My breathing starts to slow down as the therapist continues to speak, my limbs feeling heavier and heavier. I have the twin feelings that I’m both very relaxed, and mildly distressed that the hypnotherapist would be rooting around in my essential wiring, and at that exact moment, there was nothing I could do about it.
But let me back up.
When studios want to promote a film, they’ll sometimes send a film journalist or critic the odd knickknack or piece of swag, or if it’s in production, possibly get them out on set during production to see the cast in action. It’s all transparently about having you, the journalist, associate their film with some positive experience. Let’s say it’s a little bit of operant conditioning in advance of a film’s release.
But I don’t think I can recall something quite so outright odd as what Fox was offering prior to this week’s home video release of “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle’s hypnosis thriller “Trance“: they wanted to send me to a hypnotherapist to see what it was like to be put under.
In the film, James McAvoy (“X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “Wanted”) plays Simon, a fine art dealer who requires the help of a hypnotherapist (Rosario Dawson) to recover the lost memory of where he stashed a priceless painting using what is later explained to me as a common regression technique (often used to help people find lost objects or recover lost memories). Fox was setting journalists up with Michele Guzy, the Tarzana, CA-based certified hypnotherapist at the Hypnosis Motivation Institute, who worked with Rosario Dawson on the finer points of her character’s profession in the film–from the differences between stage hypnosis and therapeutic hypnosis, and what is and is not possible in the way hypnosis works in film.
“What we don’t do with regression,” Guzy tells me, “is make you go in to find deep, dark memories.” She says that her practice is about accentuating positive states in the minds of clients. With the Simon character in “Trance,” there’s fear and trauma surrounding the memory of the lost painting, requiring Dawson’s character to use repetition to help him get over the block.
Let me give you a sense of the setting for my session: when you walk into the Hypnosis Motivation Institute, the first thing you’ll notice is all of the signs warning visitors to avoid loud noises and silence their cellphones. The staff at the desk conducts conversations in a low whisper, and there’s no music or TV playing in the waiting area. After a few minutes, I’m taken back to Guzy’s office, where I sit across from her to conduct the interview at her desk. One surprise during the start of the actual session is that she’ll have me sitting upright at the beginning of the therapy, talking me through repeated breathing exercises before ultimately having me recline in a nearby chair. One thing the staff at the HMI want visitors to be very aware of is that their clients are in highly suggestible states in the offices in the back, and that any noise could be disruptive.
When Guzy asked what I wanted from my session, I told her I’d like help with my chronic procrastination. She tells me that my own procrastination is a learned response, where I was once rewarded for waiting until the last minute with success, causing my mind to associate that last-minute stress with focus. “I can go in and rewrite the path associated with that memory,” she promises, saying that neurologically, what she’s doing is changing the associative pathways in the brain.
Guzy describes hypnosis as a stressed state–putting the client in a fight or flight state making them highly suggestible to positive and negative associations. In my case, she would attempt to help me associate flexing my hands and fingers with relaxation and focus–when I felt myself getting distracted in the future, the trigger of flexing my fingers would result in focus.
The weird thing about the experience: Guzy warned me that I’d be wide awake during the entire process, that I would be conscious, and that there would be “thoughts flying in and out of my mind,” but I was unprepared for how conscious I felt. I can clearly recall the experience, I can tell you about the moments where she told me to lift my arm, telling me that it was getting heavier and heavier during the induction (the part of hypnosis you don’t see on TV and in movies since it has the possibility of putting members of the audience under). Half the time, I was worried I was grinning or moving around, but it mostly felt like being very heavy, and very relaxed.
Once I was under, or in the suggestible state of hypnosis, Guzy began a kind of patter related to my procrastination problem, telling me over and over to focus on my breathing (in and out, slow and deep).
It was for me, again, a vulnerable state, but before we started, Guzy said that contrary to what you see in film, the hypnotherapist really can’t put anything in there–he or she can’t necessarily make you a different person or turn you into a trained killer, although the heightened suggestibility could allow them to make something a little fuzzy (it’s why hypnosis isn’t allowed during legal proceedings). Guzy says the kind of deep, mind-altering hypnosis that radically changes a person could be seen in indoctrination and brainwashing: longer-term processes where the subject is made highly suggestible (through some combination of isolation and starvation), but we didn’t have time for her to go all Patty Hearst on me.
Did I come out of the session completely free and clear of my pernicious procrastination? Not quite. I still goof off, although the stretching exercise is calming and I enjoy doing it prior to starting a writing project.
“Trance” is out on Blu-ray and DVD now.