Responsible Hypnosis

Owning your power as an artist and using it for good

I was trained as a hypnotist. I’ve even got a certificate on the wall of my home that dubs me a “master hypnotist.” Over the past couple of decades, I’ve used it to help people sleep better, quit smoking, manage pain, exercise more and eat better, tone down phobias, and a lot more. You learn that there is a subconscious you can connect with in others that has a tenuous connection to the conscious mind. I have experienced it as having a developmental/cognitive age approximately equivalent to the age of someone’s first-recalled memories.

So children in the range of 2 to 6 years old love stories. You may have heard of some readers getting so engaged in a narrative, they have difficulty putting the book down, even when sleep calls. That willing suspension of disbelief when someone hears “once upon a time” (or something similar) is a process similar to hypnosis. We, as artists, use that level of engagement to treat our audiences to a new idea or set of experiences.

With horror writers, we are engaging their fear and disgust, and the readers are treated to a strong emotion and the relief when it’s over that their life could be much worse. With science fiction writers, we are engaging their hope and imagination often. Readers want to lose themselves in a world of possibilities that leave them open to many more in their real lives.

In engaging that vulnerable child inside our audience, we have to be wary of what hypnotists call an “abreaction.” It is functionally the subconscious waking the subject out of trance, because it doesn’t know how to handle the conflict it senses. It’s often an idea or action that doesn’t match one’s fundamental waking values. As writers and other artists, we encounter the same reaction when we make our characters or world untenable with the promise we made our audience at the outset of their experience. It breaks the trance and takes them out of it.

But there are ways around an abreaction, and that’s where we get into ethical murkiness. We can slowly desensitize our audience with little shocks, so that they end up somewhere they wouldn’t have easily gone before. We can create what are sometimes called “daisy chains,” in which we pretend that our fuzzy logic makes sense–to someone who doesn’t know better at that moment:

Flames and smoke are dangerous. Something that is only smoking is not as dangerous. Smoking cigarettes is not very dangerous.

There is an implicit contract when someone opens a book that you wrote. The reader wants to be taken on a journey that will end with greater insight or inspiration. (Or minimally, they want to be entertained, distracted.) You can have an unhappy ending and still fulfill that contract. You can have an unreliable or cruel narrator and still fulfill that contract.

But imagine I have written a piece of dystopian fiction. When I have done it well, it heightens our awareness to corruption and short-sightedness in our lives. If I have done it poorly, it leaves the reader with a feeling of hopelessness and doom. It is demotivating.

I have heard other writers recently talking about how their book might not be appropriate for their family members to read. Or they have decided that I or some other people were definitely not their audience. That sends up a red flag to me. You can have graphic sex and gruesome violence in your story, but it is only if your theme is bleak or pessimistic that you have done a disservice to anyone. If only a limited audience will appreciate your story, then it’s highly likely you are using it as a platform to denigrate those outside your audience.

You take on a great responsibility when you create something for others to consume. Don’t waste that power on pessimism or pettiness. Give your audience a character who overcomes odds, who learns a truth, who thrives in the face of loss and fear. Transform your audience into wiser, braver, more compassionate people.

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