Are Hypnosis Shows Real?

Are hypnosis shows real, or are the participants actors, stooges just playing a part? Many of you will have seen one or more episodes of You're Back in the Room - the ITV game show in which participants perform bizarre behaviors whilst supposedly under hypnosis. Then there is Simon Cowell being hypnotized by 'Hypnodog' - the world's only canine hypnotist, on Britain's Got Talent. This article is my response to these and other hypnosis comedy shows.

What you see

Any of you who saw ITV's You're Back in the Room or have watched a hypnotist on stage will know the kind of thing that happens.

Volunteers are apparently picked at random from the audience. The hypnotist puts them instantly into hypnosis. This one-word "sleep!" type of induction appears to show the hypnotist in full control of the volunteers who can do nothing to resist. The volunteers then set about doing all kinds of bizarre and hilarious things at the command of the hypnotist.

What you don't see

Spoiler alert!! If you enjoy watching or going to hypnosis shows and do NOT want to know what's really happening, stop reading now!

Okay, you're still reading so here's the run down. This is the information I received from my hypnotherapist colleague who actually spent time with one highly revered stage hypnotist.

There is an element of frustrated actors or comedians at heart, people who are very extroverted, who tend to be good volunteers. These are people with a natural ability and willingness to perform. Shows like You're Back in the Room select from these volunteers by audition.

Any entertainment business, whether it's the ITV or a one man band, needs to select people who will put on a good show. Here are the traits they will look for:
  • Extrovert, naturally uninhibited personality (easy to convert to bizarre disinhibited behavior with hypnosis and 'social permission')
  • Willingness to perform/desire to be on stage or TV (desire for prize money in the case of the ITV show)
  • How suggestible one is - i.e., the tendency to experience and act upon words or suggestions uncritically as though they were real
Only a minority of highly suggestible people are likely to perform well enough for entertainment purposes.

Those candidates that make it to back stage rehearsals are taken through the sketch repeatedly until responses are automatic. Rehearsals for a TV program may go on for several hours before the first shots are taken. During this time, conventional hypnosis via lengthy induction is used to 'program in' the rapid "look into my eyes... and sleep!" type of induction that the public actually see.

The filtering process continues during rehearsals with less suitable candidates being dropped or given more mundane roles to play.

So, why do they close their eyes and drop their head when the hypnotist says "sleep!"? Because they know that's what's supposed to happen, it's what they rehearsed, and they have no reason not to.

Why do they do all those strange and ridiculous things? Because they're the sort of things they know are supposed to happen, and they have no reason not to - in fact, they volunteered because they wanted to!

Is it real hypnosis?

Yes, at least some of the time it is hypnosis... but you need to be aware that hypnosis is not the star player. What do I mean by this? My easy definition of hypnosis or trance is simply a state of mental relaxation and absorption. Although volunteers may (sometimes) go into trance, the major players that create a show are illusion, conformity and play acting:
  • The illusion of the master hypnotist picking subjects at random and taking over their minds
  • Conforming to what has been rehearsed and what is expected
  • Playing to an audience - whether under hypnosis or just pretending
Many stage hypnotists are also skilled illusionists and 

The most recent hypnotist act on Britain's Got Talent - not Hypnodog this time but comedy hypnotist Joanna Cameron, demonstrates all of this very well. Although the subjects do show signs of relaxed brain activity, typical of  hypnosis, one is woken up with quite a start by the buzzer and the rest come back to life when one of the judges says "Wakey wakey everyone, wake up!" So really nothing out of the ordinary happening here. Subjects are mostly conforming - just doing what they're told. 

Can the hypnotist make them do anything against their will?

No, they can't - is the simple answer. Despite appearances hypnotized subjects do not lose control. This has been tested experimentally and no evidence exists to indicate that hypnosis increases the control of the hypnotist, or exerts any unique form of control, over and beyond that already present prior to the hypnotic induction.(1)

Hypnosis experts are agreed that patients or volunteers can and do reject undesirable suggestions. If you think about it, the volunteers at a show are not asked to do anything they would seriously object to.

Where people are persuaded to commit acts against their conscience (which appeared to be the case on several recent TV broadcasts), they are normally tricked by illusions and props that go way beyond the use of hypnosis.

A couple of years ago I was asked by a woman who claimed to have been raped whether her attacker could have used hypnosis to subdue her, since he was a professional hypnotist. She remembered very little of the event. I told her that in my honest opinion this was likely impossible. Both had consumed a lot of alcohol, which unscrupulous males have always used to their advantage.

What about hypnosis orgasms?

Hypnotic orgasms can be very vocal!
This fascinating phenomenon can now be witnessed by anyone just by accessing YouTube. I am unaware of any scientific study to determine whether these orgasms are real biological events; however I assume that some probably are, while others may be play acted (as described above).

The thing to understand - difficult if you've never experienced it, is that some people are capable of reaching orgasm purely through the power of thought. Many women (and a few men) can learn to think their way to orgasm, either by imagining an erotic scene or focusing on sexual sensations. Almost everyone has experienced orgasms while dreaming.

For women in particular sexual arousal and orgasm are largely a product of the mind. The ability to fully enjoy sex depends on feeling relaxed and becoming fully absorbed in a whole person experience.(2)

Since hypnosis creates a state of relaxation and absorption, it is not difficult for highly imaginative, suggestible individuals to be brought to orgasm via hypnotic suggestion, provided they are willing.

Hypnotherapy vs. stage hypnosis

Fortunately, hypnotherapy - the professional application of hypnosis to help conditions such as anxiety and panic attacks, has very little in common with the kind of thing you are likely to see on stage.

Hypnosis itself is possibly the one thing they have in common, since trance is trance whatever it is being utilized for. In every other respect it is entirely different. You will not be required to do any of the things you see on stage or TV, except perhaps that a few therapists do teach their clients to enter hypnosis quite quickly. (I do this sometimes just to save time.)
Hypnotherapy is very different from stage hypnosis.

Are there any dangers?

There are a few potential risks involved with any form of hypnosis, but especially hypnosis perfomed for entertainment purposes. Volunteers should be vetted for any risk of mental illness that might be triggered or exacerbated. Occasionally volunteers have claimed to be adversely affected following a show (including one who developed schizophrenic symptoms). Rarely there have been incidents of disturbed behavior related to flashbacks, depression and anxiety triggered by participation in a hypnosis show, although the effects are usually temporary. Members of the audience may also be susceptible.

Having said that, most volunteers seem to enjoy the experience without incurring any of these problems. This is not surprising being that they are people who volunteered wanting to perform. Hypnosis then becomes a little like alcohol - a great excuse to do crazy out-of-character things while everybody blames the hypnosis. There is also the element of social permission or even encouragement to cross the restrictive bounds of 'normal behavior', which some find exhilarating.

Still feels like fun?

Then by all means go ahead and continue to watch, perhaps even volunteer - but not if you have any reason to think you might be at risk of mental illness. The danger is probably miniscule but it does exist.

Many hypnotherapists vehemently object to this parody of hypnosis and they certainly have a point. But the public are not stupid; I think people know that professional therapy is something entirely different. What shows like You're Back in the Room do is bring hypnosis into the spotlight and get people talking about it.

Whatever your opinion, keep in mind that the stage is more about illusion than it is about hypnosis. Only some individuals are suggestible enough to perform, they are carefully selected, rehearsed, and never made to do anything they would really object to.

You may also like these short videos with clinical hypnotherapist, Mark Powlett:
  1. Orne MT (1972): Can a hypnotized subject be compelled to carry out otherwise unacceptable behavior? a discussion. Int J Clin Exp Hypn Apr 20(2): 101-117
  2. Maurine Rice: Yes, yes, yes! How women can think their way to an orgasm... with no help from their man. Daily Mail 20th Aug 2010
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