Hypnosis or Hocus Pocus?

Andrew Newton, an internationally renowned hypnotist with 30 years experience has 6,000 live performances and television shows under his belt, and has hypnotised over 60,000 people. Here, he spills the beans and tells us what it is he really does for a living!

arti6Sometime in 1989, I had agreed, against my better judgement in truth, to do a few hypnosis shows on a cruise ship. Once on board, my worst fears were soon realised: there would be no escape from the various members of the audience who wanted to know ‘how it’s done’ or who at least wanted to find out more about it. ‘Is it like a ray that comes out of your eyes?’ a rather small (but large) American woman wanted to know. I had a choice; I could get myself involved in a long and predictably drawn out explanation of the background psychology, including the nature of suggestion, the importance of relaxation, the expectancy of the subject, and the ability of the person being hypnotised to focus their attention. Instead, I copped-out and said ‘Yes, it’s a magic ray that emanates from the deepest recesses of my reptilian brain.’ Satisfied with this revelation, she turned to her husband, an even larger example of unchecked American consumerism, and said to him in a kind of I told you so kind of way, ‘You see Hyram, I told you so!’ And the two waddled off to the free buffet as happy as two Americans heading for a free buffet.

And therein lies the difficulty. Most people’s experience of Hypnosis has been because they have attended a live stage show or seen it on TV and so they expect that hypnosis has some spectacular cause. After all, the stage hypnotist can seemingly get his subjects to do virtually anything on command, something that the clinical hypnotherapist often fails to do (mainly because the clinical hypnotherapist has not the slightest interest in getting his subject to run round the room like a chicken.) This is understandable – surely a spectacular effect must have a spectacular root cause. Er… no. The truth is far more simple and so obvious when you finally understand the principle, that it’s been one of the hardest things to explain to people. You see, hypnosis, rather like the tooth fairy, doesn’t exist. That’s right… hypnosis doesn’t exist; it’s a fallacy, an illusion, an elaborate psychological trick. That’s right, folks, the real truth is that what the audience sees, is not necessarily what is happening on the stage. I think I better explain.

In the 18th Century, there was a priest called Father Glassner who was famous for performing exorcisms throughout Europe. Thousands were cured, and such was his reputation, the poor demon-possessed victims were already writhing on the floor in a pool of their own well, I leave it to your own imagination, before Glassner got started. Even fascinated medical doctors attended his gigs and most went away even more perplexed than they were at the beginning. The redoubtable priest would mumble a few words, ending with the ever popular ‘get the behind me Satan’ or some such nonsense and merely touch the unfortunate victim with a large brass crucifix. Hey Presto! The evil spirits and demons that had possessed them were banished forever. In other words, their psychosomatic illnesses were cured on the spot. Today, psychologists and psychiatrists would recognise this for what it is – stand-up therapy.

One of those present at Father Glassner’s Vienna concert, part of his 1776 European tour was a physician called Franz Mesmer. Mesmer, not surprisingly, saw through Glassner’s theatrical charade almost at once and very quickly realised that these illnesses were in no way caused by evil spirits, but that the cure was more likely something to do with the composition of the metal in the cross. Obvious when you think about it. Mesmer immediately began experimenting with magnetism and soon his reputation attracted the attention of the social elite, who, by now bored spending Sunday afternoons at the lunatic asylums, started to attend Mesmer’s soirees instead. One of the things that Mesmer discovered early on was that the more dramatic he made it, the more likely it became that people were cured. And cured they were, with an impressive success rate, particularly when the illness really was psychosomatic. There was one widely reported case of hysterical blindness being cured, which impressed nearly everybody at the time. There was only one problem which Mesmer hadn’t foreseen – in a fit of professional jealousy, other outraged members of the medical profession kicked Mesmer out of town without bothering to investigate his claims properly, and Mesmerism as it became known, was almost universally discredited for the next two hundred years.

Fast forward to the mid twentieth century and stage Mesmerists as they were then known, were coining it in playing to capacity crowds in the music halls of Europe and North America. Eventually, just after the Second World War, even serious medical practitioners had to accept that there was something to all this hocus-pocus, although there was almost certainly a psychological element involved and that more research was needed. An article in the British Medical Journal stated that hypnosis was nothing more than ‘an excitement of the imagination… nonetheless, its application to pain relief cannot be underestimated.’

How right the Journal was in this astute observation! This represented a major step forward for hypnosis, which by that time had gone through a series of brand-name makeovers, including the more cumbersome names of hypneurology and hypnopsychometry. Eventually, everyone agreed on the name Hypnosis, probably because it was easier to spell. But that was another mistake. The very word hypnosis comes from the Greek word which means ‘sleep’ and the state of hypnosis is nothing like sleep. When subjects are ‘hypnotised’ on stage, the stage performer often commands them to ‘sleep!’ and they immediately collapse into what appears to be a trance-like state before your very eyes! So what are the stage hypnotists doing that is so very different from the clinical hypnotherpaists?

The answer is, just one thing… they are putting on a show, and the subjects, all willing volunteers, are happy to go along with the suggestions because the stage hypnotist is providing an appropriate environment for them to behave in a certain way. In other words, all the stage hypnotist is really doing different is to persuade his subjects to modify their behaviour according to the suggestions given.

Now that of course doesn’t mean for one moment that the subjects on the stage are merely playing along for the amusement of the audience – not a bit of it. The hypnotist has in fact managed to produce a profound psychological change in the mind of the volunteers to make them behave like that, and that’s the real trick. In fact hypnosis is just that, it’s a psychological trick, or rather a series of psychological tricks, culminating in the spectacular effects we all love to marvel at. At its most basic level, the state of hypnosis simply has to have neurological correlations just the same as any other emotional state, for example feelings of joy or anger.

The inconvenient truth about hypnosis is that in the clinical setting, where hypnosis is carried out purely for the purpose of effecting therapeutic change, only a very light state of hypnosis is actually required. Increasingly, as more disciplines such as Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) are added to the therapist’s toolbox, hypnotherapists are cutting short the actual hypnosis part of the session and opting for a light state of relaxation instead. So how, I hear you wonder, does this new philosophy affect the outcome of a session of hypnotherapy? Well for a start, it cuts the time spent getting a subject to focus on a bright object until after ten or so minutes their eyes start to get heavy and tired – eventually so heavy and tired they start to close and the participant that stays awake the longest is the winner, or hypnotist… These days, a simple request to the subject to close their eyes is sufficient for the therapist to help them relax to the point where the real business of therapy – personal change – can begin.

Hypnosis – the actual process of getting a subject to relax is so irrelevant now to successful therapy, that I can see a time very soon when hypnotherapists and NLP practitioners and the like will be referred to as ‘Guided Imagery Specialists.’ And that would be a much more accurate description of what is really going on! But of course, simply using a little guided imagery is something that can be learned and mastered by anyone with a modicum of imagination in a very short time. Maybe that’s why there are so many stage hypnotists in the world.

So, is the hypnotist actually hypnotising people, or is he just using guided imagery to effect the desired long term change and therefore the cure? No, it’s actually a ray that comes out of my eyes…

Copyright Andrew Newton 2006. All rights reserved.