The Power of Words
April 06, 2007
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.
Nice post. I'm fascinated by the power of word over reality... or the perception of reality.
In fact, the act of naming seems to me to be a pretty powerful (and quite masculine) attempt at control which can be used to both good and disastrous effect. There's a pamphlet... excuse me, book I guess, called The Four Agreements which has some nice guidelines for living which includes the concept: Be Impeccable With Your Word. Good advice, no?
Posted by: Corvus | April 06, 2007 at 08:02 PM
Great article diminished only by the fact that Milton Erickson's name is consistently misspelled, which is a shame considering the important of the man not only to the theme of the article but also to the development of modern hypnosis. If this can be corrected after posting the article, please do so!
Posted by: Greg Turner | April 07, 2007 at 01:56 AM
I know a number of people who've been helped quite directly by NLP techniques. It's very interesting to talk to them before and after a session where they've been working on something, and then to come back to the topic (say) a year later - there appears to be a large initial shift, then even with little or no continued effort most of the shift remains. I quite like NLP as a set of techniques, because it is rooted in the practical. Yes, it's a rag-bag (or grab-bag) of techniques, with little or no theoretical linkage; but they work in reality, unlike some of the more fanciful theories. As a skeptic (small s for me please ;-) ) I rather like techniques that work, and will argue about the theory later!
Ref instruction and eschewing negation: this is also taught to teachers. I teach folk dance - I'm a caller. In a ceilidh / barn dance / whatever you want to call it, you are often dealing with over a hundred people, of all ages and intelligences, many of whom are under the influence of alcohol and most of whom have rarely or never done anything similar before. You have five minutes to teach them a social dance where if any one of them gets it wrong, they (mildly) inconvenience a group of 6-20 people. At this point, you *always* tell them what to do. "Go left. Left. LEFT!!Gentleman in the red top - the *other* left!" I learned this approach from my mother, a good caller and trained teacher. She says she was told this at teacher training college, and I was told the same thing when I trained to teach Microsoft certified courses. We both regularly get comments from the dancers that our instructions are unusually clear and easy to follow, and I think always stating the positive form of directions is a large part of that.
Posted by: Peter Crowther | April 07, 2007 at 10:15 AM
Greg: Ack! I had misspelled his name with two s's, and did a search and replace to correct this - only in the replacements, I misspelled his name without the 'c'! :o I have now corrected this and reposted. Thanks for pointing it out!
Corvus: I haven't heard of The Four Agreements before, but it intrigues me... I'll see if I can find a copy.
Peter: I used NLP on myself while I lived in London. At one point, to cure my craving for chocolate, I used NLP to substitute apples for chocolate... The result? A powerful craving for apples. :) I later had to undo the 'edit'.
I've never been formally trained to teach, so it's interesting to see this in the wider field, presumably from pragmatic roots. If you're calling next time A and I are visiting Manchester, we'd love to hear you in action!
Posted by: Chris | April 07, 2007 at 06:21 PM
Leif in two s's, and no room for c
In what later anglicises oppositely.
(Answers on a postcard to [email protected] :D )
Other phrases in the (mostly neo-con) political jargon:
Exploring for energy
War on terror
Shock and awe
Focusing on this small but currently important part of humankind's geo-political history, the Bush administration has consistently fouled up the tasks they have undertaken, but they remain ascendant because they keep winning the war of words.
[That last has a nice ring to it - the War of the Words!]
Posted by: zenBen | April 10, 2007 at 07:48 PM
You refer, I presume, to the famous Norse Explorer whose name was Leifr Eiríksson in Old Norse, but is now rendered Leif Ericson. Apologies for cheating you out of the postcard. ;)
I tried to tread lightly on the politics in this piece, but the phrases you mention are interesting for many different reasons.
Note however that this political phenomena is not exactly new... the Democrats of the 1840s and 1850s used the phrase "Manifest Destiny" to justify the annexation of the Western States, for instance.
Posted by: Chris | April 10, 2007 at 10:07 PM
Great post about hypnosis... ... it's now suggested that the subconscious mind's 'processing power' is a milion times more powerful than the conscious mind. Kind of frightening to think that the autopilot has been programmed by events usually beyond our control. Hypnosis and self hypnosis and even hypnosis recordings can change the way we think.. change your mind change your life :)
And if you're interested in children and their minds,you might check out this site - where parents learn to access their childs subconscious - while they sleep! Brainwashing??
Oh and the use of the word DON"T ! Agreed...
It's frightening to hear parents shouting.. don't CHASE the BALL onto the ROAD!!" (sometime too.. we don't -hehheh- always hear the first word of a sentence, especially when we're concentrating on something else.. like chasing a ball.
Or "don't run with scissors," (WALK when you are carrying scissors!) or "don't let go," (HOLD on tight!)
All the best!
Posted by: David | April 18, 2008 at 10:02 AM
David: thanks for the comments, and the link. I can see why people might think it frightening that the subconscious does the lions share of the work in "running our lives" but on the other hand, just how draining would it be to manage all the autonomic functions consciously? "Breath in, beat heart twice, push left left forward..." It would get old fast. :D
Not at all sure what to make about the link you posted... On the one hand, giving encouraging mantras to your kids while they sleep is a great idea - on the other hand, giving parents the capacity to mess with their kids unconsciousness is quite scary!
Posted by: Chris | April 18, 2008 at 02:16 PM
Great Post! This Post gives me something to think about.
Posted by: Johnathon | June 09, 2008 at 05:00 AM
Thanks for the kind words, Johnathon! Giving people things to think about is something that I greatly enjoy. ;) Best wishes!
Posted by: Chris | June 11, 2008 at 01:28 PM
That's really interesting... I agree that the mind & hypnosis are powerful tools, but there's more truth behind it than people expect.
Posted by: TruthBehindHypnosis.com | July 23, 2008 at 03:23 AM
Winderful to read through this, I studied NLP, Hypnosis and Timeline therapy several years ago and they opened the door on the true power of words for me. Through that door many others became apparent and working with the unconscious and higher self through trance work became an area of real intrigue for me. Largely now I work through meditation, which essentially is self hypnosis, for doing a lot of this work. Though the basis of NLP and hypnosis via Ericksonian and Elman inductions has proved powerful in group situations.
Of additional note is the power of chants or mantras, Om Meditation being a powerful example. Through repetition of certain sounds, sometimes known as sacred sounds, a deep state of trance aimed at a particular state of being or development can be achieved. One from which profound results are possible.
Thanks again for such a great article! Namaste
Posted by: Stephen Frost | May 08, 2010 at 03:00 AM
Stephen: I've unpublished your other comments as I judged them to be largely an exercise of cross-linking your site. This one rather feels that way too, but I've left it up since it at least feels appropriate to the post it appears under, and at least it reads as if it was hand written rather than bot-generated.
Posted by: Chris | May 10, 2010 at 11:22 AM
Very good and informative article on hypnosis. Have heard that some people are capable of hypnotizing others quickly. Is it true? And one more thing, your blog was kind of difficult to understand for me, i don;t know the reason but it was.
Posted by: Helen Ellison | May 30, 2018 at 12:39 PM
It depends what you mean by hypnotising, but in general it is possible to have hypnotic effect just in a single sentence. Such a sentence wouldn't work on everyone, but still...
As for difficult to understand, I write with quite a large lexicon of nomenclature, using long and sometimes obscure words such as 'lexicon' and 'nomenclature' - I suspect that was the problem you had with this post. I have been trying more recently to use a more widely accessibly writing style, so please do check out some of my more recent posts and see if they're easier to read.
Many thanks for stopping by!
Posted by: Chris | May 30, 2018 at 01:41 PM
I am thinking of relational frame theory by Steven Hayes , which is similar but not as elegant as Erickson or Wittgenstein,
Posted by: jerry barclay | November 23, 2022 at 04:27 PM
That came through in the late nineties... I've cut down my psychology reading quite a bit this century, and I'm not specifically familiar with RFT. It seems to me to be primarily an interpretive model, which is no bad thing,
Many thanks for commenting!
Posted by: Chris | November 30, 2022 at 10:33 AM