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Show hypnosis - everything fake?

Stage hypnosis - scary and fascinating at the same time

When show hypnotists appear at events in Germany, they seemingly put volunteers into a deep sleep. The heads of the participants hang limply. Your arms are so stiff and firm that you can no longer bend them.

Apparently without will, they obey the showmen on stage and follow their instructions. Is that really possible? Can strangers put us so deeply into a trance on stage that we behave in front of the audience to the point of being ridiculous?

Or is it all an act? "Only in part," says Hansjörg Ebell, who works as a doctor and qualified psychotherapist in Munich and trains in hypnosis.

Only a small part of the people on stage feign obedience. These are mostly the ones who like to be in the spotlight and seek attention. This is how the US show hypnotist Ormond McGill describes it in his book "The New Encyclopedia of Stage Hypnotism".

As a rule, there are also no accomplices or people who were inaugurated before the show. "Most of them are actually in a trance," says Ebell.

The secret: the preselection of the hypnotist

"The show hypnotist selects these people very skilfully," said the expert. The mere fact that these people attend such a performance is already a preselection: They are fundamentally interested in hypnosis or even fascinated by it. In addition, many go to the show with high expectations and can't wait to join in and be hypnotized.

At the beginning of the performance, hypnotists usually do some warm-up exercises - the people in the audience should hold both index fingers up in front of them and imagine they are being attracted to a strong magnet.

What the audience usually does not notice: These exercises are targeted tests to filter out those people who are particularly susceptible to hypnosis. In the magnet exercise, for example, the show hypnotist recognizes those people who bring their fingers together particularly quickly and asks them to come onto the stage. Usually there are ten to 15 people.

McGill, the American hypnotist and author, describes how the show hypnotists themselves narrow down this selection even further: Those people who, for example, stand on stage with crossed arms and thus show a defensive attitude are sent back to the audience. Candidates who look curious and motivated are allowed to stay.

It starts with simple suggestions: in a calm voice, the hypnotist asks the person to close their eyes. He tells them that their body feels very heavy and becomes stiff. These motor tasks are very easy for most candidates.

The hypnotist will quickly check who is tensing his muscles the most. Once the person has been located, the chair trick often follows: the hypnotist lifts the person and places them horizontally on two chairs - head and shoulders on one chair, feet on the other. To the great astonishment of the audience, the subject's body is so tense that it looks as if they are lying on the chairs like a stiff board.

The hypnotist will ask those people who were not properly tense during the muscle test to sit back in the audience. Now comes the more difficult part of the show, which can only be done by people who are particularly good at hypnotizing.

In the so-called sensory tasks, the test subjects should eat a lemon as if it were a sweet orange, or lick shaving foam as if it were ice cream.

A psychological effect encourages participation

That people actually obey these prompts is partly due to hypnosis. But there is also a socio-psychological effect.

It is usually the first time for the selected person that he or she is on a stage in front of hundreds or even thousands of people. Suddenly she is in the center.

The spotlight, the music, the most famous and popular show hypnotist - these factors all contribute to the candidate being tense, describes McGill in his book. "If I don't take part, I'll be embarrassing the hypnotist and myself. I'm not allowed to ruin the show" - such thoughts would arise for many.

When a person stands motionless on stage with his eyes closed, many believe that he has stepped away and is controlled by others. In reality, she often just doesn't know when to open her eyes again.

The fear of the audience's laughter is too great if they are the only person in the selected group who does not obey the hypnotist's commands. The peer pressure helps to ensure that everyone cooperates, describes McGill.

In addition, there is the idea of ​​competition, which puts the candidates under pressure to succeed: Anyone who notices that people from the group are gradually being sent back into the audience increases the ambition to be better and stay on stage as long as possible.

Social pressure, peer pressure and the fear of embarrassing themselves: for these reasons, many candidates obey the show hypnotist.

With some the pressure is so high that they even go along with silly or shameful things - for example, strutting around on stage like a rooster and shouting "Kikeriki" loudly. Or to turn around the stage in a tightly embraced chair as if he were a dance partner.

The downside: dangers and ethical problems

People usually only notice afterwards how embarrassing and degrading these actions can be. "This is exactly where the ethical problem of show hypnosis lies," says Ebell. "Anyone who goes into hypnosis invests a lot of trust. Many show hypnotists abuse this to amuse their audience." In the worst case, this exposure on stage can cause psychological damage.

And hypnotists also often accept physical damage: the action in which the person is placed on two chairs like a stiff board can damage the spine, for example.

Another danger: In a trance state, certain images and noises can lead to the memory of a traumatic experience coming back and the person concerned reliving the situation in front of the inner eye.

For example, there is a case where, while the hypnotist was counting, a person remembered a traumatic anesthetic that was also counted at the beginning. In another case, the flickering stage lights brought back memories of a car accident.

At this point, those affected need a therapist who will lead them out of the trauma step by step. But stage hypnotists have no training for this. In principle, anyone can become a stage hypnotist - qualified training or a degree in medicine or psychology are not required.

In numerous countries such as England, Sweden and Austria, show hypnosis is prohibited for these reasons. In Germany it is not supported by therapeutic hypnotists or doctors and is repeatedly criticized. However, there is no ban on public events and television shows.

"Hypnosis needs an ethical and professional framework," says Ebell. A serious hypnotist has completed a degree and trained in psychotherapy. In addition, he needs further training in hypnosis from one of the recognized societies, such as the Milton Erickson Society for Clinical Hypnosis.

A competent hypnotherapist treats his patient with dignity and does not work against his will. On the contrary - he ensures that he feels safe and works with him on his problems.

In a trance, for example, the patient can relieve pain or abandon bad behavior. "This will strengthen his will," said Ebell.