I am on stage facing a sold-out crowd at the Washington, D.C., comedy club the Improv. Normally, a predicament like this would have me longing instead to be hiding in a cave in Tora Bora, listening for the 101st Airborne. But I couldn't be more relaxed—even though I don't have one minute's worth of material.
I am one of 20 volunteers from the audience who are trying to be sent into a trance by comedian/hypnotist Flip Orley, the goal being to make utter fools of ourselves. It's a mission I've become familiar with since starting the Human Guinea Pig column, in which I undertake jobs, hobbies, and therapies that people wish someone else would try for them. This month I am seeing if hypnosis can cure one of my problems. But before I invested in a real doctor, I decided, for the price of a cover charge, to test just how hypnotizable I was.
Flip starts the hypnosis by having us look at a twirling crystal. Next he tells us our legs are getting heavy, our arms are getting heavy, and our eyes are getting heavy. I am aware of how heavy the young woman next to me is, since about 90 seconds into the induction she fell against my shoulder and hasn't moved. Flip says that even if we don't feel hypnotized, that doesn't mean we aren't. By that standard I'm probably hypnotized, because I certainly don't feel it. Then he gives us a suggestion. He says our minds are completely blank—so blank that when he snaps his fingers and gets us out of the trance, we won't know our own names.
For the twentysomethings on stage, getting so wasted you don't know your own name is a rite of passage. But I'm a fortysomething, and Flip's suggestion has set off a three-alarm neurological fire. "Emily, Emily, Emily," I say to myself, as though warding off the day when I actually can't come up with it. Flip has us open our eyes and goes up and down the two rows asking for names. The girl next to me gives him a sweet smile and shrugs her shoulders; 12 others don't have the vaguest idea of who they are. I tell him my name, and those of us still in possession of our faculties are ushered off the stage.
After the show, I consult Flip about my failure to go under. "It shows I can't manipulate people against their will," he explains. "If a suggestion doesn't work for you, you won't do it." I haven't proved I'm not hypnotizable. I've just proved I don't want to experience early-onset Alzheimer's.
My goal in undertaking hypnosis is to try to break my lifelong habit of going to bed late. Really late. I barely completed requirements for my major in college because I wouldn't take a class that met before 11 a.m. People constantly greet me with, "You look so tired." My husband, another night owl, and I regularly turn out the lights at 1:30 a.m. This would be fine if we had a gig at the Improv. But he has a day job, and we have an 8-year-old who has to get to elementary school.
To find a hypnotist I went to the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis Web site, made a list of local practitioners, and started calling. One told me that she could treat me if I had "phobias, warts, or irritable bowel" and suggested I just start going to bed earlier. Another told me she could treat me but the first session would cost $300 and the next six to 12 would be $165 each. I imagined my editor's reaction to those fees: "Just start going to bed earlier." One said he'd never treated such a problem but thought that if I sincerely wanted to get to bed, then two or three sessions, at $100 each, would be effective.
I liked his attitude, I liked his price, and I liked his accent. He sounded Austrian to me, and the modern story of hypnosis is deeply Austrian.
Throughout history, societies and religions have used trancelike states. But the Austrian Franz Mesmer, an 18th-century physician, is credited with starting the field of hypnosis. Mesmer (yes, mesmerize is an eponym) was the Dr. Phil of his day; people flocked to him for his amazing cures. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Mesmer believed he had the gift of "animal magnetism"—a fluid he could transfer to others to heal them. Today, of course, transferring your fluids to your patients will get your license revoked, and Mesmer roused suspicions even in his own time. Other physicians resented his success, and in Paris, where Mesmer practiced, a commission of distinguished people (including Ben Franklin) was brought in to investigate. They concluded Mesmer was a quack, and hypnotism fell into disfavor. But like sexual abstinence for young people, hypnosis is constantly being revived, if never fully accepted. In the 19th century another Austrian physician, Sigmund Freud, traveled to Paris to see the hypnotic treatments performed by Jean-Martin Charcot. Freud began hypnotizing his patients; his method was to put his hands on their foreheads and bark orders to go into a trance. This met with mixed success, and he soon abandoned hypnosis for free association.
Today hypnosis (which comes from the Greek, "hypnos," for sleep) is enjoying something of a revival. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal described how hospitals are using it to speed healing and help relieve pain. The National Institutes of Health has a clinical trial to see if hypnosis can reduce the need for sedatives during some treatments for tumors. New imaging technology is allowing researchers to see what happens to the brain during hypnosis. In one recent study, people looked at a grid of gray dots and were told to imagine the dots were in color; when they were then hypnotized and told the gray dots actually were in color, there was increased blood flow in a different part of the brain. This still doesn't tell us what happens during hypnosis, but the researchers say it shows that something is.