The story on WCTV’s website says, “Florida police are investigating a high school principal who hypnotized three students who later died.” Several of you sent me a link to the story and asked my opinion on the bullshit quotient.
By way of explaining my credentials, most of you know I once trained to become a hypnotist. The field is fairly shallow, in the sense that an expert wouldn’t know that much more than a person who went through hypnosis training and did some reading on the topic.
Let’s jump right in. Researchers have studied hypnosis to see if it’s possible to make a person act against his best interest in any meaningful way. There has never been a documented case of hypnosis causing a person to hurt himself. But it would be fair to wonder if such a thing can be studied, since a hypnotized subject knows on some level that the researcher isn’t really going to hand him a loaded gun and ask him to blow his brains out. Even a hypnotized subject understands that he’s safe. It’s a tough thing to study in the lab.
Obviously a stage hypnotist can get subjects to do some interesting things on stage, but part of the secret is that in any large group there are always people willing to do just about anything. The illusion for the audience is that the people on stage are as shy as you imagine you might be in that situation. They aren’t.
In my own experience, both as a subject of hypnosis and as a hypnotist, I’ve never seen a hint that hypnosis might be harmful. Contrary to popular understanding, the hypnotized subject is always aware of his situation in exactly the same way you are right now. The difference is that the subconscious shows up at the dance at the same time. Your conscious mind has the option of being somewhat of an observer, like a driver’s ed teacher, while your subconscious causes your arm to feel cold, or whatever the hypnotist suggests. But like a driver’s ed teacher, your conscious mind always has the option of intervening. A subject can snap out of it anytime he wants. Indeed, he is never asleep in any common sense of the word. It’s more of a relaxed state in which the subconscious is less dominated than usual by the conscious mind.
That’s the quick and dirty explanation of what’s happening. I think you could have a debate about whether there is really such a thing as a subconscious mind. It might be more accurate to say that a deeply relaxed mind functions differently than a non-relaxed mind, and in predictable ways, and leave it at that.
Now, about this principal in Florida – I don’t think he is the first hypnotist in the world to discover some sort of hypnotic death spell that accidentally kicks in when he tries to help a point guard increase his free throw percentages.
So how do I explain the coincidence? One word: coincidence. I’ll bet somewhere in the United States is a man who has had a cup of coffee with three people who died within the year. It doesn’t imply causation.
Also, if you sort the world into two groups, with the people who feel their lives are just fine in one group, and the people who think only a hypnotist can help them in the other, I think the latter group might be a bit more suicidal on average. That’s just a guess. The point is that the 75 people who got hypnotized probably aren’t a representative sample of the students.
The wildcard in all of this is whether the principal was using the hypnosis sessions as a smokescreen to get private time with minors. There’s no allegation of the sort, and he reportedly did lots of sessions with adults, so I’m guessing he was just trying to be helpful and it didn’t work out.
When you combine the topics of hypnosis, suicide, children, and the Bible Belt, it’s a perfect storm. There’s no surprise that this story got attention. But my verdict is that death-by-hypnosis is bullshit.