“You are standing at the top of a flight of stairs. It leads into darkness. The stairs are not steep. And there is a banister....”
For the record, every flight of stairs I’ve ever fallen down has had a banister. Indeed, on several occasions the banister has been the problem, or at least has contributed to the damage. And yet I feel no fear.
“Down you go...one step...another step...everything’s fine and safe and secure....”
“Flight deck again, ladies and gentlemen. We’ll be starting our descent in a few minutes, so if you need to get up and use the restroom, this might be a pretty good time to just go ahead and do that.”
This might be a good time to mention that I’m sitting on an airplane, hurtling through the night à la Joni Mitchell toward points unknown, certainly points unimportant.
My eyes, it should be noted, are closed, and there is drool creeping down my chin. For I am in a trance, a proper hypnotic one, courtesy of the kindly, middle-aged woman in the seat next to me. We had been chatting idly, until after several miniature wines and a riveting discussion of her primary business—traveling Tupperware salesperson—she declared herself to be trained, or at least licensed, in hypnotherapy.
The interesting thing, however, is this: Had she not been there, I was planning to hypnotize myself anyway, courtesy of an iPod-like device I happen to have in my laptop case—a brain wave–altering pocket hypnotherapist known to neurotic techies as the Pzizz.
Back when I was a child, people generally refrained from hypnotizing one another. To me and my schoolmates, hypnosis was known as one of the powerful forces—along with heroin, the Moonies, the writings of Ayn Rand, and Ouija boards—in which one dabbled at one’s peril. Urban legends abounded of mild-mannered suburban dads being turned into chickens by some waggly fingered narcissist in a cape at a magic show, and never changing back.
Fortunately, the tools of hypnosis were hard to come by. To put a fellow human being into a hypnotic trance, it was well known one needed both (a) a pair of deep-set, ineffably powerful eyes and (b) an old Victorian pocket watch on a chain.
From time to time, people would come across (b) in some sort of old shoebox in an attic and charge into school the next day with the thing secreted about their person and visions of conscripting a personal zombie strike force. Only then would they learn the importance of (a) and realize that they’d yet to actually even meet anyone with (a). And in this way the social order was allowed to persist.
Oh, how young we were.
In our Modern Age, hypnosis is close to ubiquitous. As a man who gets most of his news from supermarket tabloids, I am uniquely qualified to tell you that in 2006 alone, Lindsay Lohan enlisted a hypnotist to help address her addiction to shopping; that Kevin Federline was considering using one on his smoking habit, before smoking became the least of his worries; and, from the nethermost pages of the tabloids, that hypnosis might offer relief to sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome, hair loss, or low sex drive. Hypnotherapy institutes are proliferating like the field mushrooms their founders generally enjoy consuming in pasta-and-soy-cheese casseroles. And, what would have been most alarming of all to the uncomprehending rubes of yesteryear, people have taken to hypnotizing themselves.
Enter the Pzizz.
The Pzizz is a gadget (and now, an optional software package for your iPod) designed to generate, through headphones, a unique hypnotic experience of the user’s chosen length. In time, according to its manufacturers, I could expect to see an across-the-board improvement in both my state of mind and my quality of life. The supporting literature accounts for its efficacy in terms of “binaural beats.” Each headphone plays a tone of a slightly differing frequency, which creates a pulsating beat that is felt but not heard (because it is below the range of human hearing). Supposedly your brain’s electric signals alter in frequency to match this beat, and altered signals mean altered consciousness.
In other words, the Pzizz produces a gentle sluicing back and forth of one’s brain waves, and a state of hypnosis ensues.
Which is presumably when one starts taking seriously the suggestions of a strange, possibly Australian man who has been talking to you through your Pzizz headphones with the same sinister authority that the ghostly barman uses while urging Jack Nicholson to “discipline” his family in The Shining.
His suggestions, however, are more benign. “Each breath can be another step deeper into pleasant and relaxing feelings,” he likes to murmur. “While you’re resting, somewhere at the back of your mind you might consider that the more deeply you relax, the more energized you’ll feel....Learning to relax is a skill that will help you when the pressure’s on....”
If these sentiments sound familiar, that’s because they are—they echo the classic hypnotalk we parroted in the school yard. Herein lies the key, I believe, to the hypnosis renaissance: It isn’t a renaissance. Hypnosis is not what we thought it was. The notion of hypnosis as a technique by which Person A can steal the autonomy of Person B was, with hindsight, of too much value to Hollywood screenwriters for them not to have mounted a campaign to convince us that this was the case.