Amy Willows has studied psychology and psychotherapy and is also an original thinker. She challenges the now firmly entrenched notion that a state of hypnosis is central to the explanation of mass formation. This two-part essay is a collaboration between Amy and Rusere Shoniwa to articulate her theory to a wider audience. Part I draws on Amy’s practical and theoretical knowledge of hypnosis to understand how true hypnosis differs from the behaviour exhibited by the mass during the excesses of the response to covid. In part II, an alternative psychological theory is offered as a possible contributory factor in the mass formations of the early 21st century.
Hypnosis, derived from the Greek word hypnos (meaning sleep), is a trance-like state (trance implying semi-conscious) from which the subject eventually ‘awakens’ (awaken implying return to consciousness). This has led those of us who took a rain check on joining the Covid cult to ask, “How do we wake them up?” The answer is you can’t. To understand why, we must appreciate that the key to solving problems is to start by asking the right question. Perhaps we should be asking: are they actually hypnotised?
We, the horrified observers of the formed mass, want to understand the mechanism by which a mass forms, because it’s clear that the collusion of the mass with a more conscious but unscrupulous leadership has catalysed a lurch towards totalitarianism that us old-fashioned freedom lovers are desperate to avoid. The idea of hypnosis as a contributory factor is now firmly embedded in the concept of mass formation.
Drawing on Gustav Le Bon’s work in 1895, Mattias Desmet is unequivocal about the comparison of mass formation with hypnosis: he asserts that the effect of mass formation is not similar to hypnosis; it’s identical. We will explore that claim in this essay. While much of Desmet’s explanation of the mass and its relation to totalitarianism is immensely useful, we should continue to develop our ideas about the mass formation mechanism, which is so vital to understand correctly if we are to effectively oppose the force of the mass.
In Part I of this two-part essay, we will examine hypnosis more closely to understand why it might be an inaccurate premise for the formation of a mass. In Part II, we will consider an alternative analysis of how the most hysterical contingent of the mass have continued to fly in the face of morality and logic for so long.
To the casual observer, the externaleffect of both hypnosis and mass formation appears very similar, and the term ‘hypnosis’ therefore provides a compact and immediately recognisable description of what many of us are witnessing throughout this period of increasing totalitarianism. Colloquially, we say that we were hypnotised when referring to all kinds of situations in which we did not take responsibility, and so perhaps the word is justified in this sense. To understand totalitarianism, however, it is important to appreciate how the experience and process of hypnosis differsfrom mass formation.
If you’ve been hypnotised — in the literal sense — and don’t recognise the description that follows, there may have been something else going on other than hypnosis, and possibly you didn’t completely trust the hypnotist or the situation.
Outwardly, hypnosis and mass formation can seem to involve a focus on a single stimulus, along with suggestibility and a lack of concern for anything else. Besides hypnosis and mass formation, this outward appearance can also occur in diverse scenarios, such as shock, terror, sex, meditation, pain, paranoia, play and addiction. Whilst the appearance of a highly focused state may be a commonality, the internal psychic processes and emotional experience differ considerably during each of these situations. Let’s delve a little more deeply into hypnosis first, and then we can see how it differs from how people have been reacting over the past couple of years or so.
To start with, hypnosis usually does not work when someone is unwilling to be hypnotised. There must be a trusting relationship with the hypnotist. The experience is probably similar to that of a baby listening to the voice of its care-giver, in that the world seems wholly safe and benign. Hence no attention is required elsewhere. The hypnotist is, to some extent, trusted to make, understand and provide for all other relationships, although we will see later that this is not absolute. The external relationship with the hypnotist is reproduced internally: the mind’s whole relationship-making process (‘liveliness’) feels benign and trusted. The process of making sense of the world (or making meaning) feels more relaxed, easy and intrinsically good.
During hypnosis we feel relaxed and alive, because our relationship-making process is highly receptive to a pleasant or benign interpretation of all noises and movements. Thus, even the suggestion of doing something we would normally think of as scary can feel acceptable. The mind accepts everything as connected and known about. And because nothing causes anxiety or curiosity, there is no need for sensations to be kept conscious, waiting until we have assessed them. It’s as if all incoming information is immediately transferred to the unconscious, allowing us to be very present. All the information we take in is associated with a feeling of satisfaction. Under hypnosis, everything is converted into mother’s milk.
The fact that so much of what happens during a period of hypnosis becomes unconscious does not preclude an awareness of what is happening. During hypnosis, everything in the present is still understood, but without the anxiety or attention that keeps it conscious for longer than we can sense it. We thus become present under hypnosis, meaning there is heightened awareness and attention on one thing, namely the relationship with the hypnotist or voice. But that does not exclude awareness of everything else. Rather, attention on everything else is attenuated in a way that renders it a benign and insignificant aspect of the relationship. Having experienced being very present during the hypnosis, there can be difficulty immediately afterwards in remembering what happened, but the memory tends to return eventually.
Let’s now contrast the experience of hypnosis depicted above with that of adherence by the mass to a single false narrative. In totalitarianism, the relationship is not a trusting one. It is a precarious and paranoid relationship with authority which threatens to punish or expel us if we lose faith in it. Paradoxically, the leaders to some extent take their cue from the mass as they must gauge the mass’s appetite for being controlled. In this sense, the leaders ‘follow’ the mass by giving it the extreme control it clamours for. In England, we began 2020 with the Prime Minister telling us just to wash our hands and practise basic hygiene, while the public and opposition demanded lockdowns. Unlike a hypnotist, the so-called leadership appeared to be one step behind, until the masses made clear to them what they could get away with.
Unlike the true experience of hypnosis, the experience of the mass is anything but relaxing. During mass formation, there is an intense emotional response to constructed threats which generates a frenzy of futile activity. We can add to that the sadistic thrill from haranguing and bullying dissenters into compliance and submission with their narrative. Again, we want to emphasise that this is entirely inconsistent with the hypnosis we know of; the singular focus on one dominant narrative is not sufficient to categorise the experience as hypnosis. Recall all the other examples of experiences which are not hypnotic in nature, but which nevertheless entail the shutting down of all sensory and cognitive awareness to attend to a single object or activity.
For the covid mass, the world beyond their regime is perpetually unknown and dangerous, and must be prevented from intruding. Contrary to hypnosis, where the relationship-making process is highly receptive to the interpretation of all experiences as pleasant or benign, covid mass formation seems to destroy parts of the mind’s relationship-making process, making all anomalies with the narrative very threatening, thus triggering urgent action to fix or avoid them.
Let’s now compare behaviour under hypnosis with behaviour during mass formation. Hypnotised people don’t tend to talk very much. They might answer questions, repeat phrases, or babble, but they don’t speak for long about various topics in the way they might normally. Hypnosis seems to make the mind’s relationship-making process more expansive and less specific, so no complex communication happens between the hypnotised person and anyone else. Speaking loses much of its utility under hypnosis, making it almost redundant.
Under normal circumstances, speaking is a means of seeking and forming relationships. It is also used to project one’s thoughts and feelings, with the intention of influencing the world outside but also to deal with inner emotions like frustration. During hypnosis, we have the sense of relationships forming without any additional effort, and no projection is necessary: there is no desire to alter the outside world, and no disconnected, worrying, or meaningless information coming into our minds which we feel we need to banish from consciousness.
Another observable aspect of hypnosis relates to the instructions from the hypnotist. When in a relaxed, hypnotised state, a pleasant belief prevails that another person is guiding us and taking care of everything. It is easy to follow instructions when there’s nothing else to do and little or no risk is perceived. Refusing to go along is judged effortful and unnecessary. As with the absence of complex speech, people who are hypnotised only follow simple instructions and so the instructions need to be basic.
By contrast, in the covid theatre, had there been genuine hypnosis, the introduction of threats we witnessed (financial penalties or prison sentences) and justifications (‘save the NHS’, or nonsensical statistics) would not only have been superfluous, but would probably have destroyed the alleged hypnotic state by bringing the focus away from the present experience. An actual hypnotist, on the other hand, talks us through what to do and what to imagine, and tells us what we can or cannot do, but there is no coercion whatsoever.
The source of the hypnotic stimulus tends to be reassuring. Many of us can easily enter a hypnotic trance when our attention is engaged by a subtle yet evocative stimulus, one without specific or important verbal meaning. For example, we might listen to a low tone of voice, which we might associate with the experience of being soothed as an infant. As the voice reassures us about what we are able and unable to do, we are surprised to discover that it’s right, and so we pay more attention to it. Contrast this with the alarmist, in-your-face, noisy messaging of: “PANDEMIC ALERT! MILLIONS OF YOU ARE GOING TO DIE! DON’T BE ONE OF THEM!”, which lacks something of the inconsequentiality, to say nothing of the accuracy (!), of the hypnotic stimulus.
Furthermore, a hypnotic stimulus usually comes from a source which is consistent, as opposed to the abundance of confusing signs and announcements from different media and groups of people that characterised covid hysteria from 2020 onwards. Chaos is the antithesis of hypnosis and yet chaos was intrinsic to covid theatre. The constant barrage of new and changing messages from disparate sources was more akin to gaslighting – a completely different and destructive process in which our own thinking is blamed for the mismatch between our expectation and an excessively disorientating reality, causing our thinking process to shut down.
Mass formation always involves a destructive psychic process. Conversely, the positive effect of hypnosis is often underestimated, and its negative capabilities exaggerated. People use hypnosis for relief from pain, though not all of us would be practised enough to undergo extreme medical procedures under hypnosis. Contrary to popular belief, during hypnosis we are still able to avoid actions that might be unacceptable in the present context. We enter the hypnosis voluntarily with some preconceived ideas of what kinds of actions we will likely engage in, but most of us would not lose our inhibitions in relation to acts that we already know to be harmful in some way. Our psychic processes remain intact, and relationships beyond those which the hypnotist has signified as trustworthy are still available for us to respond to.
In addition, the duration of a hypnosis tends to be brief. Reality kicks in, and we wake up to the other things we need to attend to. If a hypnotist does not put an end to a hypnosis, the hypnotised person will eventually regain wider awareness by themselves.
When discussing mass formations, people sometimes refer to ‘group hypnosis’. Again, there is a difference between a hypnotised group and the mass formation which is central to totalitarianism. For one thing, hypnotised groups meet in person. One of the peculiar features of our corona mass formation was that the individuals within it stayed away from each other and generally did not gather in crowds or even small groups. How a hypnotised group could work in this way is unclear, although we acknowledge that perhaps online communication might make it possible.
It is also true that a group of people who are hypnotised do not take much notice of each other, but their state of mind is not that of atomised individuals. They do not avoid or persecute others, nor do they sacrifice themselves, as was the case with the covid faithful. If they can trust that the hypnotist is doing what they are supposed to do, the group can allow much to happen around them without being concerned by it. When something is asked of them which does not feel acceptable to them in the context, their trust in the hypnotist dwindles, and the process risks disintegrating.
Examples of groups in which all members persist in believing the same apparently bizarre idea are often attributed to group hypnosis. But such phenomena involve, in our view, other psychic processes that we think should not strictly be termed hypnosis. For instance, when a group of people are hypnotised, they might all see something which wasn’t there, because the hypnotist’s suggestion made them receptive to the perception. Afterwards, however, although they will continue to say that they definitely experienced seeing it, they will acknowledge that it was impossible and will try to find a rational explanation to which to attribute their experience. In other words, they will regain their rational, critical capacities. However, when this doesn’t happen and a whole group persists, for a long period, in stating that they have seen something that wasn’t there, refusing to consider more realistic explanations of their perception, the psychic process is not a hypnotic but a destructive one.
There is a temptation to attribute the sudden change in society and individuals to a near magical process, when a more mundane explanation may suffice. We have been overly optimistic about people’s thinking and meaning-making capacities, and about the importance to them of feeling alive and feeling human. We were not seeing people trailing around in a trance, or even blindly following all instructions, especially when they thought no-one was looking. They were not relaxed and receptive but deadened. Antithetical to hypnosis, they were inventing their own rules and their own lies, attacking or avoiding anything and anyone they found threatening to their bizarre experience. And at the same time, their homogeneity of excuse veiled the fact that their solutions to life were not very different from what they had been before 2020, when each had had their own particular fixation.
Hypnosis is not very effective at brainwashing. Changing someone’s principles and political opinions cannot be done this way. The processes involved would be too complex and in fact people’s principles and political values were not changed – they were simply revealed. Hypnosis may even be more of a solution to mass formation, rather than its cause. Once someone has experienced the more connected, relaxed state of mind offered by real hypnosis, returning to the hostile, demanding and nonsensical environment of the Covid cult might be a shock easily rejected.
If the masses were not hypnotised, to what psychological phenomenon might we attribute their collective, precipitous descent into depraved mob persecution and hysteria? In Part II of this essay, we will explore an alternative psychological theory of mass formation in the 21st century.
 Mattias Desmet, The Psychology of Totalitarianism, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2022, Ch 6, Pg 100.