Monday, October 17, 2005

The Power of Suggestion

The mysterious power of suggestion is the tool of the copywriter (ad writer), the con artist, the preacher, the propagandist, the magician, the hypnotist, and the fiction writer. The copywriter, the con artist, the preacher, and the propagandist or politician or fanatical pied piper use it ultimately to delude or persuade. The magician, the hypnotist, and the fiction writer use it merely to alter the audience's state of consciousness.

Magicians suggest through both words and actions. In fact, they are so good at suggesting through actions that many perform in silence. But the hypnotist and the fiction writer suggest through words. And they use them in the same way.

Hypnotism is the purer, simpler art, so let's see how the hypnotist uses the power of suggestion.

To prepare you, he has you get comfortable in a chair. He has you focus on some attention-getting thing, say, a shiny pocket watch. By doing so, he is not after your focus so much as he is after the other side of that coin — your unawareness of everything but that shiny thing. In other words, he lowers your state of consciousness by getting your brain to filter out 99.9% of what you are seeing, hearing, and feeling — everything except that watch. To hold your focus, he swings that shiny thing. Now he talks.

At first his suggestions just help the watch put you into a trance. He says your eyelids are getting heavy and that you are getting very relaxed. When he sees that you have tuned out everything but the drone of his voice and that nothing short of somebody yelling "Fire!" would rouse you, he knows that he has you in the state of a waking dream. Then he starts to create that dream with his suggestions. "You find yourself near a fountain in a beautiful garden. You feel the warmth of the sun on your skin and hear the wind gently moving among the trees. It is quiet here, with nothing but the sound of the wind and water. You smell the lilacs. It is peaceful here."

Notice the sensory detail. He suggests things to see, hear, feel, smell, taste, and touch. And, like magic, in your imagination you see, hear, feel, smell, taste, and touch them. But he goes farther. He makes this an emotional experience for you. The sensations he suggests contribute to the emotional state he also suggests.

In short, the hypnotist does with words the same thing a fiction writer does with them. The difference is that the hypnotist's story is about you, so that you experience it personally, whereas the fiction writer's story is about somebody else, so that you experience it vicariously. Also, the hypnotist uses the present tense, whereas the fiction writer normally uses the past tense. So, the experience created by the fiction writer is only less immediate than the experience created by the hypnotist.

By using words this way, the hypnotist informs your mind the way the real world does — not by telling, but rather by suggesting sensory and emotional information that induces a sensory and emotional experience. So, instead of telling you that it is spring and lilacs are blooming, he simply suggests that by getting you to smell them. Good fiction writing does the same.

To prepare you, the fiction writer has you get comfortable in a chair. He has you focus on some attention-getting thing — a book in your lap with a story that moves.

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