What power lies in words? To what extent
are we influenced by language? Can our behaviours and realities be shaped by
the phrases we hear and speak? Or is language a mere tool in the mind’s hand,
with no special status beyond its use in communicating ideas and instructions
from one person to another?
To examine this issue, we will look at a
particular phenomenon that is rooted in language, namely hypnosis. This has
been a contentious area in science for reasons too numerous to mention, but
part of the problem may be the underlying assumption that the word defines a
single phenomena, rather than a collection of separate but related phenomena.
For example, stage hypnosis and therapeutic hypnosis while putatively related,
appear as if they are mediated by very different factors. Stage hypnosis may be
principally governed by what might be called social compliance, which we can
relate to the famous Milgram experiment; the key factors here are obedience to
authority and the desire to comply in a social context (peer pressure). Since
what we are interested in here are the effects of language, I will not discuss
Therapeutic hypnosis, more commonly
referred to as hypnotherapy, may also have other aspects influencing its effect
beyond the linguistic, but it is clear from observation of the techniques used
that language is critical to its application. Perhaps the definitive study of
this field was conducted by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, and published in
the seminal work Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson,
M.D. What is especially valuable about this book is that no theoretical
model is advanced: it records solely observations of the recurring patterns,
regarding the formation of a theory as a task for the future.
Milton Erickson was the founder of the
American Society for Clinical Hypnosis, and a member of several distinguished
psychiatric and psychological societies. His hypnotic technique was based upon
co-operation with the subject. Indeed, although it is possible for someone to
be unknowingly or even unwillingly hypnotised, it is generally regarded as impossible
to effect by hypnosis something that the subject would not themselves want
(although it may be possible, perhaps by application of social compliance
factors or otherwise, to alter what the subject wants – these issues are largely
As an example of Erickson’s technique, whereas classical hypnosis might use obedience to induce a trance state – “you are going into a trance” – Erickson would say something more open, such as “you are going to comfortably learn how to go into a trance.” The keywords comfortably learn change the meaning of the sentence: it is no longer a command (which could be resisted), but phrased as an opportunity. In effect, the subject is given ownership of their involvement in the process – they are a partner.
Detailed discussion of Erickson’s technique
is beyond the scope of this piece, but in brief, a state of rapport is achieved
between the hypnotherapist and the subject through various synchronising
methods (that is, a trance state is induced). Confusion is also used to
distract the conscious mind. The use of ambiguous words, subtle insertions of
words that are out of place, endless sentences or pattern interruptions are
used to incite a transderivational search – that is, inducing the subject to
attempt to instantiate a meaning for a sentence which cannot be directly interpreted.
Consider these examples:
- “And those thoughts you had yesterday…” causes the subject to search their memory for something that fits this context.
- “The many colours fruit can be…” initiates a search, however, brief, for what is asked.
- “Penny wise and pound the table dance to the beat of a different drummer” combines clichés and stock phrases in an unexpected fashion to force the subject to reconcile the discrepancies.
If one watches the performance of a
hypnotist such as Derren Brown who does not conceal the trance induction
elements of his work, similar methods can be clearly observed. Brown’s work
(which is geared towards entertainment) is particularly interesting for his
opportunistic exploitation of natural trance states that occur when one’s
current task does not require full attention – driving a long stretch of road,
working a repetitive job and so forth. For instance, people walking around a
Once a suitable state is induced, a hypnotherapist using Erickson’s method creates intentionally ambiguous statements, which cannot directly be interpreted as commands (which could be resisted). The subject naturally seeks to apply these statements to themselves, and in doing so they instantiate themselves into this context. Because this happens effectively under the control of the subject, the results are more effective than simple commands. For instance: “You will not be afraid of flying” is unlikely to have an effect. Consider a more Erickson-esque statement such as “When you come to a decision to board a plane, you may find it pleasing how your feelings have changed.” In this way, opportunities for behavioural change are introduced, using language as the transforming element.
Neither is this the full extent of the
clinical uses of hypnosis: deep trance states induced by hypnotic techniques
have been used as an effective alternative to anaesthesia in both dentistry and
surgery. These cases, now both widespread and widely documented, are something
of an embarrassment to certain twentieth century Skeptics, many of whom
remained adamant that hypnosis was not a real phenomena. Indeed, Richard
Bandler, who conducted the aforementioned study of Erickson’s technique has
stated that he became interested in hypnosis when people insisted to him that
“it’s not real, and its bad.” He figured that anything that could manage
that feat was worthy of investigation.
(I would like to tangentially note at this point that it is essential in terming hypnotic-style phrases to avoid negations. The hypnotic effect of a phrase such as “don’t touch this” is solely the imperative portion of the sentence i.e. “touch this.” This warning is perhaps most especially important for parents in dealing with their children, many of whom have found that instructing their kids “don’t…” has precisely the opposite effect).
The purpose of exploring hypnosis is to demonstrate in a specific context the sheer power that words have over our conscious and unconscious lives. We have already seen how Wittgenstein’s notion of a language game leads to the idea that our personal realities are demarcated by our use of language. Much of what we consider real (or otherwise) is determined by processes that take place in what I have (fancifully) called the applications layer of the the human operating system. In this way, words have quite literally the power to shape our behaviours and our realities.
An example of this in practice can be seen
in Bandler and Grindler’s work (along with Gregory Bateson) in what they termed
‘neuro-linguistic programming’. Not intended to be interpreted as science, NLP
as it is generally referred to, is a ragtag collection of self-help techniques
which draw upon hypnotic techniques from Erickson and others to bring about
changes in attitude and behaviour. These methods can be effective, although by
their very nature they rely on the commitment of the practitioner to achieve
Similar parallels can be drawn with much older techniques, such as verbal ‘magical’ formulas, mantras and even prayer. Setting aside the metaphysical aspects of these practices (which should not be ignored, but are beyond the scope of this piece), the repetition of sentences can have a dramatic effect on an individual. The Lord’s Prayer in Christianity, as well as being an act of worship, is phrased to induce an attitude of forgiveness (an especial Christian virtue) in one who recites it. Similar examples can be found in other religious practices.
Secular examples can be found in both advertising and politics (although the latter strays into the related but separate issue of social compliance). Through story telling and repetition of specific phrases, the advertiser hopes to influence their subjects towards specific purchasing behaviours. Since watching television can induce a natural trance state, this form is arguably the most effective. It is not that individuals cannot resist such attempts, but the sheer scale of the effects of advertising, especially when well-known figures are co-opted as spokespeople thus engendering immediate trust, seems staggering.
And in politics, the use of specific
phrases can have similarly radical effects. Consider, for instance, how the
characterisation of the enforcement of the prohibition against certain
substances as a “war on drugs” arguably facilitated the gradual erosion of
certain liberties, especially those provided in the
Words have power over us, but in return we have power over words. It is our choice how we use them, and equally our choice how we comprehend them. Through this power to affect our understanding of what a word means, we in turn exercise a power over ourselves, our societies and our world. It is a gift to be treated with care and respect, and a force to effect change far beyond that of violence. As Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote:
True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself a nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Cæsars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!
The opening image is Passion by William H. Miller, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.