And sleep

Spent most of today at Infosec, a big trade show for the computer security industry. Did I learn anything particularly interesting about computer security? Not really. Did I learn about some techniques for hypnotising people? Oddly, yes.

The most interesting has to be the handshake interrupt (page includes some good videos of Derren Brown using the method). Apparently – and I say this because I haven’t tried it, and nor do I intend to – it’s possible to put some people into a kind of trance fairly quickly by making as if to shake their hand and then, while their brain is on a sort of autopilot (take hand, shake up and down, let go) doing something unexpected. Something unexpected such as lifting their hand up to their face where it blocks their field of view, for example, or dropping to your knees (this is the “shoelace interrupt”). At this point, supposedly, one can issue a command with some probability that the other party will obey it. Clever. And a little disturbing.

I should point out really that I’m not a big believer in hypnosis. Or rather I believe that you can make people behave as if they’re hypnotised, but that this is merely a decision on their part to, for whatever reason, do what you say. Whether or not this is a meaningful distinction, or even just a view based on a misconception of what hypnotism is, I’m not sure. Would I volunteer to go on stage and behave like a gibbon under the instruction of a stage hypnotist? No. Do I think hypnotism could help rid me of bad habits (like, say, drinking roughly a bathtub of coffee each day)? No. If someone suddenly grabbed my hand, shoved it in my face and told me to sleep, would I obey? Maybe. Who knows. Don’t intend to find out. But, like a lot of these subjects (NLP, cold reading etc) it’s somewhat fascinating.

5 responses to “And sleep”

  1. SimonEdwards says:

    How come you encountered this technique at Infosec? Was it a presentation about social engineering or similar?

  2. Tom Royal says:

    It was indeed exactly that – one of the early Thursday sessions up on the first floor. Went along hoping there’d be some newsworthy quotes, and as it turned out it was very interesting.

  3. I’m a hypnotherapist, and I have to say I’m a little skeptical about these “street hypnosis” techniques – it seems to me that the mark would have to be very unaware to be affected.

    What you’re describing as your view of hypnosis is called the “social compliance” theory, and it’s one of several competing theories about what hypnosis is. (Like any other area of study, it has rival schools of thought. Human nature.)

    There’s some evidence against the social compliance explanation (or at least, against it being the sole explanation), in the form of brain scan studies which show that highly-hypnotizable people can have the operation of their brains actually changed under hypnosis. There’s a website called which has a lot of good material on such stuff.

    And, of course, I’m going to claim that hypnotherapy can indeed help people to change their habits, because that’s what I do. But I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t see it working.

  4. Tom Royal says:

    Hi Mike – thanks for your comment. Will have a look at the website you recommended, as it’s certainly an interesting subject.
    By the way – just out of interest, do you find that all the people who come to you can be successfully hypnotised, or is it only a subset of them?

  5. Ah, that’s another big controversy in the field.

    The weaselly answer is that theoretically everyone can be hypnotized, since hypnosis is a natural state and is similar or identical to the state that everyone passes through twice a day on the way in and out of sleep.

    The more straightforward answer is that for every given therapist, there will be people who, in the clinical setting with that therapist, will not be able to relax enough or suspend their critical faculty enough to enter the state. (Whether it’s a “state” or not is another big debate, but I’m not going to go into that.)

    So yes, I have had people come to me who I haven’t been able to hypnotize. That’s not to say that another therapist might not be able to do so. Rapport between the therapist and the client is an important element of the whole process.

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