I get this question a lot. Recently someone asked me: if A hypnotises B and C overhears, will C be hypnotised too? The short answer is ‘yes’. The long answer explores the underlying principle and grapples with what, really, hypnosis is.
But before I get into that, you can accidentally hypnotise someone. In fact, you’ve probably done it recently. Yes, even if you’ve never studied hypnosis. Yes, even if you’re “too strong-willed to be hypnotised”. (Which doesn’t make sense – but that’s a topic for another post). Yes, even if you think hypnosis is the stuff of fairies and unicorns.
If you live a normal life, you are hypnotising people – and being hypnotised – constantly. And most of it is unintentional. How can that be? It makes sense when you think about what hypnosis really is.
Hypnosis – what it is and why it’s possible
Hypnosis isn’t stage magicians doing strange things or therapists healing your mind. Those are examples of hypnosis, just like a toaster is an example of the laws of physics in action. The hypnotic trance is a feature of the brain. Human beings evolved to go into and out of trances, all of the time.
It’s how the mind solves problems.
The brain has different modes of thinking. You might describe these as System 1 and System 2. You might point to different lobes and describe how each functions differently from the rest. Or maybe you like the terms ‘conscious thinking’ and ‘unconscious thinking’.
Then again, maybe you like to think about your own experiences. Have you ever lost yourself in a task? The flow state is a good example, where you immerse yourself in an activity so much that you lose all sense of self and time. That’s one state of thinking.
Now imagine that, while you’re in this state, there’s a loud bang outside your window. You pop back into normal awareness. Maybe you’re even hyperalert. The point is, your mode of thinking changed.
This will happen to you hundreds of times a day. You might be daydreaming, then someone asks you a question, then after they leave you start thinking through your plans.
Different tasks use different modes. Imagine wrestling a tiger while your mind wanders. Your ancestors like this didn’t do so well.
The state we call a hypnotic trance is one such mode of thinking. It’s great at imagining possibilities. It makes you more open to ideas and suggestions. It’s a creative, non-linear state – one that your mind rewards you for entering.
This explains why hypnosis is:
- great for problem-solving,
- associated with ‘dream-like’ experiences,
- good for getting people to follow suggestions,
- used for thinking new thoughts, and
- so darn pleasant.
If you have a problem, you can think through it logically (which is a great mode of thinking). If that doesn’t work, your brain wants to enter a hypnotic mode. It’s a great tool in your mental toolbox.
Why you’re an amazing hypnotist
Everyone wants to enter a hypnotic state. Most people have hair triggers for it – though what those triggers are and what disables them varies a lot. The point is that you spend most of the time on the verge of slipping into trance.
As does everyone else.
If you have a conversation with someone, it will be either hypnotic or unpleasant. For example, if a pushy, desperate salesperson corners you, your brain doesn’t want to be open to new ideas. It wants to get away from this lunatic. But talking about nothing and everything with a close mate? Your mind is primed and eager for it.
This is why good conversations can feel so fulfilling. It’s why talking things through can be so mind-expanding – more than solitary contemplation. It’s also why so many people are underwhelmed by their first experience with a hypnotist: they expect something different from the trances they’ve felt all their lives.
Talking is rarely a pure exchange of information. There’s always small talk, pointless details, laughing for no reason, topics that go round in circles… If you were to read a transcript of your natural conversations, you’d wonder what the point is. But, inside the trance of conversation, every good thing seems new and enlightening.
And even if you hate small talk, there are hundreds of ways to enter a trance (or put someone in one). Most are so mundane you’d never even suspect it.
Do you want to know the difference between a hypnotist and the average person? A hypnotist controls a process that the average person does without thinking. A hypnotist does it better, more often and deliberately.
The Verdict on Accidental Hypnosis
So, can a person accidentally hypnosis someone? They can’t not. It’s a natural part of how the human brain operates. The skill comes in deliberately hypnotising someone and then using the trance.
The original question – will eavesdropping C be hypnotised along with B – seems so simple against this principle. They probably will. Then they’ll accidentally hypnotise A, B and a stranger on the bus. Accidental hypnosis is not only possible, but also far more common than the deliberate kind.