January 11, 2014
Despite everything I’d heard about hypnotism, it had never seemed like an actual thing. Sure, I’d watched a couple of TV specials (and a lot of sitcom episodes) that revolved around some sap getting hypnotized, and I’d seen studies claim it can help with weight loss and quitting smoking — but come on. “You are getting very sleepy; now act like a chicken”? I was sure it was baloney — until it happened to me last month.
THE POWER OF SUGGESTION
The fact that Colin Christopher does stage hypnosis on cruise ships didn’t inspire much confidence. But he assured me that hypnotherapists are taken more seriously when they can work onstage — after all, if he can put several people into a state of extreme relaxation before an audience of hundreds (to the point that they’ll give CPR to an imaginary deer), he must be really good at working one-on-one in private, right?
“The fact is, most people are still unsure of what hypnotism is,” Christopher told me over the phone, as he prepared to rappel into my subconscious. “And it’s not mainstream enough for people to require formal licensing. There’s no regulatory body stopping people from just printing a diploma off the Internet.”*
Don’t worry, he said, he knows what he’s doing. Christopher has helped people quit smoking, lose weight, manage phobias, and prepare for childbirth. When he offered his services to this lucky Greatist writer, I asked for something simple: help me stay out of the office snack nook. It’s full of pseudo-healthy foods like vegetable chips, trail mix, and energy bars, and between it and the freezer full of ice cream, I probably eat 400 calories of junk every workday. Could Christopher help my cravings?
Knowing how much Greatists geek out over well-sourced claims, he started rattling off studies (granted, most of them were pretty old): Adding hypnosis to a weight loss program can boost its effectiveness by 97 percent, and it’s made people more likely to continue slimming down after their weight program has ended . One 1986 study even found a group of hypnotized subjects lost over thirty times more weight than a control group (17 pounds to the control group’s half a pound).
Of course, it’s still a controversial practice, and more recent studies tend to be more skeptical   . Still, even after Christopher told me 15 percent of people can’t be hypnotized (others have put the figure closer to a third), I was willing to give it a shot — Maybe this wouldn’t be a complete waste of time.
WHAT IS HYP?
For all the imagery of magicians and charlatans that gets associated with hypnosis, it’s been practiced around the world for thousands of years. But serious study of its history is difficult, since trance states are so conflated with magic, shamans, and rituals that separating fact from fiction can be almost impossible.
Western science began its affair with hypnotism way back in 1770, thanks to a physician called Franz Mesmer (whose name became the root of the word “mesmerize”). But Mesmer lost a lot of credibility after he became convinced he could cure illnesses with magnets, and hypnotism didn’t regain mainstream attention until the mid-19th century. That was when, after years of distilling science from myth, a skeptical Scot named James Braid coined the term “hypnosis” when he confirmed that real trances can be induced when someone focuses intently on an object or sound that is “not of an exciting nature.”
THE NEW MEDITATION?
If a semi-sleep state brought about by focusing on something calming and repetitive sounds like meditation, you’re right on the money. Colin Christopher was speaking to me from Alberta but with my legs crossed, eyes closed, and a soothing voice telling me to take deep breaths and relax my muscles, I quickly realized how close hypnosis is to guided meditation.
Many of the similarities come down to neuroscience. Put simply: The brain produces electricity (enough to run a pretty dim light bulb!), and the electrical waves run on different frequencies depending on our brain activity. When we’re awake and attentive, for instance, the mind generates a lot of “beta” waves, while during hypnosis (and many forms of meditation), the mind mostly makes theta waves, indicating very deep relaxation    . The big difference, Christopher told me, is that while meditation clears the mind with the aim of relaxing it, hypnosis does so with the intention of changing it. When all those layers of critical thinking and busy thoughts are stripped away, the subconscious is exposed like a puppy’s belly during tummy rubs. That’s when Christopher gets to work.
“Imagine the most comfortable place you can think of,” Christopher said. At this point, he’d been guiding me through relaxation exercises for several minutes. His voice was deeper than it had been during our interview, and had become somehow soothing and authoritative at the same time. “Can you think of such a place?”
My bedroom, filled with sunlight on a sleepy Saturday morning, popped into my head.
“You’re doing great. Now, imagine a door to that warm, comforting place at the bottom of ten steps. You’re going to slowly walk down those ten steps, and each step will make you ten times more relaxed than you already were. Take a deep breath… now.”
I inhaled. Several times since the beginning of the session, Christopher had told me to breathe the same way: “… Now.”
Even as it was happening, I could tell he was accustoming my mind to obeying his direction. As he slowly led me down those ever-more-relaxing stairs, I felt a deep trance washing over me and I became more relaxed than I had ever managed in my own meditations. This guy was meditation-on-tape-on-steroids.
Once I’d made it into my room, he started speaking directly to my
“You’ll make the right food choices because you like the way it feels,” he said. It didn’t feel like an order at all. “When you eat the right foods, you feel cleaner, like you’re making progress toward a six pack. You’ll walk past the snack nook and the freezer full of ice cream because when you make the right food choices, you feel more attuned to your body, and you know you’re being good to your body.”
Earlier, Christopher had asked if there’s an action I do throughout the workday that he could use as a physical trigger for his instructions — something that would anchor his suggestions to my daily routine. I told him I type a lot.
“When you’re typing at work,” he told me as I lay on my bed full of sunlight, “You’ll know that you’re making progress by making the right food choices. Typing will remind you that you like the way it feels when you’re not snacking all day.”
I dimly knew that my conscious mind would find this a bit silly, but my conscious mind was nowhere to be found.
Christopher repeated this for a few minutes, then guided me out of the trance the same way a yoga instructor guides people out of corpse pose. “Take deep breaths and feel your body coming back to life, feel your fingers and toes wiggle…”
I opened my eyes.
PUTTING MY SESH TO THE TEST
It’s a popular misconception that people are unaware of what’s happening when they’re being hypnotized — I remembered everything.
When I got to work the next morning, I made a giant vegetable omelet. Normally, I would finish my breakfast with a chocolatey nut bar from the snack nook, but today, something was different.
I knew it was time to eat some junk, but I didn’t leave my seat. I wasn’t being held in place by an invisible force; I just didn’t find anything appealing about the snack nook. It wasn’t disgust or repulsion, just a total lack of interest.
As the day wore on and habit demanded that I needlessly nibble on an energy bar or some trail mix, my mind would become more aware of my fingers on the keyboard, and I’d remember that I didn’t really want to snack. I like it better when I don’t, right? I feel more attuned to my body? Oh, yeah. I remember.
Now, a mind like mine is crafty as hell about finding ways to eat junk food, and I should note that when a box of ginger snaps was left out on the kitchen table — far from the snack nook or the freezer — I pounced, a testament to my brain’s willingness to exploit any loophole regarding diet, no matter how contrived (See also: “I can eat as much cheese as I want, it has no carbs!”) Still, I’m pretty confident that if I’d told Christopher I wanted to avoid cookies, no matter where they showed up, there wouldn’t have been an issue.
Two weeks since the hypnosis, I haven’t visited the snack nook or opened the freezer once. I don’t have the faintest idea whether the effect will be permanent, but to increase the odds, Christopher advises his clients to perform self-hypnosis two or three times a week. I’m supposed to sit alone, visit the bedroom in my head, and walk myself through what I can remember from my hypnosis. After a few weeks, this should make the hypnotism’s effect more or less self-perpetuating. I guess we’ll see.
But, for what it’s worth, I’m pretty damn sold on hypnosis. I’m even considering picking up some hypnosis on tape to improve my focus and self-confidence — it’s a lot cheaper than visiting a hypnotherapist in person, and if there’s half a chance it’ll work this well, I’m definitely willing to flip that coin.
Colin Christopher is based in Alberta, Canada, and is the author of Success Through Manipulation: Subconscious Reactions that Will Make or Break You.
*As of this writing, hypnotherapists aren’t legally required to hold a formal license. Christopher recommends working with practitioners certified by The American Council of Hypnotist Examiners, The National Guild of Hypnotists, and/or the International Medical & Hypnotherapy Association.
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