This is a guide to recreational hypnosis.

This page has some answers to commonly asked questions and should help you start off.

What is hypnosis? And what is hypnotism? How does it feel? How will I know if I’ve hypnotized someone?

Hypnosis and Hypnotism

Hypnosis is an altered mental state. Hypnotism is an activity performed by both hypnotist and subject. This is a subtle distinction, but an important one. Recreational hypnotism is hypnotism practiced by two (or more) people for the purposes of entertainment, rather than for theraputic or clinical purposes.

My personal take is that recreational hypnotism is a ritual social activity, like a dinner party or a date. Like all social rituals, there are expectations and norms of the participants. The hypnotist and the subject play complementary roles in the activity. The hypnotist give suggestions and convincing the subject that they are being hypnotized. The subject focuses on the words of the hypnotist, connecting them to reality.

There are some good descriptions of hypnosis and hypnotism, but if I had one sentence to describe recreational hypnotism:

Recreational hypnotism is a cross between a guided focused attention meditation and a game of Simon Says.

The game of Simon Says is a good model of suggestibility, because the goal is to follow the instruction as fast as possible, but only when preceded by Simon Says. No-one ever fails the first round, but after many rounds of following Simon Says, many people will fail a command that doesn’t begin with Simon Says. They have learned to follow suggestions automatically before they consciously think about it. Even knowing that this is a game with a catch, suggestibility still increases to the point where following a suggestion is so automatic that it must be consciously countered.

This works because activities and thoughts have inertia that lead to unconscious competence. Individual thoughts and one-time activities may not do much, but by repeatedly thinking the same thoughts and repeating the same activities, habits form and start "taking over" from directed conscious thought, typically doing a much better job in the process. This is a central part of how brains think, and we would be helpless to do almost anything if we had to rely on our conscious thoughts and actions to go through the day. As an example, remember what it was like when you first learned to drive — the levers, the lights, checking your mirrors, working out how to parallel park. If you didn’t have unconscious habits managing all of that for you, driving would be impossible.

The interesting thing about using skills that you’ve fully internalized is that it’s a pleasurable experience. Csíkszentmihályi defines a flow state in which a person’s mental state is "fluent" — oriented around an activity to the point where they lose track of all time and are able to focus their minds completely on the task at hand. Many so-called "analytical" / "left-brained" people are in fact in a flow state when they work, completely focused on proving a mathematical theorum or in fixing a software bug. This flow state is the end goal of focused attention meditation, centering the mind around a particular concept or object, such as a candle or the act of breathing.

This brings recreational hypnotism back around to guided meditation. In hypnotism, the goal is to focus the subject’s thoughts around following and accepting the suggestions of the hypnotist, eventually entering a flow state where following suggestions is not only the natural and easy thing to do, but there is no thought of not accepting the suggestions.

What Is It Like Being Hypnotized?

By far the biggest misconception is that "being hypnotized" implies that the subject is sitting there passively, and when you look at hypnotic inductions it may seem like the hypnotist is doing all of the work. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Being hypnotized involves focusing attention and meditating on certain thoughts. It is an exercise of belief, and hypnosis is an internalized fluency of belief.

Engage your imagination. If there’s a suggestion that your eyes feel heavy, believe it and tell your mind yes, your eyes are feeling heavy. As you progress, what you believe and what is reality will start to swap around, and your eyes will actually feel heavy, and that feedback loop between "suggestion → belief → reality" will become stronger and stronger.

What Is It Like To Be Hypnotized?

From a purely psychological perspective, hypnotized people score higher than unhypnotized people on measurements of absorption, suggestibility, and dissociation.

Absorption means that the hypnotized person is focused. Dissociation means that the hypnotized person feels detached. And suggestibility means simply that they are more likely to follow suggestions.

Like all mental states, the subjective experience of hypnosis is individual. For some, it may feel just like being awake and relaxed. For others, it may feel profoundly different from normal mental processing. People may have the experience of wanting to please the hypnotist, or find that everything the hypnotist suggests sounds like a great idea, or feel like they are daydreaming.

All experiences are valid. Some people want the sensation of involuntarily following a suggestion, or feel that they weren’t really hypnotized because they didn’t feel compelled or could override the suggestion. In general, it’s best to treat any hypnotic skill building in the same way that you would build up a meditation practice.

  • Recognize that experiences are individual.

  • Validate what works for you.

  • Recognize that preconceived expectations may be unrealistic and staged.

  • Build up skills based on hard work and practice, rather than immediate enlightenment.

How Do I Know When I’ve Hypnotized Someone?

From the newbie hypnotist’s perspective, it can be difficult to tell what the various words and actions in a hypnotic induction are actually doing. There can be some physical tells involved in hypnosis, but they are subtle and vary by individual. Hypnotic inductions are tragically underresearched, but the one thing you can say about inductions is that they do increase suggestibility. So there is academic agreement that inductions do something.

There is no definition of hypnosis that says who is "really" hypnotized and who is following suggestions because of social expectations and peer pressure. Adding to the confusion is that many people will say that they felt like they were faking it while also having little memory of what happened, or even denying and being surprised by video of the session afterwards.

Again, my take is that recreational hypnotism is a social activity. Whatever the perceived mind state of the hypnotized person is, the role and expectations of the role are still in effect. You can save yourself some time and worry by defining hypnosis as "the activity following the ritual of hypnotic induction." If your partner is invested and involved after the induction, then you’ve hypnotized them. Congratulations.

How Should I Act As A Hypnotist?

There are many preconceptions of how hypnotists should behave. This depends very heavily on the social context, so there isn’t just one way.

Stage hypnotists are working with multiple people and are managing a crowd. They are performing an act for an audience, and must be entertaining above all other considerations.

Street hypnotists must capture and keep the attention of the public that may be doing other things. They must be extroverted, dynamic, and responsive.

In recreational hypnosis, these limitations are not there. Typically, you’ll be at home or in a comfortable and safe environment where you have all the time and attention you need. You don’t need to be entertaining in the same way, and you don’t need to talk nearly as much.

In particular, you don’t need to put on an act. You don’t need to fake confidence you don’t have. You can be honest and emotionally congruent with how you feel in the moment. Some books give the advice that you should not hypnotize friends or family because they "know the real you" and this is just categorically false. You should start with friends and family precisely because they do know the real you.

You do have to learn some skills. Hypnotists generally slow their voices down and speak calmly. Most hypnotists tend to avoid conversational tics that distract the hypnotized person; no uptalk, no joking, no self-deprecation. They are in the driver’s seat, so they tend to state what is going to happen, or provide options to the hypnotized person, rather than ask open-ended questions.

How Should I Behave As A Hypnotist?

Hypnotists care. Hypnotists are always responsible for the hypnotized person. This is something that media portrayal gets very wrong. The media thinks of hypnosis in terms of abused power.

Figure 1. Svengali

Real hypnotists understand that someone who trusts you enough to believe the things you tell them deserve the highest level of responsiblity.

Mr Rogers
Figure 2. Mr Rogers

I’m completely serious. Mr Rogers had a deep understanding of permissive suggestions, and was an expert of persuasion. Meanwhile, Svengali is everything you don’t want to be in a hypnotist.

Imagine that you’re watching television, and Svengali appears on the screen and commands you to cluck like a chicken. Would you?

Now imagine that you’re watching television, and Mr Rogers appears on the screen. There’s a fun game he’d like to play, and you can play along at home. Can you be the best chicken?

For extra credit, you can watch Mr Rogers reduce a sitting senator to tears in less than five minutes.

When you think of how you should act as a hypnotist, ask yourself "What would Mr Rogers do?" and you’ll have an answer.