achieving the “trick”).

Also worth noticing is the very first touch, which goes from some weird finger brushing (1:53 – 1:55) to a light push that slightly off-balances the guy and gets him to “lean” against Derren’s hand [tai chi relevant? ...]. As a side note, I would consider this sensitive & “suggestive” touch as a continuation of the hand shake induction.

Continuing the rapport building for the deepening effect, Derren is also mirroring Archie’s breathing … and at 2:01 / 2:02, he even takes an over-emphasized inhale breath in time with Archie’s own inhale just before repeating the “can you feel this” embedded command. The whole effect could likely have been achieved without this subtle touch, but it does continue to demonstrate Derren’s extremely refined skill at what he does. Any hypnosis 101 student knows this concept, but very few could execute it in such a skillful & “suggestive” way.


Now, with all that has already gone into the set-up process, I would actually consider this the easy part.

The student obviously knows something like the teacher’s “one inch punch” is going to occur. He also has received multiple subconscious cues that he is going to “FALL” (remember), as well as one very conscious cue (namely, the other student getting knocked down by the teacher’s real punch).

Now, from 2:05 – 2:10, Derren repositions himself into what is clearly a more “threatening” position, so the expectation felt by the subject at this point is probably quite pretty gut-wrenching (remember, he is on TV and in front of his classmates for this “performance” with the strange & unusual hypnosis-man).

Before Derren goes for the “punch” – notice at 2:12, he still makes an added effort to check the subject’s face once again, ensuring Archie is in the right state for the effect to work.

Invisible Hypnosis Punch Number One

Then, the action begins at ~2:12 / 2:13.

Pause it here and take special note of the facial expressions of both Derren & Archie. Derren is giving the cue that “this is going to hurt” with his “angry-face” and Archie is in submissive expectation, non-verbally saying “I know what’s about to happen” with his “silly-grin” face.

Then, by 2:14 – 2:23 (after Punch One), Derren has the subject “hook, line, and sinker.” At this point he could probably get the subject clucking like a chicken or thinking he is Winston Churchill – as we’d see in a typical [British] stage hypnosis show. Of particular interest is the look on the subject’s face at 2:18 and 2:21 / 2:22… he looks like someone who just woke up from feinting or being KO’d – a sure sign of at least a moderate trance state.

Time For Hypnosis Punch Number Two … From Behind!

Now, I’m not sure when asked “Can we do this one more time?” whether Archie responds “Aww, I can’t” or “Aww, ok.” … but it is interesting to note how under the circumstances his response basically doesn’t matter. Listen to how Derren says right away: “Yep? Yeah?” I imagine Archie would have had to make a hell of a fuss to get out of doing it “one more time.”

At this point (~2:38 – 2:42) … the jacket comes off! I can’t think of a better non-verbal cue for “It’s serious business time.”

But, just to be sure, at 2:47 – 3:00, Derren re-elicits the anchor with the old “You feel this” imperative. Notice, at 2:58 – 2:59, the subject only nods, so Derren forces him to say out loud “Yes” (verbally confirming that he indeed does “feel this”). Considering he’s not even being touched, clearly this is a situation of “mind over matter” – in other words: a trance state.

Notice how Derren leaves his hand in that same “You feel this” position as long as possible while he walks around the back of the subject… constantly exhibiting as many non-verbal cues as possible in every instant of this demo.

The final punch (from behind, out of sight), by my estimate, is cued by Derren’s slight step / foot stomp (listen close at 3:10, you can hear it). There could be other auditory cues that we can’t hear on the video, especially considering the way Derren emphasizes that the subject won’t be able to “see” him (~2:28 – 2:29 as well as 3:02 – 3:03).


Long story short, Derren is combining a lot of flawlessly executed stage hypnosis tricks, mixed with some TV magic & editing (and who knows what else that happened before filming began during the “SET-UP” phase).

In any case, just judging by his skillful ability to produce this effect in such an impressive manner, any trained hypnotist (especially stage hypnotist) would recognize Derren is quite good at what he does.

Upon writing this, I decided that this post will be the first in a series relating hypnosis & martial arts (with as much of an emphasis on taijiquan as possible). Obviously, this lead-off post is just detailing one “magic trick” related to someone who openly admits they are a charlatan, trickster, and mentalist.

However, there are much more insidious versions of this same effect, with “Tai Chi Grandmasters” (and other Martial Arts “Masters” in general) who use these techniques to dupe & con students. Next time I address this subject, I will dive into slightly more controversial territory…

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