Entrancing performance by hypnotist wows students at SLHS Winterfest event - but is it all more than an act?
In front of over 600 students packed into one side of the Storm Lake High School gymnasium bleachers, Nick Kurtz became the most famous man in show business, Elvis Presley.
Shaking his hips and talking in the famous Memphis drawl of the King of Graceland, Kurtz raised his guitar high in the air, gave his best effort at familiar Elvis songs and acknowledged the legions of fans sitting in a crowded concert hall in Tennessee that were trying to reach out their hands to touch his bejeweled attire and have them say "hey, baby" to them.
Of course, the guitar was only a long pink balloon, the legion of fans were sitting on gray metallic chairs placed on a hardwood floor and Kurtz was oblivious to the fact that he was performing only for students and faculty at Storm Lake High.
Kurtz was one of nearly 15 students at SLHS who were hypnotized by world-traveling performer John-Ivan Palmer during a 75-minute show Thursday afternoon, and the pupils performed a variety of skits and acts for the audience, ranging from translating English for the King of the Cannibals to riding a purple balloon in a style similar to the Lone Ranger.
Palmer, who has been in the stage hypnotism business since the early 1970s, performs about 200 shows a year, including 50 at high schools and colleges. While many of his shows are for adult audiences at nightclubs and corporate events, Palmer said he visits approximately 50 high schools and colleges each year, and said the level of participation and enthusiasm for his show is greatest at the scholastic level.
"School-age kids are definitely more willing to participate," Palmer said. "They'll kill each other to get up there. With adult shows, you have to persuade people to get up there. As far as reactions go, though, they're really about the same in each case."
Palmer, who bills himself as the world's fastest hypnotist, began learning about hypnosis while studying experimental psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, and began giving lectures on the subject in 1970.
Those lectures quickly turned into a stage act, and the son of a vaudeville escape artist has earned his living from hypnotism ever since.
Many of his early gigs were in small nightclubs around the country, and Palmer soon learned he would need to be able to hypnotize people quickly in order to keep his career alive.
"I had to learn how to do hypnotism fast, because in night clubs you need to keep the show moving," Palmer said. "You can't afford to wait five minutes while people get hypnotized, because then you tend to lose the audience right away. The nightclubs are really where the speed element to this got started for me."
The hypnotist of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Palmer is based in Minneapolis, and now travels worldwide, performing for diverse audiences ranging from Fortune 500 companies such as Gateway Computers to officers of the Missouri Highway Patrol.
While numerous stage hypnotists such as Palmer travel across the country and perform for thousands of people every year, the topic of hypnotism is still not fully understood by scientists and researchers, who disagree about how hypnotism, which is taken from the Greek word meaning sleep, "hypnos," works in respect to the human mind.
"The whole subject of hypnotism is really controversial," Buena Vista University Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Robert Blodgett said. "There are a number of different theories about why people become hypnotized.
"One of those theories centers around the idea that people become hypnotized when they play the role of being hypnotized, and says that nothing changes consciously at all for the person," Blodgett continued. "Other theories suggest that there are changes in the levels of consciousness when people become hypnotized. There's simply mixed opinions about this, because it's not understood very well."
One of the reasons for the uncertainty concerning issues such as the state of consciousness in hypnotized persons is the scattered amount of research that has been done on the topic, which Blodgett said has not been able to conclusively confirm any of the theories involving hypnotism today.
"There's evidence from brainwave studies that have been done that little changes in the brain when a person is under hypnosis," Blodgett said. "There is also some research that shows that people who are more susceptible to becoming hypnotized have more frontal lobe activity, but again, it's not really very well understood."
Blodgett, a certified hypnotist, said hypnotism was kept in the public eye for many years in the past by stage performers like Palmer, who kept audiences entertained with the antics of their mesmerized subjects on stage.
However, unlike some forms of professional hypnotism, which have been recognized as having some benefits for reduction of pain for some patients, Blodgett said stage hypnotism has a much higher level of theatrical flair involved in the entire process.
"With stage hypnotists, there's a lot more stage dynamics that factor into it," Blodgett said. "Stage hypnotists select people that give signs that they are susceptible to becoming hypnotized, because with group dynamics, there are a lot of expectations of enjoyment from the audience.
"People who say 'yes' to working with stage hypnotists know they're going to do foolish things," Blodgett continued. "They're very willing to come out there and do that, and that's exactly what the stage hypnotists have as their advantage. It doesn't do any good for the stage hypnotist or for the audience to have people up there who don't want to be hypnotized, so people who the hypnotist can see want to be hypnotized are selected for the show."
While students such as Kurtz and Kristen Kirkholm, who played the role of the screaming female Elvis fanatic during the Thursday afternoon show, appeared to easily fall under the spell of Palmer, Blodgett said that gives stage hypnotists more credit than they deserve, as no one can be forced to fall into a level of hypnosis by anyone.
"I personally think anyone who has the idea that anyone can make someone else be hypnotized maintains a belief in the power of hypnosis that simply doesn't exist," Blodgett said. "All hypnosis is self-hypnosis in the sense that a person has to be willing to be hypnotized. You can't make someone be hypnotized. They have to want to do that."
Although many stage hypnotists claim that they will also be able to help improve the memory of those that are under hypnosis, Blodgett said the idea of hypnosis helping people remember past events is simply a false one.
"Memory improvement under hypnosis is an illusion," Blodgett said. "It simply doesn't occur. The research suggests that memory can become even more distorted if you use hypnosis, and it certainly suggests that memory retrieval isn't reliable with hypnosis.
"There is no videotape of memory that you can go back and play," Blodgett continued. "Memory is all reconstructive. To say that hypnotists can make people go back in time and perfectly retrieve memory is bogus."
Blodgett said professional hypnotism has been shown to improve the quality of repetitive behaviors, such as shooting a basketball straight or kicking a ball into a net.
"One can rehearse behaviors that might be athletic or can imagine doing something over and over in their mind," Blodgett said. "That's just like guided imagery, and that's legit. Apparently there are processes going on within the brain that may help a person learn various connections."
Palmer said he will continue to repeat his role as a stage hypnotist entertaining audiences for many more years, and said he will keep meeting Elvis in high school gyms in the future.
"I really couldn't imagine doing anything else."