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  • Writer's pictureDr Hugh Willbourn

CC7 & LSS4 What role is hypnosis playing in these strange times?

I was interviewed on the podcast, “Escape from Lockdown” the other day and told a story about putting someone into an hypnotic trance. I never got back to following up on the significance of hypnosis, so I will do so now, because it plays an important part in these strange days of lockdown and culture wars.

I have long been puzzled by politics. The puzzle can be phrased like this:

“How come so many good and intelligent people continue to believe in causes or ideologies in the face of ongoing evidence of their failings?”

I reviewed Leon Festinger’s outline of the conditions for at least some such beliefs in CC2 but Festinger did not address the drivers of such beliefs. What follows is one possible answer. It requires a journey through three insights:

Firstly, we explore an under-recognised consequence of literacy,

Secondly, we look at the patterns of language used by hypnotherapists,

Thirdly, we see how these two insights point towards a vulnerability in the way we think.


Literacy has brought us fabulous and amazing benefits. Literacy is the basic technology of modern civilisation. The benefits are so obvious and so ubiquitous that it is scarcely noted that literacy also has some drawbacks. These drawbacks are not universal, nor concrete, nor inevitable. They are just tendencies of thought and this vagueness makes them even less easy to see clearly.

It is hard to imagine what thinking was like before literacy but we can get a glimpse of that world in a conversation Alexander Luria recorded in the 1930s with a 22-year old illiterate, Illi-Khodzh, in which he tried to get him to make a definition.

'Try to explain to me what a tree is.'

'Why should I? Everyone knows what a tree is, they don't need me telling them.'

'Still, try and explain it.'

'There are trees here everywhere; you won't find a place that doesn't have trees. So what's the point of my explaining?'

'But some people have never seen trees, so you might have to explain.'

'Okay. You say there are no trees where these people come from. So I'll tell them how we plant beetroots by using seeds, how the root goes into the earth and the leaves come out on top. That's the way we plant a tree, the roots go down...'

Luria notes that this is a description of how to plant a tree, not what a tree is, so he tries again, 'How would you define a tree in two words?'

'In two words ? Apple tree, elm, poplar.'

Luria, ed. Cole, 1976, p.86-7

Illi-Khodzh had no notion of ‘definition.’ To understand tree you point at one. If people have never seen a tree, he tells them how to plant one. Illi-Khodzh and his fellow illiterates did not need definitions (see CC5 & LSS3). To them such abstractions were not necessary, and even foolish. If you did not understand someone’s words you could ask them questions.

Literacy allows us to take out - to abstract - a sentence, and hence its meaning, from the immediate, personal context of speech and releases words into an unbounded medium independent of their creator. The words carry their meaning, but are no longer locked into a specific situation. They move away from the specific and towards the abstract. They gain ambiguity.

Post-modern philosophers were quite right to point out the essential ambiguities of text, but they were quite wrong to deduce from that insight that truth is multiple. The problem lies in language not in reality.

The meaning of a written sentence is not 'inside' the letters of the text. The meaning is like a virtual projection behind the words, rather as one can see an image in a mirror even though the ‘mirror world’ has no physical existence.

If you stand that idea on its head, you could say that the words are a projection into our mundane world from the world of absolute meaning that lies beyond our reach. This notion is Plato’s famous Theory of Forms, and the great classicist, Eric Havelock, proposed that Plato created it because he was, unwittingly, trying to make sense of the impact of literacy on Greek thinking.

The question of the meaning of a written sentence gives rise to abstraction. Once abstractions have arisen we can talk about them, write about them, organise them and group them according to further abstractions and a whole new world of thinking and ideas is created. The abstract thinking that comes to us so naturally now is a function of literacy. It is not an innate feature of our cognition.

Meaning without reference to a particular situation must necessarily be an abstraction. Comprehension at the level of abstraction will always be a less than complete understanding of a particular situation.


The only advert I ever ran as a hypnotherapist read,

“Sort it out with hypnotherapy,” followed by my phone number.

A person with a fear of flying could read it and understand that “it” referred to their problem, a person who had panic attacks could understand that “it” referred to their problem. Whatever the problem was, that little phrase promised to solve it.

“It” is a non-specific reference. Hypnotists use non-specific references often, for example,

“I’d like you to think of a time when you felt blissfully relaxed. Remember the sensations in your body, the temperature, the feelings on your skin and all the sounds and silences around you …”

As you respond to this suggestion you remember a particular time, but I don’t know any of the details. I have just elicited that memory by means of a string of non-specific references.

Some theorists propose that non-specific references trigger a ‘transderivational search’ whereby the mind automatically searches through your experience to find items that fit that non-specific reference. Here, for example, it will search for times you felt relaxed. For example if I say,

“pay attention now to this feeling of relaxation and let all those other sounds and ideas carry on by themselves,”

the word “this” sounds specific, as do “those other sounds and ideas” but they are essentially non-specific. Nevertheless I am guiding your attention towards absorption in the relaxation and away from everything else.

I can use the same technique to craft therapeutic suggestions such as,

“I’d like you to imagine a time in the future when all the things that worry you have been sorted out,”

And we can then go on to explore how you might have arrived at such a time.

A non-specific reference is essentially inclusive: if something might be included then it will be included. It also divides the contents of our awareness into two: that which fits within the reference and everything else.

Non-specific references are hypnotic when they set up a feedback loop which pulls the attention deeper into the experience on which it is focussed, for example,

“I’d like you to notice just how relaxing that relaxation can be and let your attention explore the details and feelings of the most rewarding part of your experience now.”

The power of the hypnotic engagement is enhanced if the focal concept is rewarding and there are compelling external reasons to seek the reward it offers.

A non-specific reference can generate three effects:

i. It can provoke an automatic search through all of a person’s memory and awareness

ii. It can divide experience into two sets: that which fits within the reference and everything else

iii. It can lead into hypnotic feedback loop.


The moment of illumination came when I realised that abstractions are non-specific references. The degree of abstraction and the degree of non-specificity both vary enormously, but at least to some extent all abstractions are necessarily non-specific. At a sufficiently high level an abstraction can work in exactly the same way an hypnotic non-specific reference.

Consider an abstraction like 'safety'. Safety is defined by its opposite; to be safe is to be protected from danger. If I am seeking safety I consider my current situation and my future options and I seek out sources of danger in order to neutralise them. I could choose to accept a certain level of risk, but the more I 'believe in safety' the more I will insist on eliminating risk. The more risk I eliminate the more salient the remaining risks become and the more I will tend to wish to eliminate them too.

This belief in safety can work like a trance-inducing non-specific reference. Every possible danger becomes a danger that must be addressed, so the field of reference is expanded. The world becomes increasingly polarised and divided into ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ places. Actions taken to increase safety generate a rewarding, albeit imprisoning, feedback loop. Eventually the belief in safety becomes a compelling focus of attention which divorces awareness from everyday reality and proportion, and prevents the clear perception of unintended consequences. It becomes a dysfunctional trance.

In the current Covid-19 imbroglio governments and much of the population of the globe are hypnotically focussed on safety in relation to Covid-19. Safety is an abstraction. This focus has warped the perception of risk and healthcare as a whole. It usurps the notion of managing risk and encourages a spurious polarisation between safety and danger without reference to a wider view of non-Covid-19 risks and the dangers created by lockdown.

An ideology is a high-level abstraction. Ideologies are compellingly attractive because they solve a persistent existential problem. As I noted in CC4 & LSS2 humans cannot escape making meaning and making choices and we have no guarantee that our choices are good enough. Consequently anything that that appears to let us know that we are making the right choices is extremely appealing. This emotional driver strongly reinforces the trance.

If you follow the tenets of an ideology it supervenes over all your decision-making. It triggers an ongoing perusal of all your memories and behaviour and divides them into two sets: that which promotes or is congruent with The Cause, and everything else, which by default becomes 'against The Cause.'

Ideologies in the first instance promote an attractive abstraction, such as ‘safety’ or ‘peace’ or ‘equality’, so they develop a positive feedback loop. Conformity to the ideology is rewarding and reinforcing so it begins to function hypnotically. Unfortunately the tenets of the ideology are necessarily fixed and as the world changes and people react to, or game, the ideology its aims, however laudable in the beginning, become less and less fitting to the evolving world. At the same time, the ideologue on the inside of the trance becomes increasingly unable to see things from any other point of view and loses touch with everyday, utilitarian understanding and proportion.

This hypnotic distortion seals off the ideologue from the views of people who disagree with them. Nowadays this sealing and separation is greatly reinforced by the characteristics of the internet, however we do not have time to address internet issues here.

You might object that this is a far-fetched analysis of abstraction. Abstractions are an integral part of our language. If they really have the effect outlined above, it would imply that we are all in and out of some kind of hypnotic state for a great deal of our waking life! And I would reply to your objection,

“Yes, it would, wouldn’t it?”

The more you study hypnosis the more you realise that everyday consciousness is nothing like as conscious as we like to imagine. Artists, mystics and philosophers have been making this point for centuries. William Blake’s “mind forg’d manacles,” G.I. Gurdjieff’s “hypnotic sleep of mankind”, and Martin Heidegger’s references to Dasein as “benommen” all make a similar point. This hypnosis does not require a hypnotist, nor a malevolent conspiracy. It is just built into the way we think. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the greatest 20th Century philosopher in the Anglo-American tradition wrote,

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.”

There is no room for complacency. All of us are perpetually at risk of mistaking abstraction for reality. We may escape briefly, only to realise later, perhaps much later, that our understanding has been caught again in another abstraction.

In everyday usage the word “trance” has connotations of passivity and lack of awareness, however people in the grip of an ideology are neither passive nor unaware. To avoid these inappropriate connotations I use the phrase “cognitive capture” to refer to this abstraction-induced trance.

High-level abstractions, and particularly ideologies, promote cognitive capture. It is not inevitable, nor unavoidable, and it may be partial or intermittent. Even when we are thus caught we are as capable as any others of rationality and may have a broad and wide world view, but in the field of relevance of the abstraction our view is bounded and distorted. In cognitive capture we are unaware of the limitation of our thinking, in the same way that we do not usually see the edge of our own field of vision.

A particularly egregious example of cognitive capture was the application of patient choice and competition to the National Health Service in the UK. The NHS is far from efficient. In the abstract, competition encourages efficiency, lower prices, innovation and the development desirable goods and services, so it would seem that competition would improve the NHS. It did not, because there was no understanding of the unique nature and context of the NHS.

The use of the NHS is almost always a 'distress purchase'. Patients are driven by complex and urgent needs, they have little incentive to shop around and they seek the absolute opposite of choice. They seek guidance and reassurance. It was breathtakingly stupid to consider patients in distress to be akin to savvy shoppers.

Participants in the current culture wars are prone to cognitive capture. Followers of many apparently diverse movements including Governmental safety-ism, Trans-rights and anti-racism, fall into this ideological trap created by the hidden hypnotic grip of abstractions. As a result they divide people into “with us” or “against us” and they are unable to see beyond their self-reinforcing world view. The tragedy is that they thus fail to find the solutions to their problems that lie amid the messy, complex, ever-changing and challenging potential of real life.

Sooner or later, these reflections provoke more questions such as,

“How can we help ourselves, or others, to escape from cognitive capture?”

and beyond that, “If we choose to escape, how will we survive the bitter existential weather unprotected by explanatory abstractions?”

I will explore some ways to address these questions in a subsequent post.

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