If you've ever seen "The Manchurian Candidate" (either the original or the remake), the premise seems like pure cinema. Under hypnosis, an otherwise upstanding citizen becomes an assassin, killing while in a trance before forgetting the murder ever happened. But is it possible in real life? In "Brainwashed" (Oct. 28, 9:00 p.m. ET on Discovery), researchers decide to find out.
Using Tom Silver, a hypnotist with over 28 years of experience who has put people under on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," "The Doctors," "The Ricki Lake Show," the show put a group of volunteers through a series of increasingly difficult tests to see if any one of them might emerge as a potential killer. And the goal isn't just theory and conjecture -- the show created a scenario in which a hypnotized person would be given a real gun (filled with blanks) and a mark to shoot at close range, fake blood splatter and all.
I spoke to Silver about the show, and while he was unwilling to discuss whether or not the test worked (you'll get no spoilers from me, but you really do need to watch the show), he did talk about implanting memories, using hypnosis for either good or evil and why Taiwan hired him to pull secrets out of imprisoned colonels and generals.
Can anyone be hypnotized? On the show, it's clear some people are more open to it than others.
Every single person can go into some degree of hypnosis. Even if you're aware, doesn't mean you're not hypnotized. When people are daydreaming or are on automatic pilot while driving, listening to music or putting make-up on, someone is, thank God, doing the driving for them. It's your inner part of your mind and you're not consciously aware. This show involves deep hypnosis, somnambulism, meaning their consciousness is shut off. We see that in a stage show, when people do stupid things like clucking like a chicken. That's really an illusion or hallucination. On this show, we actually tested a whole bunch of people to see who could be hypnotized. I continued to condition them, over and over again, to see if they could break through their own morality, like sitting in a restaurant and taking all their clothes off. We also did an extreme temperature test. This show is so amazing, because before this show I thought some things could not be done.
One interesting element of the show is watching how some people are eliminated. For example, when you watched video of people who had been hypnotized to believe they were so hot they had to take off their clothing in a restaurant. There were tells that showed they weren't under as deeply as you hoped.
These people, they were still following orders, so there was an irresistible urge to follow through. But did we pull them off the show because they were in higher consciousness? Absolutely. People who were conscious or faking were eliminated. That usually doesn't happen on a TV show. We also had a team of doctors and psychologists who checked these people out, so some were eliminated before we even tried to hypnotize them. We didn't want anyone who had had a physical or emotional trauma, and we also wanted to make sure the crew didn't get hypnotized.
That's mentioned in the show, but is it really a problem?
I did the Jimmy Kimmel show, and I cured Jimmy's mom of 30 or 40 years of headaches, so he's a big believer in what I do. He had me go on the show to do some creative stuff, and while I'm hypnotizing the security guard I hear this big thud. The sound guy and the camera guy are on the ground. They both fell into a hypnotic state to the point where the camera guy was crying, "You're hurting them!" He had a repressed memory come up, and he wasn't even the one who was supposed to be under hypnosis. You could hear a pin drop in the studio. The audience got freaked out. And before that, they were thinking it was a big joke. But now I've got to help this guy because he's a basket case. I threw him into deep hypnosis, removed the repressed memory, put back his feeling of being happy, and woke him up. The next time I did the show, I told him to listen to the stage manager on his headphones, not me.
We hear about people being brainwashed, like Patty Hearst, over the course of days or months. But is it really possible to get that same effect in just a few sessions of hypnosis?
We did some scary stuff. We're talking about brainwashing someone to assassinate someone. I don't want to reveal too much, but the idea is to find out that you don't have to do years of deprivation to get this result. People have been brainwashed to tie bombs to themselves or have been mentally tortured to join cults and forgot about everyone they love. It happens all the time.
On the show, you seemed a little reluctant to do some of the tests, like the one in which you have the volunteers step into a bath of ice water.
When I did this show, some of the things the network wanted me to do, I was concerned about. I was concerned about peoples' welfare, I was concerned about putting someone in frozen water. Someone could have a stroke from the shock. But doctors were there and psychologists were involved. I was working with scientists.
Have you ever done anything similar to this show in your regular practice?
When I was in Taiwan, I was asked by that country's Department of Defense to hypnotize imprisoned generals and colonels to get information about a $2.4 billion weapons scandal in France and the murder of Captain Yin. I was able to create a human lie detector. It sounds so outrageous, but I'm a scientist. I tied the human lie detector to the human nervous system, so the hypnotized person would spasm when they told a lie, which is not that different from the machine. I hypnotized some of these guys eight to nine hours at a time, got information out of them, plus I helped them with their pain from being handcuffed and other things they'd experienced. I was awarded a gold plate of honor from Taiwan's Department of Defense because I helped them get the missing puzzle piece. The fact is, hypnosis techniques are used in criminal investigation quite a bit in the United States. I've also trained police officers in Louisiana and it's used all the time in Texas, but this doesn't get out to the general public.
Do you think people are going to be freaked out about this show?
Because of this show, I think there's going to be a lot of people in the field bothered I did these demonstration, but I think people, even hypnotists themselves, need to know the power of hypnosis. In the right hands it's wonderful, but in the wrong hands it's dangerous. That's the truth. They need to know it's not a toy. It's powerful.