Tag Archives: clowning

On humans, clowns and happiness

I’ve been thinking about eccentricity, and how people react to it. Upon meeting up with my mother recently, she just couldn’t let go of the fact that I was carrying a canary yellow, spotted umbrella, and was gently offering to get me a ‘proper’ one instead. I guess for my mom I’ll always be a weird rebellious son she’s slightly worried about, and that’s okay. I think I’ve lived long enough to know about men’s style. I’ve held jobs where I had to wear a suit, and honestly, I was good at it. I still am, if the need surfaces. So I started wondering about is why I’m carrying the spotted umbrella in the first place. I mean while it’s a perfect clown umbrella, I’m not really clowning on the street, now am I… and it hit me that in a way, I actually am.

From interviews with the greatest artists, there seem to be two distinct approaches to the idea of clowning among them. One is focused on the audience, on inspiring laughter, on masterful technique, that is, on Doing… and the other is focused on Being a clown, stating that everything else follows from that. On finding the inner clown, the inner child, and sharing the joy, freedom and emotional openness from that source. An extreme adherent of the second approach is Slava Polunin, whom I consider on of my role models. He is a true rebel artist, who used the wordlessness of pantomime to evade censorship in Soviet times, and an unwavering believer in creative human freedom, both in the theatre troupes he was part of or led, and in our lives in the outside world. Today, he’s turned clowning into a lifestyle through his “Academy of Fools”, in his words, turning the focus of his life onto finding and exploring what makes human beings happy.

And yes, that spotted umbrella makes me happy. I look at it on a rainy day, and think of sunshine and playfulness. And so do the colorful hippie clothing, the five-toed shoes, or any of the other trappings of eccentricity I consciously decide to allow myself. In doing things my body and my inner child wants to do, rather than what my superego would allow me to do. And yes, people do sometimes stare. I’m sure there is a part of them thinking how nice it must be to be so free and childish. And this is, probably, a degree of clowning. Being that reflective, joyful person that many deny in themselves for fear of societal reprisal, or in sacrifice to an arbitrary self-image of prestige, or a desired gender expression, or whatever else.

I honestly believe that performing a little in my everydays, for myself and the world around me, as an eccentric and a free human being, leads to greater happiness, motivation and potentially success in life. I mean, if I want my brain to find reasons for climbing out of bed, why not help it out a little, by making every day worth living?

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Exploring wonder

In art and self-expression, my primary motivation is to inspire wonder. There’s of course also the deep psychological aspect of art, where half-conscious material from the mind can be sublimated into something… sublime… however when it comes to my motivation, the reason I want to explore, to learn and to get better at art, it always comes back to wonder. So taking a closer look at wonder might be a good idea.

There are multiple definitions of wonder from various scholars of art, but it might be easier to define it for ourselves by finding instances when we experienced it, rather than by finding a general description. I know that my personal understanding of wonder has to do with a sense of momentary incredulity. A sense of “does this really exist, or am I dreaming?” Of suddenly finding myself in a storybook.

I vividly remember a profound moment of wonder that was connected to a rather mundane experience. As a teenager I was at a music festival, and I went exploring in the park areas of the festival grounds. It was a dark forested area with trails lit by colorful paper lanterns. The colors of a light painting installation were cast in broken shards across the foliage, and a taste of incense and chill music was on the air. Along with the unique people around me, at that moment I felt like I was in a magical maze in a storybook, where adventure and beauty lives all around me.

If I break it down, the festival was a rather mainstream, commercial event; the park was unkempt and average; the lights were pretty simple, just a ready-bought festive lantern chain from a Chinese store; the light painting was aimed somewhere else; ultimately, there was no artistic genius or true natural magnificence behind my sense of wonder, and yet it was real and complete.

Thinking back at an exhibition by contemporary painter Attila Szűcs, I can recall a very similar sensation. His art is visually realistic, often based on photographs, but with a dream-like quality added to them. There’s a level of mystery to his work, a sense of not being quite sure what one is truly looking at. A middle-aged man in shirt and tie, standing knee-deep in water in a nothingness of whites and greys. A teenage boy in amidst lantern-lit trees, himself decorated with lanterns like a human Christmas tree. A fighter airplane, or the ghost of one, resting erotically on a freshly made bed.

According to an interview, he often paints in a meditative state, and at least for me, it seems his work invites the viewer to experience a mirror to that state, to mentally step into the frame, and get lost in this strangely detached dreamworld, foreboding and beautiful. And somehow it feels like that this component of mystery, or openness, really contributes to true wonder. The sense of there being “more than you can encompass with your senses”. The sense of being invited to imagine an entire universe through a single, surreal glimpse.

So one wonders (sry for the pun) what exactly links the sensation of getting lost at a music festival, and seeing surreal and magical paintings. I might be jumping the gun here, but there is a sense of reality opening up, a sense of discovery, of new horizons. And that’s where I think true wonder and simple amazement diverge.

Consider for a moment magic tricks; if they are executed properly, they are obviously amazing. Where did the coin go? Where did it come from? Wow! Amazing! However, it takes a master performer to make them wondrous. To hold your attention. It’s sad, but most of circus can get somewhat boring, even though it’s a group of arts all about amazement. Reading this book on clowning (Clowns by Ezra Lebank & David Bridel), it was interesting to read that many of the greatest masters in the art of clowning today say that they weren’t really into circus as kids. Thinking about it, it’s no big surprise, as a kid I was also often bored at circus.

Amazement can be overloaded. Also, in and of itself it’s not all that interesting. Watching the olympics is only interesting at length if one is invested in national pride connected to it, or as a fellow athlete, can truly relate to the level of refinement exhibited at world class level. Otherwise, it’s just hairless monkeys running in circles. You can see that on the playground. Sure, the don’t run as fast, but who cares, at least the kids are being cute while doing it.

I see the success of Cirque du Soleil in no other thing than the fact that they put wonder back in circus. It’s no longer just amazing feats of skill following each other, it’s a story, a whole world told through the language of amazing feats of skill. I think there really may be something to my idea of “opening up reality”.

I started writing this post mainly as a way to rehash my opinions to myself as well as my readers, and I do think I may have grasped something that I was only vaguely feeling before. And there’s some really good news in here for everyone who’s a burner. It’s a lot easier to create wonder at a burn than it is in a circus. The burn is open. It’s participatory. It’s an experiment in how to create, in how to be artists and humans. It carries its own level of wonder, that we can piggyback on.

So let’s go out, create and burn. :)

Revisiting hypnosis in art and in life

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.

Five years gone

It’s been five years since my last post, nearly, and now I decided I need a place to blog again. So why not here. I left the blog online, as I think there’s some important information here for the DIY tDCS crowd, and didn’t want to take that away. Too much stupid was (and sometimes is) going on in the biohacking scene, and a sane voice is always a good thing.

It’s been a long and busy 5 years for me. Things changed. I hopped countries again. Probably will do it again soon. I went through a major crisis, came out, and found new callings. I’m still a hacker, and now I’m a burner, too. The Burning Man movement and subculture has shown me that life can be worth living, and pulled out some deeply buried childhood dreams. Like that of being a clown.

I don’t feel talented at clowning, only motivated. I’ve never been very good at theater arts. That said, the very mild neuroatypia I grew up with may have the benefit that I can see humans one step removed, and I do think I have the right heart for this. So now I’m applying the stuff I blogged about in How to Be Someone Else years ago. Learning to see the world through the lens of poetic comedy, learning flow arts, and hanging out with burners and amateur circus people. And somehow I have the feeling that if I can learn to be a clown, I’ll at the same time learn to be a good human being.

As for tDCS, I started getting headaches after stimulation, so I don’t use it frequently anymore. I do want to experiment with tACS still, I just need time and energy to design and build a device I can trust. I was, and am keeping myself busy with a number of things at all times, and this kinda slid to the bottom of the product backlog of my life.

I’ll probably be blogging about more psychological, philosophical and artistic topics going forward, with some hacking thrown in.