Back when the blog was new, I wrote a lengthy piece about why I thought hypnosis was, to put it mildly, overrated. I had had extensive personal experience and quite a bit of learning behind it, but I was definitely far too judgmental, and had had the misfortune of seeing and experiencing too many instances of really badly executed hypnosis. (I removed that post for not being up to the quality standards I’d like to hold my blog to. In this post I’ll be re-addressing all the major points I had there.)
One reason I decided to rehash the topic is that I have had really good experiences in therapy with (really well executed) hypnosis, and the other reason has to do with art and self-expression. With my newly found interest in the art of clowning, which, really, is the art of human connection, wonder and empathy, I had the realization that recreational and show hypnosis might be a mostly untapped resource of deep human connection and pure wonder.
So… what the hell is hypnosis.
“Is it real?”
When people ask “is hypnosis real”, what do they really mean? I mean, how can a behavioral phenomenon be “not real”? There’s two people, usually two at least, and one is doing something, and the other is doing some other thing, and this whole behavioral phenomenon is happening in reality. You can record them on video. They actually are doing that. It’s real.
So what do we mean when we ask, “is it real?” Well, I managed to decipher that into the following question:
“Is the subjective experience of the hypnotized person congruent with what is claimed or widely believed about hypnosis?”
Of course this question is still quite fuzzy, and the answers even more so. For now, my focus here is stage show hypnosis, Las Vegas sideshow stuff, later I’ll get to therapy too, but in this article only as a sidenote… And well, in show hypnosis, most of the time the experience is actually not congruent. But then, before we stand in judgement, we need to look at another question, that of “is it fake,” which we can decipher into the following:
“Is the subjective experience of the hypnotized person congruent with that of a stage extra who purposely acts out out the part of a hypnotized person, in order to fool the audience?”
And the answer to this question is also no, at least most of the time. So when we take the most literal definition of fake, then hypnosis isn’t fake. Not even the cheesy sideshow kind. There are actual psychological laws behind why the behavior happens that we can observe on a video recording.
And here’s where things get complex.
It’s not “a thing,” it’s “a number of things”
Hypnosis isn’t one specific phenomenon, it’s more like a discipline. Like there are specific biological, ethological and psychological reasons why we experience real emotions when watching a movie or a play, but that doesn’t mean that “acting” is some kind of psychological phenomenon in and of itself. It’s a human discipline that builds on our being human, in order to elicit an effect. It’s the same with hypnosis.
There are, in my view (based on literature research and on introspection), multiple components that lead to the behavioral effects of hypnosis:
The social component
The social component of hypnosis is very important. There are still experts who claim it’s the only component, which some might interpret as “hypnosis being fake”. Still, social psychology is as real as any other psychology. Social situations have an actual involuntary effect on us.
So one half of the social component is the social script of hypnosis. A social script is a learned pattern of human interaction. Buying food at a supermarket, ordering at a restaurant, or teaching a seminar are examples of social scripts. They come with a set of roles, a set of acceptable acts and phrases, a set of expectations of what will happen. There is one for hypnosis, that is taught by media. Most people know what is supposed to happen in hypnosis, what they are supposed to do, etc.
The other half is peer pressure. If one feels like they are expected to, or bound by social contract to follow this social script, then it becomes very hard, or even impossible to veer away from it.
The attention component
Researchers have identified a certain specific thing that hypnotized people’s brains do on MR and QEEG. One may cry triumph that we finally have found what hypnosis is (some researchers did), but the truth is that the same things happen in the brains of people flying a 747 across the Atlantic, or driving a car from Berlin to Munich on the Autobahn. So it’s not specific to hypnosis.
This thing that happens in the brain is what is colloquially called a trance state, or at least a kind of trance state. It has to do with an intense focus of attention among other things. It doesn’t explain the entire phenomenology of hypnosis. If you’re sitting in a car with the driver in a highway trance, and you tell them to meow like a cat, in response you’re a lot more likely to get “yea right, smartass” than “meow”.
The evolutionary component
Now this is mostly based on anecdotal evidence and introspection, but bear with me. It really explains a lot for me.
I’d like you to recall a time you were bedridden with an illness, maybe in hospital, with a loved one or a very sympathetic nurse or doctor taking care of you. Of course I don’t know about you specifically, but most people seem to feel like a child in situations like this. Not “helpless as a child” as a metaphor, but actually, subjectively have a very similar emotional experience of dependence and bonding as they did when they were (small) children, and a natural urge to be passive and compliant. This phenomenon is called regression. (Not to be confused with past life journeys and stuff.)
So here’s my pet theory. Imagine an injured hunter in the stone age, with a bleeding head from the kick of an antelope or buffalo, and a shaman using a sharp stone to scrape his skull to probably save his life. If it were another species of animal, one without the altruistic tendencies of humans, the injured party would probably try to flee or fight the pain in such situations, making rescue hard or impossible. However, in the human, the fight-or-flight reflex is turned off, and so is avoidance of pain and most voluntary action, purely through a) a situation of overwhelm, and b) the clear demonstration of authority, competence and benevolence. “Yes please save my life, I’m out of my depth here, I’m entrusting you with full control.”
And guess what, this sounds a lot like a lot of hypnosis. In hypnosis we often have a competent authority figure, a demonstration or implicit agreement of competence, and in certain methods of hypnosis, especially of the recreational and stage kind, a sensory overwhelm or startlement of the hypnotized person, to create an “out of depth” feeling. (In therapy one generally doesn’t need that, as there’s already an issue to solve, and an agreement to help and be helped.)
Hypnosis in coaching and therapy
The largest issue that I see in this field is the public representation, partially fuelled by certain hypnotists themselves, and the amount of really bad work done with no real knowledge behind. Even used car salesmen will moonlight as hypnotherapists, and sometimes take more money for an hour than a certified clinical psychologist.
My original, now deleted post on the topic was mainly a rant about debunking the myth of direct suggestion in self-improvement. Telling someone in hypnosis to automatically work out three days a week won’t magically make them athletic. What will more likely happen is similar to what happens after an average new year’s resolve. Hypnosis is not a magical ingredient to change personality traits. It’s neither necessary nor sufficient to do so. So it’s used far too much as a way to sell bad coaching for more money than it’s worth.
Also, I felt it was important to address some popular myths that are particularly dangerous. It’s still widely believed among the public that hypnosis can help people recall past experiences exactly, or to recover lost memories. This is simply wrong. If someone says this, they “are either stupid or lying, so stop lying before stupid people start believing you.” Human memory is quite fallible, and the hypnotically “recovered” memories are made up fantasies fabricated on demand. This is proven fact. To make it worse, the hypnotized person runs the risk of actually believing that this is a real memory, through the mechanism of social narratives. There is a good reason hypnosis is no longer an accepted tool in court cases. It has a really bad track record.
In legitimate therapy and coaching, hypnosis is used to build rapport and help the client focus inward. It’s not treated as administrator access to the mind (as it isn’t), and the therapy or coaching techniques used would actually be effective without hypnosis. It’s a lubricant, like oil in an engine. The oil doesn’t make the engine run, it just makes it run more efficiently.
So what does it feel like
We broke off talking about what the subjective experience of the hypnotized person is. Well, in therapy and coaching, if the practitioner is good, then the experience is that of a state of reverie or introspection, along with a feeling of safety and deep emotional rapport with the practitioner. And usually this is exactly what the practitioner will tell the client to expect, so in fact the experience is congruent with expectations. It’s real.
How about show hypnosis though… Well, the expectation is that of magic. Of being controlled or transformed. To, and this is what a lot of show hypnotists actually say in their patter, “to experience the power of mind over matter”… Well, here’s the hard truth, and not a lot of people will tell you this, but what it feels like most of the time though, is more like being bullied into buying a vacation timeshare.
Now I don’t think I need to tell you this, but there is nothing even remotely magical about buying vacation timeshare. It involves uncomfortable social pressure, a markedly non-magical sense of obligation to do something one doesn’t want to, and severe cognitive dissonance afterwards.
The timeshare salesman formula
Here’s how most stage hypnosis is built up.
First, there is a demonstration of suggestibility to select the easiest subjects from the audience. This is mostly built upon the regressive effect I mentioned, people are often uncomfortable sitting at a hypnosis show to begin with, and there’s a seemingly competent authority figure telling them what to do. It’s comfortable.
Then, there is a section of relaxation and deepening, often using some level of social pressure and the power of expectation (seeing others fall into a trance before you is quite powerful), as well as a comfortable trance state. This is equivalent to the three day free vacation at a five-star hotel with a large pool and an all you can eat buffet. It’s the hook. “See how nice I can make you feel?”
Then, of course, comes the show part. And it’s kinda sad how unimaginative and downright mean these acts get. The people are in some level of trance, and there’s the urge to follow the authority figure, but there’s also the very very real social pressure of having entered a social contract. They are on the stage to provide entertainment. Bailing out would be bad sportsmanship. It would make them seem like jerks, and what’s worse, they would feel like jerks too. This is quite similar to how people feel that having been given a gift of three days’ vacation socially obliges them to actually buy the timeshare.
And finally, there’s cognitive dissonance. Most people simply don’t experience hypnotic amnesia from direct suggestions. They just don’t. So why is it that most people act like they forgot the show when the hypnotist told them to? Well, it’s just better to pretend that they forgot. It was too embarrassing to begin with, let’s pretend it didn’t happen. Plus, breaking the illusion would a) be a jerk move, and b) be equivalent to admitting to having been conned. So it’s just much better to pretend that there was actually some magic and they were controlled like puppets, and not bullied and conned into doing things they’d rather forget.
“So, what just happened?”, asks the hypnotist after an amnesia suggestion…
The subject winces uncomfortably. “Hum… hee-hee… wow…” A tiny shrug. “Weird… dunno…”
This is almost a typical response, just check out some hypnosis demonstrations on YouTube. The subject is really saying “I don’t want to lie but I don’t want to contradict you… Why am I feeling so obliged to agree with you? This is weird and uncomfortable. Wow. Please don’t ask again.”
So, in a way, stage hypnosis is real. And here I’m not talking about all of stage hypnosis, kudos to those who do it differently, but unfortunately a lot of it, while definitely real, is “real bullying” and not “real magic”.
The power of the $50 bill
There’s a demonstration routine, to show the power of hypnosis to a skeptical person. Here’s how it goes. The hypnotist induces trance in the subject, using easy suggestions like the lemon trick and yes-sets to build rapport and compliance, and then drops a $50 bill on the floor.
The subject is given a suggestion that their hands are turned to stone, and the dollar bill weighs a metric ton, so they are incapable of picking it up. If they can pick it up however, and so demonstrate that they are unaffected, then the bill is theirs to keep. I haven’t heard of anyone who had picked the bill up.
Why does this work? Well, the magic is in the $50 bill. If it was a plain piece of paper, there would be a small percent of people who’d override the suggestion and pick it up just to spite the hypnotist. But it’s fifty bucks. And there’s an implicit social contract with the hypnotist that even though they said the subject could keep it, they aren’t actually expecting to lose it. It’s a magic trick, a game, a play for two.
Picking the money up wouldn’t just be a jerk move, it would be stealing. So nobody picks it up. The power of social pressure. This is real too, just not very magical.
The wall of deception
I’m not sure all show hypnotists understand the full implication of what they are doing with their routines. Quite a few do, but I don’t think it’s all of them. And even the ones who instinctively or consciously understand still seem to be buying into the illusion themselves, after all it’s “all in good humor”, never mind that it’s usually not funny.
Of course what they tell others, even when teaching workshops, is colored with all the woo about “power of the mind” and “power of hypnosis” and whatnot. There’s a lot of misinformation going around, including extraordinary claims about what is possible in hypnosis, stories about the lame and the blind miraculously getting cured Jesus Christ style, as well as people who had their lives almost ruined by a misworded suggestion.
Now as a hypnotist you do actually need to be careful with suggestions, not because of how much control you have, but because of how little. People will ultimately do what they feel like, and if they (consciously or unconsciously) feel like harming themselves while conveniently blaming you, well… You’ll be suddenly finding yourself in very hot water. So the safety warnings stand. Just know that it sometimes can do that, but usually it won’t, and it’s not up to you when.
This collective effort to pretend that hypnosis is something that it isn’t is kinda like the kayfabe of pro wrestling, or the secrecy of illusionists, however here I believe it crosses over into being harmful rather than playful. Nobody is hurt by not knowing how a particularly elaborate card trick works, or where the real life persona of a luchador ends and where his character begins; It just makes the entertainment more mysterious and engaging. People however are hurt to various extents by bad hypnosis.
Hypnosis has real effects, it really increases compliance and focus, but for example, in truth both the lemon trick and the hand levitation trick work in a fully awake state, you can try them right now by yourself. They are things the hypnotist knows about the mind that many in the audience don’t, that help create a sense of wonder. It’s like an ancient astronomer wooing the people by forecasting a solar eclipse. The astronomer didn’t create the eclipse, he just knew something others didn’t.
The lemon trick
Imagine eating a slice of lemon. Imagine the color of the peel, the touch, the smell in your nose, the tart taste as you bite down… Most people start salivating when they really imagine this. Your physiology responds to an imagined stimulus as if it were real.
It’s awesome, but it’s not an effect of hypnosis.
The hand levitation trick
Imagine a bunch of helium balloons tied to your right wrist. Imagine tying more and more balloons there, the pull on your wrist, the bright colors of the balloons, the light sensation in your arm… Most people feel as if their arms “want” to rise by itself after putting in enough effort into imagining, and it’s a markedly different feeling than raising your arm consciously.
What you just did is you temporarily changed the tone of some muscles in your arm. It’s more comfortable to hold out for longer periods than the “normal” way of using direct conscious movement. It uses different pathways in the brain.
Now this isn’t as easy to achieve as the lemon trick, and hypnosis does help with it, as it helps lower the guard of the inner critic that may stop you before succeeding, but you really don’t need hypnosis for it to work. Martial artists and athletes use mental techniques like this a lot. It’s the power of the mind, but not the power of hypnosis.
Finding magic in show hypnosis
So we have a set of real phenomena that are routinely misused to create un-funny shows and mildly traumatized people. When in fact, hypnosis, when applied with the knowledge of what makes it work, and a deep human empathy, could have the power to create real connection, and real wonder. The childlike perspective and the weird impulse to follow can be an experience of wonder, like dancing follow with an expert dancer.
It’s a similar question to audience engagement in clown acts. That can be done well and done badly as well, and is done badly too often. And even one instance of it done badly would be bad. As famous clown Avner Eisenberg aka Avner the Eccentric put it:
I can’t watch performers humiliating people, making them do hoochy-coochy dances in front of the public. It drives me nuts. Or juggling clubs around them when there’s this implication, this threat, that they might get hurt. I can’t stand that. I’ve developed a whole philosophy and lots of techniques for what – I hope – creates a situation where the rest of the audience says, “Wow, that looked like fun. Maybe I can be next”
I believe the right way would be to create an artistic experience through hypnosis where the subjective perspective is not “wow, why am I putting up with this”, but rather “wow, there’s magic and I’m part of it”. And for that, the show would need to be designed for the primary audience of the subjects, considered with empathy from the perspective of each person, about the emotions, feelings, experiences entailed in each act and trick. And of course, this would mean letting go of many staples, and re-imagining the entire format of the “hypnosis show”.
That, and the kayfabe needs to be torn down, at least in the head of the hypnotist, but preferably everywhere else, too. Operating from the viewpoint that hypnosis is magical admin rights to the brain, one is certain to either fail, or to replicate the horrible timeshare sale experience mentioned above. And there’s plenty of magic left even when the bullshit is shoveled off.