By Dave B.
I had never heard of Derren Brown before a few days ago, but apparently he’s a world-famous mentalist and illusionist. Seeing as how neither of those activities particularly appeals to me, it’s not surprising that I had never heard of Brown. But as will sometimes happen, a preview on Netflix caught my attention. That preview was for the Netflix Original program Derren Brown: Sacrifice. The premise of the 49 minute special is that Brown will make an “ordinary person” (in this specific case, Phil, a white American male from Florida who’s a bigot) willingly take a bullet for not a complete stranger, but one who is an undocumented immigrant, a group of people that Phil is particularly biased against . I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to see what this was all about and I’m (mostly) glad that I did.
Brown tricks Phil into believing that he’s on a reality television show about biotechnology, makes him think that he will receive a subcutaneous implant, and then begins to “train” Phil to react to certain stimuli, just like Pavlov’s dogs. Brown breaks down his process for changing Phil into three steps: First, he tries to get him to overcome his ability to feel pain. Next, he attempts to get him to overcome his fears by overcoming his phobias of heights and deep water. Lastly, he works on getting Phil to feel empathy for someone who doesn’t share his phenotypical characteristics. Brown has mixed success with some of these steps, so the outcome of the experiment is very much in doubt for viewers.
Brown’s style of directly addressing the camera is a nice touch as it allows viewers to understand what he is doing, the scientific underpinnings of it, and the hoped for result. Overall, Sacrifice is a very interesting program. But I have to confess that it left me feeling troubled. I don’t care what sort of waivers or releases someone signs, and regardless of if the outcome for the subject is positive or negative, experiments like the one Brown engaged in FEEL unethical. If scientists are reluctant to put their human subjects into situations where they truly believe they will die, how is it any more appropriate to do so primarily for entertainment purposes?
I enjoyed watching Derren Brown: Sacrifice. It’s especially interesting to see the ways in which a person is amenable to (or resists) changing themselves. This definitely isn’t a show for people who are uncomfortable with the concept that the human mind can be extremely malleable and fairly susceptible to manipulation. But for viewers who aren’t bothered by those facts and can put any potential ethical misgivings they may have to the side for about an hour, Sacrifice will be a stimulating experience you.
I have no clue what I'm doing, but I'll keep doing whatever it is to the best of my ability.