Is it possible to hypnotise an entire nation? The truth may surprise you.
My mission in life is to help people overcome the emotional and psychological challenges they face in their lives.
Sometimes – often, in fact – the origins of the problems I treat lie buried deep in the past and it takes years of training and experience I have to help my clients meet and address them.
But my training wasn’t always just limited to therapeutic practice. Once upon a time, I also trained in stage hypnosis. I did it because i was curious about the different aspects of the master tool that is hypnosis.
And while the practical applications of both disciplines are obviously and necessarily different, they do also share some common ground.
For example, they both bypass the conscious to access the subconscious. In stage hypnosis the purpose of that is to entertain; in hypnotherapy its purpose is to heal.
This bypass technique is most commonly applied to one person at a time. Almost exclusively so in hypnotherapy. In stage hypnosis it may involve a handful of people – think Derren Brown.
But crucially, it’s just as effective in bypassing the collective consciousness – which is why the concept of hypnotising an entire group of people, or even a whole nation, is not just the stuff of science fiction.
So how would that work? Well, to understand that we need first to understand the difference between the subconscious and the conscious.
Most of us probably define these two sides of the psychological coin as the ‘thinking mind’ and the ‘unthinking mind’. As shorthand goes, that’s pretty much on the money. But a little more science is required to properly appreciate how different they really are.
The subconscious vs the conscious
Of the two minds, the subconscious is by far the most powerful, able to overwhelm and suppress the conscious at will in order to keep you safe.
It is the inner sentry on the watchtower of your mind, constantly scanning the horizon for any threat and always quick to prioritise your safety over your happiness at the first sign of trouble.
When your subconscious decides you are at psychological or physical risk, it will trigger emotional and physical responses to alert you to the danger it perceives you’re facing.
What this means is that if your subconscious interprets something you consciously want to do as a threat, it will do everything it can to ensure you find it difficult or impossible to do it.
As an example of this, take a look at this New York Times video of what happens to people who were prepared to jump into a swimming pool from a 10m (30ft) diving board when asked to.
Your subconscious is also your dominant emotional centre. It is irrational and illogical because it is emotional, and emotional is more powerful than rationalisation and logic. That’s why a panic attack is all-consuming and defies any sort of rationalisation.
Your subconscious generalises. What this means is that it will apply your experience of one thing to every similar thing.
You had severe turbulence on a flight from Corfu when you were 10? Not only will your subconscious turn every subsequent flight into a potential air disaster, it may also make you super cautious about any form of travel.
Perhaps most importantly, your subconscious mind has no concept of time. What happened 30 years ago feels like yesterday (or even five minutes ago) to your subconscious. So, the old saying that time’s a great healer holds no sway with your subconscious mind.
This is why so many adults find themselves dealing with experiences or events that happened in childhood. The subconscious never forgets.
That’s all very interesting, but what does it have to do with hypnotising a nation?
The answer, of course, is everything. And in the pandemic we have a very recent example of how our conscious mind can be bypassed relatively easily and quickly.
And why wouldn’t it be? After all, all the ingredients the subconscious needs to overwhelm the conscious have been right there, haven’t they?
When it comes to fear triggers to activate the inner sentry, you can’t get much bigger or effective than a pandemic that is linked to the deaths of a million people worldwide, right?
So, with that inner sentry now on high alert, all our emotional responses have been activated and fear has the perfect environment in which to overwhelm logic and rational thought.
Almost overnight, and certainly at the point when Boris Johnson put the UK into lockdown, people – even those we loved – became a potential source of contagion, illness and even loss of life.
Children, already deprived of socialising norms and isolated on screens, were told to stay away from elderly relatives in a constant barrage of public health fear messaging that might just as well have said to them: if you go and see your grandma, you might kill her.
If, as I do, we define hypnosis as ‘subconscious dominance’ – the point at which the subconscious and not the logical conscious is in charge – then it’s not hard to see the process of mass hypnosis in action, even at that early stage.
This represents unresolved trauma – an unexpected or unwanted event – which, left unaddressed, has a massive psychological impact because it risks creating the belief that ‘I am not safe’.
And because the subconscious doesn’t understand the concept of time, this innate sense of being in danger becomes a constant companion, infecting that individual’s life until it is addressed and resolved.
Hypnosis requires the subconscious mind to be activated and made dominant through high emotion, confusion or imagination. Therefore, I would argue, trauma is itself a very powerful form of hypnosis.
Once the subconscious mind is activated it becomes a fertile ground in which to seed belief and action through subliminal messaging and commands, because these are much more likely to elicit a specific (or required) response from someone who is living in their subconscious rather than conscious mind.
Which brings us on to ethics.
In stage hypnosis activating the subconscious mind with emotion would be unethical. Instead, we would use what’s known as a ‘pattern interrupt’.
Pattern interrupt is the use of unexpected or surprising responses or behaviours to trigger confusion.
For example, in the Western world we’re conditioned to respond to a handshake. But if someone responds to our offer of a handshake in a surprising or extraordinary way, we become temporarily disconcerted or bewildered.
In that window of pattern interrupt a command from a trained hypnotist – think Derren Brown’s ‘sleep’ command – can be given.
If we go back to March 2020 and our uniquely new experience of life in a pandemic, with more or less everyone thrown into fear, shock, confusion, we have a state of full nationwide subconscious activation and dominance.
It’s the ultimate pattern interrupt, and it’s immediately followed by an incessant slew of commands: STAY SAFE, SOCIAL DISTANCE, DON’T KILL GRANNY, STAY HOME, SAVE LIVES, WASH YOUR HANDS, MASK UP, USE HAND SANITISER, DON’T PANIC BUY, ONE IN ONE OUT … and so it goes on.
The hypnotist in question – HM Government – spent a lot of money ensuring these commands were heard. Billions of pounds, in fact – on PPE, bounce back loans, furlough and, crucially, eye-wateringly expensive advertising campaigns that cost exponentially more than the combined Government ad spend for the previous two years.
In 1957 William Sargent’s book Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brain-Washing looked at how the mind is capable of adapting extraordinarily rapidly to changing world views and conventions.
The principle of this is probably best represented in the Pavlov’s Dogs study, in which Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov trained his two dogs to associate the ringing of a bell with food – so much so, that the animals eventually came to salivate furiously when a bell rang, even if no food was offered.
Ultimately humanity’s continued existence as a species is fundamentally predicated on this ability to adapt. Without it, mankind would never have become the ‘intelligent’ apex predator it is today and would almost certainly have been hunted to extinction long before we left our caves.
It’s not surprising, then, to see the correlation between Sargent’s research and our propensity to respond unthinkingly – or subconsciously – to inferred changes in culture or self-security.
Cognitive dissonance has never been more prevalent than the last two years. The phrase ‘social distancing’ is in itself is a form cognitive dissonance in which ‘social’ equates to safety and ‘distance’ equates to danger (as pack animals we feel safe when connected with other and unsafe when distanced).
‘Physical distancing’ would have been far less emotive and just as accurate. Yet the messaging of the time was deliberately emotive and designed to elicit a specific response.
Trauma bonds are in many ways the most potent hypnosis. Stockholm Syndrome – in which hostages begin to empathise with their captors – are the ultimate example of trauma bonds.
They are created when our physical and emotional wellbeing – food, shelter etc. – is reliant on someone who claims to have our best interests at heart, even when they don’t. Trauma bonds are notoriously difficult to escape.
Trauma bonding happens when an abuser provides the survivor with intermittent rewards and punishments. As a result, a psychological conditioning develops, the survivor becomes snared into the relationship, ever hopeful of the next reward and a reprieve from the suffering.
This is, in effect, the relationship we had with our government: for two years we were effectively the victim of a mass trauma bond – hostages in our own homes or subjected to restrictions from which we were constantly promised respite and release.
Three months to flatten the curve, vaccines as the exit strategy, 15 million jabs to freedom, eat out to help out, we won’t cancel Christmas, children will go back to school in January … a never-ending stream of rewards that were either less than what was promised or didn’t materialise at all.
Techniques for hypnotising a nation
Conspiracy theories during the pandemic have hardly been in short supply, and some are more ‘out there’ than others; but there has still been noticeable evidence of the use of modified hypnosis and NLP techniques by the government in its interactions with the public.
Fractionation: encouraging the subject to do the same thing repetitively. The magic number in achieving compliance through fractionation, as in so many things, is 3. The fact we’ve had three lockdowns may well be pure coincidence, but even if it is it will have had some effect in conditioning the national psyche.
Create a ‘Yes’ set: The eliciting of agreement – and therefore compliance – in stages. Often this starts with something small and easy to accept (for example, ‘three weeks to flatten the curve’ – it’s just 21 days … that’s do-able, right?).
Over time, this gradually increases, but the steps from one state of being to another are manageable. Three weeks of lockdown becomes six weeks, which becomes six months. Christmas is cancelled. Vaccines become a moral mandate.
And the more you say yes, the more likely you are to say yes again.
Confusion: Maintain uncertainty. The conscious mind responds to uncertainty by ‘going offline’ as in search of an appropriate response to something it has never experienced before. And when the conscious mind is no longer present, the subconscious steps in.
Between March 2020 and the end of January this year the rules by which we lived were in a state of constant change. Every day is new and no-one – including the Prime Minister of the country, or so he would have us believe – is entirely sure what is allowed and what isn’t anymore.
Repetition: The same messaging and news is repeated over and over and over again. How many days did we wake up to headlines about Covid-related deaths and infections? How often were we given statistic after endless statistic on the efficacy of the vaccines?
Create an illusion of choice: If you want to persuade someone to do something specific that is likely to prove unpalatable, there are two approaches:
You can either enforce it – which is likely to provoke resistance. Or you can offer a choice in which the option you prefer is either marginally less obnoxious than the other or delivers the same desired outcome.
In the case of the pandemic, we were given a choice: either comply willingly, and you’ll be in lockdown and reasonably content; or resist, and you’ll be in lockdown and fairly unhappy.
Social Proof: celebrities are used to endorse or advocate the behaviour the ‘manipulator’ requires. This effectively leverages the trust we place in those occupying the public spotlight and whom we often admire.
Because when James Corden does a song and dance routine on the streets of New York in support of the vaccine, it must be okay …
Scarcity: By suggesting a shortage we create immediate demand. It’s not just the vaccine take up that’s evidence of this, fuelled as it was by a booking system to manage supplies; look, too, at the petrol crisis last autumn when the mere suggestion that forecourts might run dry led to wholesale panic buying at the pumps.
Hypnotising a nation or large groups of people really isn’t all that difficult if you know the levers to pull and the buttons to press.
We’ve seen evidence of it throughout the ages, from the religious zealotry that has fuelled wars, to the cults of America where people lost contact with their families, money and sanity and the suppression of our freedoms over the past two years.
But as we emerge – hopefully – from a long period of mental and physical isolation, we need to be mindful of the toll on our mental health and decide as a society whether it is something we are prepared to tolerate in the future.
The scrupulousness of the current Government is under huge scrutiny at the moment, specifically about its accountability and moral rectitude at a time of huge global crisis during which it wielded powers never before seen in peacetime.
We may have been prepared to be manipulated over the pandemic. But maybe what we really need to ask ourselves is that knowing what we now do, where do we draw the line when it comes to psychological control?