What hypnotherapy isn't

Now that I've covered what hypnotherapy is, you're probably thinking about all the things I didn't touch on: how hypnosis is portrayed in movies and books and things you've heard or seen about hypnosis in general, or how your aunt Helen stopped smoking forever after 2 hours with some hypnotist in Brooklyn.

I'm going to cover some major myths about hypnosis.

Frankly, hypnosis has always had suffered from a problem of public image. Maybe this goes back to the origins of these sorts of techniques. I could guess why, but I'm not totally sure. Anyhow, without further ado:

Myth 1: the dominance/mind control myth

Many people think that hypnosis is somehow about a person (a hypnotist), gaining control over someone else's mind. For example, Incredibles 2 basically uses the term hypnosis as a synonym for mind control. And the recent movie, Get Out! (2017) is another good example of a portrayal of this myth in a more nuanced way. I've saved the spoilers/more full discussion for further below, but, long and short of it, in the movie, hypnosis is used basically as a restraint technique, keeping the main character from acting to save his own life. I've also seen portrayals of hypnosis being used to commit crimes: as if I could hypnotize a bank teller into willingly hand over the contents of their cash drawer without tripping the secret alarm.

In actuality, hypnosis is more complicated. Though based on some truth, and though hypnosis techniques are useful for many things, mental restraint and robbing banks are not among its uses, and it's definitely not mind control.

The truth here is that nobody can make you do what you truly don't want to do, even in a hypnotic trance state. The grain of truth to the myth, though, is that many of us are estranged from the wants of our unconscious minds. Sometimes, our unconscious wants to do things that surprise us.

This is how stage hypnosis functions: a stage hypnotist will attempt to hypnotize a whole audience of people. And it doesn't work on most of them. But, out of a group of 100, say 5 end of going into a trance and become the subject for a humorous set of suggestions and ridiculous antics. Why? Because on some level they wanted to. Maybe their unconscious minds wanted to know what it would be like? Or were bored with just sitting in the audience? or maybe they wanted attention or felt exhibitionist? Or because of their history with authority figures? Or doing so made them feel more in control than being a bystander? It depends on the person, who probably weren't aware what they unconsciously wanted themselves. But the result is that they might think that this hypnosis stuff is mind control.

Personally, I also think much of mind control reputation comes from authoritarian medical professionals and their use of hypnosis, especially in the last century. Back before ideas like collaborative treatment and before the internet, which encourages people think for themselves about their symptoms, the family doctor was seen as a major authority figure and source of wisdom. If he said you had chicken pox, you took that as a fact. If he said you needed to take this medicine every day for 3 weeks, you did it. If he said you needed an operation, you'd get it. The doctor's orders were—well—orders. And hypnotherapists (who were mostly doctors at the time) used this social power, usually rightly, but sometimes wrongly. So if the doctor said, "you're now going to go into a trance" your unconscious would have very little precedent to disagree. If the doctor told you then that your left hand would go completely numb, your unconscious would produce the numbness, or if he said you could enter a state of sleep so deep that a surgery could be done on you and you wouldn't wake, your unconscious would find a way to do it. (I use these examples because they're real: glove anesthesia and hypnosis-assisted surgery do actually happen).

So it’s not that hypnosis is mind control, it’s that for a long time, the doctors who practiced hypnosis were exploiting their authority to get people to do stuff—usually good stuff, though with a few noteable exceptions. Even today, most of us want to make authority figures happy, and our unconscious minds, wanting the same, comply with what authority wants.

On the other hand, it's unlikely that I (or any hypnotherapist I know) could get someone to do something that would cause obvious harm to themselves. Why? Because the unconscious (just like the conscious mind) wants safety, comfort and happiness, among other things. Even when it does stupid things, it wants these. Milton Erickson did a series of experiments with his students and patients about this. The results are amusing and quite telling. You can read about what he discovered here.

So could I create a posthypnotic suggestion that every time someone hears me stir a spoon in a teacup, they could consciousness, allowing me to lock them up and cut out their brain? Well, I haven't tried... but I’m confident that no, I couldn’t.

You’ll be happy to know, though, that authority has lost its prominence in clinical hypnosis. More about this in my next post.

Myth 2: the hypnosis = sleep myth

This is a complicated myth. I think sometimes this is evoked also to suggest mind control in the sense that when someone's asleep, they're vulnerable and it's as if someone else (again, the powerful/wicked hypnotist) can do all sorts of things to them they wouldn't normally allow.

On the other hand, hypnotherapists themselves perpetuate this myth in various ways. James Baird, an early pioneer in hypnosis sometimes called it “nervous sleep.” The term hypnosis itself is derived from Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep (Latin, Morpheus). Some inductions (techniques to put people into hypnotic trance) also involve the injuction to sleep.

If you're thinking about someone swinging a pocket watch saying, "you're getting very very sleepy..." then you've got the right idea: though I'd never use a pocket watch, the suggestion to sleep to someone who is definitely awake can produce a trance state. That said, I think this myth is more a culture/language issue than anything else:

We don't have a lot of good words for mind states in everyday English. We all know what it means to be awake, right? And we all know what it means to be asleep. But what about other states? Our language gets pretty vague…

"Lost in a day dream," "zoned out," "dissociated," "in a fugue state," "lost in thought"... All these are attempts to describe trance states--states that are out of the realm of "normal waking state." So are expressions like, "totally absorbed," "in the zone," “on a roll,” and “entranced”—the second set are descriptions of trance states that are useful or helpful in some way.

All the same, while you could easily tell me the difference between being awake and asleep, could you tell me the difference between being “zoned out” and “entranced”? Or how about “zoned out” and “entranced”?

The variety of trance states is immense--from ecstatic spiritual rapture to repetitious self-berating fantasy--and trance states are neither "normal waking state" nor sleep, but it's easy to see how, when we’re at a loss for words, people can make the logical jump from “well, I wasn’t awake” to “I was asleep” because we don’t have clear words for anything in between.

Myth 3: hypnosis is magical, effortless, and/or guaranteed to work

Sometimes people come to see me and they lie back and say declare something like, "okay! I'm ready! fix me!" as if I'm going to wave my magic wand, yell "Hazzah!" and their problems will fade away.

The other myths about hypnosis encourages this fantasy: the idea of a hypnotist controlling your mind can be relieving if you've been struggling to control your own mind. Likewise, the idea of going to sleep and waking up with your problem gone can feel very enticing if all you're exhausted from fighting things.

The marketing of hypnotists sometimes plays into this, as if the writer of the blog you're reading has all the keys to unlock your life. (Sorry to disappoint you: you have the keys—don’t let anyone tell you different. I promise to help you find them, though.)

There is truth the idea that a lot of amazing stuff can be done with hypnosis--stuff that can't be done using other methods. But that doesn't mean hypnosis is magical--it just means it's another approach that can do some stuff that other approaches can't do. Like all good techniques and tools, it can do some pretty amazing things, especially in the hands of the right person and in the right situation. But this isn't what makes it special--it's what makes it ordinary.

I've seen some astounding results from both pharmaceuticals and therapeutic massage, for instance. But they aren't magic and nobody would claim they were. They’re just each different approaches that can do things other appoaches can’t. Hypnotherapy is the same. These different approaches can also sometimes not work, or can even do harm. Like any ethical professional, I do my best to avoid doing harm, but there are no guarantees in any of these fields.

Despite hypnosis seeming otherworldly or "magical," I encourage people to be skeptical, thoughtful consumers of any kind of therapy, including hypnotherapy. If somebody is making incredible claims or seems untrustworthy, then don't take them at their word: do your research and ask more questions, or go find someone else. Avoid undergoing any treatment, including hypnosis, with someone you feel uncomfortable about. At best, it won't work. At worst, it could do more harm than good.

If you’re still reading this, you probably would like to know more about how I do clinical hypnosis. I will cover that in my next entry, “Types of hypnotherapy and my approach.


More about Get Out!

Above, I note that it's unlikely that hypnosis could actually do in real life what it does in the movie. I think hypnosis is a symbol in the movie to evoke authority and white people’s oppression/dominance over black people more broadly. What's represented should really give us more pause than hypnosis, which is just a symbol.

However, as I note above, there is an authoritarian bent to hypnosis that comes from the old school approach, which is what gives the symbolic representation force, and this is the grain of correctness in the incorrect portrayal in the firm. Race adds an interesting complication to hypnosis and the authoritarian model.

If we just look at the portrayal of hypnosis in the movie, essentially the question becomes: could the power of racial authority be strong enough to induce black people to let themselves be destroyed by an authoritative white person? I say it’s really really unlikely. If it were the case, though, hypnosis then would simply be a tool/weapon used in a bigger cultural problem of internalized racism or internalized racial authority. Though I'm an expert in hypnosis, that greater cultural problem is not something I can speak to with expertise. Likewise, my expertise in hypnosis itself is to help people do the opposite with the tool than what was done in the movie.

That said, what I know about real life mind control research is this: the hardest part of controlling anybody is the problem of getting them to do something they really on the whole don't want to do. The attempts I've read about to do this have required torture, obscuring reality with drugs, subverting people's beliefs with propaganda, and other work-arounds simply to get enough of a person in line with the desired action. Much of this is quite ugly (think Reek in Game of Thrones) or (in the “best” cases) very time consuming.

If anybody developed a clean, easy mind control strategy to do what Missy Armitage does in the movie, it would be a momentous (and catastrophic) development, which would be infinitely more profitable in the military world than any surgical technique to replace people's brains. In other words, a more realistic portrayal of this in the movie would have the whole family supporting Dr Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener’s character) as she sells her services to clandestine military operations everywhere to create secret agents that can be activated at the stir of a spoon.