Notes on Hypnosis – 1 Framing


First: a cloud of disclaimers and protective exposition. A lot of this is going to be my opinion, and it probably disagrees with many practitioners’. Take that into account.  Also, please remember that I am deeply skeptical about a lot of popular psychology, and attempts to explain hypnosis often lean heavily, perforce, on nebulous pop psychology concepts such as “peer pressure.” For the sake of keeping this readable and tolerable I am not going to fill my writing with skeptical bafflegab about pop psychology bafflegab, other than to note here that hypnosis is full of bafflegab. In other words, I’m asking you to be prepared, if you challenge me in the comments, “that sounds like bullshit!” for me to reply “yup, but it’s not my bullshit.”

How did I get interested in this topic, and what have I learned and done? I first encountered stereotypical hyponosis at a performance back in the 80s – it was the usual thing where the hypnotist implants a post-hypnotic suggestion in the subject that, instead of being able to speak normally, they will only be able to bark like a dog. Years later, I became a fan of Darren Brown’s amazing performances (I am not sure if I will even call them “hypnosis”) on youtube. If you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend you take several long, careful passes through Darren Brown’s work and while you are doing so ask yourself “what was not in the edit?” (also ask yourself why all the people on the street who write something down and seal it in an envelope have the same handwriting) After that, there was a briefly formed kink community at Penn State near me, and I did a couple of workshops on photographic lighting; if you’re going to send people dick pics they may as well have depth and good composition, right? The Penn State kinksters had a session where a hypnotist talked about using hypnosis to make your sex life better. It was tawdry stuff – post hypnotic suggestion to get someone to take their shirt off when they heard a trigger, lol nyuk nyuk. As a former serious fan of Richard Feynman, I had also encountered Feynman’s description of being hypnotized, and found it thought-provoking. So, I wound up with this mish-mosh of stuff about hypnosis that was very contradictory and interesting, and decided to study it more carefully.

Oh, and another piece of the puzzle was in 2007, I went to The Amazing! Conference (where I first encountered PZ Myers) in Vegas, and signed up for a mnemonics workshop taught by Banachek (Steve Shaw). Banachek’s explanation of memory, the “memory palace” and mnemonic triggers was influential in a lot of “ah ha!” moments regarding hypnosis.

Naturally, I did some human experimentation with consensual subjects. And that was where things got interesting. For example, my friend Jenna accepted directives and achieved an apparent trance state, accepted some triggers being installed, and burst out laughing when I tried to invoke them hours later. But she said something remarkably similar to what Feynman said: she felt a strong sense that she should perform because she didn’t want to embarrass me, since I was so serious about the whole thing. A little after that, Jenna asked me if I would be willing to attempt a post hypnotic intervention on one of her friends who had an undesirable behavior that she wanted to eliminate. I did that, with Jenna watching over my shoulder, and it worked remarkably well – in fact, before I started writing this I checked via Jenna and apparently the undesirable behavior has been completely eliminated ever since and it has been 2 years. Interesting, right?

It was hard for me to take any of this stuff seriously, because it depends heavily on pop psychology, which I generally reject as a load of dangerous whagarbl. That hypnosis performers lean heavily on it does not help; for example Darren Brown elsewhere claims that his performances are based in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) – a particular form of pseudo-science that asserts that our behaviors are very strongly influenced by words that we hear, which may trigger memory cascades that cause behaviors. In fact, NLP asserts something that sounds like a weaponized version of some of Noam Chomsky’s ideas: if language is the material of thought, and I can slip in a word edgewise, I control your thoughts, right? I would dearly love to know more about what Brown really thinks about NLP but that would be asking him to expose his professional self to dissection.

I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, but if you can keep those two performances in mind, I can refer back to them later and it’ll be helpful for arranging some of the concepts we’ll be looking at.

I should also introduce a few terms:

  • Trance – I don’t believe that we know what a “trance” is, which is awkward since hypnosis heavily depends on trance states. Let’s imagine, arguendo, that there is such a thing as a “trance” and that it’s something like: “a highly relaxed state of hyper-focused attention.” Or something like that. A trance does not always mean that a subject will become obedient or receptive – it’s more like that you’ve got their attention and it’s up to you to convince them to do certain things, or not.
  • Induction – how the hypnotist induces a trance in a subject. This is what you’ve probably seen in movies or TV, “you are getting sleepy… you are getting very sleepy…” that’s one hypnotist’s induction. There are also fast inductions, where a hypnotist leaves a post-hypnotic suggestion in a willing subject that they will immediately drop into a light trance on command. If you watch revival preachers, they do fast inductions a lot. Which raises an interesting question: when and how is the induction installed as a command? Off-camera, for sure. And, it could have been months prior. I have seen fast inductions work years after they were installed, but they need to be invoked every so often so the subject remembers them.
  • Trigger – A trigger is the specific thing that the hypnotist tells their subject to hang a response on. That sounds a bit garbled, but it is important to reflect the relationship of who is doing what, where: the hypnotist is telling the subject, “when I say ${whatever} then you want to do ${whatever}” – I believe that this is using the same mechanism of memory and motor response that a Formula-1 driver uses when they do “directed visualization” of a track, before they run it, thinking of all the things that might happen at various points and “pre-loading” their responses to those events. I also believe that some of what is going on with hypnosis triggers is similar to how triggers work with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Cognitive Based Therapies where a subject is trying to de-install or mute a trigger that they developed because of a response to a high-stress event.
  • Directives – the responses that get attached to a trigger. I’ll get into this in much more detail later, but a directive must be simple, comprehensible, easy, and repeatable. Ideal directives require no creativity on the part of the subject – it’s my observation that the more work you want the subject to do, the more likely it will be that they’ll break the trigger/response because their conscious mind gets invoked to do the creative part of the work, and then goes, “no wait WTF!?” and the whole cycle is broken. For example, if you give a directive that, while under a trance, a person will answer questions honestly, don’t ask them to make full answers, give them a “yes/no” indicator like “squeeze my finger for ‘yes’.” Figuring out how to make your directives easy to follow is one of the big tricks to hypnosis. I will add, here, that physical memory seems to help, i.e.: “remember how delicious a slice of fresh hot pizza tastes? I want you to summon that memory and, when you hear the words ‘neutrino storm’ let that memory wash through you. Whatever you’re eating is going to taste like fresh hot pizza. Mmmm!” That’s a directive. Well-designed directives can go some ways toward defeating skepticism by bypassing the subject’s bullshit detector if the response is fast enough.

By now you’re probably thinking “whoah, that’s a lot of intertwined concepts that touch on a lot of psychology and other stuff!” And you’re right. When you start digging into this, you’re perforce dealing with memory and how people’s memories work, with how people process requests (which means memorizing the request) and stress learning versus non-stressed learning. (Stress learning would be if someone tried to reinforce a directive with a cattle prod. No, don’t do that.) (But it would work.) Another piece of the big picture that I have never experimented with is the role of adrenaline in memory and stress learning. There are pretty credible studies that indicate that adrenaline or amphetamines have a substantial positive impact on memory transcription between short-term memory and long-term. I have long suspected that US military service-members, who are often hopped up on “go pills” experience a disproportionate rate of PTSD because combat memories get stress-learned to an extreme. This is going a ways afield from hypnosis but if you have a subject who is willing to explore hypnosis on microdoses of LSD or Exstacy it might be very effective. There’s a reason that I’m bringing all that up, because it probably sounds weird, but during a public hypnosis performance, some subjects are going to be nervous because they are standing on stage in public, and their brains are going to be stewing with dopamine and adrenaline. Professional stage hypnotists steer away from audience members who are clearly drunk; that’s another data point.

Let me wrap this section up with what is probably the most important thing I can tell you about hypnosis. After that, I’ll break it down further along that axis, in subsequent postings. And, this is the point:

There are two kinds of hypnosis and they are very different: performance/stage hypnosis, and medical/therapeutic hypnosis. They work on similar mechanisms and appear to be similar in many ways, but are profoundly different in terms of effect, duration, ease of intervention, and the type of intervention that is possible.

Stage performers are allowed to, even expected to cheat. That’s an important piece of the puzzle that Banachek dropped in his excellent series entitled “psychological subtleties.” It’s expensive, [book: amazon] [psi series – DVD] but it’s a great series (especially the DVDs) – Banachek runs through tricks in front of a small audience, then deconstructs the tricks. I am fairly sure that Penn and Teller learned their schtick from Banachek, who does it better and in more detail.

The reason the divide between performance and therapeutic hypnosis is so important is because every time you see hypnosis represented in movies or TV, it’s performance-style hypnosis – never the kind of thing you would really do if you were dealing with a vulnerable mind. To me, that’s profoundly upsetting and concerning, because the media represent hypnosis as some kind of can-opener that you can use on a person but it’s not – I’m not even sure what it is but if it’s real and it works, it’s more like watercolors you can paint into an existing sketch than a can-opener. I was profoundly upset by the “erotic hypnosis” guy and argued with him at length after his workshop – my point being that if you want girls to show you their breasts, hypnosis is probably not a good tool for that particular job. I’ve found that asking politely works better and you don’t have people wondering if you bugged their brain while they were vulnerable, afterward. This is important because there are plenty of people on youtube who seem to think that the best time to push against someone’s willpower is when they trust you – and that applies to the “take your shirt off” crowd as much as it does to the Qanon deep believers, and the foolish christians who are convinced that they have demons in them that need to be cast out.

So, you can see this is a big topic, with lots of threads running every whichaway. I’ll try to pull together some kind of coherent explanation, but please be patient with me if I drop a thread – just let me know in the comments and I’ll get to it.

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I will try to remember to come back to the “casting out demons” bit, and if I forget, please remind me. There are a number of very unsettling videos on youtube of christian charlatans using the techniques of stage hypnosis to convince non-consensual subjects that they are possessed by demons. What is that? “Psychological malpractice” comes to mind, but there’s no way it’s acceptable unless the “possessed” are “crisis actors” – and even then it’s tasteless.

Comments

  1. says

    I would dearly love to know more about what Brown really thinks about NLP but that would be asking him to expose his professional self to dissection.

    Brown wrote about NLP in his book Tricks Of The Mind where he was very critical about it.

    I was profoundly upset by the “erotic hypnosis” guy and argued with him at length after his workshop – my point being that if you want girls to show you their breasts, hypnosis is probably not a good tool for that particular job. I’ve found that asking politely works better and you don’t have people wondering if you bugged their brain while they were vulnerable, afterward.

    Well, some people certainly are assholes.

    Thousands of people must have seen me without clothes, because I spend my summer holidays in nudist beeches. I really don’t care about people seeing me naked. Heck, if somebody gave me a dollar or even asked me politely, I’d take my clothes off, because I seriously don’t care about modesty and consider Christian modesty norms silly and harmful. If it wasn’t illegal, during summers I would be walking around shirtless in all those situations where cis dudes are allowed to do so.

    But if somebody tried to manipulate me into taking off my clothes, I’d be really pissed off about the attempted manipulation.

  2. says

    Andreas Avester@#1:
    Brown wrote about NLP in his book Tricks Of The Mind where he was very critical about it.

    I didn’t know that he was writing books; I just ordered both of them and I look forward to seeing what he says. Thanks for the reference!

    Brown’s big on tricks, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he was just using the NLP angle as a way of diverting attention from whatever it was that he was really doing.

  3. says

    I read Tricks Of The Mind a while ago, so I no longer clearly remember everything, but he was mostly trashing NLP and talking about how it doesn’t work as advertised and how NLP courses are a money-making scam.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    I didn’t know that he was writing books; I just ordered both of them

    I assume by “both” you mean Tricks of the Mind and Confessions of a Conjuror, the books he wrote relatively recently for a mainstream audience.

    I recommend both the books he wrote before hitting mainstream success, Pure Effect and Absolute Magic, if you can find them and if you don’t mind paying hundreds. A quick search on ebay shows PE going for £150 and no copies of AM available. If you can get “The Devil’s Picture Book”, it’s also worth watching, as it includes among other things a complete breakdown of the method behind the three card trick he uses as the structural hook for “Confessions of a Conjuror”.

    Brown’s big on tricks, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he was just using the NLP angle as a way of diverting attention

    His catchphrase that he uses pretty much every time he appears is “Magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship”. It’s a huge part of his act to lie about how much of each is in play. (Clue: it’s almost invariably the first two and the last two and hardly ever any of the middle one).

    I caught the frisbee at one of his live shows, “Mind Reader”, I think (to prove he doesn’t use stooges he lobs a frisbee into the audience to select “volunteers”) and went up on stage with a bunch of other people. We were each issued a weight on a string and instructed NOT to try to make it swing, then he “suggested” left and right, then back and forth, then round and round. I spotted quickly he was filtering those whose ideomotor effect performance was strongest. My weight didn’t swing, obvs, and with about half the volunteers I went back to my seat. The rest did some ouija-board style stuff on the stage for a while. It was great, especially watching that filtering process happening from the inside.

    He was the single largest influence on my uses (I’d not grace them with the word “performances”) of magic when I was interested in that, particularly his point that it’s a very rare performer who can get away with a persona that looks down on the audience. The biggest mistake dilettante magicians make is to do a thing with the attitude of “ha! I know how this works and you don’t so I’m better than you”. Which is arsehole behaviour, and distressingly common. He does a great job in his first two books of suggesting that as a performer, particularly a closeup performer, your job is creating a memory that people will talk about. You don’t do that by making them feel bad.

    Example: I could do the following:
    1. This trick is done entirely with one unsleeved arm. I could clearly place a coin on a bar top, and say “OK, see the coin?”. Then I could put another, different coin on top of it to one side, so you can still see both. I could put an inverted whisky glass over both coins, so again, you can still see them. Then I can swirl the glass round a couple of times, lift it off the bar, and let you pick up the second coin. The first coin won’t be there any more – that, I’ll take from behind your ear and hand to you. It’s a great trick, but you feel like I’ve just put one over on you.
    2. I hold out my empty hand in front of you. I ask you to close your eyes. I “hypnotise” you, to the extent that I ask you to visualise a specific coin in full detail, sitting on my hand. I ask you to feel the weight of it, the colour of it, the taste of the metal, the detail of the pattern, and so on. I ask you to convince yourself so fully that the coin is in my hand, that in a moment when you open your eyes, you will see it in my palm. I ask you to open your eyes. You CAN see the coin. I carefully place a coin in my hand, slightly covering the coin you envisaged. I ask if you can still see it, and you confirm you can. I suddenly say “WAKE UP!”… and the coin you could see is gone. I did this once for several people outside a pub, and one of them, bless her, did absolutely the best thing possible and took the coin out of my hand to examine it in disbelief. At that point, they were all convinced that I’d been able to hypnotise them and that THEIR powers of visualisation were so strong that they’d fooled themselves. This is a much, much better effect, but uses exactly the same method.

    I peaked when I made an e I’d been handed earlier appear from nowhere inside the mouth of my cousin’s girlfriend one New Year’s Eve. The crowd we were out with thought I was bloody Gandalf after that. The main thing I learned, though, about that style of magic is that when you learn how it’s done, the most common reaction is “is that IT?”. Magicians keep their secrets partly for obvious reasons of professional necessity, but also because in almost every case, the explanation is infuriatingly mundane. It’s an extremely rare trick where the method is actually elegant or impressive. All the elegance and impressiveness is in the delivery. My advice to anyone wanting to learn more about magic of any kind is therefore: learn three methods. That will give you an opener, a main course and a big finish for any social gathering. Work on the delivery, and you can make three methods into a dozen tricks, to the point that you can deliver the same trick to the same person a few months apart and they won’t recognise it. And always remember that you’re trying to make them feel good about having seen something cool, not feel bad about not knowing that you bought that thing for £50 off ebay and stitched it into your jacket.

    I am fairly sure that Penn and Teller learned their schtick from Banachek

    Everybody learned their schtick from Banachek. The guy’s a legend.

  5. xohjoh2n says

    his excellent series entitled “psychological subtleties.” It’s expensive, [book: amazon] [psi series – DVD]

    Which one? The book or the DVD? Or both? Is there a difference? (I mean, I’m kind of a bit bandwidth constrained at the moment in weird and fluctuating ways. It’s an interesting topic, but I probably have more time for DVDs, if they were covering the same material as the book(s).)

    I mean, I think the whole thing is basically bullshit, and though I like Feynman, I also thought that description was basically bullshit. After all, this is all basically getting into Snow Crash territory – and we’re not going there are we?

    Of course more recently is Now You See Me, particularly the second one, where surprise is the universal inducer that can make you suggestive to anything (though mostly things you suspect they’d want to do anyway) unless you’re immune to induction (in which case it’s still a good distraction while someone else coshes you over the head…)

  6. says

    xohjoh2n @#7:
    Which one? The book or the DVD? Or both? Is there a difference?

    They’re different/complimentary. If I had to choose, I’d go with the DVDs. Be he doesn’t go into hypnosis so much in those.

    I mean, I think the whole thing is basically bullshit, and though I like Feynman, I also thought that description was basically bullshit. After all, this is all basically getting into Snow Crash territory – and we’re not going there are we?

    Right now, in the US, there is a significant percentage of the population that follow weird cults of belief, based on peer pressure and social reinforcement. What if there is a relationship between hypnosis and the kind of profound belief that stupid people seem to be able to hold? What if the kind of jackass who can be convinced that they are possessed by a demon, is also an ideal subject for hypnosis? If these things are connected anywhere, then I can’t dismiss hypnosis as bullshit, because people appear to be able to adopt strong beliefs shockingly quickly and it’s all around us.

    As I said – I’m on the fence about this stuff. I’ll go a step further: I’ve hypnotized people and seen it work even though I don’t believe in it.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    You don’t need to believe in it. You only need them to believe in it. In fact, you don’t even need that – you need them to do a convincing impression of believing in it. Then others will believe.

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