Hypnosis – The Ins and Outs
I have always had more than a passing interest in hypnotism but at the same time it was tempered with a healthy dose of scepticism. Watching stage performers on television, how could you not be suspicious? How can you not suspect the hypnotist of planting a few friends out in the audience? Plus, the whole notion of messing around with peoples’ minds raises any number of psychological health concerns not to mention a few ethical ones thrown in for good measure.
At any rate, without really doing any serious research into the subject, I had come to some simple conclusions about hypnotism:
1. Hypnotism is real, in the sense that people who are in a deeply relaxed state can be told to do certain things they might not otherwise do or convinced that certain things which are false are actually true (or vice versa)
2. Not everyone can be hypnotised. Some people (analytical, more ‘intellectual’ people) are fundamentally ‘unhypnotisable’. The converse then is also true; i.e. people who tend to be a little ‘dreamy’ or less rigorous in their thinking are perfect candidates for hypnotism
3. You can’t hypnotise someone who doesn’t want to be hypnotised
4. Even under hypnosis, you can’t make someone do something fundamentally opposed to their morals or beliefs
5. Nevertheless, hypnotism can be dangerous. You are after all, playing with someone’s subconscious and this could have unexpected negative psychological consequences
Last Sunday, I saw a friend of mine, Gabriel Dye, do a live hypnotism show in South Korea (as the hypnotist, not one of the subjects!) and what I saw there forced me to seriously re-think some of my assumptions. Given that I know Gabriel personally, I was able to set aside all concerns that the whole thing was staged, and that allowed me to really question this whole phenomenon in more detail. The remainder of this article summarises my (admittedly still inchoate and subject to revision) thoughts on this still quite mysterious subject.
The first step in hypnotising someone is getting them to ‘sleep’. Now as far as I can tell, the aim here is not to put the subject to sleep, but rather to get them into a deeply relaxed state, something not unlike that ‘twilight’ phase where you are on the verge of sleep but still semi-conscious, retaining some vague awareness of what is happening around you. I suspect everybody has experienced something like this; being exceptionally tired and slowly drifting off to sleep in a place where others are talking or a TV is on – you can still hear what is happening, perhaps even individual words, but they take on a distinctive ‘muffled’ quality, as if you are detached from them somehow. Or vice versa; i.e. waking up but still not fully conscious of your surroundings, perhaps able to hear a dog barking and recognise it as such but unable to form any cogent thoughts about it. To put it in more colloquial terms; half awake and half asleep.
To start this process, Gabe did some audience participation work, ostensibly to establish the validity of what he called the ‘mind-body link’
The exercises all involved us holding our arms out in front of us, focusing on a single point, closing our eyes (still visualising that point), and then listening to Gabe’s instructions. His instructions were all an attempt to get our fingers/hands/arms to move, apparently on their own, i.e. without us consciously willing them to move. I was mildly surprised to notice that in the first activity, my fingers actually did feel ‘magnetised’ and begin to move towards each other. At that point, I remembered some earlier experiences I had had in my more ‘new-agey’ days when I was trying to ‘feel’ energy. I would bring my hands closer together imagining a ball of energy in the middle and at a certain point I could really feel something like resistance, as if there was really a ball of energy keeping them apart. Of course, it was all in my mind. This was exactly the same. If you really listen to the hypnotist (or guided meditation speaker in what is essentially the same process) and imagine what they tell you to imagine, you will feel something. Of course, you can easily resist this extremely subtle effect, but if you go along with it, your fingers will draw together, seemingly on their own. This quite effectively established the mind-body link, i.e. if your mind accepts something (in this case the ‘fact’ that your fingers are moving together), your body will follow.
There was another purpose for this exercise though, namely to actually begin the induction process. First, it let Gabe see who was receptive and really willing to let go and be a part of the experience. If your fingers didn’t move, you were resisting and would never go under. Second, it got those people who were receptive into the habit of following his instructions. They were already training themselves to listen and follow. I have since seen this exact same thing done in a number of different hypnotism videos on YouTube. The hypnotist invariably gets the subject to follow a couple of simple commands for no other reason than to get them into the habit of following his instructions without questioning them. For example, in one clip the hypnotist asks his subject to take a step forward and once she did that to put her feet together. There was absolutely no reason for that. She wasn’t too far away, stepping forward didn’t help the induction in any way… but it got the girl used to listening and following directions.
I was extremely surprised to see Gabriel complete this induction process in less than twenty seconds on stage. I had thought it would require a deep and lengthy relaxation process, something like a guided meditation, progressively relaxing all muscles and ‘leading’ the subject down to the desired state. Not only was Gabe able to induce the subjects quickly but he used a quite vigorous jerking action on each of them, which I would have expected to produce the opposite effect; i.e. completely snap them out of their relaxed state and automatically provoke them to tense their muscles and resist. It didn’t.
Again, on YouTube, I have seen just about every single hypnotist put their subjects under extremely quickly using some kind of strong jerking action, usually with a simultaneous command to ‘sleep’. As far as I know, this is used to ‘interrupt’ the thought processes of the subject and basically shock them into completely surrendering to the hypnotist. Given the fact that this method is so well-attested to on the internet and that I have seen it in action myself, I must assume it works. I also had a friend perform this action on me (in this case suddenly pushing my head down) and it was surprisingly disorienting (he wasn’t inducing me, just demonstrating how he thought I should do it to him – I was trying to induce him!). I remember my mind just going black for a second. It kind of jolted me into a state of complete surrender and ‘emptiness’.
One other thing that seems to be important here is timing. The hypnotists I have seen all seem to be looking for something very specific before they perform this jerking action. It is my hypothesis that they are waiting for the subject to be at just the right point, a point that often seems to involve their eyes being out of focus, and from there, if the ‘jerk’ is executed in an abrupt fashion, it kind of catapults the subject into a state of deep relaxation.
So, What is Actually Happening When Someone is Hypnotised?
Once the subject is in this state of deep relaxation they seem to be virtually completely open to suggestion. Gabe had one guy getting instantly drunk on water, made a girl forget the number 7 and caused one guy to immediately put his head down and go to sleep after returning to his seat. These were all interesting and amazing to see but there was one suggestion he gave to one girl in particular combined with one comment he had earlier made to me in a private conversation that I think reveal something about what is actually going on here.
The suggestion was that a regular water bottle on the floor weighed a thousand pounds and no matter how hard the woman tried she wouldn’t be able to lift it (she was motivated to do so because if she drank it all she would win $50). As you might expect, she tried to lift it but couldn’t, appearing to be genuinely confused.
Now the first thing to note here is that clearly she is physically capable of lifting the water bottle even while under hypnosis (i.e. Gabe didn’t make any physical changes to her strength); mentally though, she obviously thinks she can’t. Where this gets interesting is when you think about just how easy it is to lift a 500ml water bottle, even if you are trying and pretending you can’t. In fact, you have to be exceptionally careful when pretending you can’t lift a water bottle because it’s so easy to lift or move it by accident.
I explained this to a friend, using a water bottle as a prop, and he argued against me saying that since she thought it weighed a thousand pounds, she would approach it as if it did weigh a thousand pounds and therefore be in no danger of knocking or tipping it over accidentally. To demonstrate, he stepped up to the water bottle and pretended to try and lift it up – the problem was that in trying to do so, he actually did lift it a few centimetres, inadvertently showing his own argument to be false.
The bottom line here is that it is surprisingly difficult to actually fail to lift something so light when pretending you can’t. This is of interest to us because it means that when the hypnotised woman did fail to lift the water bottle, she must have been very careful to make sure she actually didn’t lift it. But in order to be careful about lifting it by accident this must mean that a part of her was actually acutely aware that she could physically lift the water bottle easily.
We can test this hypothesis by considering what would happen if she really, truly, deeply believed that the water bottle weighed a thousand pounds. She would brace herself, step up to it and try with all her might… and it would go flying up into the air. Imagine if there was a huge boulder in front of you. Since you aren’t Superman (or Superwoman) you have no chance of moving it but your friend dares you to try. You know you can’t but he (or she) insists so you gear up, wrap your hands around it and lift… and fall over backwards throwing the boulder behind you in the process. What happened? Your friend was playing a trick on you. The ‘boulder’ was a blow-up toy. The point is that even though you fully believed it was a real, immovable boulder and you had no chance of lifting it, because it wasn’t real and you were really trying, you did in fact lift it. Exactly the same thing would have happened to our hypnotised subject had she really tried to lift her ‘boulder’.
So what does this tell us? It tells us that on some level she knew she had to pretend and was in fact pretending to try and lift the water bottle.
This conclusion is also supported by something Gabe related to me in a private conversation. After successfully hypnotising a subject, he later asked her what it was like and to his surprise she denied that she had been hypnotised, insisting that she was just playing along. Gabe found this hard to believe because her responses at the time were so convincing, but it is interesting to note that this is the conclusion we have already come to through methods not involving self-reporting (which is a notoriously flawed method of enquiry).
But it isn’t quite as simple as this because, despite what I have claimed above, i.e. that the subject is pretending to be unable to lift the water bottle, after having witnessed the responses and reactions of real people who have been hypnotised I am fully convinced that on some level they did in fact believe the suggestion of the hypnotist, i.e. she wasn’t consciously pretending to be unable to lift the water bottle.
Putting these together, it seems that the inescapable conclusion is that subconsciously (by which I mean nothing more mysterious than beneath analytical, conscious awareness) the hypnotised subjects are pretending in order to fulfil the suggestions of the hypnotist, but consciously, they aren’t aware of this deception they are engaged in. In effect, they are deceiving themselves.
Now this seems even more problematic. How can someone deceive themselves like this? We might argue that this is nonsensical; one either knows one can lift a water bottle or doesn’t know, we can’t both know and not know.
I would argue that this is false and, contrary to what might be thought, we do in fact see instances of such deception all the time. Consider someone who believes in Christianity
Think about what Christians do in church. They gather together, singing about how much they believe; they support and justify each other’s belief, valuing it above all else (certainly far above knowledge); they make unbelief a sin, something you can and will be punished for – are these the acts of people who truly believe something? Have you ever said to yourself you believe the sun will rise tomorrow or you believe that gravity will pull you back to earth if you jump up? Do scientists get together and attempt to convince each other that atoms are real, praising those among them with the strongest belief? Of course not. Because we really, truly believe these things to be true. We believe them so much that asserting these beliefs would be completely redundant and would in fact sound ridiculous. This is what true belief looks like.
Think about what Christians do when they read the Bible? Do they read every passage honestly and grapple with the blatant contradictions therein (it is the word of God after all)? No. They cherry pick, ignoring the blatant sexism, skimming the sections where God murders hundreds of His own people, disregarding the two contradictory accounts of creation in Genesis, taking generous creative licence with the section where Jesus refuses to heal the child of a non-Jew or when he explicitly tells us he didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword. Are these the actions of people who truly believe the Bible is the word of God? Hardly.
How could Christians who supposedly truly, honestly believe in God and Christianity know to ignore all of the evidence in the Bible that contradicts their faith? On some level, they must know the evidence is there (certainly enough has been said about it, particularly in recent years) but they choose not to engage with it (many Christians don’t even bother to read the Bible in its entirety). Why? Because they don’t want their most cherished beliefs to come under attack. They don’t want to lose their beliefs, that is, they choose to protect their beliefs from any evidence that might show them to be false. They couldn’t do this unless on some level, they knew that Christianity isn’t as rock solid as they pretend it is.
What’s more, if you talk to someone who used to be a ‘true believer’ they will often tell you that in truth they think they stopped believing long before they were able to admit it to themselves. That means on some level they knew the belief was false but continued to consciously believe. Sounds a lot like self-deception to me.
So, after all of this what is the verdict on what is happening to the hypnotised subject? Well, it seems that, contrary to popular opinion which holds that the hypnotist is bypassing the analytical, critical-thinking conscious and tapping into the subconscious directly, what is actually happening is more like the exact opposite; the hypnotist is rendering the conscious awareness of the subject (very) amenable to suggestion (accounting for why the subject consciously believes what the hypnotist has said) while being completely unable to affect some other part of the mind (this is almost certainly NOT the subconscious as we typically think of it, rather it is the same part of the mind which in Christians knows the truth of the evidence against their religion but simply brushes these inconvenient facts to the side focusing on other things which support their belief), a part which knows the truth and actually turns out to be indispensable in making sure the suggestion gets carried out realistically.
Is hypnotism dangerous regarding the psychological health of the subject? If it is true that deep parts of the mind aren’t being disturbed, as I have argued for above, then I doubt there is any cause for concern on psychological grounds regarding hypnotism. The subject simply becomes very gullible while in that deeply relaxed state.
If a subject is not ‘woken up’ will they continue to believe the suggestions given to them by the hypnotist? This question reminds me of an old movie called Office Space in which the protagonist is hypnotised and put in a deeply relaxed state. Unfortunately, before the hypnotist can snap him out of the trance, he (the hypnotist) has a heart attack, leaving our hero in that same completely relaxed state and rendering him unfazed by anything that happens for days afterwards. I now doubt that this would happen. Left to him or herself, I imagine the subject would naturally emerge out of the deeply relaxed state the hypnotist induced (if you don’t believe me, try and stay in that semi-conscious, completely relaxed state just before sleep we talked about earlier – you will naturally fall asleep and then wake up without any negative side effects at all).
Can you be hypnotised against your will? I still think, in general, you can’t be hypnotised against your will. You have to willingly participate in the induction process by using your imagination, listening to the instructions of the hypnotist and actively not resisting. Having said this however, it does seem possible to me that someone could theoretically be hypnotised if the hypnotist was very skilled and quickly induced them before they had the chance (or presence of mind) to actively resist. As I said, that sudden jerking of the head is a very powerful technique for catapulting someone’s mind into a blank, receptive state. In general, I think the subject must allow themselves to be lulled into that calm, relaxed state but one on one, ‘ambush-hypnotising’ someone before they can resist seems to me to be at least feasible.
Is it true that you can’t make a person do something against their morals even under hypnosis? After much reflection I now think this is false and what’s more, I think the question is actually meaningless.
Let’s take a look at why I think this is false first. Certainly, under hypnosis it is possible to make people do things they would never do under normal circumstances, but how far could we carry this? Think about your behaviour in some of your most disturbing dreams. In a typical dream, you don’t realise you are dreaming
In addition to this, the question assumes that we each have something like a code of morals etched into our minds somewhere. This seems to be a fairly flimsy hypothesis. Despite what most religions want you to believe, we don’t have an unchanging ‘core self’ locked away somewhere that is fundamentally good… or fundamentally anything. We are all capable of amazing, self-sacrificing goodness as much as we are all capable of truly depraved and despicable evil. What I’m saying is, under a certain set of circumstances we are all capable of murder, which means that it makes no sense to say you can’t make someone do something against their morals because there is no such thing as ‘your morals’, in the sense of a fixed code of conduct one would, or could, never violate.
Is hypnosis sinister? Given the fact that you are controlling someone else’s behaviour, hypnosis (as I have depicted it in this article) can certainly be used for sinister or immoral ends, but I don’t think that makes hypnosis itself sinister. The curious fact that the human brain can be manipulated like this is neither sinister nor innocent. Hypnotising someone for some light-hearted fun or to reveal this interesting aspect of the brain is innocent; hypnotising someone into doing something illegal for your benefit is sinister. Hypnosis itself is just a tool; the person wielding it is where the moral buck stops.
My Earlier Conclusions Revisited
In light of all this it might be interesting to quickly revisit the conclusions I had come to about hypnotism prior to last Sunday and see how they look now:
1. Hypnotism is real, in the sense that people who are in a deeply relaxed state can be told to do certain things they might not otherwise do or convinced that certain things which are false are actually true (or vice versa).[True]
2. Not everyone can be hypnotised. Some people (analytical, more ‘intellectual’ people) are fundamentally ‘unhypnotisable’. The converse then is also true; i.e. people who tend to be a little ‘dreamy’ or less rigorous in their thinking are perfect candidates for hypnotism. [This is 100% false. Everybody is ‘hypnotisable’, it just requires a certain willingness/passiveness on the part of the subject]
3. You can’t hypnotise someone who doesn’t want to be hypnotised. [Under normal circumstances this holds, but if someone can be caught off guard so they don’t actively resist, I think this conclusion may no longer be true]
4. Even under hypnosis, you can’t make someone do something fundamentally opposed to their morals or beliefs. [False]
5. Nevertheless, hypnotism can be dangerous. You are after all, playing with someone’s subconscious and this could have unexpected negative psychological consequences. [False]
However you look at it, hypnosis is certainly a strange and interesting phenomenon. The above is my attempt at understanding and explaining hypnosis with the knowledge I currently have. To this date, I haven’t successfully hypnotised anyone and have never been hypnotised myself, so both of these facts impose considerable limitations on all of the conclusions I have drawn thus far… but that hasn’t stopped me from drawing them… and then foisting them onto unsuspecting readers. Naturally, none of the above opinions are written in stone and I fully expect some of them to change and others to be completely replaced as new information comes to light. And that, I suppose, is the whole point of learning.