If mom or dad ever kissed your boo-boo, you've experienced a healing suggestion while in an altered state of consciousness -- pain.
That's the essence of emergency hypnosis, a technique Munhall hypnotherapist John Weir hopes to popularize among Pittsburgh's medical personnel. Better known as verbal first-aid, the idea is to start the mind healing with positive words at the same time the body is being bandaged.
When pain puts the brain in a kind of trance, the reassuring words of EMS workers, firemen and others can be an aid in themselves, says Weir, 25. The technique is not widely used, but it's been part of the training offered physicians' assistants in California and state police in Michigan. Weir hopes it catches on here.
"Our words could either end a life or save a life," he says. "I am a firm believer in that."
While such an idea is unproven, words can penetrate even the unconscious mind and have an influence. Anyone who has ever incorporated talk from the clock radio's alarm into an early morning dream can attest to that. Surgeons, Weir says, are now told to watch their bedside manner: Even an anesthetized patient can be affected by stray talk while slit open.
"People are looking for an authority figure to come and guide them," Weir says of the injured at an accident or crime scene. "'We are here to help you.' 'Your body is healing.' 'We know exactly how to help.' When you start talking positively to people, it can make all the difference."
Riding with an ambulance crew, I once watched them revive an old man who had fallen dead in his garden. It was like a scene out of The Godfather, but instead of Italian, they were speaking the Latinate of modern-day medicine -- CPR techniques, breathing apparatus, drugs and their dosages. I don't know how any other words would have helped.
But having once been hypnotized, I can see how it might reach even those in trauma. Entering my single hypnosis session believing I would be tough to take down, I went under without a fuss.
Hypnotherapy has had a hard time separating itself from hypnotism's image as either entertaining or evil. Weir's own introduction to the art came in 2001, when he saw his sister, whom he describes as "petite," lying rigid between two chairs while a stage hypnotist stood on her back.
"If it was anybody but my sister, I would have discredited it right there," Weir says. Instead, she told him afterwards, "'I feel better than when I came up'" on stage, he says. And, he marvels, she felt no pain.
"I saw my future," Weir says today
A short while later, Weir reports, he attended a local motivational seminar where in just 15 minutes, a hypnotist cured him of the urge to keep smoking. "It was like divine intervention," Weir says.
Still, there is nothing mystical about hypnotism. The suggestions Weir instills in people work because his clients are really being told to take control of their own lives.
"Suggestibility isn't gullibility," he emphasizes -- stage shows and Manchurian Candidates notwithstanding. Instead, accepting suggestions means achieving change by choice.
"All hypnosis is self-hypnosis," Weir adds. "The person being hypnotized is actually in complete control."
Being hypnotized felt like giving up control -- but not to the hypnotist. It felt as if another, less cautious part of me had been allowed to the fore temporarily.
Because I was hypnotized in the course of reporting a story, I videotaped the whole thing, but I needn't have bothered. When it was done, I remembered it all: from going down for the count to waking up with my hand in the air, held aloft by an imaginary balloon, until the hypnotherapist "snipped" it from me. I knew there was no balloon there. I knew I could move that arm down without permission. I just didn't want to.
Weir hopes the local medical establishment is open to teaching emergency hypnosis to its frontline workers; he'll seek to demonstrate his skills in local hospitals in the coming months. He also wishes academic institutions would begin offering hypnotherapy degrees, to help legitimize the practice in the eyes of more people.
"We've got the greatest computer between our ears," Weir says. "Now we're figuring out the user manual."