We see hypnosis in movies and TV all the time – after a few swings of a watch, some poor sap starts clucking like a chicken or crying like a baby – but is there any truth to this? Can you actually hypnotize someone?
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Close your eyes. Breathe in and out, slowly. Picture yourself by the ocean. It’s warm; you can hear waves. You’re completely at ease. Now, when I count backwards from 3… yadda, yadda yadda and ta-dah: That’s the Hollywood version of hypnosis. Luckily, it’s bunk. But what is hypnosis? Is it real?
The short answer: yes… but maybe not the way you think.
Hypnosis is a trance state characterized by suggestibility, relaxation and heightened imagination - like daydreaming. Think of “losing yourself” in a book or movie. You’re conscious, but you tune out stimuli, including your own worries and doubts. This happens more often than you might think – in fact, by that definition, you’ve probably accidentally hypnotized yourself before.
You’re highly suggestible when entranced, so when a hypnotist tells you to do something, you’re more likely to do it – hence the ol’ cluck-like-a-chicken bit. Fear of embarrassment flies out the window, but not a sense of safety and morality. It’s reassuring when you think about it. At least stage magicians are churning out temporary chickens instead of Winter Soldiers.
Hypnosis is often described as a way to access the subconscious -- the part of your mind that does the “behind-the-scenes” thinking. It’s the unsung hero solving problems, finding your stuff, giving you out-of-the-blue “eureka” moments and whatnot.
Psychiatrists think hypnosis partially subdues the conscious mind. Think of your conscious mind as an inhibitive force - the thing that hits the brakes. Your subconscious mind, on the other hands, is the seat of imagination and impulse. It that’s the case, then of course you become suggestible when the conscious part of you gets put on the cognitive back burner. The subconscious also regulates sensations & emotions.
So if you’re entranced, a hypnotist can trigger feelings & senses via suggestion. This part of your brain also helps store memories, meaning hypnotized people can access lost memories – which also implies that it’s possible to create false memories.
Skeptics have another explanation for this state – social pressure. Their idea is that insecure people can be convinced that they should act a certain way. And when they do, they think “oh, I must be in a trance”. Kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy or placebo effect.
This is just scratching the surface. We haven't even talked about how to actually hypnotize people, and whether that whole pendulum thing is real. Spoiler alert: yes. It's meant to induce a state of suggestibility by making you focus on one object with such intensity that you lose track of external stimuli.