It’s very odd, but despite over two hundred years of history, there is no agreement on what hypnosis actually is.
Researchers are broadly divided into two schools: the state school believe that hypnosis is a special state of mind, in the same way that sleep is. They believe there is something physiological going on in the mind when someone is hypnotised, and that this can be detected using various kinds of brain scanner.
The non-state school believe that hypnosis is purely psychological, and that rather than the mind going into a special physiological state, it’s more akin to an emotion – a relaxed condition, where the imagination can become more active and suggestions are more easily accepted.
FESH doesn’t endorse either view directly, although most stage hypnotists are of the non-state school, believing that hypnosis (certainly when practised on stage as entertainment) is an extension of suggestion.
This doesn’t mean that hypnotic phenomena aren’t surprising, though, and most people are unaware of the power of suggestion and the ridiculous commands and beliefs the mind will accept in the proper circumstances. It’s the witty presentation of these phenomena which makes a successful hypnosis show, and FESH members are carefully vetted to make sure they extract the maximum entertainment from the situation.
Is it Dangerous?
There is absolutely no evidence of any significant danger from stage hypnosis.
Sadly, though, because the subject is so poorly understood, hypnotic acts have sometimes been criticised by people who are either ignorant, misled, or just plain greedy.
Occasionally people have indeed suffered accidents or illness shortly after being hypnotised. But a moment’s thought will show that it would be astonishing if this never happened: there are thousands of stage shows taking place around the world, and dozens of people hypnotised at each show, so purely by bad luck it’s pretty likely that someone, sooner or later, will have some kind of accident after a stage show.
But it’s ridiculous to infer from this that hypnosis is dangerous: if someone trips and falls the day after having their hair cut no one blames the hairdresser! But because hypnosis is shrouded in mystery, the victim will often looks for someone to blame, and ignoring any causality will jump to the conclusion that it ‘must have been’ the hypnosis which caused it.
In a rather more sinister situation, there are people who are out to make money by suing over anything they think they can get away with. Because hypnosis has the aura of the occult about it, it’s tempting for them to blame any illness (often imaginary) on hypnosis.
The Home Office Investigation
So what’s the truth? Well, in the mid-1990s there were so many rumours flying around that the Home Office took it upon themselves to investigate stage hypnosis. A review of medical evidence and available research literature was carried out by a panel of experts nominated by the British Psychological Society and the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
After a six-month investigation, the panel’s report was announced in Parliament in November 1995. What did they conclude?
“The panel concluded that there was no evidence of serious risk to participants in stage hypnosis.”
And FESH is squarely behind these recommendations.