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Not Your Father's Trance State

Hypnosis has entered the mainstream, but don't be alarmed that there's no swinging watch--this is a whole new hypnosis

By M.V. Wood

THERE WAS a little game Carly Batt use to play when she was young. Lying in the dark, trying to fall asleep, Batt would pretend she was bartering with God, deciding which body part she'd give up in exchange for being thin. She'd definitely trade in her left hand. Maybe kids would tease her for not having a hand, but she figured that wouldn't be half as bad as what she was already going through.

As she grew older and started noticing boys, the stakes grew higher. She'd lie there in the dark, imagining herself "slim and sexy, but missing a leg," she says. Then she'd compare that image to what she saw in the mirror. Given the opportunity for such a trade, would she take it? And that's how the game was played, for years and years.

"This is the first time in my life I actually feel good about myself," says 65-year-old Batt of Santa Rosa, who credits Positive Changes not only with helping her to lose weight but also with helping her attain an overall better attitude about life.

Positive Changes is a hypnosis franchise with 82 centers nationwide, including two in the North Bay, in Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park. Patrick Porter, Ph.D., the company's president, bills his business as the "first self-help franchise in the country." He says he's developed an advanced system of hypnosis that helps clients modify their behaviors so they can get what they want out of life. "Change your mind, change your life," one slogan says. That means dealing better with stress, or not smoking, or losing weight or even knocking off a few strokes from the old golf game.

Batt is thrilled with Positive Changes so far, but she adds, "I don't want to get too excited, because, who knows, I might gain all the weight back. I've tried every diet you can imagine, and I've been down that road before.

"When I started OA [Overeaters Anonymous' 12-step program], I was just as thrilled about it as I am now about hypnosis. And I still think OA is wonderful; I learned a lot about myself. But I couldn't keep the weight off. Food was always on my mind, and I had to constantly fight and fight to keep from eating.

"But now, with hypnosis, it's easy. The very first night after I got hypnotized, I didn't want to eat hardly anything. At first, I thought I couldn't eat because I was so nervous, since I had signed up for the program that day, and it was a lot of money for me," Batt says with a laugh, adding that her 18-month plan cost $3,600 (plan prices vary). "But the next day, it was the same thing--and the next day. I just didn't have the appetite I used to. I've probably saved more money on food these past few months than I spent on hypnosis.

"I have to be disciplined and listen to my [hypnosis] tapes," Batt continues. "But I don't have to be disciplined about eating, because I simply don't think about it anymore. I don't want to eat anything that's not good for me. I don't want to overeat. I'm not tempted. It's as if my mind, the way I think about food, has simply changed. It's a miracle."

Feeling Very Sleepy

Batt isn't the only Positive Changes client to offer up such enthusiastic praise for the organization. In fact, the company's ad campaign revolves around client testimonials. Porter says that 40 percent of the franchise's business comes from referrals.

But there are those who call what's going on at Positive Changes by a variety of names, and "miracle" isn't one of them. Detractors of the franchise can generally be divvied up into three camps.

The first group consists of the folks who can't help but wrinkle their noses when they hear the words "hypnosis" and "franchise" lumped together. The combination has the same ring to it as "yoga franchise." (And, yes, there is such a beast. The founder of Bikram yoga--sometimes called "hot yoga"--plans to create a studio franchise at the beginning of 2003.)

The nose wrinklers feel uneasy because, for a while there, we were thinking how nice it is that all these alternative practices such as hypnosis, yoga, herbalism and massage were finally establishing a stronghold in the West. And now, it seems, the West is actually establishing a stronghold on them.

The second camp is wary of claims of hypnotism in general. There is still debate over whether any results following hypnosis can be attributed to something "real" that hypnosis does, or whether hypnosis is a placebo. Patrick O'Reilly, a clinical psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who's also on the board of directors of the Bay Area Skeptics club, points out that there is still controversy over whether a unique state of hypnosis even exists. What's referred to as "hypnosis" could just as easily be called "relaxation," "suggestion," "affirmations" or "prayer," he says.

The largest group of detractors comprises the people who say that only licensed professionals should be allowed to practice hypnosis, and therefore, most of the franchise's hypnotists are not qualified for the job. At Positive Changes, hypnotists undergo a 60-hour training program in addition to any previous education and experience they may have.

The term "licensed hypnotherapist" is sometimes used to refer to licensed professionals such as psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and medical doctors who use hypnosis in conjunction with their work.

There is no such thing as a license for hypnotherapy on its own. In fact, there is no licensure for most complementary therapies. The government is only supposed to require licenses, as needed, to protect citizens from harm. Since most alternative therapies are not legally deemed potentially harmful, they are not licensed. This means citizens have the freedom to choose from an array of treatments. It also means that anyone with any amount of training, or lack thereof, can call himself a "hypnotist" or "hypnotherapist."

Head Games

There have always been battles between licensed professionals and the practitioners of alternative therapies. But with the rising popularity of alternative practices, the battles have been heating up. Alternative practitioners have been feeling particularly vulnerable to attacks because the law governing their work has been so vague.

At the beginning of 2003, Senate Bill 577 will go into effect, providing more security for these practitioners in California. The passage of the bill is good news for hypnotists, says Randal Churchill, president of the American Council of Hypnotist Examiners and director of the Hypnotherapy Training Institute in Santa Rosa.

He says the Medical Practice Act, which prohibits the practice of medicine to anyone who is not a licensed physician, is so broad and vague that, technically, most any alternative health worker could be prosecuted for "practicing medicine without a license," even if there was no claim of harm or irresponsibility against him.

Granted, California has mostly turned a blind eye toward alternative practices, but the threat of being prosecuted and of feeling that there was little solid ground to stand on was having a negative effect on the practitioners, Churchill says. One of those effects was that many practitioners were keeping a low profile and not speaking up when licensed professionals criticized their work.

Much of that criticism "has to do with turf wars," says Tony Madrid, a psychologist who has been teaching hypnosis for more than 30 years. Madrid, who serves as director of the Russian River Counselors in Monte Rio, taught at the University of San Francisco for 25 years.

"Everyone tries to hang on to their little corner of the market," he says. "They say they're the experts and the other group isn't qualified. That way, they can hold on to the market for themselves. It's a fairly standard, traditional way of doing business. But the truth is, a lot of these hypnotists who aren't trained in psychology are very effective in behavioral change."

Madrid says he has little knowledge of Positive Changes specifically, "but I assume they're like any other business. They have to put together a product that's fairly effective in order to stay in business. I imagine that a good percentage of people who go to the franchise get a good deal of benefit from it."

Hypnotists at organizations like Positive Changes are allowed to practice hypnosis to effect behavioral changes, Madrid adds, but they cannot legally work with emotions or personality.

Those lines become blurred when you're working with someone whose behavior, such as excessive drinking or eating, is rooted in psychological or medical problems, says O'Reilly of UCSF. "Just helping them change their behavior isn't the entire story. You have to help them with the underlying cause for the behavior." O'Reilly's doubts are directed not just at unlicensed hypnotists. As mentioned earlier, he is also skeptical about the entire field of hypnosis.

On the other hand, Charles T. Tart, Ph.D., firmly believes that hypnosis is a powerful psychological tool. Tart, a professor emeritus at UC-Davis who is now at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, is also the author of the classic text Altered States of Consciousness.

"The reason for trying to restrict who can do hypnosis is simply that it can be so powerful in some cases," he says. "For example, I have my Swiss Army knife handy, and it's pretty sharp--do you need any surgery? We wisely restrict surgery to specially trained physicians because complications can develop when you go inside someone with powerful tools like knives. Much of the time, a hypnotist, who's inside your mind with a powerful tool, won't run into complications, but if they do, wouldn't you feel better if they were a trained psychologist or psychiatrist instead of someone who'd just had a few lessons in how to hypnotize?"

Power of Suggestion

Like Tart, Porter, the CEO of Positive Changes, also believes in the powers of hypnosis. When Porter was very young, his father was an alcoholic. One day, the elder Porter, a factory worker at a Ralston Purina plant in Michigan, hurt his back. His disability insurance covered hypnosis sessions to help ease the pain. Not only did the hypnosis help with the pain, but Porter also used it to kick alcoholism. The elder Porter was sold on hypnosis and became a hypnotist himself.

"I grew up with hypnosis, so I never wondered whether it actually worked or not, because I could see that it did," Porter says while visiting a franchise in Rohnert Park. He had come to town the night before to give a talk about hypnosis to an audience of about 200 people.

While growing up, Porter helped his father study and record tapes, and he served as a guinea pig when needed. Eventually, he received formal training from Paul Adams, who started Positive Changes in 1961. Adams would later, in 1987, sell the company to his pupil. Following his training, Porter moved to Phoenix and then Denver, because "those were places with a high percentage of smokers, and that's where the business was."

He generated free publicity for his practice by performing hypnosis stage shows. At the end of each show, he would hypnotize the audience, giving members the suggestion that whatever they were thinking and dreaming and hoping for they could actually manifest.

"After one show, a woman came over and told me that she had been following me around, attending all my shows--there was no admission fee--so that she could get the free hypnosis. And that's the way she was losing weight," Porter says.

He continued to study more and more, not only about hypnosis but also about the potential of the human mind and the entire self-help field. Porter learned about neurolinguistics from Richard Bandler, and he took training programs with everyone from Tony Robbins to the Amazing Kreskin. Little by little, he came up with an eclectic mix of self-improvement ideas and techniques.

Psycholinguistics, a term Porter coined, became a cornerstone of his system. According to Porter, hypnosis allows you to talk directly to the unconscious mind, and it's the unconscious that controls habits and behaviors. What the hypnotist says, and how he says it, is crucial.

Psycholinguistics is Porter's prescription for how to talk for optimal results. One example of the many techniques is that everything must be stated in the positive. The mind processes "walk" better than it processes "don't run." Also, the hypnotist's speech should match the client's predominant modality of sensing the world, whether it be auditory, visual or kinesthetic. Some people respond to "I see what you mean," while others can better grasp "I had a feeling that's what you mean."

In 1994, Porter wrote Awaken the Genius: Mind Technology for the 21st Century, and he and his wife traveled cross-country by car to promote it. "The book tour ended in Virginia Beach, so we stayed there to live," Porter says. "We didn't have enough money to go anywhere else."

Porter set up another Positive Changes in Virginia. That's when he started using sound and light equipment.

The "mind machines" are made up of earphones that play a different tone to each ear and goggles that flash a rhythmic red light. At first sight, it looked like a bunch of smoke and mirrors to me--gadgets intended to give off the aura of high technology and science. Yet, after some checking around, it turns out that the machines are well-documented and well-accepted tools for helping people reach a theta state.

Brain waves of varying amplitudes, as recorded by EEG machines, have been labeled as alpha, beta, theta and delta by researchers. Theta waves are associated with hypnosis (as well as with meditation and other very relaxed states). In comparison, beta is our average functioning state; alpha is relaxed; and delta is dreaming. The sound and light machines emit sensory information in the same frequency as theta waves, slowing the active brain down to a theta state.

Porter found that he could use the machines to put clients in a hypnotic state. Then there was little left for him to do beside use his psycholinguistics method to talk to the hypnotized person. From there, Porter quickly figured out he could easily train someone else to do it. So he did. In fact, he trained several people, and his practice grew into a million-dollar-a-year operation. Why stop there? And a franchise was born.

Porter hopes to expand the franchise worldwide. For now, however, the centers are limited to the United States and Canada because foreign languages (even British English) form a barrier to the psycholinguistics part of the program, Porter explains. "Language is so full of nuances and ambiguities that it's hard to be certain we're translating things correctly," he says. "It's taking a little longer than I thought it would, but it's very important that we get it right."

Here's a man who's obviously ambitious and determined, and he's letting translations slow him down. And it's right around this time that my journalistically skeptical brain hits on something: Porter believes in all this. He's not trying to put one over on the gullible public. He believes in psycholinguistics. He believes in the sound and light machines and the special talk going directly to the unconscious. He believes in this entire system. To Porter, his method is not just some marketing ploy, some "new and improved" hypnosis.

"Do you actually use the Positive Changes program yourself?" I ask.

Porter seems a bit surprised by the question.

"Yes, of course."

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From the December 12-18, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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