“Anyone can become a competent hypnotist after just a weekend’s training with Andrew Newton… provided of course they understand that there is no such thing as hypnosis..!”
The above quote was from South African Magazine ODYSSEY after I had been interviewed for a feature article on me and run by them in early 2008. Although I feel I was misquoted, they were not so far off the mark!
If you are reading this article to find out ‘how it’s done,’ then let me save you some time. Hypnosis is far to complex a subject to be explained in 1,500 words. Go back to watching the football. The point of this article is – whether one is using hypnosis as a therapeutic tool or performing hypnosis on the stage – some of the same fundamental problems arise.
The first problem is one that has bedevilled all practitioners for the last two centuries, and one that simply will not go away – not all people are responsive enough to suggestion (or guided imagery) to achieve hypnosis in the first place. What can be achieved relatively easily in the therapy room is often impossible in the stage setting, something we will look at later. Nevertheless, the eternal question still arises: ‘Why some and not others?’ James Esdaile, working in India in the 19th century summed up the problem thus;
“As yet, I am sorry to add, I cannot, with any degree of confidence, say who are the persons susceptible to the mesmeric influence, without first trying. But it is satisfactory to know, that by far the majority of persons acted upon by me, and my assistants, have been affected in different degrees, all of which are invaluable to their possessors, for the relief and cure of their diseases; and in most of the failures I have little doubt that we should have succeeded, if the process had been prosecuted.”
[Mesmerism in India: James Esdaile.]
Have you ever heard the story of the five blind men and the elephant? Each blind man is led up to the elephant and reaches out to touch it. The first blind man takes hold of the elephant’s trunk and says “Ah-ha! The elephant is like a snake!” The second takes hold of the elephant’s tail, and confidently declares that the elephant is like a piece of rope. The third, taking hold of one of the elephant’s tusks, is satisfied with the discovery that an elephant is like a spear, and so on. The fourth, chancing to come up against the side of the elephant’s body remarks that the elephant is like a vast wall, while the fifth blind man, taking hold of the leg, returns in the belief that the elephant is like a tree.
Each in their own way of course is right, and yet at the same time, each of them is hopelessly wrong – none of them are able to see the bigger picture, and the same is true of the study of hypnosis. Ask a hypnotist to define hypnosis and he is likely to say that hypnosis is a state of mind induced by relaxation combined with suggestion. Some hypnotists might even agree that the hypnotist is really surplus to requirements and that the subjects really just hypnotise themselves – that the hypnotist simply acts as a guide. Others would argue, and with a certain degree of accuracy, that the hypnotic induction is nothing more than a ritual which helps the subject focus and concentrate their attention, while others would claim that the phenomenon is the result of an artificially induced, albeit very mild, hysteria.
After nearly 200 years of study, the truth seems to be even stranger than the fiction surrounding it. Researchers in the United States, using modern computer imaging techniques have been able to map the areas of the brain that are affected by ‘hypnosis’, or suggestion, giving the closest thing to a snapshot of a trance.
The result? People who are engaged in vigorous physical exercise can be hypnotised just as easily as those who lie back on the couch with eyes closed, dreaming of warm sunny beaches and forest idylls.
Stage hypnotists play on the public’s preconceptions of the hypnotist as someone with a special power, and most stage hypnotists try their level best to live up to this Svengali-like image. Despite the portrayal of hypnosis (and hypnotists) in B-movies and sensational tabloid stories, hypnosis is completely safe and no more distressing than attending a lecture. Although some lectures may well send people to sleep, hypnosis is very definitely not sleep. The hypnotic state much more closely resembles the feeling of lethargy we all experience when we are dozing – aware of everything that is going on around us but at the same time making us infinitely more suggestible.
And it’s this suggestibility that is the real key. At the very basic level it’s why advertising works as well as how therapists persuade their clients to pack in smoking, lose weight or simply feel better about themselves. At the other end of the scale, the same techniques make it possible for charismatic ‘Christians’ like Benny Hinn and Reinhardt Bonnke to perform their ‘miracles.’ Adolf Hitler fully understood the tremendous power of suggestion and used it ruthlessly to mesmerize an entire nation. And in case you’re wondering, stage hypnotists all over the planet use precisely these same techniques to manipulate not only their subjects, but their audiences too, on a nightly basis.
All these techniques can be easily explained and understood.
“Almost without exception, attendees come away [from Newton’s Courses] feeling that they have had a massive eye-opener. But the real beauty is the way Newton puts across his side of the story, making hypnosis accessible to all… Whether you are already in practice as a therapist or counsellor, or just want to learn more about the phenomena, everyone who attends walks out at the end with the basic skills needed to successfully hypnotise virtually anyone. Andrew Newton taught many of the famous names in the business today, including Paul McKenna.”
The public misunderstanding of hypnosis is equalled only by the ignorance of the psychology behind it. The two most common misconceptions are that psychology is the study of the mind and that hypnosis takes place in the subconscious. Both assumptions are wrong. Psychology is the study of behaviour and not the study of the mind, which is anyway too difficult to define or quantify. Second, there is no such thing as the subconscious – any first year psychology student knows this and yet the word keeps turning up like the proverbial bad penny. Simply put, there is only the conscious and the unconscious.
So where then does hypnotism come in? The simple answer? There is no such thing as hypnosis, there is only suggestion and that’s all there is to it. Hypnosis is a bad word to describe what hypnotists actually do, and that’s because of its preconceived associations with sleep.
There’s nothing supernatural or mysterious about it, in fact once you understand the concept, it’s very much like being astonished by a spectacular conjuring trick and then having the trick explained. A few choice words and people’s entire belief systems can be changed in the flickering of an eye… In conjunction with some very deft slight of hand, Uri Geller relies heavily on the use of suggestion to persuade us that the teaspoon really is bending before our very eyes. Derren Brown uses the same sort of hocus-pocus on his television shows. Suggestion is all around us. Even politicians resort to tried and tested tricks of the trade to refocus our attention away from the real issues.
Lawyers use words very carefully to elicit the desired responses from witnesses. For example, prosecuting a case, an advocate will very likely ask the question “when you first saw the vehicle, how fast was it going?” but if defending, the same advocate would more likely ask “when you first saw the vehicle, how slowly was it going?” By changing one word only, the question takes on a whole new meaning, painting a completely different picture in the mind. Advertisers seldom waste much time selling the product, they are going to generate more sales by selling the lifestyle associated with it. Yes folks, you too can have a happier life if only you change to Brand X!
It’s easy to learn these basic techniques and even easier to put them into practice once you know what you’re looking for. The fact is, its part of the human condition to respond to suggestion, and we all do it to some degree or other on a daily basis.
Here’s my favourite example: during the filming of the original film of ‘Planet of the Apes’ movie, lots of extras were engaged by the film studio to play the chorus of humans and apes. In Hollywood, being a film extra is almost a career in itself and many of the extras knew each other from previous movies. Within the first week of filming, actors who had been good and long-time friends started to form new alliances. Suddenly, all the human extras started taking lunch together whilst the ape extras formed new cliques.
By the end of the second week, the ape extras had separated into distinct and recognisable groups, chimpanzees only dining with chimpanzees, gorillas with gorillas, with the orang-utans forming their own elitist group (in keeping with the script).
The father of modern advertising, John B. Watson, was convinced that human behaviour is both predictable and controllable. He was right! One of the premises of Watson’s work is that people can train themselves to do anything. This is in harmony with modern ideas of self-improvement. In Rogerian Psychology, the therapist is not responsible for changes in the client. “The client must consciously and rationally decide for themselves what is wrong and what should be done about it. The therapist is more of a confidant or counsellor who listens and encourages on an equal level.” Hypnosis gives psychologists and behaviourists another tool in the box… and a very powerful one at that.
It certainly helps to have a mentor, someone who is able to guide the person toward their chosen goal. This is where hypnosis comes into its own. It enables the therapist or counsellor to take short cuts that otherwise would be dead end streets.
So that’s it then… a little relaxation and a few choice words. Understanding and knowing how to use the power of suggestion can make a world of difference, and it really is powerful stuff.
“Newton himself regards the skill as portable wealth. And for a man who the world’s most successful hypnotist at the age of 28, that is no idle boast.”
So in the end, it doesn’t matter whether you call it hypnosis, suggestion, or Tibetan Mind Control, it’s the same dance, just a different tune. Above all, hypnosis is, like the elephant -all these things and more. In other words, the phenomenon of hypnosis is greater than the sum of all its parts.