Discourse / Editorials / May 29, 2014

Interacting with perception: the pseudoscience of hypnosis

Saturday, I watched hypnotist Joshua Seth stomp my possessed baby to death on stage, an image that I will never forget.

If you didn’t see Union Board’s hypnotism show Saturday evening, you’re probably a little puzzled. I didn’t really sit on stage and watch a man kill my child. But he made me believe that I did.  Is that not the same thing?

Every moment we experience is made up of a combination of smaller experiences. My experience sitting on stage at the show was made up of many things, like the sight of the crowd in front of me, the tarpaulin smell of the tent and the butterflies in my stomach. Each of these smaller experiences can be broken down into two component processes: sensation and perception. Sensation is the collection of raw data. Before I “see” the image of the crowd, my eyes collect photons and translate the information they contain into electric currents. These currents are relayed to a number of different stations within my brain, and it is at these stations that the image I see is deciphered. This is perception: the translation of currents into an experience.

As I accumulate experiences throughout my life, my perceptions become capable of predicting incoming sensations before they are sensed. This allows me to “pre-perceive” the world based on my memories, streamlining my brain’s job. If I always had to commit my attention to what was in front of me, I’d never have the capacity for complex reasoning or abstract thought. When my perceptions become predictive, my brain can worry less about processing sensations and more about my well being, future, friends and so on.

From here you can begin to understand what hypnosis may be. Joshua Seth began the show directing his subjects, myself included, to close their eyes and turn their attention to only his voice. This put me in a state where my perception of all sensations (aside from his voice) was reliant on predictive processes and was not incorporating any novel information. It’s not that I was ignorant of the crowd’s laughter; I still heard it loud and clear. It was just being attended to “behind the scenes” while my attention was focused on his voice.

He then asked me to focus solely on the sensation of my body. This, I believe, is where the magic happens. At this point my attention shifted from the sound of his voice to what he was saying, and I began to imagine and perceive the feelings he described. The only sensations entering my brain that got any attention were the scenes he painted and feelings he expressed. Because these were the only sensations garnering my attention, they immediately became very real perceptions, and thus very real experiences, within my brain.

In this way the hypnotic state is very similar to that of a dream. While we are asleep sensation is minimized and very little enters from the outside world. However, electric currents still pop up within the brain without being spurred by sensations. These rogue currents are interpreted like any other signals, and the resulting perceptions make up dreams. The signals are fairly random, and the illogical quality of dreams is a result of your brain attempting to understand these nonsensical signals. In a similar way, my brain took the wacky scenarios of the hypnotist as legitimate signals and accepted the resulting perceptions as reality.

We have all been fooled by illusions. This is an artifact of the way that our brains are wired, a way of using the brain’s shortcuts against it. Hypnosis is nothing more than an elaborate illusion, but this does not mean that it is not real. As far as the brain is concerned, what one perceives while hypnotized is just as “real” as what one perceives in a normal conscious state, in the same way that dreams are real while we are in them.

Since the show ended I’ve been pondering these concepts. Maybe they’ll capture your attention, too.

Coltan Parker

Tags:  Coltan Parker hypnosis illusions perception reality

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  • http://www.markpowlett.co.uk/ Mark Powlett

    Interesting article. As a clinical Hypnotherapist in England we don’t have that much of a stage hypnosis culture so it is hard to comment too much on how things work on stage. However, any stage hypnotist will not be looking for people who are easy to hypnotise, but for people who they can see will do as they are told and comply with instructions that take place in front of an audience. This experience of compliance is the opposite of what happens in clinical hypnosis. The most hypnotisable people on stage are actually the ones with their eyes closed and really relaxed…but that’s not very interesting to watch!

    • Coltan Parker

      I’d be interested in the distinction between “stage” hypnosis and therapeutic hypnosis (if there is any difference at all, I’d think maybe it has to do with personality, and people being prone to a particular ‘type’ of hypnosis). I really have not done my homework on this topic – this was merely a “first-impressions” type blurb. Thanks for reading!

  • Hinrich

    Strange, but fascinating article. I seem to be completely immune to voluntary hypnosis and would consider the whole field nonsense were it not for articles like yours. You do realize that concentrating on the hypnotist’s voice and mentally entering the scenario he describes requires a mind boggling act of directed attention. My thoughts and emotions, in contrast, stay firmly anchored in the immediate surroundings.



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