Afternoon Inquisition 11.26.08

Stage hypnotists do dramatic shows in which they claim to put audience members into a trance, and often perform embarrassing activities (e.g., bark like a dog) of which they are not aware. It’s similar to a magic show, except the practitioner claims that the magic is real.

Others claim hypnosis can ease excruciating pain, or help one stop smoking.

The December/January issue of Scientific American MIND explores the allegedly altered state of hypnosis (not available online yet), presenting both the distinct brain activity present during hypnosis and the hypothesis that hypnosis has more to do with people’s suggestibility and expectations than the mental state itself.

What’s your take on hypnosis?

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  1. I have a great story of being a part of a live hypnotist show. It’s too long and hilarious to tell here, but now that you’ve reminded me of it, perhaps I’ll save it for a full post at some point.

    But to answer the question, I’ve always been under the impression that hypnosis has more to do with people’s suggestibility and expectations than the mental state itself as well. I’d like to see what the article says.

  2. @Kaylia_Marie: Have you seen PuppyCam? Clearly dogs also have some hypnotic qualities as well.

    As far as hypnosis goes, I’d have to read the article to judge what they have to say, but I’ve always been under the impression that it was part suggestibility, part fantasy prone personality, and part acting on expectation/madness of crowds.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the brain state were remarkably similar to what has already been observed about the brains of subjects in prayer or during meditation. But from my prior knowledge / reading, the other factors I mentioned before seem to have more to do with stage hypnotism than any brain state.

  3. The brain and consciousness are weird critters, and I’m no expert on them. My take on hypnosis therefore isn’t worth the pixles it’s written with. Or would have be written with if this message wasn’t a nontake.

  4. I was a participant in one of those before!! It did NOT work on me at ALL so I had to pretend the entire time. It probably had to do with the fact that I was so damn nervous being in front of so many freakin’ people.

  5. My parents did weight loss hypnosis. I tried to talk them out of it. It worked though, they lost a ton of weight and started working out every morning before work… thus KEEPING it off.

    I mentioned to my mom that it probably had more to do with already being in the mindset to lose weight, and the thousands of dollars they put down upfront was evidence of that commitment., and motivation to stick with it.

    She shrugged it off. She said maybe she was motivated by the chunk of change and the hypnosis may have been just a sugar-pill. She said she really didn’t care whether it was the money or the hypnosis that gave her the results… the fact is, it worked.

    Then they paid for me to go to a hypnotist to lose weight… she wanted to know things like when I got my first period and training bra and how old I was when I started masturbating. It was quite uncomfortable. I just wanted to stop eating so much cake.

  6. I’ve never seen a stage hypnotist perform live, but my understanding is that the subject (the ‘hypnotee’?) enters into a kind of tacit pact with the hypnotist. To me it smacks of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

  7. Like others I would have to read it to seriously comment on it. My own experience with hypnotism is that every year my high school would sponsor a stage hypnotist to come and entertain the school. I’m not sure I would characterize what he did as magic, nor necessarily did he. I guess it depends on your definition of real magic. He claims he placed people into what he called a relaxed and highly suggestible state; he also said that everyone would remember exactly what would happen to them. After “hypnotizing” the participants he would go through the people on stage and send half of them back to their seats as they weren’t properly hypnotized. And then with the remaining folks on stage he would do his act with hilarity ensuing, all and all very entertaining. The thing that got me scratching my head is that everyone who had went through it said that they felt great after doing it, as if they had just had 8 hours of sleep. Some would claim different feelings or sensations while hypnotized, some felt that they felt like they were just puppets on strings, totally unable to do anything without his suggestion. Other’s said that they felt hazy during the entire time, like they were watching themselves from a distance doing various weird things. One person said that he felt very clear and focused, as if he was filled with happy drugs and was more than happy to do whatever this nice man wanted him to, I should mention this person was usually very shy. @Sam Ogden: How did you feel when you were hypnotized?

  8. My hypothesis, at least with stage hypnosis, is that it’s suggestion combined with the desire to fit in with what everybody else on stage is doing. I’m thinking it’s maybe a similar behavior to when I’m in a conversation with somebody and they say something totally silly, depending on our relationship I’ll ignore it or even nod as if I agree. I think it’s innate to want to please someone, and so we want to please the hypnotist and audience. And, I imagine a good hypnotist is charismatic, and acts like a guy/gal you want to make happy.

    Not sure if that can be extrapolated to so-called “hypnotherapy”, although I suspect it to be the case. Psychologists have noted lots of strange phenomena – groupthink, mob mentality, stuff like that – and I think it’s all somehow related. We just haven’t come up with an accurate model.

  9. What? Who cares what our takes our unless one of us happens to be doing hypnosis research? Has Skepchick really gotten to the place where it solicits anecdotal evidence instead of discussing what the state of the science is? This is skepticism?

    If I trusted my own take on things, I wouldn’t need science. Geesh.

  10. I think hypnosis like a “lie detector” relies a lot on reputation. If you think it will work, or believe in it, it will.

    I will say I recently had a minor proceedure, and was given a drug that induces “amnesia” so that you really don’t remember the discomfort of the proceedure. For about an hour after the proceedure I did stuff like get dressed, converse with people, pick up a package, talk on the phone…

    not a memory of it. My husband found it hilarious that he could ask me ANYTHING and I would answer truthfully. Also anything he suggested, like “sing your favorite song” I happily did. He said he discovered I really love him, and I really can’t sing.

    I’m totally freaked that there seems to be some drug that does what hypnosis seems to claim to do, or at least leaves one very open to suggestion. But, simple mind control? No, I think it takes a powerful drug.

  11. @marilove: A friend of mind and I went to one of those and he was one of the volunteers. I asked him why he wanted to do it and he said that he didn’t think it would work, but he thought it might be fun (he was a keyboard player and was used to an audience). When he was brought out of it and realized he had put on and was wearing several neckties, he flushed crimson and whispered “What did I do?!” I know that he was up for it and I’m sure he was willing.

    Another friend of mine went to a stop smoking clinic that used hypnosis. I was 100% effective – for about 4 or 5 months. It was definitely a case where he wanted it to work. I don’t recall why he started smoking again.

    However, I don’t think anybody can be hypnotized against their will, much less commit acts outside their basic character.

  12. It has always seemed to me to be the rational intellect overpowering the irrational emotional lessons we have learned. Basically, it is just another form of submission – like pressure points.

  13. @Mark Mulkerin: I hardly think asking a question to foster group discussion in the comments section of a blog constitutes “soliciting anecdotal evidence”. I doubt Stacey’s going to run off and publish a paper on our ramblings.

  14. I think hypnotism is “real”; I just don’t think it’s supernatural. It’s a way of actively manipulating what the mind already does. Consciousness is just a thin veneer over our hominid brain. It shouldn’t be a surprise that conscious hominins can manipulate and otherwise fuck with it. Vodun, Zen Buddhism, Pentacostalism, Sufi, and any other number of religious traditions rely on fucking with the thin veneer of consciousness that separates us from other animals. Hypnosis is simply the secular version of an otherwise well-known phenomenon.


    Let’s make this real-world. If you own a pet dog or cat, you’ve seen your pet wake from a deep sleep and walk around for a while and then go back to sleep somewhere else. Despite how you might anthropomorphize it, this is all preconscious behavior. Now, remember the last time you watching TV or a DVD, and you paused it, got up, walked into the kitchen, and thought, “I don’t remember why I got up.” Now consider: you didn’t forget why you got up; you never had any “reason” to get up; and you’re simply acting as a non-conscious beast, not unlike your cat or dog.

    This state of preconscious behavior is entirely to be expected in a conscious beast, and is exactly what is being manipulated during hypnosis.

  15. When I was in high school in Los Angeles, it became fashionable with my group of friends to go on Friday or Saturday nights to Pat Collins night club. She was perhaps the most famous celebrity hypnotist. All of us went on stage multiple times over the course of the next two years, and some of us took her classes.

    Of course, my experience is anecdotal, but I could tell the difference when I was under hypnosis and when I wasn’t. It definitely “felt” different. Likewise, at each show Pat Collins would look at the eyes of the people on stage and tell which ones had were under hypnosis and which ones weren’t. She would usually fill out the stage with people from the audience that had gone under hypnosis as well. Once in a while there weren’t enough to fill out the usual number. Once I forced myself to not follow the usual procedure and stay “awake” but pretended to be under hypnosis and Pat sent me back down, she could tell I wasn’t in the proper state.

    She never claimed any special powers for people under hypnosis, although she did claim that people could concentrate and get their bodies to obey when they otherwise could not. For instance, part of the show was to lie between to chair backs, ankles on one chair, shoulders on the other. I did this on several occasions during the show, and was able to do it nearly effortlessly. I mean, I had to try to stay straight, but I could to it without straining. I tried it at home, and could do it there as well, but it was much harder and I tended to vibrate with strain and had to stop sooner.

    For people that have not done this multiple times, it is very common to think “I was just pretending.” But after a few times, you realize that you are much better at pretending while under hypnosis than you would otherwise be.

    An example of this is the “trigger word”. The hypnotist tells the subject to do some kind of characteristic act when the hypnotist says a certain word. Pat Collins used to say that you had to act like Paul Revere and warn the audience that the British are coming. Then sometime later she would work the word into her spiel and the subjects on stage would instantly start yelling to the audience about the British, while the people in the audience had to think back because they didn’t realize she said the word. On stage, I always acted instantly, in the audience, I always had to think for a minute.

    She always claimed that it was natural state of mind and that everyone goes through it as they fall asleep. The procedures she used just deepened and prolonged the state.

    I have to say, she was a blast to watch. Her students and their dates got in without a cover, so it was cheap as well.

  16. @ jradke – Whether or not it was intended as a solicitation of anecdotal evidence, that is what we got. My mother … When I was in … My own experience … so what, who cares, why bother!

    Perhaps such postulation would be interesting in the absence of experimental data, but hypotheses about hypnosis have been tested, claims explored, and some conclusions reached. We could look up the studies or read some substantial book on the topic (I haven’t read the research in 15 years so I hesitate to start spouting anything) and engage in informed discussion, but instead we are talking about this or that happened to a friend while conflating stage hypnosis with therapeutic hypnosis. It would be like seeing a magician stick a needle through his arm then asking him to do your flu vaccinations.

    But perhaps you are right – in the absence of plans to publish, it isn’t anecdotal evidence – just unfounded opinion and biased memory. If you don’t get why it bothers me to see such discussions in a skeptics group then one of us is a that great a skeptic.

    Rather than do opinion ping pong, why not bring in competing experts or at least competing research and ask questions of it … I’d be a utopian idealist dreamer, if I weren’t a curmudgeonly skeptic.

  17. @Mark Mulkerin: There is a difference between a curmudgeonly skeptic and a wet blanket. I’m not trying to say that your opinions or wrong or invalid or anything. But that is what you’re saying about us.

    Skepchicks isn’t a blog for people to *be* skeptical. It is a blog where skeptical people don’t have to keep their skeptical defenses up so dang high. It is a place to enjoy similar minds as a community, not a thesis paper. A place to play with skepticism.

    I dub you a false dichotomy.

  18. @ sixpluvs

    Well, I apologize for raining on your parade, but I had an issue with the nature of the question. And while, I appreciate the community aspects of the blog, I also believe that it can be a place where skepticism can put its best face forward for people who are looking into skepticism for the first time.

    If Skepchicks only hopes to be a refuge for the weary skeptic, okay, but I was hoping for more. Oh well.

  19. I don’t even have any interesting anecdotes to submit here, but I am seriously considering hypnotherapy for arachnophobia sometime before next summer. Perhaps hypnotism as “all in the mind”, but then so are phobias …

  20. Gee. I thought hypnotism was effectively debunked by science ages ago. I suppose I’m behooved to go searching for the evidence now.

    As someone posted up there ^ somewhere, memories fade; recollections drift; time passes.

    So, what’s everyone’s take on Mesmerism?


  21. @Knurl: Yeah, I really wasn’t in the mindset for it to work. I can’t relax even when I am relaxed (whenever I get a backrub I get “RELAX!” and I’m like “BUT I THOUGHT I WAS!” lmao). I’m always pretty hyper-aware.

  22. Stage hypnosis is bunk. There have been so many demonstrations that this “hypnosis” is really just the people on stage responding and being part of the show — one of the mechanisms is that the person feels like they’ll be embarrassed if they don’t go along with the performer; another is that it gives the audience members permission to act out of character.

    Many hypnotists have come forward and explained their tricks, and even TV shows have addressed how stage hypnosis actually works.

    As for therapeutic hypnosis, I’m not sure. I do know that the popular conception of therapeutic hypnosis is inaccurate: you don’t enter some state where you’re in complete control of the therapist. However, it’s possible that a trained therapist may be able to encourage suggestible states and use them to some positive effect. I don’t really know enough about either psychology or neuroscience to form an adequate opinion.

    I’ll be interested to see of Dr. Novella examines the findings and explains them (since I have no hope of understanding them in raw form).

  23. @Darren- I think that’s an awful strong statement. It would depend on how you define hypnosis in the first place, I should think. In the first place, by the definition am familiar with, nothing you said is actually happens is contrary to stage hypnosis in the first place. Second, I find it interesting that your explaination is inconsistent. You claim that people go along because they would be too embarassed not to, but you also say they go along because they are less embarassed than they would usually be.

    Do you have any references to these “demonstrations” that debunk stage hypnosis? The Scientific American article suggests exactly the opposite of what you said. It says that the latest evidence shows that hypnosis is real. The question then becomes whether or not stage hypnosis involves the same processes that have been measured and confirmed.

  24. I’m skeptical of hypnosis. I had a friend who got his clinical hypnosis certification in the UK. I asked him to hypnotize me because I was skeptical. He hedged and told me that it wasn’t possible to hypnotize me. He could just tell.

    It seemed odd though. He had a business to help people stop smoking and other habits and also practiced what he Neural Linguistic Programming (NLP). It didn’t seem any different to me than the magic he practised with Tarot cards though.

    I was going through a period where I was transitioning from a believer in the supernatural to a skeptic and I was really curious if there was anything to any of this stuff. I think he was afraid none of the stuff would work on me. Maybe it’s psychological, like a placebo. Most of his results with Tarot were based off cold reading. I never saw anything real with hypnosis, but that was only my own experience.

  25. I’m a hypnotist, I’ve been doing it for about 10 years and , hypnosis is very real. The brain waves literally change in a person under hypnosis. Here is one of my vidoes where I hypnotize someone in a bar using an instant induction
    I’ll be more than happy to answer any of your questions, just email my youtube account.
    Stage hypnosis only seems like bunk or fake because you don’t understand how the mind works. Its not placebo, and its not people trying to please the hypnosist. If that was the case you wouldn’t be able to perform open heart surgey one someone while they are wide awake under hypnosis, without drugs. Seriously people, for those of you who claim to be critical thinkers, I encourage you to do a little research before forming on opinion on something you don’t know anything about.

  26. Open heart surgery under hypnosis? And this is why anecdotes don’t count.

    If ajeziah is still out there, could you please cite your sources – where and under what conditions was the surgery performed? Can you reference which brainwaves change under-hypnosis? How long does it take to learn your rapid induction technique? What can you accomplish therapeutically (i.e. pain management, etc.) with your approach to hypnosis? What can’t you accomplish? Why isn’t taught to every midwife about to help women through natural childbirth given its rapid effect?

    PS I was doing a mirror exercise in an acting class once in which you sit in front of another and mirror their actions. At one point, neither of us seemed to be leading, we were acting in concert with what felt like some very real psychic connection except such things don’t exist. It was probably some combination of mirror neurons, frontal lobe lag, and the fact that I was doing it with an attractive young woman, but whether skeptic or true believer, it felt quite real.

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