Some people believe our minds live in no one place. While generally associated with the brain, others believe the mind is everywhere in our bodies, an omnipotent storage facility for memories of every place we've ever been, everything we've ever done and the feelings we have about those things, all accessible with the right coaxing. According to this theory, we know things we don't know we know.
The practice of therapeutic hypnosis aims to draw out hidden memories from the unconscious mind and change the feelings associated with them. Physical relaxation combined with mental focus adds up to a neurobiological situation where beta and alpha waves move in a pattern resulting in the trance state, or hypnosis. Trances can be described as a number of different states: meditation, daydreaming, creative visualization—the way you drove home and don't remember paying attention to traffic. In this way, hypnosis is a natural state the brain easily falls into.
While hypnosis entered the modern world via Enlightenment-period Europe in the 18th century (see "Mesmer"), hypnosis is thought to have originated in ancient India and spread to Greece and Egypt between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago. Since its 18th-century appearance, it has experienced highs and lows, from crackpot practitioners lending it a bad reputation to its former acceptance as part of medical curricula.
These days, while still residing on the fringes, hypnosis may be moving toward the mainstream, gaining more of a reputation as hypnotherapy and less as a pseudoscience. Hypnotherapists laud its effectiveness and relative quick results, saying that while traditional clinical therapy can last years, treatment with hypnosis sometimes can resolve problems in a matter of several sessions.
Out of curiosity, I decided to test the validity of hypnosis for myself. Initially, I went into the process with an open mind, if not one that was completely convinced I could be cured of mental ailments. However, the experience wasn't anything like I anticipated, both in feeling and procedure. I do not believe my experiments ultimately verify anything (nor should anyone else), but I left the process with a few extra ounces of skepticism.
Going into the session (wherein my hypnotist of choice was to meet me at the Alibi offices), my stomach was grumbling, and I frantically darted around looking for a room in which to be hypnotized. Once I decided on an empty office, I found out it was supposedly haunted. What if the ghost crept into my unconscious while in a trance? Zoinks!
Worked up and nervous, when the hypnotherapist arrived she immediately put me at ease. I filled out some forms and was asked to circle my problems. Anxiety. As she sat beside me, we discussed said anxieties.
Next, for pre-hypnosis, she performed a test to determine my hypnotizability. This was the best part. I locked my hands together, palms touching, and stuck my index fingers straight out, as far as I could spread them. Then she said, “Imagine there are magnets attached to the tips of your fingers, and that they are slowly pulling together ... .” As she said this, my fingers began moving toward one another, and I started laughing with amazement. As I mused to myself, not realizing that my fingers might naturally want to return to a comfortable position, she informed me I am very hypnotizable.
I lay down on the couch and got comfortable as she removed a cone-shaped pendulum from her bag. She had me hold it in the air and move it around without actually trying to make it move. This was supposed to make me more relaxed. At this point I was going into a trance. Or was I? I was instructed to slowly release my arm and let the pendulum fall onto me. She took it away and told me to breath while imagining different imagery. At this point I was having trouble paying attention to what she was saying, thinking instead about the phone calls I needed to make and the work I'd been putting off. The rumbling in my stomach had gotten worse and I was now afraid of passing audible gas. At some point she yelled, "Sleep!"
From there we went for a second go-round. I should have mentioned that I didn't feel like I was hypnotized, but I thought maybe this was how I was supposed to feel. I was asked to imagine scenarios like an elevator going down, a room perfectly suited to me, a ball of my anxiety exiting my body and what I felt inside. I wanted to confess I felt an angry burrito inside, but stopped myself for fear of laughing. As she asked me esoteric questions, I gave her esoteric answers and felt silly. Toward the end she told me a story, an indirect suggestion, but at this point I felt like an alien was about to chew its way out of my abdomen. Slowly (and thankfully), she brought me out of the trance that I probably wasn't actually in.
Aside from being turned off by having "Sleep!" theatrically yelled at me, someone burst into the office during our session, which probably ruined my trance. In any case, I do not feel any discernible difference in my anxiety level. On the other hand, before the session she told me she typically sees clients a few more times after the initial session.
The Hypnotist Show
Later that day, as part of my research, a friend and I attended the Tony Cashio Hypnotist Show at the Magic Juggler Shop in Nob Hill. Tucked in the recesses of a building next to the Monte Vista Fire Station, the shop, naturally, sells juggling paraphernalia and tricks. As we waited for the show to begin we oohed at the fake puke and aahed over the fake bagel hiding the fake roach. The 10 audience members filed into a tiny, soothingly lit room with walls adorned with the likenesses of magicians. Tony Cashio didn't look at all like I expected. Instead of the greasy, mustache- and tuxedo-wearing cheese ball stereotype I imagined, he was quite young and nongreasy.
To start the show, Cashio engagingly explained the science of hypnosis. We were instructed to suspend our arms straight out before us, wrists limp, focusing on a point on the wall or with eyes closed. Cashio walked around and tied imaginary balloons to our right wrists and told us our arms were gradually, slowly floating up into the air. My arms started to get tired. He tied more balloons to our wrists and said our arms were now rapidly floating into the air. My arms got even more tired. After instructing us to open our eyes we saw some of the audience members had one arm raised and one straight out, while others were not affected. Other tricks were tried on us, and eventually we moved on to the audience participation part of the show.
Four people who'd come to the show together volunteered to be hypnotized. The first order of business? Putting the volunteers into a trance via brief, relaxing speech and uttering "Sleep!" at each of them as he pushed their heads forward. As Cashio meandered through various displays, making participants forget to tie their shoes (one really did), asking two of them to introduce themselves repeatedly (with hilarious results) and making them imagine they were on a perilous bus journey through Africa (with hilarious results), I wavered between believing in their authenticity and ... not believing. Two participants were obviously not in a trance, while the other two seemed like they were. These two participants transformed from giggly teens, nervous in front of the audience, to putty in Cashio's hands. They did the silly things he told them to do, and when they finally woke up they seemed confused and dumbfounded. Were they hypnotized, or just playing along?
My companion thought they were playing along. I thought they were hypnotized.
Inconclusive: Hypnosis is real, yet seems to be an ill-defined phenomenon. Furthermore, for me to really understand how hypnotists and hypnotherapists operate, I'd have to engage in more than just two experiences. Pendulums and shouting at people to "Sleep!" just seem weird and archaic--I'd be surprised to learn this is standard. As for being hypnotized, I think my expectations were for something more profound. Instead it turns out that a hypnotic trance may not be all that different from the spaced-out daydream state I live in most of the time.
An emphatic thank you to David Horine, Ph.D. of The Sandia Center, Brandelyn Jokiel of High Desert Hypnotherapy, Tony Cashio and The Magic Juggler Shop for your collective help in writing this article.