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.
My hypnotist, a psychologist I’ll call Dr. Sigmund in honor of his Viennese birth, was a soft-spoken man in his 60s. At our first session we sat opposite each other in reclining chairs as he described how my body would feel pleasantly warm and heavy going into a trance, how I would become largely unaware of my surroundings, how he would give me suggestions to improve my sleep habits, and how he would teach me to hypnotize myself. I was relieved he didn’t mention anything about wiping out my ability to remember my name.
Then he took my sleep history. Had I gone to bed early as a child? No, I was always up late. Didn’t my parents insist on my going to bed? No, they were usually out, and I was in charge of my younger siblings. Had there ever been a period in my life when I got enough sleep? Yes, when I was pregnant. By then our time was up. Dr. Sigmund said I should come back the following week and he would actually hypnotize me. That night I went to bed at 12:30—an improvement. Had he secretly hypnotized me? Could I become the Manchurian Candidate?
The next week we sat in our recliners and Dr. Sigmund began a spiel similar to Flip’s: heavy legs, arms, eyes. No hands on the forehead and shouted commands. After a few minutes, he said in a low, soothing voice that I was now in what is commonly called a trance. I was too polite to say, “Na-ah.” He then said he would count to 10, and as he did I would imagine myself climbing a lovely staircase. I frantically tried to conjure up an appropriate flight of stairs, and no sooner had he said “one” than I found my foot was on the stairway to my grandparents’ apartment.
My grandparents are dead, and the apartment I imagined was one they hadn’t lived in since I was a girl. But there I was, sitting by their bay window watching the sailboats on the Charles River, as I loved to do, smelling the fried eggs my grandmother would make for breakfast. I would swear I was not hypnotized. I was aware of the traffic outside; none of my limbs felt especially heavy. Also, tears were pouring down my cheeks.
Dr. Sigmund started talking about how habits that made sense in childhood often don’t serve us as adults. “You no longer have to be vigilant at night. You don’t have to make sure everything is OK because your parents aren’t home.” I felt a jolt, and I was 12 years old, lying in my bed. It was 2 a.m., and my parents weren’t home, and I was sure they had been killed in a car accident. I lay stiff until I heard the wheels of their car grinding on the gravel below. I remembered the feeling of listening for them night after night after night. “You don’t have to wait for your parents anymore. You can choose a healthy bedtime for yourself,” said Herr Doktor.
Then he said I was in a safe place. I found myself back at my grandparents’, in their terrace garden. He now told me he would count backward from 10, and as he did I would walk down the staircase and come out of my trance. I could have told him I wasn’t in a trance, but as my foot hit the first tread I started sobbing instead. “I don’t want to leave,” I said to myself, looking back at my grandparents as I descended.
As I wiped my tears, Dr. Sigmund asked me if I could tell him what happened. I did, adding that I didn’t think I was hypnotized. He nodded and smiled cryptically. I said it had never occurred to me that my sleep habits were anything more than biological hard-wiring. But how had he known to hit on waiting up for my parents? “It just made sense,” he said. He gave me a tape of the hypnosis session and suggested I play it before bed.
I got to my car, sat, and wept. It was a good thing Flip Orley hadn’t mentioned anything about stairs while I was on stage at the Improv. Still, I was thrilled that even though I was getting old for this, I could blame my parents instead of myself for this bad habit. That night I went to bed at 12:45, too late to start the tape, and had a series of nightmares, in the last of which a hyperventilating maniac was trying to break down the door and attack me. Since I am not a full-time Slate employee, I started wondering how I was going to get them to pay for my inpatient care at a psychiatric facility. I also wondered if there would be a market for my memoir, Pillow of Steel: A Story of Sleep Deprivation.
For the rest of the week I intended to listen to the tape, but every night I was so tired that I couldn’t. My goal was an 11:30 bedtime. I never made it, but I was shaving off hours from the usual 1:30. Several nights I even turned the lights out before midnight. When I finally did play the tape, my tears started flowing as soon as Dr. Sigmund mentioned the staircase. Again it was a night of fitful sleep and horrible dreams. I was starting to think that a mind is a terrible thing to hypnotize.
At the third session I told the doctor about the significant improvement in my sleep habits, but the decline in my mental health every time I listened to the tape. He suggested that after I got up the stairs I should imagine going to the beach. “No stairs!” I pleaded. I knew they would lead to my grandparents. Part of me enjoyed the visits, but I didn’t want to be a girl again. Once was enough.
During the induction he told me to go to a relaxing place, and I did indeed find myself at the beach (even though I would have said I wasn’t hypnotized), at the resort in Puerto Rico we went to last spring. I was holding my daughter’s hand as we snorkeled. I could hear Dr. Sigmund telling me that soon I would be so habituated to going to bed at a reasonable hour, I would wonder how I’d ever done it any other way. When he counted backward from 10, my daughter and I paddled to shore and took off our masks.
The doctor walked me to the door, shook my hand, and wished me luck. I have been doing better on my bedtimes and my dreams have returned to normal. Maybe one night I’ll crack 11:30.
In Human Guinea Pig, I take strange jobs, sample peculiar therapies, pick up odd hobbies, and generally try the activities that my colleagues have always wondered about but don’t have the guts to do themselves. (Can you make money on an Internet get-rich scheme? How about as a street performer? What would a plastic surgeon do to your face? Can anyone be a telephone psychic?)
Is there something you’ve always wanted to do but were too scared or embarrassed to try? Ask the Human Guinea Pig to do it for you. E-mail me your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to many readers for suggesting this assignment.