A Martial Development Meta-Investigation
I can see inside Vyacheslav Bronnikov’s head.
Not because I possess the disputed X-ray vision skills–though if I did, I would probably keep quiet about it. No, I’m just saying that I may understand what Bronnikov was thinking when he did what he did.
I should back up, and tell the tale from the start. Derren Brown is a renowned ‘psychological illusionist,’ a performer who combines magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship in order to seemingly predict and control human behavior. Imagine a younger, more talented, and more personable version of James Randi…
For the past ten years Derren has created TV and stage performances that have stunned audiences, debunked the paranormal and encouraged many to improve and enhance their own mental abilities. His first show appeared in 2000, Derren Brown: Mind Control, and followed with Trick of the Mind, Trick or Treat and a series of Specials including the controversial Russian Roulette and the hugely popular Events.
In the second episode of his latest television series, Darren Brown Investigates…, the illusionist set out to test The Bronnikov Method of human potential development. Created by Vyacheslav M. Bronnikov, this system–based in ancient Tibetan Yoga–promises to awaken dormant human skills and abilities, among them the ability to see while blindfolded, or indeed with no eyes at all.
Derren traveled to a Bronnikov seminar in Belgium, accompanied a woman who has been legally blind for more than a decade. As for what happened next…I’ll let you watch the episode, which was broadcast in Britain but is now available on YouTube.
Derren Brown Investigates…The Man With X-Ray Eyes
Darren Brown: After four days of attending courses in his method, I was anxious to meet the legendary founder, Vyacheslav Bronnikov. The superhuman figure revered by so many, who has reached the exalted heights of level 6, and even mentioned that he could levitate, and that we could too.
I began by asking him how he came up with the method.
Vyacheslav Bronnikov: Actually, my story…I had twelve teachers. I was absolutely loaded with knowledge. Overloaded maybe even, but in a very potent way.
DB: And you were how old?
VB: It started from three years old, but if I take the question more seriously, I came consciously into this body. That was my choice. I actually was aware about coming into this life before I was born. And when I was born, I had a lot of capacities already.
DB: We’ll talk about the ball of energy for a moment. When you do this [rubs hands together], you feel a tingle in your hands, and your muscles kind of create a sensation of pulling away. So I can understand how you can imagine that might feel like a ball. I don’t understand how you make the leap from an imaginary ball–a sensation in your fingers–to then placing that somewhere where other people can feel it, and touch it, and move it around.
VB: I guess you didn’t understand anything. When we wrap our hands between two parts of the brain, we create a connection. And this connection actually works. And transforms. And everything else is secondary. Individual. Everything works inside of the brain.
DB: I would love to see the evidence. I really would love to see the evidence.
VB: Let your scientists organize an event. Let them organize a scientific commission. We’ll come, and it will work. And you will study from the very beginning, to the very end.
DB: Maybe my problem is, that I haven’t seen someone who can really look at a box, and see something that’s inside it. Is it possible? [Pushes sealed cardboard box forwards.] I don’t want to embarrass you but, is it possible for someone at level 6 and your skill level to be able to do the test–they were doing the test earlier in the workshop: they were looking at a box, and seeing what was in it. Is it possible right now?
VB: Unfortunately, you create a negative documentary. You create problems for yourselves. You don’t have a scientific approach, and you don’t have basic knowledge of this technology.
DB: I don’t understand…
VB: Do you understand what you are talking about? What do you want?
DB: I’m trying to understand. I suppose maybe I’m being naive, and if I am I apologize, but I guess I want to see a result.
VB: First of all, you create advertisements for your own…you show yourself not to be a serious organization. Will I be playing circus here, stacking boxes and things? This is not serious.
DB: You teach people to do this…
VB: You want science? Let’s do science.
DB: You teach this at level 3.
VB: I am not playing anything with you. And I won’t prove anything to you.
DB: OK. So there is something called Charles Bonnet syndrome, which is where blind people can hallucinate, and think they are seeing things on the outside world, and it’s very convincing for them. Now do you think it would be unfair if blind people were being persuaded that it was actual vision when it was just a hallucination?
VB: We don’t do healing here at all. We don’t do healing. We deal with human development. I want to make that clear.
DB: When we think about self-improvement, then to me, becoming better people is about becoming…kinder…I think that is important. Do you think it’s kind to tell a 16-year-old boy with cerebral palsy that he will walk, and maybe develop superpowers?
VB: First of all, we’re not talking about healing, because we don’t heal. Maybe you frame information in the wrong way. I speak of a system of development. And ‘system of development’ means that if you stimulate the correct development of certain functions of the brain, you can…improve things. We normally want to work with normal, healthy people, who use the training techniques for self development. So I state again, we don’t deal with ill people. When we design a system for ill people, this is for use by doctors only.
DB: So the slogan, ‘World Without Blindness’, is that misleading to blind people? Should it be something else?
VB: It is working, and the results are there. Is that clear? I see that you are trying to find weak points. And I guess it’s fine, because you’re from England. But at Rostov-na-Danu–it’s a city in Russia–there is a boy, and he was born without his eyeballs. Nobody told him he was blind, and he can see better than you. Think about it.
DB: There’s a boy in Russia who has no eyes, and he can see perfectly? You’re saying that is true?
VB: Definitely, I’m saying what I say.
DB: Do you know his name? I’d love to…I want to find out about this man. Do you know his name?
VB: Well, I don’t have this information. Just ask around, it’s in Rostov-na-Danu. And this is not the first case.
DB: I’ve spoken to a scientist who says that science doesn’t take the Bronnikov results seriously, who doesn’t take the Bronnikov system seriously. Why is that, if the results are real?
VB: From one point of view, I am happy that you in England have no understanding of new technology–scientific, psychological human development. And it’s very nice that Russia, Ukraine, and the Soviet Union are on the first wave of telepathy study.
DB: I just want to ask you one more thing, just going back to this [cardboard] box for a moment, because I want people at home to understand that, if it is not appropriate for you to do this–which is fine–I want to know why, so that they understand.
VB: You’re not a scientist. Why do you do this? You’re not scientists.
VB: You don’t deal with proofs, and usually create refutations, and this is your job, and you know where you belong. You do what you do. Let’s do the exposé. This will not work. Actually, for us, these types of shows are even better than real promotions. Make your documentary.
DB: Thank you very much for your time. Thank you very much for having us here, and allowing us to film everything.
VB: Next time, we will participate in your circus. Don’t worry.
Based upon the contents of this show alone, it would be reasonable to conclude that Bronnikov was unnecessarily hostile, intransigent, and most likely a fraud. That is the conclusion I would have drawn after watching it, had I not once been in Darren Brown’s position myself.
The details of my story were just slightly different. I was not visiting Bronnikov, but instead a man with an even greater reputation. I was not a professional illusionist; but as an engineer who had already spent years studying the “Dao of Deceit” through the martial arts, I was nobody’s fool either.
Most importantly, I had no agenda other than to investigate the possibilities, and I was under no pressure to deliver a verdict within the span of a single week. For this and other reasons, I am well-qualified to provide some context, which is sorely lacking in Derren Brown’s presentation.
Bronnikov’s final brusque observations were correct: Brown was simply not equipped to conduct any sort of respectable scientific investigation, only a quick debunking.
When scientists assert the primacy of repeatability and careful controls, it is only an illustration of their confusion and vanity; the primary issues are faith and trust. If you cannot trust, at some basic level, in the honesty and competence of others, then you cannot build upon their work, and instead are forced to repeat it at your own time and expense.
Even putting aside the shabby controls around his “look into my cardboard box” experiment, the fact is that the public will not accept the scientific determinations of a mere “magician” such as Derren Brown, especially concerning an issue of this magnitude.
There is ample evidence for this in the literature, some of which I have previously featured on this website. Odds are that you discounted those eyewitness testimonies as untrustworthy, as most others have, using any convenient justification–understandable, but it clearly demonstrates my point. Such improbable events are rarely disputed; they are maliciously dismissed, with the personal and professional reputations of the plaintiffs serving as a rationale.
Nevertheless the Bronnikovs did agree to “scan” a sick patient that Brown provided. Brown brought her into the examination room in a wheelchair, wearing dark glasses. After she was diagnosed with poor eyesight and a misaligned spine, Brown complained that the results were obvious (eyes) or incorrect (spine).
Here Derren Brown fails on at least three counts. First, he condemns the experimental controls he himself designed just a few hours earlier. Second, he evaluates Bronnikov’s current description of the spinal vertebrae against an old X-ray, seemingly oblivious to the fact that these bones naturally shift–has he never heard of chiropracty? Third, he disregards the precedents for verifying these claims.
Yes, believe it or not, many of us have already run this test against alleged masters of third-eye kung fu–and we had the common sense to test against diseases without any obvious external indications (e.g. the specific location and shape of tumors), obtaining diagnoses which could be subsequently vindicated or refuted using the Western scientific paradigm (e.g. radiology). None of this cheap “Can you guess I’m blind?” nonsense.
After you have seen this pattern repeated time and again, you begin to understand that these are not really meant to be objective investigations–they are religious rituals, intended to end in a sacrifice. But having noted that point, we may as well ignore it henceforth, and charitably accept the premise of the documentary at face value, as a show of good sportsmanship. This is, after all, just a game. This is also, I believe, a cause for Vyacheslav Bronnikov’s outward hostility towards the end of the show.
From a martial arts perspective, he executed a canny reversal on the show’s producers. First, he consented to filming, because there would certainly be no documentary otherwise. Second, he pulled the plug halfway through, incentivizing them to finish production on the episode, even without access to the crown jewels–his training methods. (This was explained as a wish to protect his trade secrets–which would make sense, expect that he didn’t “realize” it until the film crew had arrived and started their work!) Third, he flatly refused to describe the contents of Brown’s cardboard box, while reasserting that he could do so at his pleasure, for a more worthy audience.
In the end, Bronnikov gets all the publicity at no real cost to himself. Those who are already inclined to attend his training will find Brown’s show “inconclusive” or “mean-spirited”, and the opinion of everyone else probably hasn’t changed, and doesn’t matter. This is black belt Aikido with a slight Machiavellian touch, and I tip my hat to his superior execution!
Derren Brown came to the training with the expectation that he would be shown convincing evidence, for the validity of these purported supernatural skills. (Sure, the evidence might prove fraudulent under his trained scrutiny, but at least it would be offered as a token gesture.) Instead, he was treated to a room full of credulous bon vivants, few of whom suffered from the disabilities (such as blindness) that the Method promised to cure–and whose enthusiasm was entirely unjustified by their own apparent results following the Method. Oh, Derren Brown, how I have felt your pain!
Brown explains that seminar participants feel considerable social pressure to admire the emperor’s new clothes, whether or not they can actually see them. This is absolutely true. (Unfortunately, he doesn’t take the next step of considering his own peer group and social identity, and the pressures they continuously exert upon himself to reach a different conclusion, whether or not these peers are physically present in the room with him.)
His further point that participants paid considerable sums for their tuition, and are influenced by this fact to assign an otherwise unwarranted value to the course, might be correct also–but it is prematurely surmised, and a cheap shot. The value of the course is evaluated on an individual basis, and based not only upon its direct promises, but also in “off-label uses” to which Brown (as an outside observer) must remain completely unaware.
Again, I have felt the pain. I might have abandoned the practice after a few days too, purely out of disgust with these other participants, if not for my martial arts background. Thankfully, though, this foundation helped me to set appropriate expectations.
I cannot speak for Bronnikov Method in particular, but in my limited experience: these systems are nothing like a modern certification course, wherein a few dozen hours of instruction are followed by a written exam that 95% of the students are expected to pass, thereby earning the right to assert they “know” the subject. No, the purpose of the formal instruction here is simply to teach you how to learn, and to provide the inspiration and confidence necessary to undertake the extraordinary burden of time and effort that this material truly requires.
After successfully graduating the course, you are basically left to succeed or fail on your own merits, with minimal ongoing interventions from the master. A lucky or talented few may really be able to perform at the end of the introductory weekend; others will measure their progress over months and years; and a few others will never get anywhere. It is no fault of the material that not all spectators are invited to become students, and not all students are equally capable.
Personally, it took me nearly ten years to get an inkling of what it means to “see without eyes” (and I still have no idea whether Bronnikov can indeed do this himself).
Bronnikov fervently insisted that his is not a system of healing. In case you were wondering, this is to forestall the criminal charges of impermissible or “unlicensed medicine” that have been used previously to destroy Wilhelm Reich and others. In other words, it is more a political statement than a scientific one. It is an act of self-defense.
I offered Bronnikov HQ, and his United States affiliates at the Neurovision Academy, an opportunity to respond to this documentary, and to my comments here. So far, they have not accepted the invitation. On the chance that they will change their minds, please feel free to submit any questions or comments for them below.
Despite all of the above, I still like and respect Derren Brown. It is no doubt easier to enjoy his “investigations” when one has no knowledge of the subject he pretends to investigate.