Ever since its inception, there has been a mysterious allure to hypnosis. The idea that our feeble minds can be so overtly bended to the will of a skillful manipulator is a fascinating antidote to the fantasies we sometimes entertain of the omnipotence of the human mind. A few minutes of the correct words spoken in a soulful tone, a snap of the fingers, and shazaam – you’re hypnotized!
In the past few decades, hypnosis has gained a whole new aspect to its public image through its use in criminal investigations. In Finland, the hypnosis-as-crime-solving-tool theme is most widely associated with the infamous Lake Bodom massacre. In investigating the brutal triple murder, the police employed the expertise of psychologists and psychiatrists trained in the use of hypnosis, who placed the sole survivor of the bloodbath in a trance in order to yield a description of the killer.
This being the case, it probably comes as no surprise to You, my dear readers, that I, too, have entertained a fascination with hypnosis since I was a kid. Hence, you could say it was about time I tried it myself.
I set out looking for the right person through good ol’ Google. I emailed a few hypnotists, asking them if they’d be interested in hypnotizing me just for the sake of hypnotizing me, so that I could try what it’s like and produce a piece about my experiences for this blog.
Most of them didn’t respond at all. One responded by saying she considered hypnosis too serious a business to be used just for show (LOL!). But then I received a positive response from a wonderful, polite man named Henri Valkama.
Mr. Valkama agreed to see me, and even said yes to an interview! “Fantastico!” I thought to myself, immediately feeling embarrassed for expressing my inner joy with a word straight out of the mouth of Fonzie from Happy Days. After a brief battle with our busy work schedules we ultimately found a time and committed to it.
On the 24th of January I made my way to Henri’s office, expecting the door to be opened by a creepy-looking guy wearing a black top hat and sporting a thin moustache, shooting an intense stare at me. Instead, I was greeted by a super nice, normal-looking guy who welcomed me warmly with a handshake and a smile. I suspect he’s used to stereotypes about magician-like hypnotists, and wanted to break the false image right at the start.
He asked me to sit down in a big, comfortable leather recliner situated in the corner of a small office with a computer, a dresser, and a bookshelf. The room liked exactly like any IT engineer’s or salesman’s office, except for one small detail: on the wall above the dresser was a picture of a seascape at sunset, and above it, painted on the wall, was that classic optical illusion with the spirals closing in towards a focal point.
After an informal and pleasant chit-chat about hypnosis in popular culture (Paul McKenna’s TV show, movies featuring hypnotists etc.) we decided to do the interview first.
How does one end up being a hypnotist?
Ever since I was a kid I was always interested in how the human mind functions, especially in terms of something like hypnosis: how is the state of hypnosis created? What can be achieved with it? etc. But hypnosis is my second job: my primary job is in information technology. Hypnosis is a dear hobby for the most part.
In a nutshell, what is hypnosis? How would you explain it to someone who with only a basic knowledge of psychology?
It’s simply an altered state of consciousness. Under hypnosis your mind is more receptive than it is in any other state. It’s almost a kind of child-like state: if I tell you you can’t lift your foot, you can’t lift your foot. Consciously you say to yourself “I will lift my foot!”, but your subconscious prevents this from happening while you’re hypnotized.
How was hypnosis “invented”, or “discovered”? What are the earliest records of it being used?
There are traces of it being used hundreds of years ago. And of course Freud famously used it with his patients, and so on. The origin of hypnosis can be traced to efforts of achieving a highly concentrated state of mind. Plus you have to take into account hypnosis-like states as well: for example, you might be reading a book so intensely that you don’t even hear if someone calls out your name right next to you. This is a kind of hypnotic state as well. Professional hypnosis therapy aims at creating this intense state of concentration and using it for something healing and positive.
Let’s say I’m a student with an important exam in the horizon. Can I use hypnosis to induce some kind of a state of consciousness where I have a photographic memory of every single page in the book I need to read for the exam?
In such a situation, you can use hypnosis to intensify your concentration and to be less stressed out, but you cannot create a state of mind where you have a super-memory like that, no.
Can a person be hypnotized against his/her will?
No, nobody can be hypnotized against their will. You can do some “tricks” to anyone’s mind, but you can’t actually hypnotize anyone forcefully. But then, in terms of the people who have actually willingly come to my practice, I’ve never had a customer I haven’t been able to hypnotize at all.
What do you think about people like Derren Brown and other “mentalists”?
I’m sure that what happens in those shows is indeed true, but the regular people who appear in those stage shows and TV shows have been chosen based on how easily they can be hypnotized. They do a kind of sensitivity test to the people in the audience of, say, a TV show, then pick the ones who respond to commands most easily.
Can one hypnotize oneself?
Well, in a way all hypnosis is self-hypnosis: I don’t create the altered state of consciousness in your mind – you do! I just lead the process to the right direction. So yes, you can hypnotize yourself. Having a hypnotist present usually makes inducing the hypnotized state of mind more easy, though, because if you do it to yourself, you might find it hard to let go of the conscious control of your mind.
Classic question: can a person be hypnotized to, say, rob a bank?
No, it’s not possible. There was a doctoral dissertation done about hypnosis recently where the research included giving hypnotized people a glass of water and saying it was burning acid, then telling the hypnotized subject to throw the “acid” in someone’s face. Not a single research subject followed the command.
For example, when you see these people in TV shows doing funny things on stage under hypnosis, the people doing those funny things have to be, on some level, “game” for doing those things anyways; you can’t hypnotize anyone to change their core values and personality.
In the 1960s the CIA attempted to create a “Manchurian Candidate”, a kind of sleeper agent who lives a normal life, but upon receiving some coded command will, for example, assassinate a politician. Have you heard of these experiments? What are your thoughts?
I’ve read about such experiments, but again, it takes way more than just hypnosis to create something like that. I don’t believe the experiments were successful.
The plot of a movie called Office Space has a bored office worker go to a hypnotist and ask him to put him in a state of mind where he essentially forgets about his work day when he comes home from his job in the evening. Is this possible?
(laugh) You can’t be hypnotized to actually forget about your work day, but hypnosis can be used to alleviate the irritation caused by, for example, a boring job you don’t like. The same logic applies also in, let’s say, alleviating the traumatic memories of a car crash: hypnosis can’t make you forget about the incident, but it can take the edge of the pain caused by the memory, and make it easier for you to take up driving again.
What do you think about the use of hypnosis in criminal investigation? Making witnesses remember things more clearly, etc.
If we talk about someone who has simply been a witness to an event, I believe hypnosis can be of use, and can be trusted. If someone has seen a suspicious car on the night of an event, and the police need him to remember a license plate or something, hypnosis can be a good tool. But in terms of hypnotizing someone with the intention of determining whether that person is guilty of a crime or not, no, hypnosis does not work as a truth serum. The Lake Bodom murder case is a good example: I think the material yielded from suspect Nils Gustafsson under hypnosis is useless in terms of establishing whether he committed the crimes or not.
Some of the so-called “alien abduction” researchers use hypnosis as a tool to supposedly “retrieve” hidden memories that are seemingly of ordinary events, but are really hidden memories of being abducted by aliens. What do you think about these research methods?
I don’t believe in that at all. Another such suspicious use of hypnosis occurs in the study of “past lives”. Some believe that a person can be hypnotized to remember their previous lives.
How about planting false memories. Can you use hypnosis to make me have “memories” of fighting in World War II?
Well, if for some reason you yourself have a strong belief that you fought in WW2, hypnosis can be used to amplify such false memories.
This needs to be remembered also in the case of that aforementioned alien abduction research: if you believe you’ve been abducted and the hypnotist goes along with your beliefs, your fantasies will only get stronger.
How does the therapeutic aspect of hypnosis function?
Hypnosis gives you a more direct access to a customer’s emotions, to their raw experiences, which makes it easier to work on their mind. If a person needs therapy for, let’s say, a fear of flying and you simply start talking to that person about how safe flying really is, how you shouldn’t be afraid and so on, you’ve got a long road ahead of you. With hypnosis, you can access that part of the customer’s mind that fears the plane and the take-off, and implement therapeutic measures directly to that raw emotion. Under deep hypnosis, your mind believes that an image it conjures up is real; the same parts of the brain are activated as in real life when you encounter the real event that image represents. So you can work on, to use the previous example, that fear of flying by having the customer “walk into” a plane, and prepare their brain not to go into fear mode when they actually, physically enter an airplane.
I’ve heard of a lot of people quitting smoking through hypnosis. What is the effect of hypnosis based on here?
The effect is based on amplifying the impression of smoking as dangerous and repulsive in the customer’s subconscious. Once that’s achieved, the desire to smoke is less intense, as the subconscious “warns” the smoker of the effects of cigarettes. Alternatively, suggestions and imagery used in hypnosis can focus on the benefits of smoking cessation and thereby strengthen the motivation for smoking cessation.
Is there anything you’d like to add that I didn’t ask about?
Well, I’d just like to say that when I started this, I too was mystified by the unknown aspects of hypnosis, the mysterious nature of it. But now, I see hypnosis as way more logical and natural. Having done this as a second job for years, I see hypnosis less as a mystery and more as a tool in creating better mental health to the world.
Once we’re done with the interview, it’s time to get to the hypnosis. Valkama asks me if there is any specific thing I would like to achieve with this session.
There is, actually. I have a vague memory from childhood I have always wanted to examine.
I was in daycare at an old couple’s home for a while before being put in a kindergarten. One day, as I was playing with friends in a nearby forest, we came across the husband of the old couple laying on the ground in the middle of a winter forest, shaking, with blood coming out of his nose. We ran inside the house and told the old woman that her husband was in the forest, bleeding. Help reached the man in time, and he lived for a few more years.
My child’s mind never really understood how serious a situation this was – I remember thinking he had just slipped and fell, and needed a hand in getting up. Of course, for an old man like him, it may actually have been a brush with that distant, faraway though that rarely passes a child’s mind – death.
I tell Henri about this memory and ask him to take me there once I’m under hypnosis.
We begin with Henri testing me to see how susceptible I am to hypnosis (Finnish “suggestioherkkyys”, “sensitivity to suggestion”).
I sit down on a comfortable chair, and Henri tells me to extend my right hand, then hands me a pendant.
“Hold the pendant from the top and let it hang from your hand. Keep your hand absolutely steady! Now, imagine the shape of a circle in your head. That’s it. Now, imagine the shape of the circle being transferred from your head to your hand, but don’t move your hand.”
The bottom-end of the pendant starts to move in a small circle. I swear, I’m not doing that motion with my hand – I’m consciously trying to hold my hand 100 percent steady! We repeat the same thing with other shapes (back-and-forth. up-and-down etc), and each time my subconscious creates the motion Henri describes without my hand physically moving. I immediately think about those ouija board sessions I’ve seen on YouTube, with the pointer supposedly being “moved” by a ghost…
I think most people would like to think that they’re not susceptible at all, but alas, it turns out I’m VERY susceptible – one of those folks Derren Brown or Paul McKenna would immediately choose to do stupid tricks on stage… dammit.
After these preliminary tests, Henri tells me to make myself comfortable on the recliner – it’s time to get hypnotized.
He tells me to stare at that classic hypnosis symbol on the wall, that optical illusion with the spirals.
“Don’t worry if your mind wanders – just bring it back to the topic at hand if that happens.”
This is comforting advice, as I’m an extremely restless person by nature, my mind going on full speed 24/7, and I was worried beforehand if I would be able to relax and concentrate in a situation like this.
“Now take long breaths in – out – in – out. That way your system will automatically begin to calm down and relax. Good. Now you can feel your body beginning to relax and your mind becoming more and more receptive to my words – you can physically FEEL my words taking effect on your body. Your mind is losing its resistance to relaxation, and you begin to accept my words as guidance. Good. Relax, breathe in and out, just concentrate on breathing. As you breathe, your eyelids get heavy and begin to close…”
To my surprise I can actually feel myself relaxing. The first wall has been cracked: Henri is indeed able to make me relax in an unfamiliar setting after an intense work day. My eyelids become heavy, and the image of the spiral on the wall is getting blurrier and blurrier…
“Now at this point, I want you to concentrate on your feet. You can feel a wave of peace and relaxation go through your body, starting from your feet and going upwards all the way to your head, your hands, your eyes, your shoulders, your back… you can feel a relaxing warmth everywhere in your body.”
I feel warm and safe, both physically and mentally, and I let my mind go completely.
“Now I am going to count down from ten, and when I reach the number one, you will be in a hypnosis, and everything I say will have a strong effect on your mind. 10….9….8…..7….. you can feel all the sounds around you disappearing… 6….5…. you get more and more relaxed, and your conscious mind begins to fade… 4….3….. you get more and more safe and relaxed…. 2…. and when I say the next number, you will be hypnotized…. one.”
The final stage of hypnosis kicks in, and it feels like this: imagine a super-intense daydreaming session, and how your mind feels in such a state. That’s basically how it feels: you’re not really asleep, but not awake either – this is something in between. Everything Henri told me in the interview feels right: I would not be susceptible to, say, robbing a bank, nor am I in a state where I would divulge my deepest, darkest secrets; I am, to an extent, still in control of my capacities. However, at the same time, I am open to suggestions and commands from Henri. If he told me to jump up from the chair and scream “Viva la Revolucion!”, I would do it, for some reason.
“Now I want you to conjure up an image in your mind of a place where you feel particularly safe and secure. You can see yourself in that place, even sense some of the smells and sensations you associate with that place. Good. Now I want you to sort of jump into your own body as you are in that safe place, and actually feel yourself entering that safe place where you feel more comfortable and good than anywhere else in the world. Nod your head if you can feel yourself in that safe place now.”
I nod my head. I imagine myself in my bed in the evening, reading or writing or watching a movie on my computer. This will be my “safe place” for all intents and purposes.
“In a moment, I’m going to ask you to lift up your right leg, but you will find yourself unable to do so. The leg is as though it’s welded onto the chair; it simply will not move. Now go for it, try to lift it!”
Won’t move an inch. It’s… well, like it’s indeed welded onto the recliner.
“Good. Now go back to your safe place, and let’s spend a few more moments in there feeling warm and relaxed. Now, Teemu, from now on you will be able to relax a bit more in your normal life as well: you will no longer feel stressed anymore when you’re at home – instead, it will be easier for you to calm your mind.”
This is also something I asked Henri to do: to induce in me a deeper sense of relaxation after I come from work a demanding job.
After this, we start to work towards that childhood memory I asked Henri to take me back to.
“Now, we’re going to conjure up some images and take a bit of a journey back in time. While we do this, you will, at any point your choose, be able to go back to your safe place; at any moment, you can return if you feel uncomfortable. You can now feel time rolling backwards, backwards and backwards, until you find yourself around the age of 5. A winter landscape opens up around you, you’re in the countryside, the ground is white with snow. You can sense smells around you, sense the cold air on your skin, perhaps you can even remember what you were wearing…”
As Henri says this, something crazy happens – I remember EXACTLY the clothes I was wearing that day! Especially the children’s gloves I had on, purple in color, with an extended part of canvas that went far up the arm. Amazing.
“You can see your friends around you. You’re playing in the yard, and you decide to head to the familiar patch of woods you always play in.”
I can see myself moving closer towards the woods until I’m surrounded by the trees and snow. Again, the memory is much more vivid and “close” than it is if I was simply thinking back to it without hypnosis.
“Now, you and your friends are moving across the forest, playing and having fun. As you go on walking and running, you see something on the ground. As you get closer you realize it’s a human, and as you get yet closer, finally you can see that it’s the husband of the daycare lady, laying on the ground, hurt. Remember, even as all of this is happening, you still feel safe and warm, not afraid.”
I can see the old man clearly in my mind. He’s on the ground next to a tree, on his side, blood coming out of his nose, his eyes closed tightly in pain, his breathing uneven and difficult. I now understand, as an adult, that he’s clearly having a heart attack. I can see myself and my friends run towards the house, telling the old lady who runs the daycare what we’ve seen.
“Now, at your own pace, when you’re finished, you retreat from the situation, away from this memory and back to your safe place. The memory ends with a happy ending: the old man is saved, he lives on, and so do you.”
The winter landscape fades away, my mind goes blank for a while, then I’m back in that safe place, in my bed in the light of a night table lamp.
“Good. Now, as we work through this hypnosis session, your state of consciousness will once again alter and get deeper. I’m now going to ask you to count down from 300 by subtracting three at a time – 297, 294, et cetera. But as you go on, you will find the task getting more and more difficult with each subtraction. You forget the numbers, they become a blur in your mind…”
At this point I get a clear image in my mind of a chain that leads down a well: I can see the beginning portion, but the further down I look, the more the chain is covered by the darkness of the well until I can only see dark. Counting down the numbers is very, very difficult, I can’t think clearly, and I finally give up. I can feel myself going deeper in my trance.
“At this point in your hypnosis my voice sort of loses coherence, and it sounds like a pleasant background noise, but you don’t recognize it as a human voice – it fades into the wider tapestry of your mind, and you simply understand what I’m saying without noticing my voice. You will not remember what I say for the next few minutes after you wake up, but my words subconsciously help you relax in your future, to wind down easier after you’re done with your daily responsibilities.”
Henri then feeds positive concepts and ideas into my mind, related to taking it easier, not assuming too much responsibility, enjoying relaxing at home more, et cetera. This is the final stage of our session; after this, it’s time to “come back”.
“At this point, you attention comes back to my voice, and you can hear it clearly again. I’m going to start counting up from the number 1, and when I reach the number 10, you will be back to your waking state. 1… you’re slowly coming out of your trance, still feeling good and relaxed… 2….3…. you’re waking up, little by little, and all kinds of unnecessary fatigue is leaving your body…4….5…..6… and you’re becoming very aware of you surroundings, of time and space..7…..8…. you’re almost at the point of waking up…. 9….. and when I say the next number, you will be fully awake….10.”
I open my eyes, and am fully awake. I feel refreshed, invigorated, and happy that I went through with this extremely interesting experience.
Afterwards Henri and I discuss the session for a bit. I tell him that the memory he took me to was way more vivid than I had imagined it would be; it was almost as though I was there! This is usual for him, obviously, but I’m amazed. While the memory has never been traumatic or actively bothered me really, I feel happy to have re-visited it. The memory is more sad than anything else, as I felt I was unable to help the poor old man. It was also among my first brushes with human mortality. I’m glad I was “there” once again, now as a grown man with life experiences of my own, but I’m also glad I was able to leave once the image conjured up during my hypnosis faded out.
Things I learned:
- I’m even more of a skeptic regarding the use of hypnosis in bringing up supposedly “hidden” memories. Hypnosis is much more of a conscious effort than most people probably imagine.
- I’m 100 percent certain hypnosis can indeed be used to make witnesses in, for example, crime cases remember details their conscious minds have forgotten. I’m certain Henri could have made me remember the license plate of our family car from when I was five years old.
While there is nothing particularly mysterious about hypnosis, I strongly recommend trying it to anyone with an interest in the human mind. It wasn’t a psychedelic, life-changing experience, but then, that’s not the point – we are rarely changed by huge individual events; the process of growing and maturing is made up of smaller, more numerous experiences.
Experiences like seeing an old man fighting for his life in the forest as a little boy, or experiences like trying hypnosis as a grown man.