For a decade or more, from the time of my cousin’s story of the hypnotist (see The Beginning), I tried to rationalize how one person (the hypnotist) could determine another person’s behavior just by talking to him. And I wondered if hypnosis would work on the hypnotist. I had so many unresolved questions and didn’t know how to find the answers. Then, surprisingly, one day in the spring of 1955 my senior year in high school, a discussion about hypnosis came up in my sociology class and, of course, what the teacher had to say about the topic grabbed my attention.
Our teacher, Mr. Bruce, was talking about how one person can have a profound influence on a great number of people and even sway the thinking of a nation. As an example, he recounted Hitler’s rise to power and his ability to convince millions of people to support his policy of world dominance and cleansing society of “sub-human beings” (which included anyone who was not a Aryan). Mr. Bruce likened it to mass hypnosis. And that’s how the topic of hypnosis came into the discussion.
In those days, to most of us students (and probably all of our parents), hypnosis was a dark, mystical power that the hypnotist had, with which he could, at will, take control of another person’s mind and soul if he chose to. To dispel this notion, Mr. Bruce asked for a volunteer to demonstrate that although hypnotic suggestions can strongly influence the behavior of an individual, the hypnotized person still has his or her own capacity to choose, and they do not lose their ability to reject suggestions that would cause harm to themselves or violate their standards.
At first no one was interested in volunteering, probably because of our false conceptions about the subject. And for sure I wasn’t going to volunteer and end up on the floor on all fours going around in circles chasing an imaginary tail and barking at it! Finally, Judy agreed to be the “guinea pig.”
Mr. Bruce had Judy sit on a chair and instructed her to put her hands comfortably in her lap. He explained that all she needed to do was to listen to his voice and think about what he was saying. He told her that she would always be aware and soon he would be counting down from five to one two times; and that as he counted down she would feel more and more relaxed; and that with each number he counted, her eyelids would get more and more heavy, tired and sleepy. He also instructed her to try to keep her eyes open until he asked her to close them. He slipped off his wedding ring and held it about a foot in front of Judy’s face and asked her to focus her gaze on the ring. Then, talking to her in a soft, rhythmical voice he began counting down:
“Five…………you are getting very tired and sleepy.”
“Four………..you are getting very tired and sleepy.”
“Three………you are getting very tired and sleepy.”
“Two………..you are getting very tired and sleepy.”
“One………..you are getting very tired and sleepy.”
Judy’s eyelids began to sag and it appeared that she was struggling to keep them open. He continued to speak in the same rhythmical voice:
“Five…………you are so very sleepy and relaxed.”
“Four………..you are so very sleepy and relaxed.”
“Three………you are so very sleepy and relaxed.”
“Two………..you are so very sleepy and relaxed.”
“One………..you are so very sleepy and relaxed.”
“Just close your eyes now and sleep now.”
Judy closed her eyes and her head drooped down to her chest.
While Mr. Bruce was going through his “hypnotizing,” I was frantically writing down every word he was saying. It was fortunate that he repeated each phrase five times, otherwise I couldn’t have gotten the words exactly right, due to being very slow at writing.
Mr. Bruce continued, “Would it threaten you if I told you that you couldn’t open your eyes? Would you be okay with that suggestion?”
In a very quiet voice Judy said, “Yes.”
Mr. Bruce said, “Judy, your eyes are stuck closed and you are unable to open them now. When I ask you to try to open your eyes, try, but all you will be able to do is raise your eyebrows; your eyes will just close tighter and tighter. Try to open your eyes now, but the harder you try, your eyelids just close tighter and tighter.”
Just as Judy began trying to get her eyes open the bell rang, signaling the end of class, but Judy still just sat there trying to open her eyes and raising her eyebrows. Not as spectacular as strumming an imaginary banjo and singing “Mammy,” but it left a profound impression on my psyche.
Mr. Bruce calmly said, “Everything is fine, Judy. When I snap my fingers you will open your eyes and be wide awake feeling relaxed and feeling wonderfully refreshed, just like you have had a nice long nap.”
Mr. Bruce snapped his fingers and Judy’s eyes popped open. He then asked her how she was feeling. She reported that she felt really good, relaxed and refreshed, just like she had awakened from a nice long nap.
As the classroom emptied some of my classmates and I gathered around Judy and asked her about her experience—what was it like and how did it feel? Her response was brief: “I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t hypnotized because I could hear everything he was saying, but I just couldn’t get the words out. I thought I would be able to open my eyes but I couldn’t and when the bell rang I started worrying about being late for my next class if I didn’t wake up! Then when Mr. Bruce said everything was fine, I just had this really neat feeling come over me.” And she hurried off to class.