|"Help! I'm a student in Dr. Gibbons' Psychology class!"|
"No," I replied. "That's for stage hypniotists." But I did once. And this experience taught me more about the true nature of hypnosis than I have learned from any other single source.
Several years earlier, when I was discussing the topic of hypnosis in an Introductory psychology class, I asked a student who had showin herself to be an excellent hypnotic subject in my class in hypnosis if she would be willing to help me illustrate how easy it was to turn a hypnotized person into a chicken. She readily agreed, After hypnotizing her, I told her that I would count backwards from ten to one, and that at the count of one she would have been turned into a chicken.
"You will always be able to hear and to respond to my voice," I continued, "and I will return you to your normal state in a few minutes, before I bring you out of hypnosis. But until I do, you will experience the world exactly as if you had been turned into a chicken. You will remember everything I have said, and it will be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Okay?"
She nodded in agreement, and I counted slowly backwards from ten to one, providing suggestions along the way that she could feel herself changing into a chicken; and at the count of one, I announced that she had become a chicken. "Would you like to open your eyes and walk around a bit?" I asked. She did so, walking slowly as I took hold of her elbow. "Why are you walking like that?" I asked.
"I'm a chicken," she answered in a high, cackly voice, much to the amusement of the class.
I guided her back to her desk, counted from one to ten to restore her usual perceptions, and then concluded the hypnotic demonstration. I then asked her if she had really felt like she was a chicken, and she slowly and thoughtfully nodded in agreement.
But if she had really believed that she was a chicken, why didn't she scurry away in fear as soon as I approached her desk? Why did she allow me to slowly walk her around the room, limping slightly, instead of struggling to get away, as a real chicken would surely do? Why was she able to understand my spoken question? How was she able to answer it by saying, "I'm a chicken?" And why were the suggestions so easy to undo, as if she understood English as well as she ever did?
We could talk about a "hidden observer" that always knows what's going on and maintains control, no how matter deeply a person is hypnotized, as Hilgard (1974) did. We could talk about "trance logic," which is similar to the logic which is found in dreams, as Martin Orne (1959) did. But why should we infer the presence of any extra mental processes when they are not needed?
What she had actually believed and responded to was the narrative of what had taken place (Sarbin & de Rivera, 1998), She knew that she was a student in my class, and she knew that she had consented for me to hypnotize her. She still had the kind of "Alice-in-Wonderland" imagination which we all have as children, but most of us lose as we become adults. Therefore, she was able to act, think, and feel as if she were a chicken for the purpose of my class demonstration when she volunteered to do so.
The demonstration was undertaken in the spirit of fun, and everyone understood that. However, as long as the suggested hypnotic narratives are real to the person who undergoes them, the transformational effects of these believed-in imaginings can be powerful indeed if they fit into the ongoing narrative of one's life story.
Is it safer to tell hypnotized people that they are turning into a chicken or to tell them that they are experiencing the fulfillment of their existence in a parallel universe? I have done both, and I can tell you from personal experience that one is just as easy and safe as the other. In fact, it was the demonstration I have just described that gave me the courage to pull out the stops and tell clients in my psychology practice that they were going into an alternate universe and experiencing the fulfillment of their existence. But in the latter case, the personality changes which result can be as dramatic as the Fundamentalist experience of being "saved" in a revival meeting (Gibbons & de Jarnette, 1972), With our adult ability to conceptualize, we can build an almost unlimited number of resource states in the Hypnoverse, in which anything that can be imgined can be callled into existence and experienced as a real event (Gibbons & Woods, 2016).
Gibbons, D. E., & Woods, K. T. (2016). Virtual reality hypnosis: Explorations in the Multiverse. Amazon Books
Orne, M. T, (1959), The nature of hypnosis: Artifact and essence. Journal of abnormal and social psychology, psychnet.apa.org.
Sarbin, T. R., & De Rivera, J. (1998), Believed-in imaginings: The Narrative Construction of Reality (Memory, Trauma, Dissociation, and Hypnosis) . Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.