Freshers’ Week 2008 – Alan Bates – QMU


George Binning

If you have never seen a hypnotist at work before it is easy to assume that hypnotism is some sort of irresistible form of mind control.  Having seen hypnotists on the telly box I had always put hypnotism into the same bracket as voodoo, bluetooth and other types of black magic. However the reality is somewhat different.

By the Wednesday of Freshers’ Week, fatigue was catching up on Freshers and Helpers alike; the late nights were taking their toll, and even the copious amounts of Rockstar being handed out could only do so much to raise spirits. And so Alan Bates, the renowned hypnotist, provided a welcome evening of sedentary entertainment in the Queen Margaret Union.

He started by performing a simple hypnosis experiment on the whole audience, telling us our hands would become inseparably stuck together. This test enabled Bates to extract the ten most suggestible members of the audience to act as his ‘volunteers’ for the rest of the show. It then took about 15 minutes for Bates to coax his volunteers into a fully suggestible state, a stage that is obviously edited from television shows.

A disappointed murmur washed over the audience when he told us that he was not going to humiliate or torture any of his volunteers.

Fortunately I was not susceptible to Mr Bates’ mind games; otherwise my recollection might have been limited to the beginning and end of the show. When told that my hands were glued together, I had no desire to open my hands, but I also thought, if my hands really are stuck together I might as well have a go at pulling them apart. Lo and behold, they opened quite easily.

It seems that this simple decision to open my hands was the point at which the spell unravelled – although I was very willing to be hypnotised, I definitely wasn’t going to help Bates out. I expected to be possessed, not just persuaded.

The rest of the show panned out as you might expect, Bates making the volunteers believe they were Martians, that they were glued to their seats, or that their shoe was a phone and they were talking to their favourite celebrity. There was a particularly funny moment when the hypnotised subjects were told that Alan Bates was going to lift his head clean from his shoulders, provoking a pleasingly horrified reaction from the entranced few on stage.

Although these stunts most certainly gave the appearance of a Jedi mind trick, my mind was filling with doubt, where previously there had been none. The problem was that I might have fallen under his spell at the start of the show, but had instead, without much difficulty, decided to unclasp my hands – and that was all. And so over the course of the show, it became my firm belief that hypnotism only worked with a certain willingness in the volunteer to play along with the hypnotist.

Speaking to the volunteers after the show proved interesting. All of Alan Bates’ subjects were very confused about their experience at the end of the performance. Almost all them had no recollection of the show and felt as though they had been asleep for a long time; one said he felt as though he had just come out of a yoga class.

Volunteer Grant Gallacher was a strange case: a light smoker, originally sceptical of the power of hypnotism, he was told that he should give up smoking and maintains, at the time of writing, that he has not smoked since. A few of the volunteers’ friends said, in the nicest possible way, that they weren’t surprised their friend had been so open to manipulation, though I didn’t want to question exactly what they meant by that.

It was clear that everyone who had been on stage had been under a spell of sorts. However, I put the question to the volunteers, “Had you fallen over while your hands were stuck together, could you have put your hands out to break your fall?” With some difficulty most of them said yes.

This to me was the killer question – how inseparable were their hands really? It occurred to me that the pressure of being on stage might have been another factor in coercing the subjects into playing along.

Alan Bates put on an excellent show – perfect for that time of the week – and he told some good jokes and pulled off some excellent feats of mind manipulation. Even so, I came away sceptical at the potency of the power of suggestion. It seemed as though hypnotism was only successful if the subjects were willing to do a fair bit of the work for themselves.

Perhaps I’m just disappointed that it didn’t work on me, or perhaps my understanding of hypnotism has been unduly influenced by the movies, but my understanding of the practice has changed to something less romantic, and I note, somewhat regretfully, that I have managed to write a whole review without using the phrase ‘mesmerizing performance”.