One of the more intriguing theories of hypnosis is it’s all in your head.
That’s not to say it isn’t real. Sure, some folks (who’ve never spent ten minutes looking into the literature) don’t believe it exists. That’s fine, though not what I’m talking about.
Scientists know hypnosis is real.
It’s a well-researched area of psychology.
And it leads to things that would otherwise be impossible – like doing major surgery without anaesthetics.
Even so, some of these researchers say it’s all in the subject’s head.
There’s some evidence for this – and some of the more compelling demonstrations come from an unlikely source:
If you’ve never seen a stage hypnosis show, I recommend it. Even better, volunteer to be on-stage. As long as the hypnotist is classy, respectful and skilled, you’ll have a blast.
If you’ve never seen a show… well, each is different. But many shows get a group of volunteers – maybe six, maybe over a dozen – line them up and hypnotise them, one by one.
Now, when someone enters a hypnotic trance, they don’t always do the same thing.
Somewhere between the hypnotist yelling ‘sleep!’ and then telling them to sing like a pop star, the subject will probably do one of the following:
They’ll close their eyes but, otherwise, it won’t be much different.
Or they might sit or stand upright, their head slumped forward.
Or their legs might stay upright, while their entire torso flops.
And then you get the rare person whose entire body goes limp. If they’re standing, they collapse to the floor. If they’re in a chair, they’ll fall off it.
Stage hypnotists love these volunteers. It looks dramatic, even a little dangerous (although it’s safer than it looks). They’re rare, though. Only a few percent of the population respond this strongly.
And many stage hypnotists have a story similar to this:
They line up their eight or so volunteers.
They tell the first to ‘sleep!’…
… and they fall out of their chair.
Then the hypnotist yells ‘sleep!’ to the second… and they flop to the floor too.
Then the third.
Then the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, then eighth. Every one of them softly plops to the floor.
It’s not impossible for all these folks to be natural floppers. But you hear this happen so many times, it’s statistically impossible for it to be chance for all of them.
Which brings me to a model of hypnosis:
It’s all social compliance.
Hypnosis is a real process. Trance states are real mental phenomena. But, so this theory goes, hypnosis only puts people into a trance because they expect it to.
The volunteers see the first subject collapse, so they think that’s what hypnosis does.
Likewise, someone sits on a therapist’s couch, closes their eyes and counts backwards from ten… and that puts them in a trance because they think it will.
It’s not that these people are faking it. They aren’t playing the role of a hypnotic subject. It’s that they’re unconsciously following expectations.
According to the social compliance theory, if you thought eating an apple would put you in a trance, then it will.
And hypnotists can only hypnotise people because they say, with perfect conviction, “when I snap my fingers, you will enter a trance”.
The snap is nothing, but the instruction is everything.
I think there’s a lot to this model of hypnosis. And I think you could hypnotise thousands of people using this idea and nothing else.
People all over the world enter hypnotic trances all the time.
And, yes, sometimes they do it because they expect to. They expect to ‘enter the dreamlands’ when they hear ‘the magic flute’, where the same sound would do nothing for you and I.
But they also enter a trance from other triggers. The right combination of surprise and curiosity will put you in a trance – no matter your background, and even if you expect it won’t.
Besides, there are plenty of folks who are convinced they’re ‘immune’ to hypnosis… or it isn’t real in the first place. Not only can you hypnotise them anyway, it’s usually easy. If it were purely social compliance, then their belief would shut down the trance before it starts.
Social compliance explains a lot… but there’s something universal about the hypnotic experience too. Something that doesn’t care about who you are… just that you’re here, now, and fully human.
Now, social compliance only explains how people enter a trance.
It doesn’t cover what makes people want to.
So I can’t tell you to sign up for a session with me, and expect you to do it.
Not without some convincing first.
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