What is wrong with Hypnosis?

For the last two hundred and fifty years hypnosis has suffered from an image problem, stubbornly clinging like a wet t-shirt, even though in the more enlightened age of the 21st century, hypnosis is accepted as mainstream – hypnotherapy is even thought of as the ‘grand dame’ of all the talking therapies.

So why is it that at the mere mention of the word hypnosis, some people still go into paroxysms of fear and superstitious rage? I have heard the phrase “don’t look into his eyes!” so frequently that if I really did have a pound for every time it had been recited in my presence, I would be able to buy a small car. Not that I expect everyone to have as full an understanding of the subject as I or many of my colleagues, but the word instantly conjures up images of demonic Svengali-like power exercised over innocent virgins, not to mention an aura of spiritual and religious unpleasantness.

The antics of Dr Walford Bodie in the late 19th and early 20th century are partly to blame, and there is more about his life and work in the article THE ELECTRIC WIZARD and in the articles on HYPNOSIS IN RELIGION on this website. But misunderstandings date back to the 1760s, to Franz Mesmer, and segued by a dismal history of quackery and charlatanism spanning three centuries.

Therapeutic Hypnosis – hypnotherapy – is now deemed acceptable, albeit with a pinch of caution by a public less prone to superstition. The number of people seeking help through hypnotherapy has all but eclipsed those seeking help from psychologists. The hypnotherapist offers quick and no-nonsense cures for a variety of imagined ailments and psychosomatic ills. So it begs the question, why are we unable to free ourselves from a prejudice that belongs in the dustbin of history?

Mesmer, Bodie and all the stage hypnotists in the world apart, the public perception of hypnotism has been dictated largely by Hollywood. From the early silent movies of Lon Chaney to the more recent Manchurian Candidate (both the original and more recent remake) the movie industry has unwittingly and probably unintentionally shaped our perceptions of hypnosis, perceptions which have evolved into deeply held beliefs and prejudices.

Of course, this unconscious discrimination against hypnosis and hypnotists, has also been fuelled by the far right Christian ‘majority’ in countries as far afield as the United States and South Africa – in fact anywhere where closeted social education is the norm, a wider intelligence is at a low ebb.

This is unfair. Public perception of any phenomenon, from art to war, is always dictated by the cultural mores of the society of the time. This may sound like a sweeping statement, but one only has to take a cursory glance at what is happening in Syria and Iraq, where ISIS fighters are committing the most terrifying atrocities in the name of the antidote to common sense, religion. Yes, the goings-on in the so-called Islamic State are horrific, but are they any more so than the witch burnings that took place in Western society a mere two hundred years ago in Salem or three hundred years ago across Europe? They still put people accused of witchcraft to death in some African countries and in India, although such practices are now illegal. To this, one can add the Spanish Inquisition, countless pogroms and religious wars.

Religious beliefs have all too often also been opposite to scientific evidence, resulting in ludicrous beliefs, and I again cite the current ISIS insurgency, but then again conflict based upon differences in religious beliefs are equally insidious, and equally ridiculous. The main difference between Catholic and Protestant for instance is whether the Spirit of Christ resides in a wafer!

A surprising number of religious Evangelist ‘healers’ in the United States are fully aware they are using the techniques of stage hypnosis to perform ‘miracles’ at their ‘charismatic’ rallies, even though they would never admit it publicly. Some evangelists do indeed possess a certain charisma, but charisma is a two way street. Charisma only exists when the orator echoes the innermost thoughts or prejudices, conscious or unconscious, of the crowd he is preaching too. It certainly worked for Hitler. It’s only when they get caught (literally) with their pants down does said charisma suddenly evaporate… along with the flow of money.

For the better informed, both hypnosis and the miracles of Jesus have a wholly naturalistic explanation – as does the ‘laying on of hands’ employed by Reiki practitioners and the like. The Jesus of the Bible undoubtedly used indirect suggestion, as do today’s modern TV evangelists. The only difference is that historically, Jesus was slightly nuts and went too far and got carried away by his own ego, whereas the religious healers of today are without exception motivated by the money or the addictive power they wield.

Turning water into wine is an age-old magicians and hypnotists trick, as popular in holiday camp hypnotism shows today as it was in Judea two thousand years ago. It’s easy to get a crowd to enjoy a religious experience – and the bigger the crowd the more profound the experience. The behaviour of the group can be manipulated with an ease that is truly astounding.

Those versed in the techniques of crowd control and human belief systems are of course immune to the spell for obvious reasons – once you know how the trick is done, it is easily understandable. This immunity sometimes means they stand out from the crowd and are occasionally ostracised for their refusal to blindly follow the rest of the group, even punished by the rest of the blind majority as unbelievers or heretics or ‘kuffars’.

That’s OK if all it means is not inviting into your home someone whose beliefs or disbeliefs are different to yours, but in an age when ignorance and superstition are supposed to be things of the past, tens of thousands of real human beings are being murdered and sold into sexual slavery because of what it says in a fourteen centuries old book. It’s not such a long time since anyone was sent to prison for lack of belief (in the UK the last atheist sentenced to three years in prison was in 1921.)

Please note here that I am not anti mainstream religion – most mainstream religions have a lot to offer in terms of faith, comfort, stability and community – but charismatic and radical religions should be of concern to everyone with a thinking brain. Yet, apart from the objections of the god-botherers, undoubtedly based on the fact that they use hypnosis every Sunday, the further a religion or belief in a particular dogma strays from the mainstream, the more insidious and socially disruptive it becomes. Religions that mutate into something pernicious because of unhealthy social strictures create unwitting social compliance – the fact is that human beings are pathetically suggestible once you have their attention.

Hypnosis, Hypnotism and Hypnotists suffer from a serious image problem because humans unconsciously recognise this perceived ‘power’ for what it is, an attempt to manipulate belief and behaviour. This ability to recognise manipulation is however put aside when the elephant in the room is religion. Human beings are in the main preconditioned from birth not to question religious belief and this inability or refusal to question is one of the last great remaining taboos of civilisation.

Leaving religion aside for one moment, hypnosis has often been associated with sexual misconduct. Barely a year goes by without the appearance of some lurid tabloid story, repeated ad nauseam about the ‘pervert hypnotist’ who has engaged in inappropriate sexual activity with one of his clients (it’s always a male offender, perhaps unsurprisingly.) The mention of the word hypnotist is always guaranteed to add an extra degree of titillation to readers of the SUN (average reading age 10) and thus achieve it’s primary aim, which is to sell more copies. True, some hypnotherapists have brought it upon themselves (as have some celebrities, politicians and other professions one already had sneaking suspicions about) but every tabloid story reinforces our already deeply held mistrust and prejudice about something we don’t quite understand. Most of us don’t quite understand quantum physics either, but stories about quantum physicists don’t excite the imagination in the same way stories about hypnotists do. Yes folks, hypnotists are right up there with pedophile priests, bent coppers, former cabinet ministers and Jimmy Savile. It is not just the fear of the unknown that is the engine that drives the unconscious mistrust of hypnosis, although it can be fairly said that some stage hypnotists have brought it upon themselves.

The irony is hypnosis is very easy to understand as a series of simple and easily explained psychological techniques, which, once understood, will naturally raise a lot more questions about non-evidential religious belief. The psychological theory behind hypnosis and an understanding of it can be taught in a weekend. This is why certain religions are so down on hypnosis – because they practice it themselves, and usually at the weekend!

When (last year) I offered some free tickets to a show I was putting on to support my local theatre to the nice lady who, worked in my local shop, she politely but firmly declined, with the words “oh, hypnotism, oh… no thanks.” When I equally politely asked why, she replied, with all the confidence of someone who understood these things, “ooh well… y’know…” Which said it all really.

Of course, this attitude (again, part of the cultural psyche) very definitely has its roots in Stage Hypnosis. The irony of this connection we will come to later, but today’s stage hypnotists must also shoulder a fair share of the blame.

Of course, this attitude (again, part of the cultural psyche) very definitely has its roots in Stage Hypnosis. The irony of this connection we will come to later, but today’s stage hypnotists must also shoulder a fair share of the blame. Stage hypnotist Alex Leroy was filmed telling a woman he had hypnotised in a pub show that when she woke up, she would think she had “just been raped.” The footage was shown on the BBC’s current affairs programme Here and Now. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that sort of behaviour is bound to damage the image and public acceptance of hypnosis.

The ‘I now have you in my power…’ façade is disingenuous, as most (but worryingly not all) stage hypnotists know all too well. The common belief is that the recipient’s will is compromised – a notion reinforced by memories of the scandalous book Svengali, an invention of author George Du Maurier (father of Daphne.) The sinister image, the power to take away pain, the clear, wide, staring eyes, the intimation of the ‘Mesmeric Influence’ hit a cultural nerve with contemporary readers at the turn of the 20th century. In the book, Svengali was portrayed as the archetypal loathsome Jew, which can only have served at the time to pile on the prejudice even more. John Barrymore played Svengali to great effect in an early silent movie, coining the phrase “look into my eyes,” something that caught on very quickly, no doubt fuelled by the stage hypnotists who raced to cash in on the success of the film.

Both the book and the film centred on the sexual/subservient role-playing of the powerful Svengali and the helpless Trilby, a theme repeated in the popular musical The Phantom of the Opera. How many of us could resist rushing to the aid of, and falling in love with, a sweet but frail damsel in distress? Hollywood is awash with such fantasies, all variations on the same theme, and from the earliest portrayal of Robin Hood to the more recent Pretty Woman, I’m sure you can think of many more.

Svengali played to the prejudices of Edwardian audiences, most notably when it came to the revulsion of foreign, alien, and Jewish types preying upon innocent womanhood, an idea that to the genteel ladies and gentlemen of the age was without doubt rather distasteful, as was the idea of any kind of foreign influence on British society. Yes, distasteful and yet strangely thrilling at the same time. They secretly read it anyway and the book sold in vast numbers. [I should point out that Hitler was by no means the first to persecute the Jews – they have a tragically long history of persecution. It was in fact the Empress Marie Louise of Austria in 1860 that first decreed that Jews wear a yellow star.]

Moreover, Svengali (and today’s more modern Mesmerists) often pander to time honoured stereotypes of men’s domination over women, women considered the ‘weaker sex.’ Certainly this idea has its roots in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, but it goes beyond mere misogyny. It is also dictated by historic class structure, outdated Victorian prejudices and the imposition of one person’s will over another’s for nefarious, and more often sexual purposes. In Du Maurier’s book, Trilby is portrayed as being in a perpetual trance (nonsense by today’s understanding of hypnosis) and at the mercy of the manipulative, reptilian Jew, Svengali. Svengali is the epitome of the public misunderstanding of Hypnotism.

Astonishingly, most people alive today have never read the book – yet they believe it! And the prime example is the woman in my local shop. Again, for the sake of completeness, most Christians have never actually read the Bible either – they have the Bible read for them, or at least excerpts, just the lovely stories – there is seldom reference to all the illogical nonsense in there, yet they too believe it! The great writer Isaac Asimov said “the Bible, if read correctly, is the greatest advert for atheism!”

Western culture has perpetuated the mythology that women are weaker, less intelligent and in need of protection. Not even on the Jeremy Kyle show has any man ever admitted to hitting a woman and on the rare occasions such an allegation has been made, the alleged perpetrator is roundly booed by an audience always hoping for blood.

But I digress… The clinical value of hypnosis has been clearly stated by the British Medical Association (BMA) and repeatedly in the British Medical Journal and The Lancet. Praiseworthy articles on the benefits of hypnosis as a therapeutic tool have graced the pages of Nature Magazine, Scientific American and many other serious and respected publications.

The great granddaddy of hypnosis though is said to be Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer did succeed in healing many minor ailments with his lighting rods and showmanship, especially those ailments that were psychosomatic. Mesmer’s technique has more in common with pseudo-scientific ‘belief based’ therapies such as Reiki and faith healing, all of which have their roots in the effectiveness of the placebo. At the opposite end of the scale of course is the darker art of Voodoo. Whether for good or bad, both depend on exactly the same phenomenon, the acceptance of an idea and belief of the recipient. Once the mind has accepted a premise, no matter how ridiculous, it will stay lodged there until successfully challenged.

Mesmer was said to have great charisma, penetrating eyes, and a natural authority. So, just like the passed-down-through-the-ages info on Jesus and Hitler then. Jesus’ image has been hugely assisted by those spectacular Hollywood movies, all of which depicted him as possessing a charismatic and clear-eyed calm. Jesus is an all-round-nice-guy Son of God, telling nice stories containing great truths. More likely he was a bisexual guru who knew a few good magic tricks and became a reasonably competent hypnotherapist. Oh, and who thought that keeping slaves was OK. He was also a racist, who refused to heal a non-Jewish woman who begged him to help her and That’s of course presuming he existed in the first place, something that is in considerable doubt. Really… it’s the parts of the bible they don’t teach you about in Sunday school or ever mention in church which are the most interesting!

The Methodology of hypnosis and the placebo effect can be clearly seen when we look at similar tools, for example Acupuncture and the aforementioned Reiki – the laying on of hands without the actual laying on of hands. The same with Mesmer and Mesmerism – they also outlived their usefulness because although mesmerism was often effective, Mesmer was literally barking up the wrong tree when he attempted to explain cause and effect.

Step forward James Esdaile and James Braid. Both were [rightly] originally skeptical of Mesmerism and Mesmer’s Animal Magnetism of the Universe theory. No sooner had they reached their own conclusions – that mesmerism and the mesmeric forces were more to do with the patients expectation and susceptibility to suggestion – than a quicker, better and more reliable treatment suddenly became available – ether. No magnetism or universal fluid required! It is Expectation that is the key that unlocks the secret of hypnosis!

But then, along came Spigismund Freud [I spelt his name wrong on purpose] to drive the final nail in the hypnosis coffin. Such was Freud’s reputation, that when he abandoned hypnosis, so did everyone else. [Psychology was only recognized as a science in 1898, a mere 10 years before Freud started spouting his nonsense about the Oedipus complex. Freud was a serial cocaine addict and today most of his theories are ridiculed – to no one’s great surprise.] Freud’s abandonment of hypnosis was more likely because he neither fully understood it and nor was he very good at it. It takes a huge amount of practice to make it work, and Freud was too busy injecting himself with cocaine to stick at it. [As an added extra here, I bet you didn’t know that Freud believed your personality was dictated by which astrological star sign you were born under – and they keep that quiet!]

In the 1950’s the great psychologist Milton Erikson appeared to dominate hypnosis and was perhaps the first true academic to really unbderstand it’s full effect and potential. Erickson’s view was that “Everyone on earth is hypnotisable – what is needed is a different approach for different people.” In other words, an individualised induction is the key to success. This, of necessity, involves a fair amount of trial and error with each client, but, according to Erickson, and he is almost certainly correct, stick at it and you’ll get there in the end. This is the crux of the Eriksonian approach. From that moment on, the ‘one size fits all’ script was abandoned and hypnosis as a therapeutic tool became of interest once again.

The irony I mentioned earlier is that throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the stage performers who kept interest in hypnosis (or Magnetism or Mesmerism as it was sometimes called) alive. It’s also probably the main reason any serious study of the phenomena has always been associated with charlatanism. Esdaile and Braid took a risk when they started experimenting with mesmerism, although both played it safe by mainly confining their experiments to India, thereby avoiding the stigma of the music hall.

So is there a crossover between hypnotist and performer? The answer is… I should say so! It is understood that high profile hypnotherapists get better results. It’s the old market forces syndrome coming into play. The popular perception is that the little black dress Posh Spice wears and which cost five hundred quid, is better than the little black dress that cost fifteen quid from Asda. The higher the status of the stage hypnotist, the greater are perceived to be his powers. In other words, reputation is everything, and showmen in particular guard their reputations with a jealousy of biblical proportions. And a bit of theatricality often actually helps hypnosis!

Since the days of Dr Walford Bodie and the hypnotists of the 1950’s ’60s and ’70s entertainment hypnotism went through an evolution (spearheaded by Bodie) from the macabre to the fun. Hypnotists very slowly began to grasp the idea that exciting the pleasure centres of the brain rather than the fear centres had a more positive effect at the box office.

After Dr. Bodie’s amazing and very public exploits, Peter Casson became, in the late 1940’s and 1950’s the doyenne of stage hypnosis, the self styled ‘Supreme Grand Master’ of hypnotism. He (like Bodie before him) opened a private clinic in Harley Street and gained a national reputation.

On the stage, as in hypnotherapy, hypnosis leads to behaviour modification. Whether or not that behaviour modification is for good or evil is a matter of cultural belief and historical perspective (think good psychotherapy or bad Nazis.)

An example of the very good was when American GIs, suffering severe emotional and psychological battlefield trauma during WWII were successfully treated by Dr Dabney Ewing who found that hypnosis was the quickest and easiest route to recovery. Ewing’s mantra was “you can remember, you can talk…” These almost miraculous cures led directly to a positive belief and increased confidence in hypnosis as a valuable therapeutic tool, especially in the field of pain management. By the 1960s, doctors and surgeons in the United States fully accepted the efficacy of hypnosis as a valuable medical tool – almost half a century before their British counterparts who remained mired in the distrust and scepticism of the previous century.

A popular stage hypnosis routine, where the hypnotist persuades a group of hypnotized volunteers he is invisible elicits all sorts of amusing behaviours from subjects. But again, this is just an overt example of behaviour modification. On the stage, subjects are often simply ‘caught in the moment’ which is why so many of them ask themselves the question ‘why did I do that?’ after the performance.

The correlation between psychology, neurology and hypnosis is understood by depressingly few stage hypnotists and is much better understood by the psychologists who study hypnosis. A great deal of skill is required not only to produce these effects but also to understand their cause and effect. One of my great concerns has always been that far too many stage hypnotists rely on the fact that it works because it works and that’s good enough – now when do I get paid? Many of today’s stage hypnotists do themselves no favours the way they carry on.

Peter Casson really was a national figure in his day, the only competition being one Ralph Slater, and American who put on a season of shows at Earls Court. Part way through the run, Slater experienced the sort of incident every hypnotist dreads – a young girl volunteer appeared not to be fully awakened after the performance. She was eventually hospitalised and there was a great to-do in the newspapers! Questions were asked in Parliament and in 1952, the Hypnotism Act was introduced. [There is more information on this story and its consequences in the article THE REAL DANGERS OF STAGE HYPNOSIS on this website.]

Casson claims he used his influence to have the original bill thrown out, but this is simply not true. Casson’s version of events is more likely a result of his own overblown self-importance, something he suffered from throughout his life. The reality is the 1952 Hypnotism Act was a fudge. The original bill sought to ban stage hypnosis outright and the final Act was a poor compromise. In a rush to do something and yet do nothing, the government simply passed the buck to local authorities and left it to them to either allow or not allow performances of hypnotism as they saw fit. Nonetheless, the publicity surrounding the Slater case, and the introduction of the Act, only served to darken further the name of hypnosis.

Fast-forward to 1997 and Paul McKenna, having become Britain’s most famous hypnotist, was sued in the High Court by Christopher Gates. Gates claimed his schizophrenia was as a direct result of McKenna’s hypnosis. Not unreasonably, the case put all stage hypnotists on trial – yet again! In fact Gates was already suffering from schizophrenia before he attended the show, but in my opinion McKenna was negligent in allowing him to continue being part of the performance. The world’s baldest hypnotist should have sent him back to his seat at the first sign of trouble. Mr. Justice Tilson found in McKenna’s favour but it left the inevitable nasty taste in everyone’s mouth. [For more information on this and other scary stage hypnosis stories, please go to the article INSIDE STAGE HYPNOSIS on this website.]

Mind manipulation and dangerous influence, or gentle persuasion and amateur dramatics? Did anyone really care? The tabloids, together with some late night television talk shows, had a field day. The ensuing media coverage had a huge effect on the public perception. Where once hypnotists had filled the theatres, audiences now stayed away and stage hypnosis devolved into unlicensed shows held in pubs and back street nightclubs. Not even the holiday camps would book a hypnotist. And this state of affairs existed for nearly twenty years. Most stage hypnotists suddenly found themselves unemployed and turned to other things – even Paul McKenna gave up the ghost and pursued a new career in the ‘make your life a better place to live’ business.

It was quite by chance that ITV, in March 2015, broadcast ‘You’re Back in the Room.’ Fronted by popular and forever young Philip Schofield, the hybrid comedy hypnosis/game show occupied prime time on a Saturday evening for four weeks. The show, tacky as it was, did more to rehabilitate the image of stage hypnosis in the public eye than anything else.

Derren Brown, who has deservedly done very well from his Mind Control television series but takes great care to distance himself from hypnosis, something he relies upon in many of his live shows, is worthy of our attention here. Derren is a very wise man, if a less than totally honest one, but then hey, it’s only entertainment! I mean, when you go to see a magician in Las Vegas, you don’t really believe he’s actually sawing that poor defenceless woman in half do you?

So, is there any difference between hypnosis and mind control? Derren Brown sends out mixed messages – part of his schtick is claiming that you are not even aware of the messagesand yet he also relies on a healthy dollop of sleight of hand magic and card tricks which he very cleverly dresses up as mind control to accomplish his equally mind blowing feats. Brown is someone I admire, mainly for his expose of a variety of fakers and charlatans, including spirit mediums and religious ‘miracle’ workers. This is the sort of thing we should all be grateful for and we need more like him.

In the New Age of the industrialization of talking therapies, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is king. Courses are available for anyone to take, whether they have any previous experience in therapy work or not. Normally, students are required to answer only one question – have you got $5,000? The catch is, NLP is really hypnosis by another name and students spend most of the course learning the word-games and mental gymnastics associated with hypnosis and hypnotherapy. What is interesting is that NLP has become the new hypnosis, even though some of what is taught is pseudo-psychological nonsense. NLP really is mainly suggestion and some pure hypnosis, yet it suffers from none of the attendant hocus-pocus associated with hypnosis. You see… it really is all about reputation. So it doesn’t matter what you call the tune, it’s still the same dance.

It is unfortunate that as with stage hypnosis and its precursors, mesmerism and magnetism even hypnotherapists must take a share of the blame for the tarnished reputation of hypnosis.

In The Bloxam Tapes, hypnotherapist Morey Bernstein claimed to have ‘regressed’ his patients back in time to ‘past lives’ and with spectacular results. Bernstein’s experiments unearthed detailed information that gave his ‘research’ a certain credibility, and others like him have made huge amounts of money by jumping on the past life regression bandwagon. The totally unexciting fact is that supposed past life experiences owe more to a subject’s fertile imagination than to reality. [More info on this and other weird and wonderful stories in the article LITTLE WHITE LIES AND LITTLE GREEN MEN on this website.]

The story of Bridey Murphy is a perfect example. Regressed to her supposed past life, the story immediately caught the public’s imagination and thus entered into the collective urban mythology. The more interesting story is that a suspicious journalist decided to conduct his own more thorough and scientific research into the case and discovered an amateur hypnotherapist who was prone to encourage his charges to extemporise by asking them very leading questions. Perhaps it was the fact that the woman concerned had a living neighbour called Bridey Murphy that aroused his suspicions. Nonetheless, the tale of Bridey Murphy was seriously discredited, but by then of course it was too late.

The bottom line is that evidence of past lives never survives rigorous scrutiny and only the delusional encourage their even more delusional clients to take part in such flummery. Numerous hypnotists have written hundreds of books all pertaining to prove that past lives are factual. My namesake, Michael Newton (I am sometimes confused with him by the tree hugging brigade, much to my annoyance) has made a small fortune from this tripe. Again, it’s this sort of charlatanism that turns many people off hypnosis. Sure, there are those that believe in this stuff and nonsense, but they are in a small minority – most do not believe a word of it and therein lies the problem. It’s exactly the sort of thing that maintains the hint of charlatanism.

The biggest danger that amateur hypnotherapists have posed in the last 30 or so years (oh why cant they just stick to smoking cessation and weight loss?) is the fallacy of repressed memory, first ‘discovered’ (erroneously as it turned out) by Sigmund Fraud and now more commonly and accurately referred to as False Memory Syndrome.

It must be of great concern to us all to discover that modern therapy rooms have borne witness to false memories of childhood sexual abuse. Even when the patient/client is unsure if anything untoward ever really did happen during a mostly forgotten part of their life, this state of being unsure is taken to be one of the symptoms! Really?? Being unsure makes a suggestible or vulnerable client easy prey to the malleability of memory – or the badly trained or unscrupulous hypnotherapist.

Professor Elizabeth Loftus, the world’s leading expert on memory, has proved conclusively that old or forgotten memories are utterly unreliable. Even when police take statements from witnesses just minutes after a car crash, memories are usually unreliable. This is partly because people are prone to putting their own interpretation on events, giving rise to, at an unconscious level, bias and pure invention.

Under hypnosis, it is remarkably easy to create a false memory or memories (stage hypnotists do it all the time, although they are usually careful to restore the true memory.) Newly discovered abuse may never have happened, but the incompetent or downright unscrupulous therapist sticks to his mantra – “Until you remember, you cannot accept it happened” – and this is dangerous nonsense that breaks up families and destroys lives. [ref. the Cleveland Child Abuse Inquiry.]

The creation of a false memory by an unqualified therapist can have devastating long-term consequences. It is very easy to indirectly convince another human being something happened that in reality did not happen, or that something that happened in the past, which cannot be consciously remembered is the cause. Not only is this nonsense, it’s obvious nonsense if you consider it logically and sensibly. The big danger is that the supposed reality is purely imaginary and therefore untrue, but has been inadvertently created by the client and reinforced by the therapist, both of whom are fumbling in the dark and in reality working against each other.

In recent years, more and more stories have appeared in the media of ‘victims’ undergoing hypnotic regression to uncover sexual abuse. The reporting of these incidents always play big on the word ‘hypnosis’ thereby reinforcing the idea that hypnosis is associated with bad things.

The supposition that hypnosis is a ‘trance’ or trance-like state is one of the greatest misconceptions. People who undergo hypnosis do not fall into a trance or any other state of unconsciousness. They do not fall asleep, neither are they unaware of their actions. The truth is rather more (perhaps disappointingly) mundane. People under hypnosis may be relaxed, but they are wide-awake, fully aware, and at the same time highly focused on the task in hand. Hypnosis is a clever and well-understood piece of mental chicanery and it’s causes and effects are well understood in psychological terms.

The perennial problem is that with hypnosis, the culture of both the past and the present is the problem of the future. Many more people would consider hypnotherapy if it were not for the characters historically involved. Stories of hypnotists changing people’s lives for the better are few and far between because they are not newsworthy, but the rogue hypnotist can linger in the headlines for months. And there’s another irony! The very people who discovered its potential were flawed themselves – showmen masquerading as healers, healers masquerading as showmen. One stage hypnotist remarked “it’s not just about the laughs, it’s also about how many smoking and weight loss CD’s you can flog them on the way out.”

Hypnosis is really just a social situation where one ordinary human being is using well understood tried and tested psychological techniques to influence another ordinary human being. The preconceptions and expectations associated with hypnosis will probably never change and I am sometimes tempted to consider support for a ban on all hypnosis other than that performed by properly qualified and trained persons. But then, given the implicit nature of hypnosis and suggestion, the logical conclusion would be that all advertising would have to be banned, along with all religion, in fact any phenomena that involved accessing the emotions. That would take enormous political will and would be practically impossible unless we were to turn our society into a democracy similar to that of North Korea. Of course it would mean that political campaigning would also have to be banned and along with it, politicians. See the problem?

So what can be done to improve the image?

I said earlier that stage hypnosis should shoulder most of the burden and blame for the public approbation attached to it. In the UK, there are currently twenty or maybe as many as thirty people claiming to be Britain’s best, rudest, most outrageous, funniest hypnotist. The truth is, with the exception of three performers (and I count myself among them) most hypnotists put on tacky and puerile shows, which more often than not include routines that a quarter of a century ago would have seen them arrested for indecency. In the nightclubs and bars of Ibiza and Benidorm, simulated sex acts performed under hypnosis are now the norm. In the age of anything goes, market forces are the only safety net. In the pubs and clubs, the strictures of the 1952 hypnotism act are largely ignored, as are the Home Office Guidelines to licensing authorities. Performances of stage hypnosis are usually rubber-stamped and licences issued as an administrative exercise rather than as a means of ensuring safety and moral decency, the original purpose of the 1952 Act.

I have previously spoken up in favour of a ban on hypnosis shows in any environment where alcohol is the main attraction. That would put the brake on shows in pubs and clubs in the UK but would not cover private performances such as corporate events and birthday parties. A new set of regulations, easy enough to put into force if the Home Office decided it was necessary (which I believe it is) would have no effect on the dozen or so English hypnotists who ply their trade in the bars of the Costa del Sol, playing to pissed-up lager louts, both male and female.

The way the law stands at the moment, it is the venue that has to be licensed by the local authority for a hypnosis show rather than the hypnotist. This situation is idiotic in that scant attention is given to the suitability or professionalism of the hypnotist. At present, hypnotists are required to make a declaration as to whether they have ever had a licence refused or revoked in another town, or have ever been convicted of any offence under the 1952 hypnotism act. The problem is not so much that applicants blatantly lie on these applications, but that they don’t bother applying in the first place.

And then there is the ridiculous situation that different licensing authorities have different rules. In Leeds for example, the rules are rigidly enforced – performers must provide details of the content of their performances and provide proof they have adequate public liability insurance. Ten miles further up the M1 Wakefield City Council has opted to ignore licensing requirements and so would-be stage hypnotists can act as they please, without any monitoring system in place and without the need for expensive professional indemnity cover.

The danger or overregulation is that stage hypnotism is driven underground, something that happened after the McKenna/Gates case and the Sharon Tabarn case in the 1990’s. [For more info on these and other horror stories, please go to the article INSIDE STAGE HYPNOSIS.] Hypnotists simply hired private function rooms in pubs and hotels and held their shows away from the prying eyes of the local licensing officer, a practice aided by Internet advertising on social media instead of the more visible advertising in local newspapers.

The solution though is relatively simple. In order to have any semblance of uniformity and a reliable standard of competence, it should be the stage hypnotist who is licensed. These licenses would be subject to inspection, monitoring and annual renewal. The idea that stage hypnotists should monitor themselves in much the same way that the BMA takes responsibility for medical practitioner’s standards is however, ludicrous and would be akin to handing the lunatics the keys to the asylum.

Attempts have been made in the past to set up governing bodies for stage hypnosis – the Federation of Ethical Stage Hypnotists (FESH) was the first such organisation and was set up by the supreme grand master himself, Peter Casson in 1978. FESH eventually descended into farce because of infighting and professional jealousy. When a credible source of advice was needed, in the mid 1990’s, FESH had by then lost all credibility with the Home Office.

The only workable system would be to force all stage hypnotists to attend a short course where they could be briefed about the possible pitfalls of stage hypnosis and all the things that can go wrong if the hypnosis is not carried out correctly. Please note that EVERY stage hypnotist has experienced problems at some time or another, especially when they first start out. These need to be made known and addressed before any licence is issued. One of the main problems with stage hypnosis is that the hypnotists are in the main very badly informed. The Internet is full of dodgy ‘training courses’ exclusively for stage hypnotists. These pay no heed to the myriad potential problems, or how to deal with them or even how to spot a subject in distress. Astonishingly, many stage hypnotists undergo no training whatsoever – their learning process consists of watching other stage hypnotists and copying what they have seen. Useful tips can be gleaned for the price of a pint after a show in a pub. This is surely a recipe for potential disaster. Stage hypnotists rely on the fact that any real problems are usually minor in nature, probably only short term and people tend not to complain. In any event, to whom would they complain?

Stage hypnotists typically engage in a corporate denial when it comes to discussions on the safety of stage hypnosis – any discussion of the sort of problems stage hypnotists have inevitably encountered take place in private, never in public.

All stage hypnotists should ideally sit an exam (either written or viva voce or both) that would test their knowledge and ability not only of the background psychology but also pose questions about what to do if things do go wrong. What action would be appropriate if a subject started to hyperventilate or was consumed by uncontrollable giggling? How should the hypnotist deal with a subject who abreacts or complains of having a headache after the show?

Examiners would be psychologists who know and understand hypnosis. Such experts do exist. Astonishingly, if such an exam were introduced tomorrow, the majority of stage hypnotists would fail – most are ignorant of the psychological processes involved or the possible consequences of their actions.

Ideally, a complaints procedure should also be set in place and financed by a charge attached to the licence. Wrongdoers should be punished more severely. To my knowledge, no one has ever been prosecuted under the 1952 Hypnotism Act; no one has ever been fined or hauled before the courts, yet there have been many opportunities to do so. The hypnotist who was central to the Sharon Tabarn case, a former cleaner of wheelie bins with dangerously little knowledge or experience, would have been a prime candidate, one among many in fact.

While this state of affairs exists, I believe it is inevitable that something will eventually go terribly wrong. When (and not if) that happens, all hypnosis, entertainment and therapeutic will suffer and all the progress of the last 50 years will be undone in the blink of an eye. I hope I am not the one who will have to say “I told you so.”

Copyright Andrew Newton 2015. All rights reserved.

About Andrew Newton

andrew newton hypnotist

Andrew Newton has an international reputation as a leading authority on hypnosis. 

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