Fox Home Entertainment recently sent me an advance screener of the Danny Boyle movie Trance, about an art thief with amnesia who uses hypnosis to recall where he stashed his stolen painting. Along with the movie, Fox offered me an hour-long hypnosis session at the Hypnosis Motivation Institute in Tarzana, CA where Trance star Rosario Dawson went for hypnotherapy in order to better understand her part. I didn't know much about hypnotism. The first and only time I'd ever been put under was when I was a teenager in the early 1980s, as part of a stage show on Sunset Boulevard in LA with the then famous "hip hypnotist" Pat Collins. She chose a bunch of us from the audience to come up on stage, where she lined us up in chairs and used her mesmerizing voice to tap into our subconscious. Acting like a three-year-old not wanting to share my toys with the other volunteers (or some silly scenario like that), I did exactly what Pat Collins told me to do, free of my normal stage fright, but at the same time thinking to myself, I can't really be hypnotized. I'm still thinking like a rational person.
So when we were offered this session, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to see if a "real" hypnotherapist could actually put me in an altered state of some kind. I wasn't sure what to expect, but romanticized about meeting a bearded man in a white lab coat swinging a pendulum in front of my face.
Instead, a petite, friendly hypnotherapist named Michele Guzy met me in the reception room and led me into her office. Before digging into my subconscious, I told her with a chuckle that I'd been part of Pat Collins' stage show. Aware of my skepticism, she didn't return the chuckle, but said that stage shows were fun, and they were also very real. In fact, she used to be a stage hypnotist. She explained that there are four types of hypnosis:
1) Environmental hypnosis – A hyper-suggestible trance-like state triggered by stimulation overload, such as falling in love or being stuck in traffic.
2) Stage hypnosis – Putting a person into a state of hypnosis quickly using shock inductions.
3) Hetero hypnosis –Hypnosis induced by a hypnotherapist.
4) Self-hypnosis – Taking what was learned in a hypnotherapist's office (trigger words, induction exercises…) to self induce hypnosis at home.
Of course in this session I would be doing hetero hypnosis. And to get started, I first had to do a suggestibility test, followed by an induction. I could feel my stress levels rising at the words test and induction, but according to Guzy, stress was a good thing. "Hypnosis is a state of anxiety and stress. It's an overload of stimulus." She said that the more stressed out a person is, the easier they are to hypnotize. In fact, she can hypnotize an extremely stressed out person in mere seconds.
But in Trance the burglar (played by James McAvoy) didn't have to take a test, I thought. His hypnotherapist (played by Rosario) only had to say a few lines and the thief was immediately torpedoed back to the day that he'd stolen the painting, seeing the details as clearly as if it were really happening to him. As if reading my mind, Guzy explained that the movie simplified the hetero hypnotic process, and for good reason. "We can't show hypnotic inductions on TV or in movies because people [watching the movie] will go into a hypnotic state." She said it's happened before.
Before launching into the test, she needed to know what I wanted to work on. Did I want to go into a regression state to remember something? (Guzy once had a client who came in to find $5000.00 that she'd misplaced somewhere in her house.) Or did I have a fear I wanted to overcome? An addiction?
I told her I wanted to get rid of my insomnia, which I've struggled with for years. She asked if I had trouble falling asleep, and I told her no, I had the kind of insomnia that wakes me up at 3:00 every morning like clockwork. I then stay up for hours before falling back asleep.
"Insomnia is all a learned behavior," she said. "And hypnotherapy is behavioral counseling." Today she would communicate with my subconscious by first opening up my critical mind. "I need to open up that door to this room to get access to the subconscious." Once she reached my subconscious, she would change the message that my mind associates with 3:00 so that instead of saying, "Oh, it's 3:00. Time to wake up!" it would now say, "Oh, it's 3:00, time to sleep even deeper." And she would do this by giving me an "anchor," or "trigger," – a keyword that I could say to myself that would help me fall back asleep.
"What do you want your keyword to be?" she asked.
This stumped me. I wanted it to be just the right word. In meditation I'd used a papaya as a key image, but papaya didn't seem like a word that would put me to sleep. Papayas were bright and perky. "Um…" My mind drew a blank, but Guzy only had an hour with me, and told me it could be a very simple word. Finally, I blurted out calm, wishing I could have planned out my word the day before.
After a 25 minute chat about what hypnotherapy was and how it worked (all very interesting to a newbie like me!), it was finally time to jump in.
Right: Rosario Dawson and James McAvoy in Trance.
The test was actually quite simple. Guzy had me put my arms straight out in front of me and close my eyes. Once I was able to imagine them in my mind I had to nod. No speaking allowed. After that she told me I had a heavy object in my left hand, and that my right hand was as light as a feather. I felt my right hand floating up while my left hand was sinking down towards the floor. Meanwhile, my mind knew that if I really wanted to, I could stop this. Her words weren't controlling me. Well, that's because I'm not hypnotized yet, I thought.
"Now open your eyes and look at your hands," she instructed. I saw what I expected to see – my arms scissored out in two different directions. She then had me close my eyes and do this again on my own. When I opened my eyes my arms weren't as spread apart as the first time. By this simple test she determined that I was right brain dominant at the moment, meaning I was more literal. She'd be giving me literal commands.
For the next part of the test, she asked me a string of questions that I had to answer with a nod or shake of my head. Some of these included: Has anyone ever told me I walked or talked in my sleep? (Shake.) Have I ever woken up from a dream feeling paralyzed? (Shake.) When I was young could I express my feelings to people? (Nod.) Do I say "hi" to strangers? (Nod.) Do I think about what I could have or should have said afterwards? (Shake, but I should have nodded.)
I'm not sure what my answers meant to her. With my eyes still closed she explained that as I went into hypnosis my body would go through physiological changes, which she would notice before I did. But when I became aware of them I should nod.
She told me my breathing would get deeper. (Nod.) She asked me to press my elbow to the table while my hand and forearm got lighter and lighter, moving up and up. I was now moving my hand towards my face, and my face towards my hand (by her suggestion), as if I had magnets attached to my palm and forehead. "The moment it touches we are going to go into a deep sleep," she said, snapping her fingers. Once my hand connected to my face, she told me I had entered a "peak of suggestibility" – a very suggestive state of mind and body. "Now hold it there. Let's go even deeper (snap!). And even deeper (snap!). The body will relax whenever I say deep sleep (snap!). Your hand is stuck to your face (snap!) and even as I try to pull it off (snap!) it is stuck."
Guzy tugged on my arm but I pressed it into my forehead with the same determination Hulk Hogan would have employed to perform a camel clutch. Guzy said it was normal to have thoughts running in and out of my head, and to just let them be. But honestly, at this point I didn't really have extra thoughts. I was no longer questioning whether this was real or not. I was just accepting her commands from a very relaxed place inside my mind. I was listening to her voice with a focus I never usually achieve, even during my amateur attempts at meditation.
Rosario Dawson plays Elizabeth, a hypnotist with a secret, in Trance.
Once I was in a hypnotic state she guided me to a reclining chair in which I leaned way back. This is when the bearded man would have whipped out his pocket watch and swung it in front of my eyes, telling me I was getting sleepy. But as Guzy later told me on the telephone, using a pendulum or pocket watch is the stuff of television. Referred to as an "eye fascination," the reason behind the pendulum is to have a point of focus that creates stress on the eyes, which in turn fatigues them. Guzy said pendulums can be distracting and that she preferred a still object. So she had me stare at the can light on the ceiling while she told me that my eyes were getting heavier.
"The conscious mind is still listening, and the subconscious mind is paying attention," she said. "As you stare at the light, notice your vision starting to blur and your eyelids beginning to blink." She counted down from 5-0 while my eyes did indeed become heavier and heavier, blinking and fluttering until they shut like a pair of lead doors.
In this very relaxed state she had me visualize the word calm. "See it in your mind. C-A-L-M. Just hearing and seeing that word is like a mantra. It's very soothing….Your mind is calm, your emotions are calm, your body is calm…" She had me relax each part of my body, sprinkling the word calm into any sentence she could. "Bring this calm energy up just like you would bring a blanket up, starting from your feet…You will wake up in the morning feeling refreshed." She was snapping like crazy, punctuating anything that resembled a command with the sound of her fingers. "The moment 3:00 comes you will sleep even deeper. .."
She asked me to lift my arm. This would trigger the left brain to release any thoughts or analyzing. She then had me count down from 10-1 while lowering my arm back down to the chair. The next time I had a bout of insomnia, this exercise would help me drift off to sleep. She had me practice this many times, and I soon became more relaxed than I've been in years.
"1-2-3-4-5, eyes open, wide awake," Guzy said, counting me out of my state of hypnosis. "Whenver you're stressed or overloaded during the day, count yourself out. 1-2-3-4-5, wide awake. Take your right hand and make a fist. That's going to send a message to your left brain to get focused."
As Guzy tried to wrap up the session, my eyes resisted. They fluttered and remained only half-opened as she explained that in our first session we deal more with suggestibility and induction but would focus more on giving suggestions to the subconscious mind in future sessions. Her voice was soothing and I didn't want to leave the comfortable space in which I imagined myself to be curled up like a napping cat. Guzy noticed this. "You're starting to go in again," she said, explaining that the induction we did gave her voice the power to trigger a post-hypnotic suggestion, and that no one else could trigger this state, only her. I don't think I reacted to what she was saying, and suddenly she was sternly counting to five again. "1-2-3-4-5, eyes open, wide awake. 1-2-3-4-5, wide awake. Make a fist. 1-2-3-4-5, wide awake!" Reluctantly, I listened. Of course I listened.
Over a week later I feel refreshed in the morning, but only because I took a sleeping supplement after three nights of hellish sleep. The first two nights after my hypnotherapy session I did sleep pretty darn well, but by the third night I again woke up in the middle of the night with a spinning mind. I played an audio recording of my session with Michele Guzy, and that did the trick. I was out almost instantly. But by night four, even the recording had lost its influence over me. Nights five, six and seven were worse than the sleep I was getting before I'd had the hypnotherapy, lying in bed, wide awake, for almost the entire night. Could the hypnosis have backfired? Do I have to go back to Guzy and have her undo what she did? Or did I just need a second session?
In all fairness, she said that some people can reach their goal with one hypnotherapy session while others might need ten – I might have nine more sessions to go. In Trance it took the thief a bunch of hypnotherapy sessions before he was able to find out where he'd hidden the painting. She also told me to practice the arm exercise that we did while I was in the reclining chair, and I haven't. Finally, I know that the relaxation I felt in her office was very real. I could have fallen asleep in a second if only she would have asked me to.
[This story originally ran on Boing Boing in August 2013]