A popular theory about Derren Brown's psychological illusions is that he pulls them off by using NLP. NLP, which is short for neuro-linguistic programming, is a set of more or less pseudoscientific techniques which can be applied to communication, self-help, marketing and just about anything you can think of. NLP practitioners claim to be able to drastically influence people's thought processes just by clever use of language. The idea of using language to »reprogram« a person's neurology is where NLP got its name from in the first place.
Speculations about Derren using NLP techniques shouldn't come as a surprise at all. In fact, Derren himself often quite clearly suggests that he is using something like NLP in his show. Probably the best example is his BMX bike trick with Simon Pegg, where Derren hints that he used a wide mixture of suggestion techniques to somehow install a false memory into Simon's head. We offered a much simpler explanation for this, claiming that faking someone’s handwriting and doing some pickpocketing is a much easier thing than installing a false memory with such precision in under 3 minutes. And we actually got a few angry emails about it – people claiming with great confidence that Derren actually does use NLP, and they know exactly how he does it. This is not surprising either, since the internet is full of NLP practitioners trying to explain Derren’s tricks in the context of NLP. However, this simply isn’t the case.
Instead of getting into the details about the topic, let’s start by simply looking what the man himself says about it. This is what Derren wrote about using NLP in his blog post To claim or not to claim:
»My techniques are rooted in conjuring magic and hypnosis. All else is most likely misdirection and should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.
I have never claimed to use NLP to achieve my ‘tricks’. On the contrary, I have written very critically about it in Tricks of the Mind. I reserve the same scepticism for subliminal messaging, as well as a lot of body-language reading and the like.«
Derren gives a very clear description of what it is that he does in his shows: magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship. You may notice magic is first one on the list, and that is what Derren primarily is – a magician. People who take him too seriously are people who haven't read his books and are not familiar with his real opinions on these topics.
What about the second one on the list, suggestion? He does use it, but often not in the way you think he does. In the BMX bike trick, the one being suggested something is not his spectator, Simon Pegg – it is you. The whole point of Derren's tricks (and magic in general) is to make it seem like he has some extrodinary abilities – be it mind reading, clarvoyance, speaking to the dead … or indeed, a power of suggestion so strong it erases a memory and subsitutes it with a new one.
Psychology, the third item on the list, is another thing worth taking into account when explaining what Derren does. There are in fact psychological phenomena that NLP talks about too – a good example being classical conditioning (called »anchoring« in NLP lingo). The question is not whether these effects are real, but whether they can really explain the things seen in Derren's shows.
For a more detailed criticism of NLP, I would strongly suggest reading Derren's Tricks of the mind.