Updated: Mar 2
Have you seen a stage hypnotist in action? Has it amazed you that the show participants seemingly had no choice but to follow silly commands? It might surprise you to know that, in reality, they are voluntarily doing what the hypnotist asks, even if it sometimes makes them look ridiculous. How does an experienced stage hypnotist manage to put on a great show with completely unprepared participants? Is hypnosis used for entertainment different from that used in a hypnotherapy session?
Under hypnosis you're not being forced to follow commands; you're willingly accepting suggestions.Why? And how is stage hypnosis different from the techniques used by the best hypnotherapists?
For a start, the purpose is totally different.
Stage hypnosis is purely a form of entertainment, using superficial and temporary suggestions, and performed to please an audience.
Therapeutic hypnosis is a tool used to help resolve deep-seated issues related to unconscious triggers, using suggestions that result in long-lasting change, and takes place in a safe and judgment-free environment with only the therapist and client present.
How does a stage hypnotist choose volunteers?
When you look for a therapist to help you resolve deep-seated issues, your hypnotherapist will first talk with you to find out if hypnosis is a suitable technique for your therapeutic goal. For the stage hypnotist, the process is totally different.
Imagine yourself into the shoes of a stage hypnotist. You have the skills you need – an understanding of human behaviour, a keen eye for personality traits, and a knowledge of hypnotic language. But first and foremost, you’re an entertainer, and your key objective is to conjure gasps of amazement and joyful laughter from your audience.
You begin by asking for volunteers. It's likely that those who quickly put their hands up are already willing to perform on stage, which is a great start! You want people who are outgoing enough to enjoy the limelight!
Next you give your volunteers a few ‘tests’ to check their readiness to be hypnotised and help you find the most willing candidates for the main show.
Using your skill at reading body language and facial cues, these simple tasks help you to spot those who might be in it to prove they can’t be hypnotised, or just want to show off rather than make the show itself a success.
You pick the ones who are most responsive to your tests, and keen to please the audience. You know that it takes courage to step up for stage hypnosis and be willing to open yourself to the experience publicly, so you continuously praise the participants you’ve chosen and encourage the audience to applaud them to make them feel special. It doesn’t take a psychologist to explain that your volunteers will want to keep doing the thing that won them such massive approval.
Now the hard work is done. The rest is easy – take the carefully selected participants into a light trance and ask them to perform a series of 'tricks'. By now they will be feeling relaxed and less self-conscious, making it even easier for them to throw themselves into the experience.
If you have experienced hypnotherapy, you will understand how this works and what a light trance feels like. It's a little like a daydream or 'zoning out' state of mind. The best hypnotherapists are highly skilled at this process, and will use different levels of trance, depending on the client's response and needs. As a stage hypnotist, you have the same skills.
You ‘command’ your volunteers to perform some easy tasks that make the audience laugh. Remember that, while these sound like commands, you’re actually using hypnotic language to trigger actions through suggestion. The participants are, in fact, accepting your suggestions and voluntarily doing as you ask.
How does psychology explain stage hypnosis?
While stage hypnosis might look like mind control, in reality it isn't possible to take over someone's thoughts and behaviour in that way. Participants do experience genuine hypnosis, but only with their consent. This is also the case during your hypnotherapy sessions. Nothing happens without your consent. This is why your desire for change is so crucial to the success of your hypnotherapy sessions.
Let’s imagine what it’s like to go through stage hypnosis. You’re at a show with your mates, and the hypnotist has invited volunteers. Your friend nudges you forward, knowing that you enjoy having an audience at parties and making people laugh. Or perhaps you’re working on building confidence to further your career, and this is a great opportunity to step outside your comfort zone, to test your courage.
So there you are on stage with a few others, wondering what to expect, slightly dizzy with the adrenalin rush, squinting to see your friends’ faces. The whole audience seems delighted, almost holding their breaths with the expectation that they’re going to be amazed.
It feels good to be a part of something that’s both fun and magical, and when you get chosen for the main show, the adrenalin spikes again. Everyone loves not only to be accepted, but to be selected from amongst others for the value we add. Your self-image glows, and your confidence peaks. You’re ready to go the next step.
Now you’re feeling a little pressure. Not only are you keen to experience a state of hypnosis but you want to recreate that experience of being applauded, cheered and praised for your performance. You know the audience is waiting once again for something extraordinary to happen, and you want to work with the hypnotist to delight them. These overwhelming expectations create a type of 'agreement', or what social psychologists might call a temporary social norm. It’s difficult to deviate from a social norm once established, and the pressure to perform is real, but a skilled hypnotist knows how to calm you.
The hypnotic language washing over you feels soothing, and takes your attention away from any anxiety you might be experiencing. You begin to relax into a trance, your breathing eases, you allow your mind to open to the hypnotist’s simple suggestions. You’re aware of the laughter, the joy you are creating, and it all feels so easy.
Trance is familiar to all of us. We experience it when day-dreaming, or driving along a familiar route listening to music. In this natural state of consciousness, the mind becomes less linear and analytical than in a waking state, entering into so-called ‘passive attention’. Despite what we see in the psychological thrillers of Hollywood, you can’t be forced to act against your will or your values when in a trance.
Take this quiz to find out how easily you can be hypnotised.
The best hypnotherapists are skilled at using language that will have a deep and long-lasting effect on the psyche. Clients might not be able to remember the exact words, and they don't need to, as the suggestions are designed for the unconscious mind to absorb.
With stage hypnosis, the process is much more superficial. Suggestions are intended to be temporary and don't need to 'stick' in the mind after the show.
If you are in the audience, and your best friend has just volunteered for stage hypnosis, you’re in a great position to watch what happens without the suspicion that it’s all fake. Your friend has a strong character, she’s no push-over, so how will the hypnotist make her look silly in front of an audience?
You’re expecting the hypnotist to whip out a pocket watch and swing it in front of the volunteers’ faces, or at least make wafting gestures with their hands. And here it is! The hypnotist takes out a pocket watch. It’s clearly all for show, and you can see that your friend is just amused, if a little apprehensive. It’s only when the hypnotist begins speaking that a change starts to come over your friend. Within a short time, the participants seem a little ‘zoned out’, and the hypnotist gives them instructions to follow.
A swinging watch technique for inducing trance was first introduced by James Braid, a Scottish surgeon, back in 1840, who also coined the term ‘hypnosis’. If you have experienced hypnotherapy, you know that a pocket watch has no place in a modern therapy session. It is more common to use a progressive relaxation technique. However, a swinging watch is still a thing in stage hypnosis and is often used to tire your eyes causing them to close and rest. When the eyes are closed, visual sensory information stops coming into the brain, enabling relaxation and internal visualisation, key ingredients for a hypnotic state.
You feel a mixture of delight and embarrassment on the part of your friend when you see her obeying the commands, even when they’re clearly silly. How is this happening? Did the hypnotist somehow establish a secret agreement with the volunteers without the audience knowing? Have they been slipped some kind of drug?
You know this isn’t possible, and that something seemingly magical is happening up there on the stage. The words spoken by the hypnotist seem straightforward – you just can’t see how the ‘trick’ is performed. This is because unless you are trained in hypnosis or neurolinguistic programming (NLP), you’ll find it hard to identify the underlying suggestions that are powerfully encouraging your friend to perform. In addition, the stage hypnotist wants you to think they are in control of the participants' minds, so the language they use is cleverly couched to give this impression.
Afterwards, your friend seems excited, yet her recollection of what happened is quite fuzzy. To her, and to you, it feels like magic.
In reality, she would have been aware of what was happening while hypnotised, and able to accept or refuse any suggestion. It is the combination of trance, the power of suggestion, and the irresistible expectations of the audience that makes it almost impossible to refuse. Along with lighting effects, theatrical flourishes and manipulation of the audience, a stage hypnotist can put on a thoroughly entertaining show.
As for looking ridiculous, your friend can always blame the hypnosis afterwards and claim she doesn’tremember a thing!
Stage hypnosis makes one think that hypnosis is all about compliance. The research however suggests that in a clinical context, when someone generates psychological changes or shifts in perceptions there is something else going on of a greater magnitude that represents the essence of therapeutic hypnosis. (Dixon & Laurence, 1992)
Hypnotherapy draws on the mind’s capacity to dream a different dream. This mindset shift is so enticing that meaningful and lasting transformation becomes possible within those who earnestly seek to change their behaviour or outlook. If you are keen to utilise hypnosis to help you reach your goals, check out my hypnotherapy services from Sydney.