When I was a kid, my family doctor was a hypnotist. He hypnotized my mom before she gave birth to my little sister. Mom reports that she felt no discomfort during the birth, despite being awake and having no drugs. That story had a big impact on me.
When I was in my early twenties, I enrolled in the Pierre Clement School of Hypnosis in San Francisco. I thought I could earn some extra money hypnotizing people. And I figured maybe it could help with dating. I wasn’t getting too far on my charm alone.
The Pierre Clement School of Hypnosis is named after a notable and long dead hypnotist. I don’t know if it still exists. I couldn’t find it on Google. At the time, it consisted of one instructor and a small room where the eight or ten of us met twice a week, at night for a few hours, for maybe ten weeks. I forget the details. It was something like that. That was just the basic course. You could take another class to get the advanced therapy concepts, but I didn’t.
I’ve never heard of anyone learning hypnosis from reading a good book about it. An important part of the process involves being hypnotized yourself, and watching others being hypnotized. And frankly, it’s a bit hard to believe it works until you observe it yourself. As a hypnotist, you need to convey your confidence that the process works, or else it won’t. If you’re not personally convinced, the subject might pick up on that. I doubt you could get that sort of confidence from a book.
Let me stop here and give you some facts about hypnosis. It’s widely misunderstood. Later I’ll tell you how it’s done, but you won’t be able to reproduce it by reading about it here.
We talk of people “going under” hypnosis, or “going to sleep.” Both are misleading. A subject under hypnosis is fully aware of his environment. He’s awake, for all practical purposes, and can ignore any suggestion that might be objectionable. In the history of hypnosis, there’s no reliable record of anyone following a suggestion he thought would be harmful to himself or someone else. The subject doesn’t lose control.
So what does happen?
I describe the state of hypnosis as acquiring a power. The subject has all of his regular faculties operating plus he gains some more, if he has no objection to those new powers. For example, a subject under hypnosis would get a little extra power in one or more of these areas:
1. Extra relaxation
2. Extra imagination
3. Extra focus
Those extra powers don’t sound like much, but they are. In my experience, every person can be hypnotized, at least to the degree of getting some of those extra powers. People who say they can’t be hypnotized don’t understand hypnosis.
About one person in five can experience what hypnotists call “the phenomena.” For those people, their powers of imagination become so strong it is almost indistinguishable from reality. Those are the people who can give birth without pain, or see an elephant in the room, or eat an onion and think it’s an orange, or have multiple orgasms on suggestion. My name for that group is “lucky bastards.” For them, hypnosis can fix a lot of problems.
For the rest of the world, hypnosis can be a great way to relax, which has lots of health benefits. And it can help focus on good habits and away from bad ones. For example, it can help some people with minor phobias and bad habits. But it’s not a cure-all, and doesn’t seem to be more effective than alternative treatments for those same problems.
People who use hypnosis to quit smoking and quit overeating have about the same success as people who use other methods. In other words, it works less than half the time. The reason is simple. Hypnosis can only help you do what you want to do. If you want a cigarette more than you want to quit, hypnosis is useless. So is every other method. And if you want to quit more than you want to smoke, almost any method, including hypnosis, can make that quitting feel easier.
A common misconception is that the people who can experience hypnotic phenomena are weak-willed or gullible. There’s no truth to that. In fact, there’s no way to know how a person will respond to hypnosis by observing his personality. Often the smartest and most powerful people are easiest to hypnotize precisely because they aren’t afraid of the process. Sometimes the meek will be concerned that the hypnotist will turn them into zombies. So if you “can’t be hypnotized,” it’s nothing to brag about. It just means you don’t understand what hypnosis is.
Some people have a problem with the idea of hypnosis because they don’t want someone else having control over them. That’s the wrong way to think of it. A hypnotist is more like a coach, or a tour guide. He shows the subject how to unlock his extra powers. He doesn’t “control” the subject. In fact, I’ve never known anyone who didn’t totally enjoy the feeling of being hypnotized. It’s like getting a pedicure on your brain. It’s deeply relaxing, and the hypnotist does all of the work. It feels a bit like being pampered.
All that most people know about hypnosis is what they’ve seen in a stage hypnotist’s act. You might be wondering if the subjects are really actors and the whole thing is fixed. They’re real people. They are the one in five who can experience the phenomena. The thing the audience doesn’t realize is that what looks embarrassing to the spectators doesn’t feel that way to the people on stage, either during or after the act. In any large group, it’s easy to find a dozen people who will get on stage and do things you wouldn’t do, whether they are hypnotized or not. Part of the illusion that makes stage hypnosis entertaining is that you think you wouldn’t do what the people on stage are doing, so therefore they must be completely under the hypnotists “control.” That’s a misperception. Everyone on stage could stand up and walk off if they chose to. Experiencing the “phenomena” is a fascinating feeling, and only extroverts allow themselves to go on stage. They know what they’re doing, although they do experience their imagination almost as if real. But it’s 100% voluntary.
Our homework in hypnosis class involved finding subjects to hypnotize for practice. I ran an ad in a local publication saying I would hypnotize people to “remember” their previous lives, for $20. (We learned you should charge for your service because it makes you more credible and makes the hypnosis easier.)
I didn’t necessarily believe in reincarnation, but I thought it would be fun to test it. Several people answered the ad, and all but one imagined something that felt like a previous life. The experience convinced me that people can’t remember previous lives under hypnosis, because all of my subjects described historical situations right out of books. Everyone was a Viking or a French peasant or something easy to describe. No one was an ancient Etrusian, for example, because they wouldn’t know how to describe that sort of life.
Hypnosis does mess with memories. That has more to do with the fragility of memory than with the power of hypnosis. We all have the experience of remembering some childhood event and later realizing we’re only remembering the photographs we saw of the event. It’s the same with hypnosis. A powerful imagined memory can get confused with real ones, if there is even such a thing as a real memory. That’s why any story you hear about someone recovering a memory of abuse or alien abductions or anything else under hypnosis is always bullshit. Hypnosis can’t recover a memory. It can only confuse it.
The power of hypnosis, for me, was in understanding how easily people can confuse the imagined with the real. You can’t hypnotize someone to kill himself, because he would reject that suggestion. But religion can convince someone to kill himself by creating an imaginary afterlife with plentiful virgins for martyrs. So on a scale of dangerous imaginary things, hypnosis is somewhere closer to advertising, well below peer pressure, nowhere near religion.
In fact, part of your hypnosis homework involved watching a well-known preacher’s television show. He was a skilled hypnotist, although it was unclear how much was from training and how much was natural. Damn, he was good. Nothing he said made any sense whatsoever, and by that I don’t just mean it was hard to believe. I mean you couldn’t even discern his point. Yet somehow, it a-a-a-almost, kind of, sort of, made sense, so it drew you in. A half hour later you realized the only thing that made sense was “send me money.” That’s a standard hypnosis trick: You create a sense of confusion in the subject’s mind, and it makes him cling to the first clear thought that comes in. People don’t like to be confused for long, so the one clear thought in the mess of confusion takes on a higher power of influence. But it’s important to note that the hypnosis wouldn’t have been that effective, and evil, without the religion part.
Let’s talk about technique. First, hypnosis has nothing to do with the sound of your voice or swinging a watch in front of someone’s face. Hypnosis is done entirely with choice of words. You could do a Mickey Mouse impression and still hypnotize a blind guy, assuming it didn’t make him laugh.
Half of the process of hypnosis is performed before the subject knows you started. It’s called the pretalk. That’s where you describe to the subject, as I have in this post, what hypnosis is and isn’t, and answer any questions. The goal is to make sure the subject knows it’s not some sort of contest of willpower. The second goal of the pretalk is to convey your certainty that the hypnosis will work. If you’ve hypnotized lots of people, that part comes easy. You’ll have a natural confidence and matter-of-factness that the subject will pick up.
Then comes the induction, commonly known as “putting someone under.” The hypnotist has two goals in this phase. You want to relax the subject, and you want to show them the connection between your words and the changes they feel.
There are a variety of methods for hypnosis. I’ll describe the one I use the most. I ask the subject to sit upright in a comfortable chair, with feet on the ground. I ask the subject to pick a spot on the wall and concentrate on it. Hypnotists repeat themselves many times, so this is the highly edited version of what I might say:
“Concentrate on the spot you picked. Take a deep breath. Inhale, then exhale. Again. As you watch the spot, you’ll feel yourself relax. Your eyelids will feel heavier because it takes energy to keep them open. The natural position of your eyes is closed. It takes work to keep them open. As you relax, it will get harder to do that work. You’ll find yourself blinking, and with each blink, it might get harder to blink open. You might find yourself blinking more often. Eventually, the blinking will increase, and the eyelids will get heavier, and one of those blinks might keep your eyes closed.”
That’s a highly abbreviated version. I’d find five ways to say each of those ideas, and repeat as many times as it took. People who are in the one-in-five category flutter their eyes and shut them in about a minute. My objective is to convince the subject that something happened with their eyes because of something I said. Once they believe my words are having a direct influence on their relaxation, the effect snowballs. Imagination merges with reality.
Anyone will want to blink more often if you call attention to their rate of blinking. To the subject, it will seem as though he is blinking more because of something I said, when all that is happening is I made him think about his eyes.
By the way, I know you’re blinking a bit extra just reading this. I’m not hypnotizing you. It’s just a good example of the process.
If the subject’s eyes don’t close on their own, eventually I just tell him to close them. He will, because he’s the subject and I’m the hypnotist. And this starts a pattern of the subject experiencing a physical change because of the hypnotist’s words.
Then I tell my subject to relax his right hand, and feel the energy draining out of it. I work around the rest of the limbs, spending a minute on each. Any normal person will become quite relaxed just by focusing on his tension and releasing it one muscle at a time.
A hypnotist might also do something called pacing and leading. Pacing means matching the subject in some way, a mannerism or habit or style, then causing him to match you unconsciously. People copy other people automatically. For example, you know if you yawn, it often causes another person to yawn. Hypnosis is an extension of that process. So a hypnotist might first match the breathing pattern of the subject, in a very subtle way, and then start breathing slower to see if the subject matches the slower breathing without noticing.
Next comes the wordy part of the induction. I’d start by describing how relaxed the subject is, and ask him to imagine a walk in the forest. I’d leave out specifics, because the subject might be imagining an oak tree and I don’t want to say, “You notice a pine tree.” You never want to leave a clue that there’s any conflict between what you’re saying and the subject is experiencing.
After the forest, I take the subject down an imaginary set of steps that each have the word “sleep” written on them. With each step, I tell them they are getting deeper, and deeper. From there, they float onto an escalator, then an elevator, and then I ask them to see a floating pendulum. (I’m leaving out details of each scene.)
Part of what a hypnotist learns is how to read extremely subtle changes in the subject’s breathing, posture, and muscle tone. That’s how you can tell if what you’re doing is working or if you need to take longer. You would have to be a gifted actor to pretend to be hypnotized. It’s a distinct look that would be hard to fake. Neck muscles are the biggest tip off, as the subject’s head starts bobbing slightly, or the chin goes down to the chest. But you can also see the face relax to an unusual degree. And breathing becomes slow and regular.
By this point, the subject is so relaxed and so in synch with the hypnotist, that anything the hypnotist says (within reason) is as acceptable as if it had been generated by the subject’s own mind. It’s the extreme version of a yawn setting off another yawn.
Now comes the fun part. I typically suggest that the subject’s arm is becoming so light it will begin to float in the air. This can be a lengthy process, involving a series of suggestions starting with the thought that “your fingers might become light first, and that will cause one or more to twitch.” At this point, almost everyone will experience a finger twitch, and it will feel oddly involuntary. From there, it’s an easy road to suggest the arm is lighter than air and eventually, if the hypnotist persists, the arm starts to float. This is generally the “holy shit” moment for the subject who didn’t think he could be hypnotized. Almost everyone can experience the floating arm under hypnosis. It’s freaky. And it accelerates the “trance” if I can use that misleading word.
From there, I would suggest that any time I count from one to twenty, the subject would go deeper, and anytime I count toward one, the subject would be more awake. I’d run through the numbers slowly, changing directions, and observe the affect. Almost everyone is totally responding by this point. They are clearly more relaxed toward twenty, and visibly more awake toward one.
Now it’s time for the suggestions. You might suggest that a person feels comfortable flying on a plane, or dogs are cute and not dangerous, or the person is confident speaking on front of strangers, or whatever. This sort of suggestion rarely works in one session. You need about five sessions to make a difference. (The people who experience the phenomena might take fewer.)
To end the session, I suggest that when I count to zero the subject will awake and feel refreshed and happy and have a great day. I count to zero and they wake up. And they smile broadly. Every time. It’s a fun ride.
I’m leaving out plenty of details and side information, but this is enough to give you a flavor of the process.
What’s in it for the hypnotist? Lots. For one thing, you learn to read body language at a level that borders on psychic. You go beyond the obvious stuff like crossed arms and who is leaning toward whom, and see meaning in everything from skin tone, to breathing, to pupil dilation, and even choice of words. Never lie to a trained hypnotist.
The other super power you get from being a hypnotist is the knowledge of how to weave it into your normal life. For example, Dilbert is designed using tricks I learned from hypnosis. The reason Dilbert has no last name, and the boss has no name, and the company has no name, and the town has no name is because of my hypnosis training. I remove all the obvious obstacles to imagining Dilbert works at your company. That seems to work.
You can’t turn people into puppets with hypnosis, but it does tell you how to get in synch with them in a way that they are more likely to trust you and want to have you around. That’s handy in every walk of life. And you can tell if what you’re saying or doing is having a positive or negative impact as you are doing it. That helps a lot too.
But the best super power that hypnosis gives you is a different world view. Nothing in this life makes sense if you assume people are rational most of the time. Hypnosis teaches you how easily people’s memories and impressions can be altered. And it’s not just the gullible people, it’s all of us. It’s humbling. And it’s the most useful skill I’ve ever learned.
While hypnosis can't make a person do what he doesn't want to do, sometimes it can change what he thinks he wants, just as advertising and peer pressure do. It's not magic, but you shouldn't underestimate its power.