Leaving aside the idiocy of performing such a stunt ( the victims hearing would be wrecked whether they showed a reaction or not ) the rumour of this alleged “demonstration” has been repeated by various authors over many decades and none has ever provided a reference for its actual occurrence. It is apocryphal (Van Pelt, 1958). But nor is that important. What is of crucial importance is that three decades before Waxman repeated this myth in the authoritative pages of Hartland’s, T.X.Barber had used a very simple experimental ploy to demonstrate that deafness supposedly induced by hypnotic suggestion is utterly fallacious.

This was reported in the paper “Experimental Study in Hypnotic Behaviour: Suggested Deafness Evaluated by Delayed Auditory Feedback”, British Journal of Psychology, 55. 1964. (Barber and Calverley, 1964).

The study entailed subjecting volunteers who protested profound deafness and behaved consistent with that condition when it had been suggested, to ‘Delayed Auditory Feedback’. Simply put, ones own voice when fed-back via earphones at a moments delay renders most people incapable of normal speech. You may have experienced this when talking to someone via their mobile if the receiver picks up and relays your own voice back to you. A very disturbing phenomenon occurs which, personally, renders me incapable of continuing in more than fits and starts. It certainly rendered the supposedly “deaf” hypnotic subjects incapable of continuing to speak normally! Ergo, they were not in reality deaf, no matter how good a “show” they put on (Barber and Calverley, 1964).

In fact, this experiment confirmed the findings presented by Sutcliffe in an earlier and now historically significant paper, ‘Credulous and Sceptical Views of Hypnotic Phenonmena: Experiments in Ethesia, Hallucination and Delusion.’ Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 62. 1961. (Sutcliffe, J.P. 1961).

Take another simple example. How tirelessly is it repeated by myriad ‘experts’ that a hypnotic hallucination is as solid a ‘phenomenon’ as seeing the real thing! Heavens … take away this precious assertion and you must begin to wonder what is left? Indeed, the truth, once apprehended, really should give one pause to wonder what in reality is left of the ‘phenomenon’ of ‘hypnosis’. It was H.W.Underwood who in 1960 recognised a very simple test for the ‘veridicality’ of this effect. He reported it in the paper ‘The Validity of Hypnotically Induced Visual Hallucinations’ , Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 61, 1960. When a person who is hypnotised and reports ‘seeing’ a suggested image of lines converging upon a vanishing point and then ‘superimposes’ this image upon a ‘target’ of parallel horizontal lines, they should see the ‘Ponzo Effect’. The parallels appear to bend. That is what we see when the lines are really there.

Now, anyone who knows this can pretend that they see the parallels bend. But that does not explain the fact that those who pretend to see the converging lines superimposed upon the parallels do not report the bend! In fact, non-hypnotised subjects told to ‘imagine’ the radial lines report the effect as often as those who have been hypnotised and report the positive hallucination! Only the subjects shown the real lines actually experience the illusion and report it consistently ( Underwood, 1960)

Now lets move on to the biggest whopper of them all. ‘Hypnosis’ is a ‘state’ of ‘relaxation’, right!

Well, that’s what every “expert” from Dads Waxman to Paul McKenna tells us isn’t it? That’s what is tirelessly stated as a matter of fact by every ‘authority’ wheeled onto television and radio isn’t it? That’s what all the guides to hypnotherapy arrayed on the heaving ‘alternative therapy’ shelves of high street bookshops say, isn’t it? Well, whatever one else may believe, agree, or disagree about in the annals of hypnotic research, it is certainly a fact that hypnosis is definitely not inherently a ‘state’ of relaxation. In fact, numerous hypnotists themselves have professed as much for nigh-on a century. But lets not bring hearsay evidence into this. Let us not even cite the research of Ludwig and Lyle whose hypnotic induction method entailed having the subject pace up and down intensely whilst they shouted at them (Ludwig and Lyle, 1964). No, let’s just jump to a really glamorous piece of research, conducted by no less a traditionalist and defender of most orthodox opinions on ‘hypnosis’, Ernest Hilgard. In was conducted conjunction with his colleague Eve Banyai and reported in the paper ‘A Comparison of Active Alert Hypnotic Induction with Traditional Relaxation Induction.’ American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis. 19. 1976.

In this study, Hilgard and Banyai famously demonstrated the practicality of hypnotising subjects who are not merely awake, but riding exercise cycles and becoming more alert as they ‘go under’! (Banyai and Hilgard, 1976).

These are but three instances of two things. Firstly, what Barber called the ‘lore of hypnosis’, that is, the collection of beliefs and assertions that are passed on from writer to writer, generation to generation. Secondly, that a gigantic gap exists between that set of assertions and the actual facts as established when they are put to the test. Pretty much the same pattern applies to virtually everything that pundits have asserted over the years about the phenomenology of ‘hypnosis’. There is in fact, nothing, absolutely nothing, that can be done with ‘hypnosis’ that cannot be done without. Which means that none of those ‘phenomena’ constitute any kind of evidence for such a state. Indeed, the very notion of the existence of such a distinct phenomenon as ‘hypnosis’ is bereft of support. But that does not mean that hypnotism is not a reality! Confused? It’s simple really. Read on and I shall explain. I shall explain. In due course.

Clearly, there exists a distinction between bona-fide scientists, psychological researchers who are not professionally involved in the hypnotic industry and the vaunted scions of various professional bodies who represent those who are. Those who rely upon the widespread dissemination of blatant falsehoods in support of the claims and promises they make for their art. Hypnotherapists and “clinical” hypnotists. Such are the “experts” popularly endorsed by the media and publishers of self-help guides.

The Advent of a Scientific Study of Hypnotism

Obviously, purveyors of snake-oil have been around since the very origins of hypnotism and Mesmerism before it. They have long had a knack for devising various “experiments” that are in fact stunts for the demonstration of the supposed “power” at their disposal. As Clark L.Hull pointed out (Hull, 1933 ) these ‘experiments’ were a travesty of scientific practice, lacking control conditions or any kind of baseline data. They ‘revealed’ feats by hypnotic subjects that were in most cases later shown to be perfectly normal for non-hypnotised people. A classic example being the “experiment” by Heillig and Hoff (Heillig and Hoff, 1925) which showed that when hypnotised subjects were told to ‘hallucinate’ food, the contents of their stomach (pumped out) exhibited reactions consistent with the type of food suggested. Sounds phenomenal! But when the experiment was repeated properly (that is, with control subjects) it was found that exactly the same thing happens when the food is merely imagined by non-hypnotised people! Moreover, it gets worse … merely talking about food has the same effect. Even in the instance of one subject who was both blind and having no sense of smell! (Hull, 1933).

It is worth noting that whilst myriad phenomena were attributed to hypnotic subjects (‘seers’ or ‘mediums’ ) over the rise of the Nineteenth Century, from time-travel to telepathy, as the era waned these claims fell away. What was left, the standard ‘lore of hypnosis’ then came in for rigorous scientific scrutiny from the nineteen twenties onwards.

There had been antecedent stabs at a study. The French Royal Commission of Inquiry into the practice of Mesmerism under the tutelage of a number of scientists including Benjamin Franklyn conducted an informal experiment that demonstrated the status of ‘Animal Magnetism’ to be that of a placebo, avant-la lettre. Whilst in England, Haygarth conducted a study of the alleged effect of Perkinean therapy (an import from America, every bit the rage in Britain that Mesmerism was in France) which is now regarded as the first instance of a controlled double-blind clinical trial in history (Haygarth, 1801). Then Paul Young conducted a brief study of hypnotic phenomena in the early Nineteen-Twenties before the grand master of scientific psychology Clark Hull took the stage.

Hull is known principally as one of the ‘fathers’ of American Behaviourism. His ingenuity in experimental design and the rigour with which he articulated this discipline in practice was proportional to his scorn for the scientist-manques who had littered the field before him. Characters like Binet and Fere who thought it marvellous that a hypnotic subject could hold an arm rigid for a length of time that it was later discovered is absolutely normal in a non-hypnotised person. Hull made the acute and enduringly relevant observation that such ‘manky’ pseudo-scientists were by and large clinicians. That medicine, strictly an art, is all too often confused with science not least by its practitioners, with the result that many arrogantly assert their dabblings as scientific when it is nothing of the kind (Hull, 1933). Moreover, that such people enjoy an authority and status as scientists to which they are utterly unentitled. It is an observation of especial relevance in the present day. When anyone with a degree in medicine seems to think themselves entitled to make pronouncements on ‘hypnosis’ as though it were their peculiar province although the topic is not covered in any orthodox medical curriculum (Roet, 1986, p247).
 Hull established a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin, later moved en-bloc to Yale. The studies recounted in his book “Hypnosis and Suggestibility: An Experimental approach” (1933 ) addressed many of the key ‘phenomena’ of ‘hypnosis’. His work in the field was eventually stopped due to complaints from academicians, supported by … none other than the medical faculty, who in that instance attributed to hypnotism the status of an occult art.
The pattern which emerged from the work of Hull’s team had two aspects. Firstly, that many supposed hypnotic phenomena are without basis in fact. Secondly, with long term significance, that the phenomenon of suggestion is real, but occurs in both hypnotised and non-hypnotised subjects. Most evidently (and objectively measurable) in the effect of unintentional ‘ideomotor’ movements induced by verbally engendering the expectation that they will occur.
It is one of the tragedies of the annals of hypnotism that Hull’s work was so brutally terminated upon the basis of that terrible union of ignorance and arrogance that he had himself warned against. Hull’s importance to research in hypnotism has largely been forgotten, supplanted by the absurdity of his being touted as the ‘teacher’ of that archdeacon of credulity and principal latter day snake-oil merchant, Milton Erickson. Reading Erickson’s own version of events, it is quite clear that that particular medic thought that it was he who had taught Hull (‘Conversations With Milton Erickson’, Vol 3, p151)!
Or as one teacher put it to a friend of mine regarding their son, “You can’t teach anything to someone who knows everything”

Realism versus Credulism.

It was Milton Erickson who came to utterly dominate the field of hypnotism in practice, in the twentieth century, which his career straddled like a colossus. Of course the most renowned dabbler in hypnotism in the nineteenth century, J.M.Charcot, had established his reputation upon the basis of very solid research in neurology, earning him the soubriquet the ‘Napoleon of The Neurosese. Erickson’s patently fantastical claims among a million words of books, papers and interviews almost entirely escaped critical examination (the exceptions being in a colloquium featuring his friend A.M. Weitzenhoffer and part of one chapter in Against Therapy by Jeffrey Masson) until I published Beyond Erickson in 2005. In the sub-title I chose to refer to him as ‘The Emperor of Hypnosis’. It was the translucence of his robes that I had in mind. Robes that in the minds of his generations of disciples were those of a veritable wizard. A preternatural ‘phenomenon’ unto himself, able to hypnotize by a glance, to conjure hallucinations with a whisper, to distend time and warp space, to control people by his breathing! 

His accounts of such super-human feats actually sustain not the slightest credence. Some of the ‘papers’ that he published in the magazine that he both founded and edited for the purpose (The American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis) verge upon a travesty.

His reasoning processes are feeble and subordinate to devious attempts at deception (Tsander, A. 2005. p131-142, Erickson, 1965). He has no understanding of the principle of the control condition in experiments at all (Tsander, A. 2005. p146.) His conception of what constitutes ‘research’ beggars belief. Typically, he published ‘papers’ by his wife, relating a ‘study’ conducted whilst out window-shopping one day in New York, twice (Erickson, E.M. 1962, 1966, Tsander, A. 2005 p120) 

Nonetheless, Erickson was a man of great ingenuity and inventiveness. He single handedly invented or otherwise appropriated and promoted a huge range of highly innovative hypnotic techniques. If you wish to call him a genius, I would not demur, though I refrain from such ultra-quotidian epithets myself. Erickson, through his writing and decade upon decade of touring presentations forged a new vision of the practice of hypnotism as an adjunct to therapy if not a methodology unto itself.

However, it becomes apparent upon close scrutiny of Erickson’s accounts of dozens of cases that hypnotism was a relatively minor, often indiscernible aspect of his ‘strategic therapy’. His techniques often amounted to hectoring, cajoling, bullying, arm-twisting, blackmailing and otherwise dog-cunningly tricking his patients into actions that would have a direct practical effect upon their circumstances and prospects.

The classic example of this is his ‘treating’ a lesbian and a gay man, each of whom faced problems in their professional lives as a result of their clandestine inclinations, this being in a less than open era. Erickson saw the ultimate criterion of mental health as being married with children. Yet he also saw that the biggest problem facing these clients were their obvious lack of a partner rendering them suspect in the eyes of their employers. His ‘therapy’ consisted of telling each of them that at a certain place and time they would bump into the solution to their problem and then arranging it so that they would literally walk into each other! They soon entered into a marriage of convenience. The “therapy” worked! What had ‘hypnosis’ to do with it?

This brings us to the distinction that I raised earlier between ‘hypnotism’ and ‘hypnosis’.

‘Back in the days’ the former referred to the art or technique of inducing and manipulating the latter, a distinct condition or ‘state’. Distinct from either waking or sleep states; akin to a neurological condition such as a temporal lobe epileptic seizure. But Erickson did something very cunning, much in keeping with the commercial, salesman-like way in which he created his empire of the hypnotic: he eradicated the distinction, using ‘hypnosis’ to cover both sides of the equation and every other aspect of the field related to it.

The elision took, resulting in today’s absolute confusion in terminology. Every air-head on the block waffles on about ‘hypnosis’ this and ‘hypnosis’ that, whether they be referring to a technique, its putative effect, its application, the business it sustains or the lifestyle it may finance. I.e, “Paul McKenna is in hypnosis!”. As one person recently said to me “I’ve my house, my car, my truck and my boat and hypnosis paid for all of it, so it must work.” The result is a consequent woollying of any discussion of the field. Why would Eskimo’s have dozens of words for types of snow ? Because it permits of a refinement in the precision with which one can discuss the topic, so important to them. By the same token, if one cannot distinguish between the art, technique, practice, effect, manipulation, application or business of the hypnotic, how can one begin to order clearly ones thinking on the topic?

For Erickson, this terminological ploy served to imprint hypnotism and hypnotherapy with a distinct new style that was specifically his. It may have been useful to him. But it has left us this heinous legacy. Whilst Erickson’s status as grand Wizard of the West grew during the nineteen nifties, sixties and seventies, spawning new therapies from successive generations of disciples, Jay Haley, Ernest Rossi and then Bandler and Grinder, inventors of NLP; genuine scientific study of hypnotism continued in the wings.

By the nineteen eighties a vast body of data on hypnotic phenonema had been accumulated. None of it lent any credence to the now discredited belief in a distinct state of hypnosis. Many had sought the Holy Grail of evidence of such a thing. Many still do. More often, however, it is a case of pundits and the kind of hollow ‘experts’ referred to earlier, misinterpreting the more impressive seeming data obtained from research into the electro-physiology and vascular ‘economics’ of the nervous system. The FMRI studies of Gruzelier and those of Benedetti are typical of work from which the brightly coloured data leave the mis-interpretors “blinded by science”. Such research indicates differences in the way ‘good’ hypnotic subjects use their brain as opposed to ‘poor’ ones, not the existence of a unique type of neural function induced by the actions of the hypnotist still less causing an experience. It’s a simple confusion easily clarified by comparison with music. A ‘good’ pianist’s brain shows different patterns of activation whilst playing a piano than a non-musicians does when trying to do the same. It does not mean that playing the piano is caused by the ‘state’ of activations that correlate with it!

There is an even more pithy analogy. Suppose one tells the subject to lie when under the scanner. Asked “Is the moon made of green cheese?” they reply “Yes”. Compared to a non-lying condition their brains may well light up differently. Does that mean that this pattern, glibly dubbed a ‘state’, causes them to lie? Clearly, the proposition is preposterous!

This leads us to the orthodox view of hypnotic behaviour found in academic psychology. Sutcliffe, in the paper cited earlier refers to the two ‘schools’ or positions in relation to hypnotism outlined above as ‘scepticism’ and ‘credulism’ (although I prefer ‘realism’ to ‘scepticism’). T.X.Barber referred to a ‘New Paradigm’ in thinking about hypnotism. This implying literally a paradigm shift in our conception of the topic in terms of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn, 1962).

It originated with the concept of hypnotic behaviour being the product of the subject enacting ‘cognitive strategies’. ‘Strategic enactment’. Strategies of thought that generate a subjective version of events. The poor hypnotic subject, lacking the strategies, fails to imagine the ‘negative hallucination’ that is my becoming invisible when I ‘suggest’ it to them. They continue to see admit that they see me. The good subjects on the other hand effectively trick themselves into imagining that they cannot see me. They force me out of their awareness the way a school-kid does the miserable prospect of the impending academic year!

The same goes for such things as amnesia. It is quite commonplace for someone to choose not to remember something; ‘hypnosis’ doesn’t come into it.

Such a way of thinking about hypnotic behaviour ties in with current research revealing the plasticity of cognition and memory as well as the influence of social cues upon behaviour. Everybody now knows about Stanley Milgram’s experiments, in which manifestations of obedience were shocking, having nothing to do with ‘hypnosis’ but being raw, pure and unadulterated to a frightening degree (Milgram, 1963).

Between these lines of consideration we find that everything hypnotic is ultimately accountable without ever needing to any longer adduce a special state of ‘hypnosis’. Just as notions of demonic possession used in primitive societies and by our ancestors to ‘explain’ aberrant behaviour could be dropped with the advent of concepts of the unconscious and psychodynamics, so the ‘explanation’ of hypnotic behaviour and interactions in terms of an unknown state of hypnosis becomes redundant in an age of social-psychology. There is nothing left for the concept of “hypnosis” to explain.

This brings up two fundamental misunderstandings about this sceptical as opposed to the credulous view of hypnotism (Sutcliffe, 1961), particularly in relation to the work of Barber and his colleagues, Chavez and Spanos. The use of control subjects who are not hypnotised but can produce the same effects as those who are, often provokes a response that Erickson himself raised in an interview: “Because it can be done without hypnosis does not mean it cannot also be done with hypnosis.” The whole point of such control replication of hypnotic ‘phenonema’ by non-hypnotised subjects is that unless there is something that is peculiar to the alleged ‘state’ and which therefore cannot be replicated, there is no reason even to raise the possibility that there might ALSO be another explanation, i.e. ‘hypnosis’.

Analogy: The suspect was with his wife when she was shot, had his fingerprints on the gun, had told the neighbours he was going to kill her, had powder burns on his hand and was found sat across the room from the body when the police arrived. But it could be that it was a purple dwarf wot-done-it, hypnotised the man, made him tell the neighbours he was going to kill her, put the gun in his hand and pulled the trigger, jumping out the window before the police arrived. After all, the window was open! Well, it could be that that explanation is true! But it is also fundamentally absurd to prefer it. It is what’s known as ‘Occams Law’.

The other misunderstanding of these ‘social psychological’ explanations of hypnotic behaviour hinges on the words ‘role play’. Which is understandably interpreted by the general Joe but also by those who ought know better (Waxman, et al) as equivalent to saying ‘playing around’ or ‘pretending’. In the context of social-psychology this most definitely is not what it means!

Roles are culturally engendered programs of behaviour that govern social interaction. A conception originating quite outside of research into hypnotism, in the area of social-psychology (Goffman, E. 1959). When operating unconsciously as un-considered habits of behaviour and thereby unopposed they constitute a powerful set of tracks directing the conduct of every conventionally adjusted person in everyday life. In extremis, we see how such roles can be characterised by an aspect of intense compulsion, as indeed illustrated by that aforementioned famous work of Stanley Milgram. That study has been followed in the decades since by a large body of similar research. Some of it utterly eye-popping. Take Sheridan and King’s repeat of the Milgram study in which subjects were enjoined to give real electric shocks to visibly distressed puppy dogs (Sheridan and King, 1972)!

Blackman’s study in which it was shown that merely appearing to be an authority figure empowered an individual to have members of the public (who had no idea they were part of an experiment) obey a command to give money to a complete stranger. Famously, again, Zimbardo’s U.S. Navy sponsored experiment revealing how volunteers fall easily into the roles of abuser and victim when cast in a guard and prisoner relationship (Zimbardo, 1972). Research which, incidentally, leaves anyone familiar with it not in the least surprised by events at Abu Ghraib and speechless at the jaw-dropping naiivete of reporters who continue to wonder who ‘ordered’ it. Such behaviour is a default condition under such circumstances. It need never be policy for it to occur in the absence of oversight by external authorities.

Social psychological processes do not only influence actions but perceptions and experience itself. Our cognitive processes are increasingly recognised as almost completely malleable and very, very unreliable. To put it very briefly, when we are not careful to use artificial methods to prevent it, we tend to see what we expect to see and that expectation tends also to be determined by our culture, society or context. This tendency reaching right into the fundamental processes of neuro-physiology, where traditional ‘feed-back/up’ models are being supplanted by a conception of vision in particular, that allows for ‘feed forward/down’ (Churchland, Ramachandran and Sejnowski, 1994).

Against the background of such a broad and far-reaching field of research it becomes increasingly easy to understand the interaction between hypnotist and subject. The hypnotist employs methods, including the manipulation of expectation, context and subsequent recollection of the interaction, which engage multiple subtle aspects of normal behaviour. The good subject is one who is responsive to these influences and in response has what they recall as being a hypnotic experience. That including both the objective (compliance with the hypnotists demands) and the subjective (belief that they could not resist, had really experienced ultra-normal effects, etc).

We need not expect the hypnotist to be aware of how his methodology engages social-psychological influences any more than any person need be aware of such things occurring every day, in their every interaction. All he needs is to repeat those conditions and actions that have been found to produce the desired response. It is like pointing out that sometimes kicking a faulty appliance in a certain spot makes it work properly. One does not need to know why! People who have not a clue how the internal combustion engine works can still drive a car! Meanwhile, the subject will be all the more responsive for not having such a critical awareness of what is taking placeIn fact, however, many if not all hypnotists, especially stage hypnotists, often implicitly acknowledge this reality in the way in which they go about setting up the subject. Indeed, many hypnotists explicitly acknowledge it. I have been publicly advocating such an acknowledgement on the part of all hypnotists since 1995 (in The Stage and Television Today, second week of January).

This brings us down to the basic distinction between ‘hypnotism’ and ‘hypnosis’, something I said I would explain, earlier. It is a critical matter of semantics upon which debate commonly founders. So you must ensure that you have a total grip on what I say in the next paragraph before going any further.

It is this: we need no longer waste our time looking for a supposed ‘state of hypnosis’. All hypnotic behaviour can be explained in terms of normal psychology. ‘Hypnosis’ doesn’t exist; BUT, hypnotism, that body of techniques that has been found efficacious in inducing certain behaviour in an appropriate subject, most definitely works, as I have demonstrated with thousands of volunteers over the past two decades.

To be hypnotised then, is to fall under the influence of many subtle factors that, in truth, already affect us in every aspect of our existence as a social animal. What distinguishes the response of a simulating or ‘fake’ subject from one who is ‘really hypnotised’ is the fact that the latter, in contra-distinction to the former, interprets or experiences their response to (they process and interpret their own sensations and actions induced by) that methodology as being that of a special condition not of their own making or volition!To put that another way: ‘hypnosis’ is an illusion; ‘hypnotism’ is the methodology by which that illusion is created. It is analogous to the relationship between stage magic and the illusion of magical occurrences which it creates.


The implications of the new perspective outlined above are many and far-reaching. They are perhaps most explicitly illustrated in the context of stage hypnotism.

The demonstration of hypnotism and, before it, the ‘magnetism” of Mesmer et al, was from the very outset inextricably entangled with the process of discovery and ‘application’ of these ‘phenomena’. This cannot be stressed too highly. Mesmer himself was a showman. His therapy practice was a theatrical undertaking. His successors and those who contradicted his views, paving the way for hypnotism as we know it, such as the Abbe Faria and Baron Du Potet de Sennevoy (a fictional title) actually gave regular performances in direct concurrence with their teaching and therapeutic work. Our own James Braid, to whom is attributed the very word “hypnotism” (although in fact it had been in use fifty years earlier in France) actually lifted his techniques from observation of the French stage performer Charles La Fontaine.

Numerous significant figures in the history of hypnotism in the nineteenth century whether a layman promoter of the art, a medical practitioner or a pioneer of some sort who was not also a performer either acquired their techniques from such performers or themselves gave lectures that were in fact stage shows under a spurious cloak of academic authority. The chief example being none other than that Napoleon of the neuroses Charcot himself, whose lectures at the Satpetrier hospital were luridly theatrical affairs, open to the general public and for a time a must-see event! Even Charles Dickens travelled to Paris for the specific purpose (Thornton, 1976).

This duality continued into the twentieth century and is exemplified by, again, none other than that ‘Emperor of Hypnosis’, Milton Erickson; a man who wrote scathingly of his disgust for stage hypnotism yet who built his reputation as a hypnotist upon the ‘demonstrations’ that he staged throughout the U.S.A and Mexico.

Reading his own accounts of such lectures it is apparent that they were nothing of the kind but, as a matter of fact, stage hypnotism masquerading as a pseudo-medical demonstration.

The importance of stage hypnotism in this history is that all the major alleged hypnotic phenomena ultimately derive from things ‘demonstrated’ in a theatrical context. Whilst modern hypnotherapists take great pains to disassociate themselves from stage hypnotism (although there are some who honestly conduct both practices) the truth is that the entire fabric of their art and its continuing credibility in the mind of the public is almost solely the product of the illusions created on stage. A client in a hypnotherapy session is essentially required to yield very little by way of a dynamic response to the suggestions of the operator. The veracity of the major hypnotic phenomena is essentially untested in the hypnotherapist’s experience because the induction of such things does not arise in their practice. So they continue to believe in the reality of such things essentially on faith … because it is stated as so in the annals of their art, the ‘lore of hypnosis’. Moreover, that belief system is maintained by the continuing demonstration of the illusion of such phenomena in stage shows.

So what really happens in stage hypnotism is utterly pivotal to an understanding of the true nature of hypnotic ‘phenomena’

Let us leave aside those clowns who use stooges. I know of no examples and against the backdrop of my extensive experience it would seem to be a perilous practice to contemplate. Even though one uses entirely genuine volunteers who one honestly has never met before, the accusation that they include stooges is commonplace. To use such stooges would be to court suicide, or at least a severe kicking. How would one work several times a week, year in and year out, around the country but also repeatedly in the same places without either recruiting armies of these hypothetical stooges or having them recognised in their serial appearance? Certainly the nineteenth century practice of using regular subjects or ‘mediums’ was liable to their being stooges. But the environment in which modern stage hypnotists work is so utterly different. The bottom line being, after paying the stooges, in addition to ones legitimate road crew and other expenses, how on Earth would it ever be profitable?
So I think the stooge scenario is preposterous, for the public would see through it in a trice and it wouldn’t be profitable. However, I am also sure that some operators must have tried that avenue. Maybe one or two A and E wards have treated them after they had been rumbled by the punters! So let us assume stoogery may occur. Now let’s leave it out of the picture. An irrelevance.

Next take a look at some of the crude attempts made by Barber et al to “explain” stage hypnotism (Barber et al, 1979). I will not go into detail, but they are an embarrassing addendum to the work of a man I admire and respect. Anyone who tried to use such obvious tricks as suggesting numbness in the arm of a volunteer whilst making him clutch a ball in his arm-pit (interrupting blood flow) would be subject to ridicule. Moreover, no audience would give a fig for such a routine as a man having his arm go numb. Crikey, what was Barber thinking? What audiences want to see are gross and very loud, very visual aberrations of normal conduct. At the very least their friends being attacked by imaginary ants and mosquitoes, talking Martian, ordering ‘Pigs Piss’ from the bar, searching the audience for ‘stolen’ parts of their anatomy, feigning sexual congress with toy animals, giving birth to others, etc, etc, etc. The kind of behaviour which I have been inducing complete strangers to engage in for the past two decades!

So how DO we explain this panoply of the ‘phenomenal’ if not by adducing the actual ‘phenomenon’ of ‘hypnosis’?

Again, let us leave aside those factors which would be utterly unreliable as a prop for such proceedings. You cannot expect to turn up at a pub where there might be … as sometimes happens … only ten people, and expect to reliably discover, time after time, several of them willing to do as you say simply out of a desire to make themselves the centre of attention. Such people do exist. But they are far from representative of the volunteering public in my experience. Not least because relatively few of the people that I select as volunteers want to take part in the first, sometimes second, or even third instance that I may ask them to do so!

Don’t even mention the influence of alcohol. It helps people to volunteer. It contributes nothing to their chances of being selected. The less intoxicated the volunteers are the better. This is not at all a controversial point.Yet I maintain that there is no ‘state’ of ‘hypnosis’ at work. So how is the ability to induce such behaviour to be understood?

The clue is in the question. As a hypnotist I induce behaviour, not ‘hypnosis’ The hypnotic induction indeed plays a part in this. But the mere fact of having successfully ‘induced hypnosis’ is in most cases not sufficient to obtain from the subject anything by way of a substantive or even interesting response. The process has to be much broader than that. It entails manipulation of all influences upon the subject, from before we even meet them (the information given in advance publicity), to include the working environment, their friends, the audience, and a plethora of variables impingent upon proceedings from their initiation, through the hypnotic induction, and onwards beyond this.

There are two things that one learns from the close observation of a few thousand hypnotic sessions. Firstly, that the behaviour of subjects on close and sustained scrutiny is quite inconsistent with what one would expect were hypnosis to be an actual, bona-fide ‘state’. I devote an entire chapter to describing such observations in my book Beyond Hypnosis: Hypnotism, Stage Hypnotism and The Myth of Hypnosis (Tsander, 2005b) Secondly, that it remains nonetheless possible to create the impression that such a state exists in the mind of onlookers and subjects alike.

At the very least to induce complete strangers to enact the entire panoply of hypnotic ‘phenomena’ with no material incentive. A third observation, occasionally engendered in the odd instance of a sloppy performance (everyone slips up in their work from time to time) is that if one does not take care to govern all necessary variables in order to induce such behaviour, the mere hypnotic induction will of itself yield only a trivial response! The importance of this consideration is discussed again in my book The Art and Secrets of Stage Hypnotism. (Tsander, 2006).

In other words, the hypnotic induction is neither sufficient nor necessary to explain hypnotic behaviour as it is commonly induced in live demonstrations.

There are many insights to be gained from adopting this viewpoint. For a start, whilst it is a very big topic unto itself which I am not going to address here, it is worth glancing in passing at its relevance to that recurring theme of compulsion. This, surely, is at the heart of the general thinkers conception of what it is to be hypnotised: blind obedience.