The Stroop Test is an exercise that measures attention.  The premise is pretty simple.  The word for a color is written in a color that may or not be congruent with the word itself...

Stroop

 

The objective is to identify the actual color of the text.  In this case, it's red, even though the text says "green." Sometimes the color matches the text; sometimes it doesn't.  In the test, participants are asked to repeat this process over and over, and there's a tally of how many correct responses are given.  If you'd like to give it a try, you can do so here.

Semantic processing, your understanding of the word, happens automatically.  It takes attention to work through whether the actual color of the text is congruent with what the text says.  In an effort to be as quick as possible when performing the exercise, the conflict between reading the word and seeing the color produces errors.

But not if you're hypnotized.

When subjects are hypnotized and given the suggestion that they can't read the text ("These words are written in a language you don't understand.") the people in the study only recognize the color, and they get the color responses correct.  The only catch is that the people who have succeeded in the studies are highly hypnotizable.  The low hypnotizable subjects didn't fare as well.  Here is one of those published studies.

This is a great example of how hypnosis can actually change brain function.  In this case, the simple suggestion that they couldn't read the words turned off that function in their brain and allowed them to focus on the colors.  This encourages us to look at hypnosis as related, to some extent, to attention and how we allocate brain space and usage to attention.

While researching the topic of safety related to hypnosis, I found a news article about an incident I heard about a few years ago.  The article included a video I had never seen before, and when I watched it, I didn't feel good about it.  When you read the article and watch the video, it might be easy to focus on criticizing Mr. Nadeau, but I would ask that we avoid any rants aimed at him and focus more on the general topic of hypnotism as a form of entertainment.

I also want to be open about a clear bias that I have: I'm a stage hypnotist.  While I also see clients, and I'm a certified instructor, I generate most of my revenue doing stage work.  I love what I do, and I don't have any plans to stop performing as a stage hypnotist anytime soon, but I also value my own critical thinking skills, and believe I have a duty to re-examine my own beliefs every now and then.  If a compelling argument can be made against stage hypnotism, I will give it full consideration.

I was initially looking for news articles about people who have gotten "stuck" in hypnosis.  Every couple of years, it seems, I'll hear a story in the news about some stage hypnotist not being able to get his/her volunteers out of hypnosis at the end of the show, and the ensuing panic that creates.  You see, this is the stuff that makes for a great headline, and it will drive clicks to a news website easily, so it was no surprise that the incident in Canada was picked up here in the United States and reported nation-wide.  The story even made it across the pond and was reported in the UK.

"2nd Hypnotist Rescues Students Stuck in Trance" -CBC News
"Panic as students get stuck in hypnosis."  -NY Daily News
"Hypnotist Summons Help as Girls Get Stuck in a Trance" -USA Today
"Trainee Hypnotist Forced to Call in Help after Girls at Canadian Private School are Locked in a Trance for FIVE Hours" -Daily Mail

I felt bad for the young hypnotist.  He made a rookie mistake, but none of those girls were in danger; you can't get truly stuck in hypnosis!  It's a safe and natural state.  One way or the other, every volunteer was going to come out of hypnosis and be just fine.  But because the hypnotist didn't handle the situation more smoothly and facilitate a prompt emergence for the people in hypnosis, his picture was now plastered all over the news with these dramatic headlines.

Then I found the Huffington Post's report on the story, and it included video footage from the show.  I hadn't seen the footage when the story broke a couple of years ago, but now here was this footage of a hypnotist performing the hypnotic bridge, and as soon as I saw him doing that, something inside me turned on him.  Any sympathy I had for this hypnotist evaporated.

I have never facilitated the hypnotic bridge, and I don't believe it should be done.  I think it's grandstanding.  The only exception to that is Jim Wand's version.  Jim would use self-hypnosis to make himself a bridge, and would have a big guy picked out of the audience stand on him.  If you want to put yourself in that position, it's your choice, and I think it's a more ethical choice than doing it to someone from the audience.

The bigger issue is the use of hypnotism for entertainment, and how that invariably leads to hypnotists who want to impress people, to get the biggest pop from a crowd, choosing to do things on stage that might put people's safety at risk.  It also sometimes leads to stage hypnotists developing routines that purposefully make people feel uncomfortable (for example, "Whenever I say the word ___, somebody is jabbing you in the bum with a needle." That's an actual bit I saw a stage hypnotist do.)

I have always considered my show to be a clean act, and it is one of the most consistent pieces of feedback I get from clients.  I think you can be funny without being dirty, and without doing things at the expense of your volunteers having a positive experience on stage.  I perform for between 10,000 and 12,000 people each year, and at every show I ask people how many of them have been hypnotized before.  About five percent of the audience typically raises their hands. I also ask how many of them have never even seen live hypnotism before, and anywhere from 30-50% of the audience will raise their hands.  I've been touring for a decade, now, and those numbers really haven't changed.  The vast majority of Americans have little to no experience with hypnosis.

As a stage hypnotist, I feel a duty to entertain my audience, and I also recognize an opportunity to be an ambassador for hypnotism.  I would like to think that every time I put on a good show, that I demonstrate the fun side of hypnotism while also showing I care about people, that I am opening up people's minds to the possibility of using hypnosis.  But surely there must be some times, over a decade of performing, when I have done something in a show that somebody didn't like.  You can't control every single aspect of a stage hypnotism show.  Sometimes, even the things you are in control of don't work the way you envisioned them when you actually do them.

Some hypnotists might argue that the hypnotic bridge is a way to show people how powerful the human mind is.  They might say that, if it's performed properly, there is no risk to the volunteer.  I am basically making that same argument about my whole show, but what if that's just a rationalization?  Can you use hypnosis for entertainment ethically?  Or are you in trouble the moment you choose to use hypnosis to create moments in which the audience is laughing at the people on stage?  If we can't ensure that all stage hypnotists will perform with the highest standards of safety and ethics, should we ban stage hypnotism?