Hypnosis and the ‘Myth’ of the Swinging Watch

Illustration of pocket watch with hypnotic effect

Many people have an image in their mind of hypnosis that almost always includes someone swinging a pocket watch. The idea likely originated from Hollywood movies somewhere in the 1940s and ’50s. If hypnosis was featured in a movie it inevitably involved a hypnotist taking out a pocket watch and swinging it gently in front of someone’s face, with their eyes fixated on it. A few seconds later that person would fall into a trance-like state, apparently hypnotized.

It looks intriguing and very mysterious. Imagine someone just swinging a watch in front you and suddenly you fall into a trance. Of course just swinging a watch and expecting someone to be hypnotized is pure fantasy – or is it? There is more to inducing hypnosis than merely looking at a swinging object for a few seconds. Although, if it were combined with verbal suggestion at the same time, then it is entirely possible to induce a state of hypnosis.

The portrayal of a swinging watch does in fact fit the concept of eye fixation that was part of classical hypnosis inductions in years past. ‘Eye fixation’ involves concentration and focus, both ingredients of any successful hypnotic induction process. A swinging a watch is just a way of getting someone to concentrate and focus. As they watch it move from side to side suggestions would be given to relax (“you are feeling sleepy,”) which together create the type of circumstances needed to go into hypnosis.

If you look at something for a long time at eye level or just above eye level, it tires the eyes. There is a particularly strong connection directly between the eyes and the brain. Obviously when the eyes have closed, it shuts down all visual sensory systems and your ability to see things outside of yourself. This allows the person trying to attain hypnosis to focus more and become more aware of their internal dynamics.

As mentioned, nearly all the early methods of inducing hypnosis were based around some kind of eye fixation and getting the eyes to close and this is still what society generally pictures when they think of hypnosis. However, as time has progressed many different (and far more effective) ways of bringing about hypnosis have emerged. All that’s required is the voice. Verbal suggestion is the medium used in our self hypnosis recordings.

In simplistic terms, suggestion involves talking about a person’s internal or external experience to help guide them into a state of hypnosis. For example, I might ask you to think about the way the palm of your hand feels and to focus intently on it. Or I might just suggest something as basic as listening to the sound of my voice and to let go of your thoughts. A progressive state of deep relaxation can occur very easily with the help of verbal suggestions, particularly when they are well constructed suggestions.

There are plenty of ways to concentrate attention and bring about hypnosis — and no watches or swinging objects are required. In fact I don’t know any hypnotherapist that uses a swinging pocket watch. I have used a crystal once or twice though. It came about because I was told by someone at the beginning of our hypnotherapy session that they expected me to do this as part of the hypnotic induction. This preconceived notion was so strong that it was actually easier to work with that idea rather than against it. I don’t have a swinging pocket watch, but if I did and a client came into my consulting room expecting that, then it would be useful to follow what is already in their belief system.

In reality, the swinging watch and other such eye fixation processes have lost popularity within hypnosis. Nowadays, the most popular way of inducing hypnosis is via a progressive relaxation induction. It’s so much easier to just relax and concentrate your focus on the different parts of your body as you feel them relax. Your mind easily slips into a state of hypnosis this way.

I still encounter people who automatically assume that I use some sort of watch or eye fixation process. Swinging watches may make for entertaining movie scenes, but using them to bring about hypnosis is just not necessary. In our self hypnosis CDs and downloads, we don’t go through the process of asking you to look at a particular spot so that the eyes get tired and close down. Instead, we ask you to take a few deep breaths and close your eyes, which bypasses that process entirely.