A Closer Look at Hypnosis

arti2And now, for that most important and capricious of all human emotions – Motivation. Two psychologists, Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwartz, finding themselves at a loose end one day at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor decided to see if they could motivate a group of 20 students to take more regular exercise.

The experiment they devised was brilliant in its simplicity. It also worked rather well. They printed off two identical sets of instructions for the exercise regime but used two different typefaces; the first, an easy to read Arial, designed to be easily read (hence its popularity in word processing) the second, an obscure and therefore unfamiliar Brush font which was much more difficult to read. The students associated the ease of reading the Arial typeface with the ease of doing push-ups. Those that received their instructions in the more difficult to read Brush font, didn’t even bother to head for the gym.

The idea behind this remarkable experiment is that if the task is made to look easy, it will be easy. Song and Schwartz double-checked their results by getting the students to make Japanese Sushi rolls. The results were the same and were published in the October 2008 journal Psychological Science. Business executives who commission Time and Motion studies to improve productivity and effectiveness in the workplace will no doubt be in touch with these two.

So, if only in order to save time, let’s agree on what we all deep down know to be a fundamental truth in the first place: human beings are easily persuaded, swayed, influenced and prejudiced very easily indeed. In All in the Mind I explained how the knowledge that human beings can be influenced is used to great effect in advertising and by politicians. The really good politician, the truly excellent orator knows how to manipulate people’s thinking. Bill Clinton for instance relied heavily on the power of narratives about individuals to get his point across. So did Jesus, particularly in the Parables, which is one reason why Jesus’ stories are so easy to identify with. The one about the return of the prodigal son immediately springs to mind. These stories are easy to understand simply because they are so accessible. Or maybe that should be, they are accessible because they are easy to understand. In Bill Clinton’s case too, he used stories about individuals to make his point instantly understood – always a safer bet, because humans would much rather hear news about people than a stream of faceless facts and figures.

This is why an audience of individuals very quickly coalesces into the larger organism of a group. The tendency for humans to bunch together is not limited to the effects of cleverly constructed speeches or advertisements exhorting us to one particular course of action. Man is a gregarious creature after all, and coming together in groups has always been a matter of survival. The feeling of safety created by being part of a group, especially in the face of danger has distinct and obvious psychological advantages, not the least of which is comfort and support. Despite their basic training, soldiers often group together in the heat of battle despite the disadvantages. Listen to any old soldier talking about their wartime experiences and they all say that being in the close company of one’s friends makes the danger more endurable.

When talking about hypnosis, Direct Experience is of prime importance. You could read a million books and still be no further advanced in your knowledge than if you had successfully hypnotised one subject. With hypnosis, practice and experience counts for a lot. Nonetheless, Indirect Experience is also of importance, particularly as even experienced practitioners of the art tend to disagree about certain fundamental principles. Experience harvested from as wide a variety of sources as possible is invaluable if one is ever to learn the truth. These cumulative experiences can then be distilled into understanding.

The Disparity in Subjective Experience

I have stated before that I believe most modern day stage hypnotists to be woefully incompetent, and I stick by this view. For the majority of them, the attitude ‘it works, and that’s all that is required’ remains prevalent. Their lack of knowledge is breathtaking and this has to be a source of concern, after all, there is truth in the old adage a little knowledge can be dangerous: recent studies in psychology prove that there is always something new to learn. The disparate opinions expressed in regard to what actually constitutes hypnosis, brings us back to the example of the five blind men and the elephant. In the case of the majority of stage hypnotists, it would be the five blind idiots and the unpredictable elephant.

It is well known that no two individuals behave the same. Again, I use my own experience as a stage hypnotist to illustrate the point. Some are able to achieve a visibly deep ‘state’, displaying all the telltale signs of complete physical relaxation, rapid eye movement and body inertia, and in the main, these people are usually the best subjects – but not always. Occasionally these would-be stars of the show will not play the game when called upon to do so by the hypnotist. There’s nothing you can do about it; rather disappointingly, you have to let them go back to their seats, which of course is the last thing a stage hypnotist wants to do, especially one who makes the mistake of thinking he is there to make a point, and must prove that point at all costs.

Every stage hypnotist has at some stage (this is actually quite a regular occurrence) found himself having to deal with a subject who appears to be ‘asleep’ but who will not respond to any of the suggestions at all, despite any amount of prodding and pushing. What is different about these individuals? It is my opinion that this particular type of response, or lack of response (I call it playing dead on the battlefield) is caused by the person simply not wanting to respond. Maybe it’s because they feel embarrassed, or perhaps it’s because the experience of being hypnotised was not anything like they expected. Maybe it’s because they still feel in control and therefore not hypnotised. Whatever the reason, they lack the confidence to open their eyes and say ‘thanks, but no thanks. (More often than not it’s because they genuinely do not want to ruin the show.) People who find themselves involved in brawls often seem to feign unconsciousness. The mentality behind this behaviour is that they hope that their tormentor won’t notice them and leave them alone, or that by collapsing, they will no longer present a threat. ‘Playing dead’ is a survival strategy for some animals and humans alike. Either way, it is important for the stage hypnotist to be aware that the sooner these volunteers are sent back to their seats in the audience, the better they will feel and the better it will be for everyone concerned. The dangers of pressurising subjects on stage are well understood, but not always by stage performers.

Then, there are the individuals who, at the end of the induction, give the appearance of not being hypnotised at all, and yet are as eager to take part as the best of them. It is easy enough to explain this away by shrugging off the mystery and commenting that everyone is different and that’s just the way it goes in this game, and when do I get paid? But that explanation isn’t by any stretch of the imagination, good enough. We’re back to the age old problem – why some and not others? Is hypnosis an unusual or special state of mind or merely the focus of attention to the exclusion of everything else whereby the subject feels relaxed and comfortable enough to go along with the suggestions? The answer is not at all straightforward.

Stage hypnotists never have the opportunity (much less take the time and trouble) to talk with their subjects after a show, even though the law in the UK requires the hypnotist to remain on the premises for 60 minutes after the show has finished in case there are any problems, the idea being that the hypnotist would be available to deal with any problems that may arise by way of debriefing the terrified subject. Then the problem arises of what sort of debriefing would be available from someone who knows nothing about the background psychology and whose only hope is that the problem will probably solve itself after a good night’s sleep. Not likely if the unfortunate’s friends and relatives are egging them on. These problems are discussed in great detail in the chapter Inside Stage Hypnosis, in All in the Mind. However, these days I find myself speaking at a lot of student psychology conferences where there is an opportunity to question, to examine, to explore what it was exactly that just happened. What I am really interested in finding out is how many of the volunteers were, as stated above, relaxed and happy enough to go along with the suggestions in an environment where it was appropriate to do so, and how many felt that they were genuinely in an altered state of consciousness, one in which they felt they had abdicated control?

For this enquiry to be scientific, one must be careful not to inadvertently implant suggestions that could influence responses either way. But here’s the thing: sometimes I start the demonstration by telling the students that there really is no such thing as hypnosis, that it’s all just a matter of response to suggestion, and that no one is going to fall asleep, no one is going to lose consciousness and so forth. Other times I purposely forget to mention this and go for it anyway, hypnosis being presented as a foregone conclusion. The big surprise is that so far, and it matters not one whit which way I do it, the results are always the same. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell the little darlings that this is not an altered state of consciousness, that they will remain in ultimate control at all times, always around 30% to 40% report that they did feel as if something profound and highly unusual had taken place.

Ah, I hear you say; but surely this experience, by its very nature, is purely subjective – one man’s state of altered consciousness or if you like ‘trance’ is another man’s simple relaxation – it just felt a bit different because it’s the first time they tried it. And I suppose it all comes down to individual perception of what is actually happening. The problem is, all these volunteers are smart, intelligent psychology students, not about to be bamboozled by the arch bamboozler himself. And yet it does not matter how deeply one delves into their subjective experience, there remains that 30 to 40 percent who will stick by it.

So in the interests of completeness, I devised another little test. I ‘lock’ a volunteer’s arm in a teapot-like position and offer him a hundred English pounds if he can then move it. So far, I have not lost any money, and I have done this quite a few times now. Even when I say that the audience would rather them have the money, and they need not feel guilty about taking it, it makes no difference. Admittedly, I only do this after I have had chance to select the most responsive and suggestible – I’m not completely stupid!

Again, in the interests of the search for knowledge, I frequently seek out those who tell me they really felt like they were in a ‘deep trance’ and talk to them on their own, in other words, where there are no pressures, about their experience. Often, because of the nature of the environment, some come up to me at the end to discuss it. And in an effort not to appear intimidating or pressurising, I often send a young lay to enquire for me. The result is the same. I could understand it if some students stuck to their guns to save face for whatever reason, but every single one of them?

I am inexorably drawn to the conclusion that there are at least two, and possibly more, vastly different phenomena going on here, all brought about by the same relaxation process and that inadvertently, these phenomena have been grouped together under the umbrella of hypnosis, without much second thought. Perhaps it is only after one has taken the trouble to find out does this disparity in states come to one’s notice, but now I am aware of it, it makes sense. If indeed there are widely different things going on, that would explain, now I think back on it, all the unpredicted responses over the years. It is no longer enough to accept that ‘it just works most of the time because it does’ as a reasonable or rational explanation of what we are doing. This is something that needs to be looked into as a matter of urgency.

I care very much about what I do for a living, and I believe the time has come to expand the boundaries of research in the hope that the mystery may yet be solved. Unfortunately, unless I put together a proposal entitled Hypnosis and its Effect on Climate Change it is highly unlikely that I will get a grant to explore this further and so it will just have to be a matter of plodding on regardless, adding to my own experience and hopefully coming up with better answers.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2006. All rights reserved.