It’s a bright, relatively warm day in early December; I’m having lunch with my friend Marlena (of “But I Don’t FEEL Sixty …” fame) at the Little Bakery Café.
“So what is hypnosis, anyway?” she says.
“It’s kind of controversial,” I reply. “Some people say there’s no such thing as hypnosis, while there are others who think that everything is hypnosis. I come down
“No such thing?”
“Yeah, they say it’s just role-playing, or the placebo effect. But what is the placebo effect, then? And how is it that even the skeptics go into hypnosis? Can you stop smoking or biting your fingernails through role-playing? And if you can, maybe there’s something else going on.”
“Like hypnosis,” she smiles.
“Ok, so what is it?”
“Well, I usually explain it by saying hypnosis is a trance state. It’s altered state of consciousness that we all have as part of our mental equipment. We go in and out of trance all the time, every single day.”
“Really?” says Marlena, her face in a question mark.
The waiter delivers our food, the soup-salad combo for both of us.
“Anytime you daydream, for instance,” I say. “Or – do you read much?”
“Yeah, quit a bit. I love a good read.”
“So have you ever been really engrossed in a book, and maybe someone comes and up and speaks to you, and at first you don’t even notice them?”
“Yes, that’s happened – when I’m really into a book.”
“That’s a trance. You’re focusing on the book, experiencing the descriptions on some level; you might have feelings about the characters, even feel some of their feelings, you’re wondering what’s going to happen. And you’re shutting everything else out. We even use the word, ‘an entrancing story,’ or ‘hypnotic’ writing.”
She smiles. “Yeah, that’s true. I never thought of it that way.”
“Or say you’re driving on the highway, and your mind is going, you’re thinking about something. And all of a sudden you realize, you’ve gone several miles and you have no idea how you got there.”
“Yeah, that happens to me all the time. A couple days ago I missed my exit. It scares me.”
“Right. Some people have told me they’ve ended up in their driveway, with no idea how they got there. Or even worse, they found themselves in the driveway where they used to live.”
“Well, I’ve never done that!” She seems a little relieved.
“So some part of you is driving, but it’s not your conscious mind – that’s otherwise engaged. And doing a pretty good job, too: looking in the rear-view mirror, checking the other cars, adjusting your speed.”
“Or say you’re watching a movie. So to enjoy this movie, there are two things you have to do. First, you have to focus on the movie. And then you have to kind of go around that critical part of your mind, the part that’s always taking things apart. In movie terms we say you ‘suspend disbelief.’”
“Because if you don’t do that, you can’t enjoy the movie. I mean, think about it: these are actors. They’re saying lines that they’ve learned. There’s a set behind them; they’re in costumes and makeup.
“Even the simplest things – like if we were shooting a movie, when I’m talking there would be a camera set up behind you, looking at me over your shoulder. And then when it’s time for you to say your lines, everything would stop while they move the camera to behind me, and then you would go ahead. But when you see it in the movie, it’s just two people talking, it flows.
“Somebody directed this movie. Somebody wrote it. And maybe somebody else re-wrote it, and they argued about it.
“But you put all of that out of your mind – so you can enjoy the movie.”
“And in doing that, you put yourself in a very suggestible state. So that, if they want you to jump –“ I jump back, with a start. “— you jump!”
Marlena laughs, nodding.
“And when they want you to feel sad, you might want to cry.”
“But at the same time,” I continue, “no matter how deep you’re into the movie, you’re always aware, on some level, that you’re sitting there watching a movie. When they start shooting, you don’t duck under your chair, do you? – afraid you’re going to get hit?”
“When the dinosaur comes on the screen, do you run out of the theater screaming, thinking you’re about to get eaten?”
“No.” She laughs.
“And when you’re in my office, in my chair, in a deeper state of trance, you are still always aware that you’re in a hypnotic state. And if there’s ever anything that doesn’t suit you, for any reason, you’ll just ignore it, or you’ll come out of hypnosis entirely.
“Really, the language we use – ‘I hypnotize you’ – is incorrect. Because I don’t do anything to you. You do it. I guide you, I teach you, I help you to access that altered state that’s part of your original equipment. But you’re doing it. It’s like you’re driving your car and I’m in the back seat. And I’m giving you directions: “Take a right here, go two blocks, take a left . . . and we’ll get to this really cool place. But you’re driving. It’s up to you.”
Marlena sits there, nodding slowly. “I want to do it,” she says.
“Do what?” I ask.
“Hypnosis. I want you to hypnotize me. Or whatever.”
I look at my watch. “I’ll show you sometime, but right now I’ve got to get to my office – I’ve got a client coming at 2,” I say.
“I didn’t really mean now,” she says. “Anyhow, see you soon.”