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Are you suggestible?

Suggestion is the very essence of hypnosis (and, therefore, hypnotherapy). Hypnosis is no more – and no less – than one person offering suggestions, usually verbal suggestions, to another. In hypnotherapy, suggestions serve two purposes. Firstly, they are used to induce (and deepen) a state of hypnosis. Secondly, suggestions are formulated and offered to help solve a person’s problem or to help them achieve something, whether it be giving up smoking, losing weight, developing confidence, enhancing performance, or many other such issues.

Suggestions may be divided into two categories (though they often overlap):

i. Direct suggestion. This is usually a direct statement, such as “you are becoming more and more relaxed” or “you no longer have any need or desire to smoke”. Hypnotherapists, of whatever theoretical orientation, will typically use many such statements during a hypnotherapy session.

ii. Indirect suggestion. These are statements, descriptions, images, metaphors etc which do not relate directly to the subject or client but which are formulated to influence the person in some way. For example, the therapist might describe a peaceful, sunlit scene in the hope that the client might also feel some of that peace and tranquillity.

To say that a person is “suggestible” is sometimes taken in a negative way, as if to imply that a person is somehow weak, easily led or persuaded. But the simple fact of the matter is that we are all suggestible, at least to some extent. I would go as far as to say that suggestibility is part of what makes us human, one of the defining characteristics of a human being.

Before going any further it is important to stress that we are not all suggestible to the same extent. Some are more suggestible than others. Nor is our innate suggestibility something fixed or set in stone. Our levels of suggestibility, at any given time, may depend on many things – our level of health, our state of mind, whether and to what extent we are under the influence of intoxicating substances, and so on. A lot depends upon circumstances. If we are busy, if our brains are fully engaged in some cognitive activity or other, if we are solving problems or keeping up with changes in our immediate environment then we will probably be far less suggestible than when we are resting, calm and content. When we begin to wake up in the morning, when we are neither fully awake nor asleep, then we are highly suggestible. And if you can master the knack of giving yourself suggestions when you are in that state of mind you can achieve results which will amaze you!

Another important point is that while (as I believe) we are all suggestible to some extent there may be times when our suggestibility is very low, or even temporarily almost non-existent. A person in the throes of profound and chronic depression is unlikely to respond to any “normal” therapeutic suggestions offered by a hypnotherapist. (But I wonder if a person in such a condition would respond to negative suggestions? I think it quite likely). People who are extremely drunk or on drugs are also unlikely to respond to the sorts of suggestions offered during a typical hypnotherapy session. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain whether people in such states can respond to suggestions of any kind. And such states of mind are hardly the sort of “normal” conditions under which suggestions would be offered in any formal or therapeutic context.

But, leaving aside extreme conditions and states of mind, is it really true that we are all suggestible? Well – consider what it would be like if we were not suggestible. For a start, music would be meaningless – just organized noise with no power to affect us in any way. We would be able to detect no difference whatsoever between

“I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows”, and

“I know a hill with some herbs growing on it”.

The words “Juliet is the sun” would not be a wonderful metaphor, just a factual error. Works of art would either be pointless copies of objects in the “real” world or otherwise totally devoid of meaning. The beauties of nature would move us no more than a scrapyard or industrial estate. We would resemble Mr Spock the Vulcan rather than a human being.

And if you’re still not convinced, try this thought experiment:

I’ve been very poorly but now I feel prime,
I’ve been out today for the very first time.
I felt like a lad as I walked down the road,
Then I met Old Jones and he said, ‘Well I’m blowed!’
My word you do look queer!
My word you do look queer!
Oh, dear! You look dreadful: you’ve had a near shave,
You look like a man with one foot in the grave.’

The above lines are the beginning of a monologue by the great Stanley Holloway. It tells the story of a man who innocently goes about his business but every person he meets tells him how ill he is looking. Consequently, he starts to feel ill…

So – imagine that you get up in the morning, feeling fine. But the whole world has decided to play a trick on you, or to make you part of a cruel experiment. You are fine and in good health. But your wife / husband / person or people living with you immediately comment on how ill you look. You check in the mirror and you look OK. But you go out in the street and total strangers come up to you and offer to ring for an ambulance. You go to work, or go shopping, and people leap up and tell you to go and see a doctor without delay. By now you’re feeling at the least very anxious. You look in the mirror again and see the anxiety – and you start to look ill. You go to see your doctor. Immediately he or she grabs a telephone and phones the emergency services…

If that were to happen to you, how would you feel? If people you believe in and trust start telling you that you’re seriously ill then I think you would probably become ill, and sooner rather than later. And if you were then let off the hook and told that the whole thing was a hoax then you would feel angry and betrayed. You would feel as if people had tried to hurt or injure you. Unless, of course, you were Mr Spock, in which case you would simply be puzzled but in no way influenced by all the false and negative statements people were suddenly making about your state of health.

As for Stanley Holloway’s character, you’ll be relieved to learn that it all ended happily:

I crawled in the street and I murmured,’I’m done.’
Then up came Old Jenkins and shouted,’By gum!’
‘My word you do look well!
My word you do look well!
You’re looking fine and in the pink!’
I shouted, ‘Am I?… Come and have a drink!
You’ve put new life in me, I’m sounder than a bell.
By gad! There’s life in the old dog yet.
My word I do feel well!’

Suggestibility is a fascinating phenomenon and what I have written so far barely scratches the surface. There have been attempts to explore the phenomenon scientifically and suggestibility “tests” have been devised. When I was learning hypnotherapy – at the National College, many years ago – we were taught some of these tests. I never use these in clinical practice as I’m not comfortable with the idea of a “test” – if a person doesn’t respond then they might think that they have “failed” in some way, which is not the case. But, taken in the right way, such tests can be fun. Here’s one you might like to try:

Chevreul’s Pendulum

Named after the French scientist Michel-Eugene Chevreul, who investigated the phenomenon, Chevreul’s pendulum is simply a small weight on the end of a piece of string or thread which appears to move by the power of the mind alone.

So – get a piece of paper. Draw a vertical line and one at 90 degrees to form a large cross. With a compass, draw a circle from the centre of the cross. You then have a circle divided into four quarters. Hold your pendulum lightly above the centre of the circle – and imagine it moving. Imagine it swinging along the vertical or horizontal axis – imagine it as vividly as you can. Really try to see it in motion! The pendulum will start to move! Try again and imagine it rotating, clockwise or anti-clockwise. The pendulum will rotate.

A party trick? Perhaps. But maybe also a little window into one of the greatest mysteries of the human condition.

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Crawley, Burgess Hill, Haywards Heath, Guildford, Redhill and all parts of WestSussex, East Sussex and Surrey. Contact us today.

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