Tag Archives: nlp

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.


A practical guide on how to be someone else

The world is full of methods allowing us to mess with our heads, but in this post I’ll concentrate on something most people are looking to achieve – changing who we are, and how we act. I’ve used these techniques several times in the past to effect positive change in my life – of course, it has also happened time to time that later I fell back into negative patterns and behaviors, so it’s not a magic bullet by any means. However, it can help a lot.

When a desire to act differently comes up in someone’s life, they usually think of symptomatic, superficial changes, and fantasize about ways to “program their subconscious” to automatically work out 30 minutes a day, not to eat sweets or pizza, stop smoking, spend more time studying, etc. The greatest lure of hypnosis is the belief that someone can just tell you that “from now on, you will find the taste of cigarette smoke revolting”, and poof, life problem solved. Well it doesn’t work that way.

The simplest approach

To change how we act, we need to change who we are. Our image of self is one of the major driving forces behind our daily acts. If I see myself as an athlete, I’ll be motivated to work out every day – if I see myself as a geek and a gamer, I’ll be motivated to spend a copious amount of time playing video games.

Our current mainstream culture seems to shun the idea of changing oneself. It’s all over television, movies, etc. “Be who you are”. The fat geeky kid tries to be sporty and cool, and ends up as laughing stock. It’s the absolute worst advice you can give a child. Self-representations, and our place in society are not constant, are built and developed as we mature, and well into old age, preferably up until death. Being discouraged from a course of life because of ones self-representation is one of the most common ways people make themselves miserable.

The absolutely easiest way to change who we are is through changing what we put in our brains. I mean entertainment, media, leisure reading, etc. If someone wants to become stronger and more athletic, the best thing they can do is go and buy a bodybuilding magazine, watch the Muscle Channel on cable, go read Internet forums and watch YouTube videos about strength training.

Note though that Internet forums can be a double-edged sword. If they are full of people who are either trolls and assholes, or hold totally opposing beliefs to one’s core alignments, participating in such can actually discourage one from adopting a certain identity. Say, one decides to eat healthy, and the healthy eating forums are packed with anti-science, anti-medicine, anti-vaccination conspiracy theory tinfoil-hat nutjobs, it can really really work as a motivation to just leave the whole healthy eating shit for the birds, go drop by a McDonalds right now, and kiss the website of Monsanto while thanking God for GMO soybeans. Unfortunately there is nothing one can do about people being stupid, so my suggestion is that if beliefs in a community go against your core ideas, just leave them, and try to find other sources that you find more acceptable.

The maxim that “you are what you eat” is particularly true of information. The Japanese seem to be particularly aware of this, as each year they push a plethora of children’s cartoons out the door, each showcasing a sport or activity of some kind, often in exaggerated ways that Western viewers tend to find hilarious. It’s solid fact that this sort of push from the media does manifest in an increased interest in sports. Years ago it was all over the news that after a cartoon was made about the game of Go, considered to be an “old man’s game”, with little interest from young people, suddenly Go clubs sprang up at schools country-wide, and the game enjoyed a nationwide revival.

Many of these sports cartoons do have a trick to them. The protagonist usually starts out as a non-athletic, weak kid, and through the story, progresses to be a top class athlete. This is very important, because it does not allow the viewers to disassociate themselves from the theme. It breaks down the wall of self-doubt that inevitably stands in the way of change.

Similarly in the US, television shows that cast African Americans in non-stereotypical roles, such as Lieutenant Uhura in the original Star Trek as a high-ranking officer, or the upper-middle-class Banks family in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, actively helped young African Americans change the way they looked at their future, and aim for university and well-paying careers.

In my experience, if the motivation is there to change, then it doesn’t take too much input to affect a change in self-representation. Humans naturally learn by imitating others, and if you provide yourself with plenty of role models to imitate, change will come naturally.

If the simple approach fails

Well, sometimes it’s a bit harder to adopt a new way of life, maybe the emotional motivation isn’t as strong, or one just can’t muster the strength to make the change.

There are ways to help in cases like this. The best tool, I believe, is NLP, or Neuro-Linguistic Programming. It’s a form of therapy developed years ago, which has undergone quite a lot of changes since. I do not agree with most of the tenets of old-school, orthodox NLP, but there are really good techniques there if you know where to look.

The primary goal in NLP is to change our mental representations. It can be applied by a therapist, or you can do it to yourself. Contrary to the name, it has little to do with “neuro” – it is not based on any kind of neurological or neuro-psychological research, I guess it just sounded cool. As for “linguistic”, while there’s a lot in NLP written about words and wording, I’d say the best techniques are the ones that do not use words at all.

My favorite “do it yourself” book on NLP is Anthony Robbins’ Unlimited Power. In case you’ve never heard of him (though I doubt it), Anthony Robbins is a world-famous life coach and “guru”, and this book is a crash course in his technique and approach to NLP. It’s a fun, engaging read, and extremely hands-on. I’m not advocating for everything Anthony Robbins ever said or did, but this book is really good.

As I’m no NLP expert by any stretch of imagination, I suggest you read the book, and make your own conclusions, but let me give you two examples of what you can do with NLP to help change your representations of yourself.

One is called modeling. It’s basically a conscious approach to imitating a role model. In simple terms, it entails trying to mimic their posture and facial expressions (one of the tenets of NLP is that the state of our body creates effects in the state of our mind), creating a model of what this person would live and act like, and periodically comparing our own conduct with this ideal. For example, “Would Arnold Schwarzenegger sit here and watch Office, or would he rather go down to the gym?”

The other favorite of mine is called reframing, and is one of the most basic techniques in NLP. This allows you to change your own perceptions about what’s possible or impossible, and what’s significant or unimportant. For example, you want to learn music, but all your life you’ve heard nothing but that you have to be born a musician, or at least start learning as a very small child. Of course, since you have such representations, it will be very hard to muster the will to pour energy into something you think is impossible.

To change this belief, you conjure up an image of you as a musician with people listening and enjoying your music in your mind, and then an image of something that you do know is possible. Say if you’re a great programmer, imagine yourself in the act of winning a coding competition. Then compare the two images based on modalities – how large they are, where they are in space, how colorful they are, do they have movement or sound, do you have kinesthetic feelings from them, do they have a frame or border, etc. Then you take the “impossible” image, and forcefully make it like the possible one.

By doing this regularly, over time you can change even deep-seated fears and beliefs, and set your sights on new horizons.