Much of the hypnotic content of hypnotic procedures has more to do with creating an attitude of belief and expectancy in the hypnotic subject than it has with any scientific neurological basis for inducing these hypnotically altered states.
Take for example the magnetic passes of a Mesmerist. Mesmerism is the root of western hypnosis. Mesmer’s techniques had a greater and more direct impact on modern hypnotic practices than the “occult” hypnotic practices that went underground during the period of Christianization of Europe.
Now a great deal of pseudoscience has grown out of Mesmer’s basic philosophy that too much or too little “animal magnetism” was responsible for diseases and disturbed mental conditions. In Mesmerism, hypnotic passes are made across the hypnotic subject’s body. Much is made of which direction these passes should be made in order to restore balance.
The point is that even when you break the complex codex of rules that grew up around Mesmerism, hypnotic states are still achieved. So the magic is not in the formula, it’s in the mindset the formula creates in the hypnotic subject.
Mesmer himself was said to have been a mysterious, powerful figure. He has a “strong face” at a time when people still believed in the predictive power of physiognomy. He often ran around in a billowing cloak, like an ancient magician, and his office aesthetic would have made an occultist proud!
Mesmeric rituals were all about the show. It is no wonder that this discipline was the direct grandfather of modern stage hypnosis.
What does all this have to do with tricking people into hypnosis?
The answer comes to us from stage hypnosis, and to some extent how it influenced modern hypnotherapy.
Stage hypnotists have know for a long time now that you need to have “convincers” - little hypnotic example pieces that convince the audience - and more importantly the hypnotic subject - that something unusual is happening.
Usually these convincers take the form of suggestions given during waking hypnosis - the so called suggestibility tests (though I believe this name to be an inaccuracy!) You know the kind of test I mean: the hand clasp (your hands are locked), eye catalepsy (you cannot open your eyes), dictionary balloon etc.
Here is where hypnotists can run into a problem. You know the old problem “What came first the chicken or the egg?”
Well the hypnosis equivalent is this: “What came first hypnosis or belief in hypnosis?”
So the problem a hypnotist has when setting out to do his stuff is that he needs to create belief in people that the hypnosis is working.
Now sometimes he’s lucky, he has people there willing to dive into the experience without too much doubt. These hypnotic subjects become the first to be used in hypnotic demonstrations, thereby opening the floodgates for others to believe in “the power” of the hypnotist or hypnosis - or whatever else the hypnotist is selling.
But what happens on the odd occasion that the odds are stacked against you? What if probability strikes and you don’t happen to have the perfect candidate for hypnosis ready to start your hypnotic demonstrations with?
This is where you need to start thinking outside the box.
This question has lead to some of the greatest innovations in hypnosis trainings - overload inductions, confusion inductions (like the ones Erickson made famous), therapeutic double binds (e.g. “If you’re unconscious is ready to go into hypnosis your right hand will lift, otherwise your left hand will lift” - either way you get automatic motion, a surefire sign of hypnosis!)
However other techniques were also developed. The one I want to mention here is one which I must confess I am still unsure of in terms of their ethical application.
Remember that once you have belief, hypnosis is sure to follow.
So a while back a group of hypnotists realized that if they can create the illusion of something hypnotic happening, the belief that this generates opens the floodgates for genuine hypnosis to occur. So they decided to cheat.
To cheat all you have to do is make a suggestion - actually more a prediction about what someone is about to experience - and then make sure it will happen.
One low level cheat like this is Erickson’s ingenious suggestion “In a moment you are going to blink… (pause and wait for the blink)… that’s right!”
When enough of these mini predictions come true, the individual begins to respond to suggestions at ever increasing rates.
As ethical binds go I don’t think that one really merits any concern.
However here is something which enters they grey areas of doubt when it comes to “dealing honestly” with people.
Consider the following situation: the hypnotist presses a penny into the hypnotic subject’s hand. He closes the subject’s fist and then tells him
“You are going into hypnosis. You won’t know its happening but you are going into hypnosis none the less - in fact as you go into hypnosis the penny in your hand will begin to heat up. It’s getting hotter and hotter. When it gets so hot you have to drop it, you will close your eyes and go into a deep trance…”
Of course what the hypnotic subject does not know is that the penny has been treated with a chemical that reacts to human skin by heating up! Of course the hypnotic subject soon experiences his hand burning - because it is!
Now this little trick - apart from being a little dangerous (the chemical in question is corrosive and can damage the skin) - could be very useful. The client that came to a hypnotist for hypnotherapy has been “fooled” into opening the doors that will allow him to get better.
However there is a price to pay: if the client ever discovers the cheat - he may be upset or even lose faith in the whole process. Not only could this hypnotist find it close to impossible to work with this hypnotic subject, but other hypnotists may experience the same problem!
This dilemma is one that each hypnotist must resolve for herself. When you learn hypnosis you should be made aware of the tricks and the cheats, but also of the possible consequences of using them.
Good hypnosis training will expose you to the range so that you can recognize the situations in which a low level cheat might be quite useful.
For example B Stokvis describes an ingenious hybrid cheat/genuine induction using optical effects (”A simple hypnotizing technique with the aid of color-contrast action.”
Amer. J. Psychiat. 1952, 109, 380-381).
In his method he recommends showing the hypnotic subject a card with two color strips pasted on it. These have been pasted on in such a way that prolonged staring will cause optical illusions that look like hypnotic hallucinations to occur. The colors will change sides, new colors emerge etc.
The point is that it uses such an obscure point of optical physiology that most people will ascribe the effects to genuine hypnosis and hence the force of suggestion gets augmented quickly.
The likelihood of someone seeing through the ruse is minimal - besides a genuine hypnotic situation is still set up: eye fixation, restriction of attention, active use of suggestion etc.
This then takes the hypnotic cheating method out of the realm of charlatanism - as the gimmicked penny might be called - into more acceptable realms like Erickson’s blink suggestions above.
There are many tricks that fall into this category of more benign trickery. For example, when the hypnotic subject has her eyes closed, you can ask her to roll her eyes up behind her eyelids as though she were looking up at her own forehead.
This action inhibits the muscles that operate the eyelids from working properly, so that when you challenge her to “open your eyes, and find that you cannot!” - she will indeed not be able to!
If we go back to the suggestibility tests favored by stage hypnotists we find many of them have been “loaded” in this way to succeed.
Here’s an example: the body sway test is set up with the legs together, heels and toes touching and with the knees locked. This creates a difficult balance point. The body is more prone to swaying, so that your suggestion to the hypnotic subject that he is “falling” or “swaying” will very quickly match their actual experience.
Psychology or physics? The line cannot be drawn clearly.
Just like the ethical boundary between trickery and benevolent cheating - that may be something you’ll have to decide for yourself!