When people think hypnosis usually one thing comes to mind - Chickens! People being turned into chickens that is. Volunteers being hypnotized to be barnyard animals is a common staple of stage hypnosis shows. So common that it's all most people remember about stage hypnosis. But why chickens and why is it so funny? The reason is actually strangely profound. It may also tell us something about both the nature of hypnosis and dreaming. Sure maybe chickens are comical by themselves but the reason watching your friend being turned into a chicken is funny is because under hypnosis your friend really believes he or she is a chicken. I mean really believes. We all laugh at the guy who is suddenly pecking at the floor or sqawking uncontrollably. That's because he doesn't seem
to know he's a human acting like a chicken. As a stage hypnotist I used to refuse to ever turn people into chickens. I felt it was cliche and perhaps unnecessarily embarrassing for the person. There's a reason Hypnotists turn people into chickens. It's almost always funny. (See video).
However, at a recent private party where people were hypnotized I asked the audience for reasonable requests. I didn't take long for someone to request that someone be turned into a chicken. For some reason I relented. But when I made the suggestion that a volunteer would become a terrific chicken I was quietly amazed. The guy, a young man in his early twenties transformed into a compelling and convincing chicken. He pecked at the couch, he squawked and fidgeted exactly like a real chicken. You couldn't talk to him. He didn't have a name. He was no longer human. He was a chicken. While his friends and relatives rolled on the floor laughing, I thought there's something seriously interesting here.
Later while doing researching a talk for a presentation at TEDXQueens I happened on an explanation.
One of the key theories of hypnosis is that it gets us into the key REM-based self-programming state. This may be the same Rapid Eye Movement state that occurs when we dream. In fact the convincing chicken performance may be a clue that people under hypnosis are in effect, in some kind of waking dream state.
Dreams are both flights of fancy and educational simulations. For examples, studies of cat dreams show they mostly dream about hunting or running away. Similarly humans often dream about real threats or challenges in their environment. But here's the key thing. We believe our dreams while we're dreaming them. If we didn't believe our dreams they simply wouldn't work. If you had a dream you were being chased by huge wolves and you thought this is just a dream I'm not scared, you wouldn't take evasive action. You wouldn't learn how to avoid predators.
To learn from our dreams we must believe they are real. And because hypnosis is in some sense, putting people into a waking dream states, we also believe our hypnotic trances are real. This also may help explain why hypnotherapy can be effective, as the person in trance feels they are having a real experience even though they are just sitting in a chair. At the stage hypnosis show, we all laugh at the silly guy who really believes he's a chicken. But yuk it up, because we are witnessing something truly amazing - the unbridled power and imagination of human dreaming. If that guy can be a chicken he can be anything and go anywhere, in his dreams. And this dreaming in turn likely fires the broad scope of human imagination itself.
That's no chicken you're laughing at. It's the limitless human mind.
Photos from TEXQueens