|"Help! I'm a student in Dr. Gibbons' Psychology class!"|
"No," I replied, somewhat taken aback. 'That's for stage hypnotists. If I did it, it wouldn't be professional." But I did once.
Several years ago, when I was discussing the topic of hypnosis in an Introductory psychology class, I asked a student who had volunteered in a previous demonstration if she would be willing to help me illustrate how easy it was to turn a hypnotized person into a chicken. She readily agreed, and at the conclusion of an induction, 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 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 really believed that she was a chicken, why did she not 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 did she answer my question about why she was limping by answering, "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, I believe, 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 also able to act, think, and feel as if she were a chicken for the purpose of a class demonstration.
The demonstration described here was undertaken in the spirit of fun, and everyone understood that. However, as long as the suggested narratives are real to the person who undergoes them, their transformational effects on the personality can be powerful indeed!
Is it safer to tell a hypnotized person 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 this experience of turning a hypnotized person into a chicken in a demonstration in my introductory psychology class 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), but individualized to fit the personality and unique characteristics of each particular client. In fact, with our adult ability to conceptualize, we can build an almost unlimited number of resource states, in an unlimited number of parallel universes in which anything that can happen really does happen (Gibbons & Woods, 2016).
Gibbons, D. E. & De Jarnette, J. (1972). Hypnotic susceptibility and religious experience. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 11(2), pp. 152-156.
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.