Benny Hinn is a popular Israeli-born televangelist who is now in his mid-sixties. He purports to channel the Holy Spirit and uses it in his ministry to heal a variety of ailments. In last week's show, we listened to a fragment of Hinn's performance as he set about 'healing' a young gay man. We also heard counter arguments from the stage hypnotist, Derren Brown, who tried to debunk Faith Healing phenomena, by attempting to replicate them. He said they were all fraudulent. These two programmes have come about because I accepted an invitation extended to me by the South African Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, better known as the CRL Commission, to participate in a dialogue of theirs that is trying to understand: (1) Does hypnotherapy exist? (2) How is it manifested? (3) Is there a logical explanation between religion and hypnotherapy? (4) Are the incidents or cases reported that we see, religious or just mere hypnotism? And, (5) Is there any magic in all this?
We learned from our previous show, that the trance phenomenon is not magical and has been part of the human experience as far back as we can trace it. Some people slip into trance through trauma, as a side-effect of drugs, as entry into and out of sleep, and also by suggestion. Trance is an integral part of mystical and religious rituals like Hindu fire walks, shamanic incantations and certain forms of tribal dancing. Hypnosis on the other hand, while hard to define, is a state of mind that is quite easy to induce. Let's explore this a little closer.
My preferred definition of hypnosis is this single-sentence explanation: "Hypnosis is an altered state of mind where conscious criticism is bypassed, leaving the subject more susceptible to suggestion." It neatly hints at the core characteristics of hypnotic trance, like: fragile consciousness, poor voluntary action, sleep-like states, catalepsy, heightened suggestibility, detachment from surroundings and extreme dissociation.
A few important prerequisites need to be in place before a hypnotist can induce hypnosis in another person: There must be rapport and trust between a hypnotist and the subject. The hypnotist must also get the subject's permission to be hypnotised, commonly referred to in hypnosis jargon as consent, not in the shallow form of, 'May I hypnotise you?', that's not enough, but as a deep subconscious willingness to be hypnotised. Inducing hypnotic trance is unlikely to occur in the absence of these prerequisites and this explains why certain people are more hypnotisable than others. What follows the establishment of the prerequisites are: acquired skill and practiced delivery. This is referred to as the art of induction.
Induction has two parts: indirection and selective-thinking. Indirection forces the subject to go inwards, in search of meaning and context because no such reference exists in the external world. Just the words, "What are you feeling right now?" forces your mind to direct inwardly in search of the answer. The word 'feeling' is part of a hypnotist's repertoire of linguistic bridges and language patterns that are commonly referred to as hypnospeak. There are many, many ways to bypass the subject's critical faculty — that part of your conscious mind that tries to guard against hyper-suggestibility and manipulation. Having misdirected the subject's attention by inducing stress, overloading the senses or by creating conscious confusion, the hypnotist offers the subject an inwardly satisfying escape path, typically characterised by the use of the word, 'sleep.' Selective-thinking comprises a set of suggestions, delivered verbally or by gesture, that locks a person in trance. We term it 'selective-thinking' because it focusses the subject's mind on a very narrow and select band of thought. There are two types of inductions: gradual and snap. A snap induction is hypnosis jargon meaning that it takes only a few seconds to induce deep trance. Derren Brown explains how this works. He selects a subject from the audience, in this case, a young IT professional by the name of John, and leads him to the centre of the circular stage. John is one of about a hundred attendees at this demonstration. Expectation runs high in the room as Derren extends his hand to introduce himself to John:
Listen to the podcast to hear it.
Let's unpack what really happened here. Rapport and consent, our two prerequisites for trance induction, were already established. Derren Brown is a popular TV host and stage performer who has an impressive presence on the stage. Brown is authoritative and has hypnotised many hundreds of people. There's no reason for John to doubt Derren. John, by agreeing to stand up and walk to the stage, had already given his tacit agreement to be hypnotised by Brown. Derren didn't need to ask John for permission. John was not a random choice — far from — Derren, like any other hypnotist working with a group of people, would have surveyed the room, looking for highly suggestible subjects because they would be the ones more likely to comply — which makes for a good show of course! Having surreptitiously made his choice, Brown singles John out, points at him and invites him onto the stage. This makes John cautiously nervous, knowing what's about to happen next. Full of apprehension and expectation, John reaches out to shake Derren's hand in greeting. The handshake occurs in a normal way but for one clever exception, Derren doesn't let go of John's hand but holds onto it in an unexpected way. John, his brain now overloaded, doesn't know how to respond. He's subconsciously flummoxed. This is the moment when Derren steps in, offering John an escape plan — 'sleep.' John's subconscious mind accepts the suggestion and shuts him down. He collapses to the floor where he lies motionless. Derren compounds the suggestion by repeating it a few times. John is now in a deep hypnotic trance.
Testing people's suggestibility is easy to do. Here's a little demonstration that you can follow right now — well, not unless you are doing something dangerous that requires your full attention. Rub the palms of your hands together and feel the warmth this generates … now keep palms together, dropping your elbows and bringing your hands up comfortably in front of your face, as if you were praying … interlace your fingers so that each hand tightly grasps the other … unfold your two index fingers to form a tiny steeple (they are the fingers next to your thumbs) … now create a small gap between the fingertips, just wide enough to hold an imaginary pencil … look deeply into that empty space and ask yourself what it contains … is it just air or is there energy flowing across the gap … now, with all your might, try and keep the gap from closing … try really hard but you'll notice, that the harder you try to prevent close the gap, the easier it gets to close it … the gap just wants to close because it's easy to close the gap yet you have to try much, much harder to defy this urge to close it and notice the amount of concentration and energy it takes to defy the urge to close it now … your effort keeps increasing the harder you try.
The outcome is different for everyone. You might have been able to keep the gap open between your fingertips or you might not have. I stuffed many hypnotic suggestions into what I said and I drew heavily on the Eight Hypnotic Rules of the Mind, which we discussed in Soul Searching Episode 29 of this show. Whether the gap stayed open or closed depends on how suggestible you are.
I think we can safely answer one more of the CRL Commission's questions, "How is it [hypnosis] manifested?" The conclusion is that hypnotic trance and its induction are nothing more than a tested technique in the skilled hands of a hypnotist. The majority of us are hypnotisable, to one degree or another. The only thing that prevents you from going into trance is if you had a creepy feeling about the hypnotist or if you had some deep-seated reservations about being in trance.
Now let's see if we can answer another one of the questions posed by the CRL Commission, "Are the incidents or cases reported that we see religious or just mere hypnotism?"
None of us can vouch for the workings of the Holy Spirit, that's just unprovable. It takes faith and not proof to hold onto this belief. James Randi is nearly ninety years old. He is a Canadian-American retired stage magician and a scientific sceptic who spent much of his time challenging paranormal and pseudoscientific claims. Peter Popoff, now in his seventies, is a German-born American who is a self-proclaimed prophet, who conducted revival meetings and hosted evangelical programmes televised nationally, during which he performed seemingly miraculous cures on audience members. James Randi attended one of these meetings, accompanied by an electronics expert:
Listen to the podcast to hear it.
After the expert demonstrated that Popoff was receiving information, fed to him by his wife via a wireless radio transmitter, Popoff declared bankruptcy the following year but soon resumed his faith healing sessions despite being exposed again, a decade or so later. Researcher and bioethics expert Fred M. Frohock said, "[there are] many egregious instances of fake healing" and Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation said, "Most of these guys are fooled by their own theology." But this is not what the CRL Commission is asking. They want to know if there is a connection between these religious phenomena and hypnosis. Let's therefore, unpack the Benny Hinn example and look for signs of hypnotic induction and suggestion. Here's the scene again. There is drama in the arena that is packed to capacity, the sound of what's happening on the stage is turned up loudly, there's a full orchestra and choir that provides live background music, the tone of which follows the mood of what's happening. Hinn dresses only in white and is the only person on the stage that dresses this way. He is easily seen and the colour white is the colour of perfection. The psychological meaning of white is purity, innocence, wholeness and completion. It's a fitting colour for a man of God. Hinn masterfully works the crowd as he sends wave upon wave of Holy Spirit out into the audience, as if sowing seeds on fertile ground. The crowd responds, people fall backwards creating ripples of falling bodies that propagate into the audience, like the ripples of a stone crossing a pond. Steven, a young gay man is led to the stage by one of Hinn's helpers, a burly man dressed in a dark suit, looking more like a body-guard than a helper. The young man is overwrought with grief. Another helper moves in to offer further assistance. Steven cries openly, his sins revealed before the congregation and God. Hinn speaks gently at first, reassuring him that Jesus is present and ready to heal him, then with thunderous voice, Hinn yells out just one word, "Touch!" as he simultaneously sends a burst of Holy Spirit upon Steven, as though he was chucking a handful of seed over him. This knocks Steven off his feet and he falls to the ground, motionless. The audience gasp in amazement. Many mumble praises to the Lord. Some hold their hands up high, palms upwards, as if hoping to catch a little of the falling Holy Spirit that they believe rains down on them. Hinn impeccably brings Steven's healing to conclusion by dramatically casting the gay-demon out of him. This is not an isolated demonstration but is core to Hinn's worldwide ministry.
It's easy to tease this perfectly-executed hypnotic induction apart, revealing the elements that make it so hypnotic. Any stage hypnotist knows that it is easier to hypnotise one person and not so easy to simultaneously hypnotise a room full of them. So, the hypnotist begins to work the room, herding people's subconscious minds in order to get them to act in unison. If the hypnotist can synchronise an individual's actions with those of the group, then he/she is left working with only person and not many. The room becomes a single person if you get all the people to act as one. Please remember that we can't prove or disprove Hinn's channelling of the Holy Spirit so there still is a possibility that what the audience experiences are the true workings of the Holy Spirit. However, I wish to focus more on the theatrical performance as it is here where we find clues to the cunning use of hypnosis. Hinn masterfully works the room. He soon gets them to behave in unison. He fuels people's expectations. He's loud and in their face. He has a commanding presence and they believe that he is a channel for the Holy Spirit. The audience saw Hinn's Faith Healings many times before and they are programmed to the gestures he uses. They believe that Holy Spirit flows through his hands to them and Hinn capitalises on this belief, showering the audience with abundant Spirit. There are a couple of interesting bits of psychology at play here. One of the Rules of the Mind, described in Episode 29, states that, "What is expected, tends to be realised." There is a lot of expectation in Hinn's arena — they all want Divine Healing. Then there is the herd-instinct, better described as, "the instinct or urge to be one of a group and to conform to its standards of conduct and opinion." None of us like being an outlier. We find strength and support by integrating with the people around us. We readily conform to the trends and opinions of the group, to be liked and accepted there. If fifty previous people fell down when Hinn dramatically casts Holy Spirit from his hands, then the next subject is (a) expecting to fall down and will do so because of the Rule of the Mind, and (b) will conform to the behaviour of the group because that's what the herd-instinct does to one. Hinn rests assuredly knowing that very few people would challenge his suggestions.
The electrifying, loud and in-your-face ambiance helps overload the senses and when the critical faculty is bypassed, trance is easily induced. Hinn doesn't have to worry about the prerequisites of rapport and consent because that's already a given. There may be a few sceptics in the room but Hinn's cameras never focus on them. Before any Healing occurs, Hinn would no doubt have suggested that people who wanted healing, gather in the large space between the stage and the front row of seats. The young gay man would most probably have walked down to the front row on his own volition, hoping to be selected by one of Hinn's burly helpers. Again, the profound expectation in the subject's minds cannot be ignored. They are there in the front of the arena, not to prove Hinn wrong, but to get God's blessing. These are willing subjects, primed and ready to go into trance at the slightest suggestion. As Hinn waves his hand at them, he instantly induces trance with suggestions like, "Take!" and "Feed!" What else are you expected to do other than fall down with everyone else. The young man wasn't a random choice. He was handpicked by one of the helpers. I have no clue as to their skill at identifying the best subject but, given the slick rehearsal of Hinn's show, there is no doubt in my mind that they do have these skills. The careful screening easily bypasses those who might want to test Hinn. Just like John, the subject in Derren Brown's snap-induction demonstration, Steven, the gay man, has his senses overloaded. He is emotional, embarrassed by his 'sinfulness' and he is primed and triggered to fall into trance. It only takes a commanding delivery of the word 'touch' to convince the guy that he has indeed been touched by the Holy Spirit. As expected, he falls to the ground. Hinn offers his confused mind an exit — a dramatic one, we know — by expelling the 'homosexual demon' within him. Most of these subjects go back home and we will never know whether their Healing has longevity or not. Is the young man sustainably 'cured' of his homosexuality or not? We might never know…
Given the facts presented in these two Episodes of Soul Searching, about hypnosis and its induction process, what do you believe? Is Faith Healing an elaborate scam using hypnosis or is it genuinely the workings of the Holy Spirit?