“When we wish to correct with advantage and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.”
“Words differently arranged have a different meaning, and meanings differently arranged have different effects.”
(Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 9, 23.)
In the summer after my plebe year at West Point, I went to a house party in Charlelottesville, Virginia. During the festivities one of my buddies let it be known that I could hypnotize people. This was met with a very skeptical response which I, of course, took as a challenge.
There were about twenty upper-middle-class DC-area students, ages 19-20, and a side group of 10, high-and-tight-shaven West Point cadets from all parts. When I said, “who wants to be hypnotized”, I had all ears. I told them that through hypnosis I could make anyone see or believe anything I told them. They didn’t believe me.
I selected two of several volunteers to show them what’s what. The one I remember most was a girl, she must have been 19, I think her name was Ann. We sat down at a table and the other college kids gathered around. I walked her through a basic induction that I had learned in high school from my dad’s clinical hypnosis manuals, which he kept in an open dusty box under the stairs.
The induction involved talking to Ann softly, making her aware of her her body by telling her it was becoming heavy, and telling her that I she was uncontrollably falling asleep. There is a lot that cannot be explained about hypnosis, but it seems you cannot tell someone to go into a trance until they have felt what it is like. After they have experienced trance, they often can go back without hesitation.
In inducing the trance, the sleep analogy seems to work well because people know what sleep is, but they also know that you don’t really want them to go to sleep, so telling them to go to sleep points out whatever mental process they need to put their brain in in order to put their mind to sleep, while leaving the rest of their body awake. When they are finally in the trance, their mind begins listening to what I say uncritically. I have no memories of being in a hypnotic trance, although people have tried, I am less susceptible to hypnotic induction than most. Some people can’t be induced.
Once Ann was in the trance state, I told her that I was going to snap her out of the trance, but that she would go back immediately when I told her to. I told her that after she awoke, everything I told her to see, she would actually see, precisely as if it was real. I snapped my fingers.
First, I told her I was giving her a plate of cake. She acted like she was eating cake and described how it tasted. I told her I was giving her a pack of cards to deal, she took the imaginary deck and dealt to the people around the table, naming the non-existent cards as she turned them over. I introduced her to “George” who I told her was sitting in the empty seat next to me. She shook his hand and described him to the group. I told her to go back to sleep. She returned to the trance.
I had told Ann that she would not remember any of the things that she saw when I snapped her out of the trance. I had her wake up and had the audience of party-goers tell her about what she had just seen and done. She adamantly denied everything, which brought on laughter and amazement from the group. I had her return to the trance and then I told her that when she awoke she would remember seeing the things that I had told her to see, but she would recognize that they were not real.
The reason I remember this Ann’s induction was that, after she awoke — although she recognized that the things I told her to see were not real — she refused to believe that I did not have a friend named George. She was certain that she had met this person and she thought I was putting her on by telling her he was not real. This made her the butt of jokes for the rest of the night, when people would say “Hey George” and she would peek around the corner to try to catch the kid that she believed she had shaken hands with.
I have thought quite a bit about that experience, and what was going on in that girl’s head. We know that the vision of man that she saw was entirely formed in her mind, from her own imagination, yet it appeared to her as if the image was coming to her brain from outside of her. I also found out that I could invoke believable visual and auditory hallucinations in a completely sober, sane person simply by talking to them in a certain way.
The experience left a deep impression on me. It affirmed the fact that the mind’s eye is a tricky thing, and that even though it might be reasonable to believe everything you think you see, it not so easy to whether you were actually quite delusional. I realized that it is almost impossible to stop fooling ourselves.
In many ways this was the most important thing I have ever learned about the human mind and religion. That evening, I came to understand Mormonism more clearly than I ever had before. It was a crucial insight that made me a very successful missionary. It also brought about a certain radical skepticism of all idealism. I recognized that idealism, like hypnotic induction, could control the mind, make it see visions that were not there, and lead it “carefully down to hell” or inspire it to heaven, or occasionally, both at the same time. It was difficult to see any religious language or art as anything more than a particular method of saying “This is God!” I saw Mormonism as a religion that left a man free to trust his own vision in life and God, and to invoke that in others through the power of his peculiar testimony.
I believe if Mormons and other Christians fully come to terms with the facts about the human species that allowed Ann to conjure up the vision of George — the same facts that allow us to conjure up the image of whatever god we choose — it may be possible to more fully unify Christianity and even bring many hardened atheists to Christ.