Derren Brown’s extreme Stoic experiment

Tonight, Channel 4 is showing the hypnotist and illusionist Derren Brown’s Apocalypse. The show involves Brown hypnotising a man into believing that civilisation has collapsed after a meteor shower – an illusion enhanced with various actors and special effects (including, if the trailer is to be believed, zombies!) Brown is a big fan of the Stoics, and says the show is designed as a Stoic experiment , to make the subject appreciate what he has, by seeing how much worse things could be. He says, in a piece he wrote for the Radio Times:

The Stoic philosophers advise us to regularly rehearse the loss of everything we love. Only that way can we learn to value what we have in life, rather than fixate upon things we don’t. It seems our psychological landscape hasn’t changed much since Seneca was penning advice to his protégés of ancient Rome. Those who study desire keep coming across the same answer: that to master desire, we must learn to want what we already have. We are bombarded daily by overt and covert messages from advertisers, media and peers, conditioning us to hanker after the latest, shiniest, most retinally-screened trinket, or to claim for ourselves our bigger house or faster car or sexier partner. And we may find ourselves anxious and distracted if we don’t find a way of acquiring these things, but more interestingly we only enjoy them for a very short while before reverting back to our former dissatisfied state. This hedonic treadmill keeps us moving forward at whatever level of happiness to which we are pre-disposed, and despite the spikes of momentary glee as some new status symbol comes our way, we don’t really grow any happier. The joy of the car and the house and the phone doesn’t stick around. The way to feel satisfied, and to know that your desires are being truly met, is to hunger after what you have already in your life.

Seneca’s advice, for example, to consider the mortality of your daughter as you kiss her goodnight, may strike us as morbid. But to remind yourself regularly that your loved ones, your home, in fact everything you value might be taken away in an instant, is to value them so much more. The common regret voiced by those who have lost loved ones suddenly – that not enough was said, that the time together was not richly enough enjoyed – these mistakes are made because we rarely consider the impermanence of those relationships before it’s too late. Mentally rehearsing how you would feel if each precious thing was taken away not only makes you value it more, but prepares you for the day it does disappear.

In Apocalypse, a young man who personifies that familiar lazy sense of entitlement to which we are all prone in one way or another, comes to believe that the world is going to end. He has no idea that he is the star of an ambitious television show. We hack into his phone, control his Twitter and news feeds, have his favourite radio DJ and television hosts record special versions of their shows that we can play into his home. After the seed of an impending meteor strike has been planted, we end the world for him on his way to a gig. He passes out and then, seemingly two weeks later, he wakes up, in an abandoned military hospital. The man who took his life and family for granted must now fight to get them back. And he’ll have the lurching hordes of infected to deal with, as the meteor has picked up from its interstellar travels a deadly and highly contagious disease.

What follows is a carefully crafted horror film plot, intricately designed to teach the unwitting Steven valuable lessons. The infected are, of course, hideous embodiments of his former slothful life. The survivors he encounters are created to teach him what he needs to know – about courage, about selflessness, about decisiveness. It’s the Wizard of Oz with zombies. Our survivor-actors, (each wearing a hidden and largely-functional earpiece), were rehearsed for months to deal with every possible eventuality that Steven’s never-entirely predictable behaviour might instigate. Watching from our camouflaged production truck with our team of medics and psychologists, we could direct the players to deal with surprises and keep Seven’s reality vivid and plausible. With over a hundred actors involved, along with nearly sixty meticulously-hidden cameras, two thousand feet of cabling, eight months of very hard work, and an extraordinary amount of money being spent, maintaining a seamless experience for Steven was paramount. The whole thing could be brought crashing down by the slightest thing, such as whatever furry or undead entity ate through our main cable on the first night and left us helpless in the morning.

Was it worth putting Steven through this to realise his potential? The response to that sensible question depends on two factors: a) the degree of negative emotions that he experienced, and b) the level of change that was brought about. And on balance my answer would be yes. His early application to be part of the show incorporated a series of rigorous interviews with an independent psychiatrist who had to be certain that he was robust enough for what was in store for him. With our psychiatrist’s reports and the full knowledge and help of Steven’s family we were able to create an experience that was fully tailored to be real for him. The plot was carefully structured to manage his negative emotions and ensure that a sense of hope was kept alive for him.

The changes, importantly for me as well as Steven, have to be profound and self-perpetuating. The challenge is to set up new thought-patterns that won’t just grind to a halt after the initial adrenaline of being involved in a TV show has worn off. Sadly, I suspect that may be the case with many participants in seemingly ‘transformational’ television programmes. With Steven, as with Matt from Hero at 30,000 Feet, I have maintained a relationship and continue to ensure that the work was all worth it. Which is, along with the joy of going to such great lengths for one unsuspecting person’s experience, the best part of the job.

It certainly sounds a remarkable experiment. Derren Brown reminds me of Conchis, the magus in John Fowles’ novel The Magus, who stages elaborate living fictions in order to try and transform a subject’s attitudes and world-view. I don’t know if Seneca had zombies in mind when he wrote about imagining bad things in the future…but you might as well cover all bases! I for one will be watching.

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