Hypnotic Handshakes & Jedi Mind Tricks

The basic routine goes something like this. Most people are very habitual and ritualistic in their daily behavior. Everything works by pattern recognition, based on the prevailing social norms and the individual’s catalog of personal experience. Critical thinking is rarely required.

Aware of the rigidity of these behavioral mechanisms, the Jedi* mind trick operates by unexpectedly interrupting the customary train tracks of consciousness and diverting the subject to a predetermined destination, subtly implanted into the subject’s unconscious mind.

A good contemporary practitioner of the Jedi mind trick is illusionist Derren Brown, probably best known in the UK, where he is the undisputed heavyweight of mind magic. His mental, physical, and psychic abilities seemingly reach way beyond the limits of normal human experience. His TV shows are major events and get regularly dissected and pored over in excited office banter the next day.

What is interesting to me is how a study of Brown’s craft can provide a deeper insight into the manipulation techniques pouring out of the TV & Internet and thus reduce the likelihood of being programmed.

Derren Brown’s most beguiling performances center around his apparent control over the minds of his guests. He apparently reads their thoughts, controls their behavior, spontaneously hypnotizes them, and makes himself invisible to a chosen subjects. Pretty compelling stuff that leaves the viewer wondering how on earth he achieves this strange wizardry. Have a look around YouTube and you’ll get the idea.

His mind tricks use a slick combination of psychological techniques – such as mirroring, NLP, eye accessing cues, cold reading etc – but the real focus is on exploiting the subject’s ignorance of their own subconscious and unconscious processes.

Only a tiny fraction of the stuff that the senses take in is processed as consciously perceived information and events. That is, 99% of the perceived world is soaked up into our minds and sits there – largely unprocessed – separated out from our ordinary conscious ruminations. But even the unconscious observer sees all. Everything goes in; every gesture, thought, image, word, smell, touch, and feeling. Everything is permanently recorded. Whether the conscious mind has access to it or not, is immaterial. And this colossal torrent of information doesn’t go into the regular filing system. Instead, it goes into a mysterious storage facility (that we don’t have convenient access to) from where it exerts a profound influence over our daily behavior.

Derren Brown is no doubt aware of the works of Milton H. Erickson, the American psychiatrist who specialized, amongst other things, in medical hypnosis. Erickson’s unconventional use of hypnotic technique, coupled with his radical theories on the subconscious, provide an intriguing range of practical possibilities for the eager illusionist.

One of Erickson’s trademark procedures was the confusion technique (which is depicted in popular culture in the movie Star Wars as the Jedi mind trick). When a person is confused, their conscious mind is busy and occupied, and is very much inclined to draw upon unconscious learning (or prescribed instructions) to make sense of things. A confused person is in a trance of their own making and therefore goes readily into that trance without resistance. Confusion might be created by ambiguous words, complex or endless sentences, pattern interruption or a myriad other techniques to incite transderivational searching.

A transderivational search (often abbreviated to TDS) is a psychological and cybernetics term, referring to a kind of search conducted for a “fuzzy” match across a broad field.

TDS is a fundamental, automatic and unconscious part of human language and cognitive processing. Arguably, every word or utterance a person hears, and everything they see, feel, and take note of, results in a very brief trance while TDS is carried out to establish a contextual meaning for it. The skilled illusionist can utilize this process to create or deepen a trance.

Examples Of TDS Triggers

Leading statements

“And those thoughts you had yesterday…” The mind cannot process hearing this phrase, without at some level searching internally for some thoughts or other that it had yesterday, to establish the subject of the sentence.

“The many colors that fruit can be.” This starts the mind considering – even if briefly – different fruit sorted by color.

Textual ambiguity

“Do you remember line dancing on the steps?” Without sufficient context, some statements may trigger TDS in order to resolve inherent ambiguity in the interpretation of a posed question. Do I remember a bygone fad called “line dancing on the steps”? Do I remember personally engaging in dancing in the past? Do I remember my routine practice dancing by focusing on the steps of the dance? Do I tend to forget about dancing when I am standing on steps?

“Penny-wise and pound the table dance to the beat of a different drummer.” The mixing of cliché and stock phrases may trigger TDS in order to reconcile the discrepancies between expected and actual utterances in sequence.

The Hypnotic Handshake: In The Room And Through The Screen

Erickson’s “hypnotic handshake”** is a technique that induces a TDS trance in the subject from a specific kind of handshake intentionally performed outside the normal protocols of social etiquette.

It works like this. Many actions are learned and operate as a single chunk of behavior: shaking hands and tying shoelaces being two good examples. However, if the behavior is diverted or frozen midway, the person literally has no mental space for this. He is stopped in the middle of unconsciously executing a behavior without a corresponding pattern. The mind crashes, suspending itself in trance until either something happens to give a new direction, or it reboots itself. A skilled hypnotist uses that momentary confusion and suspension of normal processes to induce a TDS trance.

By interrupting the pattern of a normal handshake in a particular manner, the hypnotist causes the subject to wonder what is going on. If the handshake continues to develop in a way which is out-of-keeping with expectations, a simple, non-verbal trance is created, which may then be reinforced by the hypnotist. All these responses happen naturally and automatically without telling the subject to consciously focus on an idea.

Confusion is a tool used by hypnotists to put the subject into an altered state. The slumbering brain state induced by injudiciously watching TV and surfing the net achieves exactly the same thing. This is how the Empire implants its messages deep into the minds of the great unwashed masses. To the unconscious observer, the messages are not properly perceived at the point of entry. They are nevertheless permanently recorded in precise detail and influence the individual emotionally, intellectually, and physically with their latent memes.

For this to have impact on a mass scale, people need to also believe that they are finite, separate, the world happens “out there”, and they are essentially powerless. Once this is achieved, the covert messaging is much more readily absorbed. The isolated little human seeks comfort and reassurance wherever he can find it. If the mind is suitably controlled, the thrill of a new gadget, the delight of a new snack food, the consolation of a new TV drama, and the platitudes of government, may constitute all the solace required to get through another day. The prescribed messaging sinks in and no-one is any the wiser.

This deception can be swiftly dismantled with one simple mental gear shift: for the common man to cease regarding his mind as some plain old fiddle churning out the tunes of unseen dubious impresarios – and instead to recognize it as an exquisite Stradivarius violin that is at its greatest when playing the authentic and beautiful music of his own making.

As for the hypnotic handshake/Jedi mind trick, after reading this, the chances of it ever working on you will be virtually zero.


* Jedi. The Jedi are a monastic, spiritual, and academic organization in the fictional Star Wars universe. Jedi study, serve and utilize a mystical power called the Force, in order to help and protect those in need. For many generations the Jedi served as a paramilitary for the Galactic Republic and the galaxy at large to prevent conflict and political instability including playing a leading role in the later Clone Wars.

** The hypnotic handshake. The various descriptions of Erickson’s hypnotic handshake (including his own very detailed accounts) indicate that a certain amount of improvisation is involved, and that watching and acting upon the subject’s responses is key to a successful outcome. The most important thing is that the normal handshake is subverted in such a way to cause puzzlement, which may then be built upon. Here’s one account of how it works.

Initiation. When I begin by shaking hands, I do so normally. The “hypnotic touch” then begins when I let loose. The letting loose becomes transformed from a firm grip into a gentle touch by the thumb, a lingering drawing away of the little finger, a faint brushing of the subject’s hand with the middle finger – just enough vague sensation to attract the attention. As the subject gives attention to the touch of your thumb, you shift to a touch with your little finger. As your subject’s attention follows that, you shift to a touch with your middle finger and then again to the thumb. This arousal of attention is merely an arousal without constituting a stimulus for a response. The subject’s withdrawal from the handshake is arrested by this attention arousal, which establishes a waiting set, and expectancy. Then almost, but not quite simultaneously (to ensure separate neural recognition), you touch the under-surface of the hand (wrist) so gently that it barely suggests an upward push. This is followed by a similar utterly slight downward touch, and then I sever contact so gently that the subject does not know exactly when – and the subject’s hand is left going neither up nor down, but cataleptic.

Termination. If you don’t want your subject to know what you are doing, you simply distract their attention, usually by some appropriate remark, and casually terminate. Sometimes they remark, “What did you say? I got absentminded there for moment and wasn’t paying attention to anything.” This is slightly distressing to the subjects and indicative of the fact that their attention was so focused and fixated on the peculiar hand stimuli that they were momentarily entranced so they did not hear what was said.

Utilization. Any utilization leads to increasing trance depth. All utilization should proceed as a continuation of extension of the initial procedure. Much can be done non-verbally; for example, if any subjects are just looking blankly at me, I may slowly shift my gaze downward, causing them to look at their hand, which I touch and say “look at this spot”. This intensifies the trance state. Then, whether the subjects are looking at you or at their hand or just staring blankly, you can use your left hand to touch their elevated right hand from above or the side – so long as you merely give the suggestion of downward movement. Occasionally a downward nudge or push is required. If a strong push or nudge is required, check for anesthesia. (Erickson & Rossi – Hypnotic Realities)

This article revisits and expands upon the original published version from April 2007 by Neil Kramer.

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