Monday, June 22, 2015


A friend and I were discussing hypnotism, particularly in light of the recent Howie Mandel incident on America's Got Talent. I don't know anything about hypnotism, but herewith are my random thoughts about it based on my general skeptical knowledge.

First, it is important to define the meaning of hypnotism. I think in today's common usage, the word will generally take on either of two definitions which I will now address separately.

The first definition of hypnotism is "show hypnotism". This is where a hypnotist gets up in front of an audience, and hypnotizes one or more people on a stage to get them to do things they would not typically do. In my opinion, the way this works is that the subject is playing along with the act because they have strong incentives to do so, many of which are subconscious. They do not want the show and the hypnotist to fail. They want to participate in a successful performance. They are strongly compelled by the atmosphere and the personality of the hypnotist to make the trick work. There are strong social forces that are compelling them to participate. For all of these reasons, they play along and the hypnotism works. In this case, the subject is not really being hypnotized in any meaningful way.

The second definition of hypnotism is "therapeutic hypnotism". This is where the subject meets privately with a hypnotist in order to achieve a pre-defined goal, such as quitting smoking or being able to speak in public. I used to be skeptical of this form of hypnotism, but lately I am inclined to see how it could work. It is well-known that memories, for example, are very malleable. If you ask someone to remember an event, you can actually implant details into their memory that never actualy occurred - in some ways like the seeds of ideas that are planted in the movie "Inception". Along these same lines, I can see that you could change a subject's outlook on a topic. For example, you could plant a thought that someone does not enjoy smoking, or that they have smoked less than they thought, or that their friends don't smoke as much as they thought, etc. Or the therapist could make suggestions to the subject that she is a good public speaker, and that she has done it successfully in the past. Although I think this is not rigorously understood scientifically, it seems reasonable that this type of procedure could have some significant effect in certain cases. However, I don't think the procedures and effects are understood well enough yet for it to be useful in most cases.


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