On The Nature of Hypnosis

(Epistemic status: Endorsed – this is how I model hypnosis and therefore approach innovation in my approach)

What comes to mind when you think of hypnosis? Perhaps it’s a flashily dressed showman waving around a pocketwatch and soothingly telling you how sleepy you’re getting. Maybe it’s some excessively attractive woman with a silky voice telling you how good you are to listen to her voice and her suggestions. Maybe it’s even something more mundane, a therapist having you interact with your smoking habit a different way. The commonality between all these things is simple – it’s focus.

My model of hypnosis is very simple, and very broad as a result – hypnosis is a focus hijack. You are taking all of someone’s attention and directing it in one direction, which leaves a lot of openings for suggestions to take hold. The showman is using the pocketwatch to draw the subject’s focus to one point – the woman is using her voice and body – the therapist is using the space and their voice. This actually gets broader than traditional interpretations of hypnosis – I argue that computers and phones, particularly social media and video games, are also a form of hypnosis. They are designed to monopolize your attention so you keep clicking and scrolling. This view opens up a lot of possibility in terms of how to set the space for hypnosis, how to create an induction, and how to awaken.

Inductions start before you even tell someone to relax. Inductions start before you’re even talking about hypnosis. A good induction starts from your subject being comfortable with you and open to being put into trance and the key to that is being someone that a person can be comfortable around. The reason for this is any hesitance on the part of the subject is stealing your focus. They won’t be paying attention only to you, they’ll be paying attention to you and that uneasy feeling. So when you do want to hypnotize someone, there needs to be trust between the two of you to allow for focus to be yielded fully. Once the hypnosis conversation starts, you add a bit more suggestion and talk about the future state of trance to build the structure of being put into trance in their mind – this is where you start aiming their focus as you talk about what you’re going to be doing. You want to be clear, honest, and tell them everything – though adjust to what the subject interacts best with; sometimes an overbuilt structure can get in the way depending on how the subject interacts with information.   You want to also make sure you’re helping them be physically comfortable in their space – this also starts before the induction so it takes a minimum of movement to get into the best position. The actual induction is more or less trivial, you’re actively managing their focus – giving them something to concentrate on like breath or imagery and reinforcing natural bodily responses as being a response to your suggestions.

Awakeners are pretty much the opposite of this. You’re releasing someone’s attention, allowing it to become theirs again. This is why I consider meditation to be the opposite of hypnosis – it’s about the locus of control. Meditation is explicitly controlling your focus – hypnosis is outsourcing your focus. A good awakener is gentle, slowly rising much like the subject should be rising from trance. The subject has largely been out of touch with their body, more focused on their inner world during the trance, and you want them to start feeling themselves again – their body, then their eyes, then their focus, then their full awareness. You want them to feel refreshed and alert, back in control of their attention. This is also why an awakener works well to break a screen trance – you are returning control of the subject’s attention and focus to them.

Focus management and attention is a surprisingly high amount of cognitive work – aiming your focus is much more difficult when you are tired or low on calories. It’s hard to meditate while you are tired – it is much easier to let someone take you into trance because you are outsourcing the cognitive work of where to place your attention. The model of hypnosis as a focus hijack allows deeper exploration of what exactly attention is and how it acts as a resource in modern society.

Overall, trance and hypnosis are fairly simple to experiment with; rather than modeling it as an esoteric skill that relies heavily on word choice, scripting, and doing things exactly right, the abstract concept of “I want to guide this person’s focus and direct it towards a mutually beneficial end” often frees up a lot of creative space and makes you a better hypnotist. The goal becomes maintaining that attention and not making suggestions that increase uneasiness – when you make the subject uncomfortable, that is a distraction. Inductions are meant to narrow focus and allow the subject to outsource attention – awakeners are meant to diffuse focus and give the subject back their attention . Creating a space where focus more smoothly can be directed where you need it to is the other vital ingredient. With these principles, you should be able to make up a decent hypnosis script.

Discussion questions: How much does the focus hijack model resonate with your hypnotic experiences? If you have been a subject, do these ideas align with the feeling of trance? If you are a hypnotist, does this explain some conscious and subconscious choices you make during a session? What are your models of hypnosis, either as hypnotist or subject? What are the gaps and flaws in the focus hijack model?

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