Hypnosis, therapy… and magic

By William C. Wester II, Ed.D.
January 15, 2014

Hypnosis, therapy ... and magicHypnosis is an altered state of consciousness, awareness or perception. Hypnosis is a state in which the person’s conscious and subconscious mind is focused and receptive to suggestion. Hypnosis is not magic!

However, let’s look at the relationship between hypnosis and magic in clinical practice even if the clinician does not do formal hypnosis. Many clinicians use indirect hypnotic techniques without really being aware of what they are doing.

So much of what happens during hypnosis and magic has to do with communication and semantics. Have you ever found yourself saying things to your patients like, “And you begin to wonder when…”, “And you will be surprised at…”, “And I’d like to have you discover…”, “You already know how to…” “Have you begun to notice that yet?” “I wonder if you’ve ever noticed…” “And would you be willing to experience…” “It may be that you’ll enjoy…” and finally “In an interesting way, you’ll discover….” As comparisons are made, think about your practice and your patients.

The power of suggestion

In many ways I have been talking about the power of suggestion. What we say and how we say it has a direct impact on the subconscious. We give positive feedback to our patients and this is a form of suggestion just as the magician says, “Magicians have rabbits and when I pull one out of the air this will be the best rabbit you have ever seen.” The real skill in hypnosis is learning how to utilize appropriate suggestion consistent with the patients’ motivations and goals.

Positive thinking

One of the first things I learned in hypnosis is the phrase, “It will happen … It is happening … It has happened.”

In practice we set goals (which carries the message of it will happen), we reinforce progress in therapy (it is happening) and we use a variety of positive phrases when therapy terminates (it has happened.) The magician constantly is saying that this is what is going to happen with this trick followed by, during the trick, “Wow! The silk has changed colors,” and ending with. “Isn’t that great how the colors have changed?”

Be confident and competent

Neither the hypnotherapist, therapist nor magician would come back from a conference and say, “I attended a workshop last weekend and learned some new things that we MIGHT TRY.” The therapist must ethically be competent before using any new skill, and the magician and hypnotherapist must practice, practice, practice.


There is a type of mystery with hypnosis, magic and patients wondering what the therapeutic process is going to be like.

People want to believe

This all has to do with motivation and rapport. Individuals come to therapy because most patients want help and many have been recommended to you by someone they trust. If you specialize in an area like hypnosis, the expectation is even higher. I told my graduate students that many of my patients were already in a partial trance when they came to see me because of my reputation. In the case of magic, people want to believe that something very magical is going to happen. This can be utilized to the magician’s benefit.

Art of misdirection and distraction

Remember that the subconscious is very powerful. In therapy, we have patients think of 10 point scales for pain, anxiety etc. We use a variety of techniques to alter their thinking, change their behavior or further explore what past subconscious areas need to be explored.

In both therapy and magic we utilize paradox and many indirect suggestions. Paradox, story telling with lots of indirect suggestions are essential to effectively using hypnosis.

I clearly remember one child I worked with in the ER who was having an asthma attack. There was no time for a formal hypnotic procedure so I started by telling him that this was the best asthma attack I had ever seen. I then asked him if he could make it worse (imagine the look on his face and I am sure he thought I was a crazy doctor). I then said if he can’t make it worse perhaps he could make it better.

In the meantime, I had put my arm on his shoulder and tried to mimic his attack. I started to slow my breathing and he followed the cue. Within a few moments the asthma attack was over. Now was the time to teach him some things he could do using self hypnosis if he had an asthma attack in the future. Distraction and misdirection are constantly used in magic combined with suggestions. Watch the hands, body movements and forms of distractions, such as a puff of smoke, when the magician performs.

Seeing, hearing, feeling with the imagination

In therapy, we have our patients remember the good times etc. For example, if you work with couples you might ask what their relationship was like during their first year of marriage. For most this will bring back lots of positive memories, feelings and images. In hypnosis, patients are asked to go to a favorite place or to get an image of their honeymoon in Hawaii or whatever is appropriate and consistent with their goals.

Patients are asked to experience the image with all senses, including how things feel, smell, sound etc. Children are great hypnotic subjects because they don’t come to therapy with all of the myths and misconceptions that adults usually have and can utilize their creative imagination. In magic, the magician wants to tap into what people see, hear and feel as the other magical techniques continue.

Finally, dress and act professionally

Magicians are at their best when they create a character for themselves. My character is Dr. Magic and I dress in all black with a white lab coat, fairly large name tag and a funky tie to match the occasion. Never put people down and it’s OK to make fun of yourself if necessary. Magicians make mistakes all the time and just keep going. Most spectators don’t even catch the errors. In therapy, with and without hypnosis, we might also miss a cue or say something we did not want to say. Just move on and don’t worry about it unless your patient mentions the error.

I hope this article gave you just a few ideas about how hypnosis, therapy and magic overlap. There are many more areas I could mention. I have been fortunate in my practice to integrate the three. If you work with kids, keep a few cheap tricks in your desk so when Johnny comes in and tells you he does not have to talk with you (as he covers his eyes with his hands) just say. “That’s OK, but it will be hard to see the magic marble with your hands over your eyes.” The rest is history!

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