This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 03 table of contents.

Hypnotic Suggestion

The old stereotyped image of a hypnotized person as a glassy-eyed zombie is not accurate, although hypnotized subjects often look calm and a little vacant in the eyes. A good hypnotic subject, capable of entering a deep trance, will respond to suggestions made in a calm and confident way by the hypnotist. For example, a deeply hypnotized person can be led to have positive hallucinations ("You see a double of myself, standing next to me") or negative hallucinations ("We are alone in this room; everybody else has vanished"). It is also true that a hypnotized person can lie rigidly between chairs.

Critics of the hypnotic trance concept point out that all these things can be done by somebody who is not hypnotized. An illusionist named The Great Kreskin does the chair trick with non-hypnotized students. He simply commands them to do it. He uses subjects who are awake and have never been hypnotized. He persuades them that any determined person can accomplish the chair trick. He sets up chairs, supports the student as he or she lies between the chairs, and then removes the support. The student lies suspended rigidly between the chairs.

What does Kreskin do?

The key to such tricks appears to be suggestion rather than a special trance state. Kreskin flatly denies that hypnotism exists. But when you see him "do his thing" it is clear he weaves a spell in his own way. He has a forceful personality. He keeps up a constant but articulate chatter, and has a very self-confident manner. Perhaps hypnosis has more to do with accepting the ideas and commands of a charismatic leader rather than entering a trance state. A person undergoing hypnosis submits trustingly to an authority figure. That may be all that is required for hypnosis-like phenomena to occur.

What are post-hypnotic suggestions? What is post-hypnotic amnesia?

Post-hypnotic suggestions occur when subjects are instructed under hypnosis to perform a simple act later, after awakening, when a pre-arranged signal is given. ("When I say the word Milwaukee, you will pretend you are drinking a beer, then you will act drunk.") Finally, the subject can be told to forget the events of hypnosis, leading to post-hypnotic amnesia. When the two are combined, a subject will carry out a suggestion later, after the hypnosis is over, without knowing why. This works reliably with good hypnotic subjects. However, as a rule, hypnotized people cannot be made to do something under hypnosis that goes against their moral code. So it is unlikely, for example, that a person could be given an effective post-hypnotic suggestion to commit murder.

What did scientists originally believe about hypnosis? What proved to be true?

Originally, in the mid-1800s, scientists believed that true hypnosis was marked by amnesia for the events of hypnosis. In other words, they thought a person who was genuinely hypnotized would never remember what happened under hypnosis. In the 1880s, leading hypnosis researchers discovered that was not true. People who had been hypnotized could remember what happened to them under hypnosis, if they were simply urged to remember the events of hypnosis later, while awake.

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