Relenting on the Parks Report
The Sins of Game Stories

The Power of Words

Passionfinal 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 this further. 

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 tangential). 

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 mall in London were indirectly hypnotised by Brown over the intercom system in order to raise their arms on cue. A large number of the people present did so, then looked around bemused, uncertain as to why they had done so. 

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 anything tangible. 

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 US under the fourth amendment. Many other similar examples can be found, including most heinously the use of political phrases to marginalise or dehumanise a particular groups of the population in certain countries, sometimes as a precursor to genocide as in  Rwanda in 1994.

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. 


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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?

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!

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.

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!

Best wishes!

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
Climate change
War on terror
Homeland security
Shock and awe
Spreading Democracy

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!]

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.

Best wishes!

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!

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!

Best wishes!

Great Post! This Post gives me something to think about.

Thanks for the kind words, Johnathon! Giving people things to think about is something that I greatly enjoy. ;) Best wishes!

That's really interesting... I agree that the mind & hypnosis are powerful tools, but there's more truth behind it than people expect.

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

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.

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.

Hi Helen,
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!


I am thinking of relational frame theory by Steven Hayes , which is similar but not as elegant as Erickson or Wittgenstein,

Hey Jerry,
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!


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