Hypnosis—what’s doable, what’s doubtable (part 2)

Photo by Jiyeon Park on Unsplash

Well, it’s finally happened, my peeps. I’ve been hypnotized. Yep, yours truly has experienced a trancelike state, and you know, I feel no different. Well, that’s not true. I feel a lot more knowledgeable about what the technique is all about; I feel silly for having been so scared in the first place; and I feel like I want to try it again.

First, a little bit about my hypnotist: His name is Anderson Hawes, and he’s one of the more interesting people I’ve encountered since I moved back to Ohio. He’s smart but unpretentious. Colorful and expressive but calming and confident. And he plays a mean harmonica.

By my count, Hawes—he goes by Andy—has three jobs. First, he’s a licensed professional clinical counselor, social worker, and licensed chemical dependency counselor who’s been in practice for 29 years. In addition, he’s the vice president of sales at an industrial software firm. Lastly, he’s the lead singer for the Fabulous Voices Band, a local cover and dance band that plays all the great songs. It seems as though everyone in my town and the next two towns over knows Andy, so I feel a little embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to get to know him too. But better late than never, I guess.

Because of his busy schedule, it took us a while to pin down a day, which turned out to be Wednesday, March 20. Andy told me that he’d be leading a self-hypnosis workshop in another town and asked if I would I like to tag along. He said I could interview him the whole way there and back (about a half hour each way) and then take part in the workshop, which would include a roomful of hypnotists and other interested people like me, who just wanted to learn more.

“Fantastic,” I said. 

When I got to his office, he was catching up on some work, so he gave me several instructive handouts to review that he’d written for the workshop. Immediately, I felt myself begin to calm down. The process seemed more meditative in nature as opposed to what I’d always imagined, where a hypnotist exerts some kind of magical force over you and, before you know it, you’re clucking like a chicken.

“All hypnosis can be considered self-hypnosis,” the document said. Also, it said that we’ve been using self-hypnosis since we were kids. Every time we pretend, imagine, daydream, meditate, or even pray, we’re using self-hypnosis. The handout also said that “Problems are often the result of hypnosis happening naturally,” and that “problem behaviors become reinforced when situations cause us to message ourselves unintentionally with defensive or self-defeating ideas or strategies.” Stressing ourselves out was a good example of that, he’d written—a skill I’ve always excelled at. Apparently I was already something of a hypnosis aficionado without even realizing it.

When it was about time to leave for the workshop, Andy came around his desk and asked if I wanted to go into a trance. “Yes,” I said. (That step is important. To be hypnotized, you have to be willing to be hypnotized—the whole “all hypnosis is self-hypnosis” idea—and therefore open to following his suggestions.) He asked me to position my hands a certain way in front of my eyes and to concentrate on them as he wrapped an invisible string around them. He then instructed me to drop my hands and, as he told me that I was going deeper into the trance, I felt my arms grow heavier, more and more weighted down, and a little tingly, as if someone had injected them with low-dose novocaine. He then said that one of my hands would feel lighter than the other and that it would begin to float toward my face. And, yeah, my right hand did feel lighter. It didn’t make it the entire way to my face, but given a little more time, it might have. And then he brought me back to the here and now and we left for the workshop.

Was I the most suggestible person he’d ever met? Hardly. But I think with practice, I could get better at focusing and buying into the experience. And that’s part of the process too.

Despite Andy’s excellent sense of humor, he gets serious and scientific when he talks about hypnosis. He’s a member of the Dana Brain Alliance, a nonprofit organization that sponsors Brain Awareness Week (which was March 11- 17 this year) so he keeps up on the latest scientific literature on neuroscience and the brain.

Andy views hypnosis as a useful and cost-effective tool to help people tap into their brains directly as a way of solving problems. Whereas a clinical therapist might engage in in-depth discussions to get to the root of a problem, a hypnotherapist can get there much more rapidly by accessing the subconscious and reprogramming some of a person’s old beliefs into new ones.

“If I do that kind of cognitive work, let’s say through standard therapeutic verbal talk and the Socratic method, that might take 20 sessions,” he told me, “but I can do it in one session with hypnosis because I can bypass all of their resistance and get a buy-in and get the person motivated to want that. And once they want it, then we can acquire it, like immediately, by just cutting right to the chase.”

Andy acknowledges that not everyone has used hypnosis for good, such as in the controlling way that we’ve been discussing on this blog, however that’s not normally the case. “Most hypnosis is done with a lot of permission and it’s done for the good of the person and usually for certain targeted behaviors,” he said.

Here are some of his takes (occasionally shortened or paraphrased) on a few of the more popular questions I asked him as we drove to and from the workshop. Apologies in advance for not getting to all of the questions that were suggested, insightful as they were. However, I think we were able to hit most of the big stuff.

JW: When is it more appropriate to go to a licensed hypnotist such as yourself as opposed to doing self-hypnosis?

AH: Most people look at the changes they want to make at the surface. They want to quit smoking. They want to lose weight. They want to feel less anxiety. They’re depressed. But what they’re not aware of are the things that are underneath—that the fact that they’re smoking is because they worry a lot and they worry a lot because they weren’t parented very well, or they had a car accident and they’re afraid they’re going to have another car accident and smoking takes away that fear. So they’re medicating, they may even be enjoying it, but they don’t know how they got into that situation. 

When I work with someone and I’m doing an assessment, I’ll dig up all the stuff that I think could be contributing to that by looking at their history, their pattern, their temperament, etc. I’ll start digging in and looking at the precursors. I’ll also look very closely at what they’re getting out of eating or cigarette smoking or worrying or whatever it is. I’ll also measure if they’re a sequential thinker or if they think holistically, which we normally call attention deficit disorder, though it’s not really a disorder. We just call it that because they have a hard time sitting in a classroom doing sequential learning. They want to look at the big picture. Once we know all of that about a person, we can come up with a strategy to help bring about a change. And the method can be enhanced more directly if that person isn’t blocking it because of fears or insecurities. That’s where hypnosis comes into play—to remove whatever might block a person’s response to treatment.

JW: Is there a personality trait that would make a person more hypnotizable or suggestible?

There’s definitely a skill involved with going inside and staying with your imagination. And some people become so focused on linear thinking and learning and existing in the outside world that they don’t indulge themselves as much in the inside world. But there are other people who have spent their whole lives daydreaming and pulling themselves inside. So obviously those people are more comfortable and more skilled at going inside and working their own…let’s call it a trance. And they’re using their imagination to visualize or feel or hear and then exhibiting behaviors that are consistent with that internal process. The other people are more calculating, and those different kinds of thinking access different parts of the brain. So they may not think they’re hypnotizable, but in fact, with a little bit of coaching and a little bit of training, they can experience the same depth of trance that most other people can experience. 

Now there are people who, by nature, are more comfortable and can go even deeper and can completely lose their sense of reality much more deeply with suggestions than other people. If you look at a bell curve, you’ve got the norm in the middle and you’ve got people on either extreme. But most people—about 80 percent of everybody—can visualize a lemon sitting in the refrigerator, can feel it, and will salivate if I suggest to them that they cut it and squeeze it over their tongue. Eighty percent of everybody gets a little parched and swallows.

JW: I just did that.

AH: You just did that, right? But you went right there. And other people may go up in their head and logically deduce or be kind of observing themselves doing the exercise so much so that they might miss out on that experience. But nonetheless, with a little bit of training and coaching, as long as they’re interested or willing, they can go there. If they’re hell bent on staying in control and staying in the present, if they have fear, they can resist that, and many people do. It takes a little bit of intelligence to be hypnotized, not a lot. It doesn’t take a lot of heavy lifting. But it does take a willingness.

JW: What are the most important elements required to put someone into a trance?

AH: The standard formula of hypnosis is to help a person relax so much that they open their mind and become less guarded and that reveals an access to the part of their brain that is kind of running everything without your awareness—your heart, lungs, etc. So we’re tapping into a level of your consciousness that is below your level of awareness. And we call that your subconscious.

There was a guy who studied yoga, hypnosis, prayers, religions, spiritual healing, and all these other things, and he found that they all have three things in common. One of the three things is that you slow your breathing down. The second thing is to focus your thinking. You focus on something that somebody’s talking about or maybe something that doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning. And, third, you also have to have what we call a dismissive attitude. You have to be willing to let go of A in order to experience B.

You can hypnotize dogs. You can hypnotize chickens. There’s a video of this girl who hypnotizes frogs and everything, she’s quite amazing, and she can bring them out of it. And she just does it with this calming, soothing voice. They’re not intelligent. Animals don’t think of the future or the past. They just live in the here and now. 

But this is a natural phenomenon. And we’re just learning how it works and how to use it. Hopefully for good. But it can be used to sell. It can be used to persuade people. It can be used for entertainment. But it’s all the same thing—tapping into these three principles that Herbert Benson outlined in his book called The Relaxation Responseafter doing a lot of research.

JW: I found it interesting in the handout, you said that, with self-hypnosis, you’re replacing certain bad habits that probably originated when you talked yourself into those at some point.

AH: Yeah, a lot of people don’t realize, how did this cigarette become in control? It started with smoking one and overcoming the negative side of it. When people first smoke, they often experience a bad feeling—shortness of air, irritation, they cough, they turn green because of the nicotine—but they reinterpret it in their mind that they want to look like James Dean. And so they visualize that and that minimizes their feeling of pain and accentuates finding the pleasure in it.

JW: What are your thoughts on the use of truth serum with hypnosis?

AH: Truth serum, like sodium pentothal, is a sedative, so it’s going to lower inhibition, and when it lowers inhibition, naturally, a person is less inhibited, so they’re more likely to go with any kind of suggestion. 

JW: I’ve watched demos on YouTube, and some people go real deep into a trance almost immediately. Have they achieved the optimal brainwave—theta is it?

AH: That’s part of it. They’re slowing their brain down and they’re less conscious, but their attention is directed inwardly. And their attention goes to a point where they’re in a little trance or a deepened state where a suggestion becomes real, sort of like the idea of salivating at the image of the lemon, which, as you can see, doesn’t take a deep trance to get there. But by deepening the trance more and more, people can experience either a positive hallucination, where they believe something is there that isn’t there, or a negative hallucination, where something that is there becomes invisible to them. So the mechanisms behind that are either the brain sees it and negates it or doesn’t see it and puts it there.

We still have not completely discovered how a lot of these mechanisms really occur. It’s still very theoretical. But we know that people who have brain injuries, where one part of the brain is damaged, can train another part of their brain to take over that function. They can learn to walk. They can learn to drive, even though the part of the brain that was operating that activity is no longer functioning. The brain has that elasticity, that adaptability. So these are adaptive functions that exist in all of us so that we can ultimately survive. So by knowing how it works, we can do some other interesting things, like make someone feel no pain when we’re doing surgery, or if someone normally feels anxiety and fear when they’re flying in an airplane or when they’re riding a chair lift at a ski resort, we can make it so that they can just totally relax and focus on the enjoyment of that whole experience.

JW: Let’s say that you’ve given someone the posthypnotic suggestion that the thought of a cigarette will make them feel ill or disgusted. How long does that posthypnotic suggestion last?

AH: Theoretically, a posthypnotic suggestion can work as long as it’s reinforcing. If you think about it, someone hypnotized that person to smoke. We’re just undoing that hypnosis and giving them a different way of looking at it again. 

I ran the heroin clinic in Akron for 20 years and I never met a heroin-addicted person who didn’t tell me that they at one time swore they would never use a needle. And the only reason they used the needle is because a friend talked them into it, or after they were high without using a needle, they were more suggestible and less inhibited, and somebody said, “Look, you’ve been inhaling heroin, it tastes terrible, use a needle. And we don’t have much, but we want to get high, so this is more efficient.” You know, they gave them a reason to go along with it and they did it. And once they’ve experienced it, they found out it didn’t hurt and it did feel even better than they’ve ever imagined, and of course they want to do it again. James Baldwin in his famous book about heroin addiction said heroin is so good, don’t even do it once. But that’s not true for everybody. It’s only true for the people who buy into it, who maybe have some rationale that it supports. That’s why when we undo things, we want to use the reason that a person got into something as a reason to get out of it. Help them raise their awareness to get back in control. Nonetheless, people will go on the wagon and stay off drugs, but underneath, they’re still buying into those posthypnotic suggestions that they’d put there. Posthypnotic suggestion, if it’s reinforcing, can help undo another posthypnotic suggestion. Whichever one is stronger, whichever one is more interesting, whichever one is reinforced is going to win.

JW: Can you give an example of the type of reinforcement you’re talking about?

AH: So, in the case of alcohol, coming back to an AA meeting and listening to the stories is going to be more satisfying and you’re going to have a greater sense of personal achievement than by drinking. And if you buy into that and you keep coming to the meetings, it’s going to get reinforced over and over and over again. And you’re going to be applauded by your neighbors and your friends as a winner, not a loser. So these are powerful tools.

Intermission: We go to the workshop where we practice self-hypnosis, which is a little different than the hypnosis Andy performed on me in his office. Here, we learned how to slow down our breathing and our thinking, focused on counting down from 5 to 0 to take ourselves deeper into a trance, focused on a positive suggestion that we want to apply to our lives, and then counted ourselves back out. “It’s not necessary to go into a deep trance to get your subconscious mind to respond,” Andy told the group.

Back in the car:

JW: Is there ever a time when you’re practicing self-hypnosis that you’re so deep in a trance that you can’t even count yourself out?

AH: You always have control. On the other hand, for some people, it’s like a drug. They can be tranced out because it’s the only time they actually feel anything or that they feel normal. So once people learn these tools—and the countdown technique I discussed in the session tonight is extremely powerful—they can really learn to enjoy them or take advantage of them. 

JW: Can a person be put into a trance by being stared at from across the room? (I asked this after I told him the story of H.H. Stephenson and the hotel restaurant in Wellsville, NY.)

AH: Different people can react to being stared at in different ways. If someone had been conditioned to react to a stare in a certain way…you can use nonverbal things like staring or posturing, and they’ll feel more comfortable or not comfortable. But is there a mental telepathy that would actually cause someone to behave out of character? Probably not. It sounds like an awkward moment—maybe it was Ron, maybe it wasn’t Ron—but if he’s staring so intently at this Ron character, this guy looking back might have been, “What is wrong with this guy?” It’s just really impossible to say what that really was, if anything. But that’s not a hypnotic phenomenon.

JW: Just staring somebody down?

AH: Exactly. Somebody you don’t have a connection with, with no rapport, and putting them in a trance—unlikely. 

JW: Is the verbal part of hypnosis essential?

AH: Not necessarily. Let me give you an example. Andy Kauffman was a comedian who didn’t say a word. He would just go up and stand there, and put people in all kinds of giddy moods just by standing there. And he was exceptionally non-emotive. He wasn’t doing any gesturing—a complete blank. And people reacted to that by filling it in. So when you leave a space open, your mind fills it in, in whatever way is appropriate. But let’s face it. He had an audience. They paid to get in to have a good time. So they’re already pretty hypnotized that they’re having a good time. There’s a lot you can do by just being aware of what state other people are in.

Now in terms of Ron Tammen, there’s not a lot of evidence to make a lot of meaning out of it. But maybe these are subtle clues, not only to what happened to Ron Tammen, but what happened to all the people wonderingabout Ron Tammen. Where did their heads go? And the things that they were able to come up with to create their own beliefs could very likely be 100 percent projection—stuff from their world experiences, their world view, their excitement with drama or fiction or mysteries—to investigate and fill it all in.

JW: So it’s possible, and one reader has said this, that H.H. Stephenson may not have seen Ron at all, and he may have just projected that?

AH: He projected it and this person reacted to that projection and it was maybe, at best, an awkward moment. But he reinforced H.H.’s feeling by looking back with a blank stare. But what was really going on with the guy may not have had anything to do with Ron Tammen, and may have had more to do with the fact that H.H. thought it was Ron Tammen and was staring real hard at him and the guy was just staring back. So there’s really not a lot of data, but it does open a door for speculation more than conclusions.

JW: Is there a placebo effect for hypnosis?

AH: You could say that all hypnosis is the placebo effect. You could say that the placebo effect is a form of believing what you want to believe and selling yourself on it based on someone else’s suggestion based on this pill, or this technique, or this book, or eating this food, etc. The placebo effect has been measured. On a cultural level, the placebo effect in the American culture is getting bigger. Things that don’t do anything have a larger effect but not because of the substance itself. The only way we know to test the placebo effect is called a double-blind study [a study in which neither the participant nor the researcher knows whether you’re taking the experimental drug or the placebo]. They can even say to a person, “We did a double-blind study and that pill doesn’t do anything,” and the person will turn to them and say, “You know what? It does for me.” And right there, they’re telling you that the placebo effect is valuable to them. They value it and totally buy into it. 

JW: Do you have to believe that hypnosis can work in order for it to work?

AH: You have to be receptive to any physical or mental suggestion for that suggestion to be helpful. If somebody is really cynical, a lot of times it might mean that they’re going to take whatever you tell them to support their self image that they’re a nonbeliever. Once somebody’s heels are dug in, you can do things to try to persuade them, but as long as their heels are dug in, they’re incapable of benefiting from something at all.

JW: Is it possible to hypnotize someone without their knowing it?

AH: There’s a whole group of techniques called covert hypnosis where people use powerful language to be able to manipulate people and move them in a certain direction. Powerful words that connect with people—that resonate with people—can do that. Knowing what’s going on with a person can open the door to leading them either into a trance or into a lightweight trance. Imagine your own resistance to something you really don’t like, and imagine that that resistance can wear out. And maybe somebody working on their behalf or on your own behalf could accelerate that process. By going this way with your imagination, you buy into it more and more, and as you do buy into it, you feel less and less resistance. And pretty soon, you want to give me money. These are things that people do all the time.

The car ride and interview come to an end.

As I was listening to Andy talk about the prerequisites for someone to be hypnotized—the openness, the willingness, the buy-in—it got me to thinking about how these traits might apply to Ron Tammen. If Ron was being hypnotized in the days or weeks before his disappearance, and evidence indicates that he was, he was obviously willing to let his imagination go there, wherever “there” was. Yet Ron Tammen doesn’t seem to be the most adventurous or experimental sort of guy, from what I can tell. I don’t think he would have been doing it for the fun of it. And even though he was always seeking ways to earn money, I don’t think a paycheck would have been enough incentive either, particularly if he doubted or feared the process. No, I believe that Ron Tammen fervently wanted to make a change in his life, and he was willing and open to try anything to make that happen. If the change he desired is what I think it was, it wasn’t a habit that he was hoping to change, but a personal trait, something embedded in his DNA. And that’s something that hypnosis, or any other therapy for that matter, can’t touch.

The Fabulous Voices, with Andy Hawes on the harmonica

If you are interested in receiving psychological services, you can find someone in your area on the Psychology Today website. If you wish to contact Andy Hawes, visit his Web page. If you are feeling a threat, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Do NOT leave a message, as time may be of the essence.


Unfortunately, I need to turn off comments for this post, since I’m conducting research for the next week and won’t be able to respond within a satisfactory amount of time. However, you can still reach me through the contact form or you can comment at facebook.com/agmihtf.

Coming soon: MKULTRA and ‘U’ — A Good Man primer on the CIA’s mind control program and the universities that took part