August 22, 2008

Try climbing into a hat

As a teen, back in the Iron Ages, I once put an ad in a popular youth magazine, asking for someone to teach me, by mail, ventriloquism and hypnotism. Some of what ensued, I recounted in Remember the moos.

These years later, I remain a wannabe ventriloquist and hypnotist. But as of yesterday, I have hereby joined the ranks of the hypnotized. Or not. Or something. Read on if you dare.

At a County Fair, among plenty of mooing cattle and lowing sheep and snorting horses and overweight humans and motocross mud, I found myself drawn to a show by a hypnotist from Canada. (Hmm. Drawn?) He selected 15 people from the audience and proceeded to make them do a number of increasingly silly things. A seriously overweight teen took off his shoes and the hypnotist told him they were now too small for him, so he couldn't get them back on. A woman in jeans and a pink top karaoke-d to a song by country star Carrie Underwood, strutting all over the stage in a hat. A tousle-haired young man with baggy jeans started by saying he hated country, then was hypnotized into saying he loved it, and in particular loved Carrie Underwood, and hello, here she is on stage! -- so he mooned over her, screamed her name and generally acted the major league fan. Later the same dude was persuaded that a trash can next to him was the most beautiful girl in the world, and proceeded to dance with her. It.

Like that. Despite wanting to learn hypnotism, I'm entirely sceptical -- but well, what were these people doing?

I went back for the second show, at night. To my astonishment, the guy selected me to get up on stage. Despite my scepticism, I resolved to focus on the man's instructions as sincerely as I could. And I think I did.

And in turn, I did some silly things too. Ran all around the stage and the audience shouting "Skipper, where are you?" while a Navy guy in white ran around shouting "Gilligan, where are you, li'l buddy?" and then we finally met and flung ourselves into each other's arms. (Hurt my nose. Navy hardbody). Heard sounds in my hat and realized all my friends were having a party in there without me, and so I tried to gatecrash by climbing into the hat. Fell asleep as instructed, draped myself over the guy on one side or the girl on the other as instructed again, had them drape themselves over me as instructed, woke up as instructed. Danced to Eminem music with the other males on stage, the crowd went wild. Claimed there was a Naval conspiracy to steal my hat. Hugged the guy next to me, because we both suddenly believed that the other was the most attractive person in the world.

Like that.

Here's the thing: all through, I was completely awake and alert, and so were my colleagues up on stage. I knew exactly what I was doing. And why. Thing is, you go along with the show. You go along with the entertainment, with keeping people laughing and clapping and delighted at your antics. In that sense, the hypnotist's great skill is in judging the people he picks -- those who show any signs of not going along, he packs off back to the audience.

And there's a clue. This guy actually advertises himself as an entertainer; his slogan is that he "will make you laugh, like it or not!" In that, he is eminently successful.

As I walked off the stage at the end, two guys in the audience were nudging each other. "Ask him, ask him", I heard the whispers. So I turned to them, and one asked me what it had been like. I told them about what I've said here. And as I did so, I found I had a strange mixture of feelings.

I'm glad to know that the scepticism was justified. But I'm oddly disappointed to know that there is no esoteric explanation for how these hypnotism shows go. And I puzzle over one thing: this business of getting volunteers to "go along", is that the real act of hypnosis?


Postscript: The hypnotist's name is Terrance B, and this is his site. He is also keeping a blog about his appearances this year, here.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

I remember some such story by Feynman (in "Surely you're joking", I suppose), who volunteered for a hypnotist session: exactly like you, he was thinking through the session, "I'm not hypnotised, I can do as I like, I'm just playing along". But at the end the hypnotist said "you won't go right back to your seat [in the front row], you will walk all the way around the hall to reach it." Feynman thought to himself, nah, he's not going to play along with that one, it's too silly; and he started walking straight back to his seat. But then a strange feeling came over him: he felt so bothered by it that he couldn't continue. He walked all the way around the hall. He concludes that though you tell yourself "you can do it but you won't", it's really the same as saying "you can't do it."

Anonymous said...

ditto rahul. ive had friends tell me of ppl holding unnatural stiff postures (eg prone btwn chairs) eating hot peppers etc. undergoing moderate to significant discomfort or pain. i dont think they'd consciously go along with that.

maybe the hypnotist succeeds in making you think you are in control while you really arent. you want to do what he tells you to do and therefore dont question it.


Dilip D'Souza said...

Rahul, I'm always delighted to be mentioned in teh same breath as Feynman! Though our respective contributions to the advancement of science are, shall we say, immeasurably different.

What you describe is about how I felt. I don't know that I consciously got that strange feeling, but I just went along with everything. As I wrote, I think the hypnotist's great skill is in identifying those who might not go along with everything, and sending them back into the audience.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Dilip - Feynman mentions getting the strange feeling only when he tried to disobey the hypnotist, which you didn't try to do.

I looked it up and my description is quite accurate. He mentions a later incident: a hypnotist says she will burn his hand with a match and he won't feel pain. She lights the match and asks him to close his eyes; he feels a warm sensation but no pain. He thinks, that's easy, she's just put a different match than the one she lighted. But when he opens his eyes, he sees a burn on his hand. Over a couple of weeks it becomes a blister and finally bursts, and he never feels any pain at all.