There are an awful lot of myths and misunderstandings surrounding hypnosis, many of which are simply untrue, others that have a grain of truth but misrepresent hypnosis.
We’ve all seen people such as Paul McKenna and co. hypnotise people live in stage and appear to ‘make’ them do all sorts of silly things. People acting like chickens, eating onions as if they were apples. Putting ‘magic’ glasses and ‘seeing’ everyone naked! But what is going on here? Do people really believe they can see people naked? Do they really believe that onion is an apple? Well, confusingly the answer is yes and no!
The People who end up on the stage KNOW what they’re doing; they’re NOT being made to do something that they don’t want to do! The kind of person that the hypnotist has chosen is the sort of person that enjoys being the centre of attention, enjoys ‘a good laugh’ and is normally self confident enough to not mind making a fool of themselves (I’m sure we all know someone like this). In fact they are the sort of person that would probably ‘act like a chicken’ with enough encouragement, without any form of hypnosis. The only thing the hypnosis does is to put the willing volunteer into a relaxed state, a state where they’re even more likely to do something silly than they would anyway. Hypnosis itself only relaxes a person; it does nothing else on its own.
The simple fact is no one can be made to anything, under hypnosis, that they wouldn’t normally do! Forget what you may have seen in films and on TV. The Idea that the ‘assassin’ has been programmed under hypnosis to kill someone is about as real as Star Trek! It’s impossible. There have even been attempts to take hypnotists to court in order to prove that hypnosis ‘made’ someone do something they didn’t want to do. Most cases never even make it to a courtroom, having already been thrown out. And, of the few that make it that far, every single one has resulted in an acquittal, not one as resulted in any kind of conviction.
So how did this myth come about?
Svengali – the fictional hypnotist
The strongest single source for the myths surrounding hypnosis probably comes from the writer George du Maurier. du Maurier’s Character ‘Svengali’ was fictional hypnotist who uses his ‘powers’ for his own ends. Published in 1894, the novel ‘Trilby’ was a sensation in its day, and its portrayal of hypnotism set the seed of the idea that a hypnotist has power over other people. But it all nonsense!
The first part of the story sets up the idea that hypnotism helps the singer Trilby to overcome her nerves in order to perform. The idea that this is an effective use of hypnosis starts one myth. As I’ve already pointed out hypnosis itself does nothing, it’s the therapy that’s offered under hypnosis that does the work. But this is followed up with the idea that the only way that the singer can perform is ‘in a trance’, this too is nonsense. Hypnosis is used in conjunction with a number of different therapeutic techniques and, once the therapy is completed, the client goes on their way, enjoying the rest of their life, minus the problem, no need to be ‘in a trance’ to do anything. (I should also point out that the word ‘Trance’ is almost never used in clinical hypnotherapy in the UK)
Trilby itself has been filmed several times, most recently in 1983, thus perpetuating the myths. Indeed, the name ‘Svengali’ itself has become synonymous with the idea of a person who manipulates another into doing what is desired; however it’s a different film altogether that really sets up Hypnosis’s bad press in the cinema.
The Manchurian Candidate – hypnosos in the polital arena.
The Manchurian Candidate filmed in 1962, staring Frank Sinatra brought the idea that hypnosis has power into the political arena. Filmed at the height of the Cold war, the film suggests that the protagonist has been programmed to kill a leading American politician.
Although the word ‘hypnosis’ did not actually appear in the script, it was pretty clear how the brain washing was supposed to work. The film itself was a moderate success, but real life events the following year brought a new perspective on the film. It has been strongly suggested that Sinatra ordered the film’s removal from circulation following the assassination of J.F.K. in 1963 and, even thought this has never been verified, and no element of the assassination involved hypnosis (even in the most ‘way out’ conspiracy theories) the story persists that Manchurian Candidate was withdrawn because of the assassination. In truth the film was aired by CBS in 1965 and Sinatra did not acquire distribution rights until the late ‘70’s, nevertheless the rumour persisted that there is something ‘very sinister’ going on with the film. With these background issues, and associated historic events, it’s little wonder that hypnosis has gained a bad reputation, even though its all nonsense.
Thankfully the 2004 remake of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ replaces ‘hypnosis’ with drugs and neurosurgery.
The misrepresentation of hypnosis
Unfortunately the ‘misrepresentation’ of hypnosis doesn’t end with sinister portrayal in the cinema. Although not portrayed as so subversive, the recent popularity of stage hypnotism has done little to help. As mentioned briefly at the start of this article, the use of hypnosis as a form of entertainment is all well and good but it does set up misconceptions of hypnosis in the eyes of the general public, and gives the impression that it has powers that seem almost supernatural, again perpetuating the myth that you can control people with hypnosis. In recent years the two chief proponents of this have been Paul McKenna and Derren Brown. However, while McKenna does make use of hypnosis, Derren Brown’s act has virtually nothing to do with hypnosis at all. Derren uses a combination of techniques in his shows. These include psychology, suggestion, deliberate misdirection and elements of a therapeutic technique known as Neural Linguistic Programming. (NLP) It is true that NLP’s origins lie in the study of successful hypnotherapists, but NLP itself does not use hypnosis directly. So it’s odd that, given the above, Derren Brown’s name has been linked with hypnosis, but linked it is, in the minds of the public. It is true that Brown used to use hypnosis early on in his career, but this element was dropped long before he hit the headlines with his ‘Russian Roulette’ show. Paul McKenna on the other hand does use hypnosis, however he too has moved over to NLP in his work. And, much to his credit, has also moved away from ‘hypnosis as entertainment’ and into the field of therapy, albeit with NLP as his main tool.
At the end of the day, it still remains a fact that more than 70% of the population would not even consider receiving hypnotherapy for help with a problem, even though it has demonstrated time and again just how effective it can be. And there’s no doubt that this reluctance is largely down to hypnosis’s portrayal in the media, even though, as I’ve hopefully demonstrated, this portrayal is wildly inaccurate.
Andrew Mercer DHP (adv.), BA (hons), MAPHP, MNRAH
Clinical Hypnotherapist and Counsellor practising in Basildon, Essex.