How Hypnotizable Is Your Shaman?
Ralph B. Allison, M.D.
PO Box 957
Paso Robles, CA 93447-0957
Presented at the Annual Interdisciplinary Conference of the
Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness
April 4-8, 2001
Abstract: Hypnosis research has determined that humans have an innate, lifelong degree of
hypnotizability, rated from 0 to 5. Those on the high end of the continuum have certain
personality traits which might predispose them to being the most able to conduct certain shamanic
rituals, such as being possessed by spirits. Personality traits associated with low, middle, and high
degrees of hypnotizability will be described. These facts might explain why certain shamans prefer
some procedures rather than others. It would also explain why certain shamans cannot do some
mental procedures which are often done by other shamans.
For three decades, I conducted many hours of hypnotherapy with many highly
hypnotizable patients. While my patients were very hypnotizable, I was not. To treat them
successfully, I invented some pretty strange hypnotic techniques which worked. At the time, I had
never even heard about shamans, as that was not a subject covered in medical school.
It is now generally accepted in the academic field of hypnosis that each person is
endowed, since birth, with a certain "grade of hypnotizability," which has been scored on standard
tests from 0 to 5. The majority of persons are in Grades 1-4, while unhypnotizable persons are
called Grade 0, and those who can do everything and anything possible in trance are called Grade
5. The hypnotizability level is constant throughout the life of the individual. It is also related to the
type of mental illness that person is most likely to manifest, if stressed beyond his or her limits.
The structure of the standard test for hypnotizability has been described by the father and
son team of academic psychiatrists, Herbert Spiegel at Columbia University, and David Spiegel at
Stanford University. The full test and how to score it are in their book, "Trance and Treatment."
The test for hypnotizability is designed to take only 5 to 10 minutes, and is used as a
screening test for therapy and research. There are two parts to the test.
1. Upward gaze of the eyes, followed by the eye roll test. The subject is asked to look
upward as far as possible while keeping the lids open. Then the subject is asked to close
the eyelids, and the examiner sees how much sclera is showing between the iris and lower
2. Arm levitation. The subject is asked to let his or her arm float and raise, and questions are
asked about tingling, dissociation, floating, and amnesia.
Herbert Spiegel, after reviewing the results of thousands of persons so tested, came to the
conclusion that there were certain personality styles and traits which could reasonably be
associated with each of the three groups, those who were low, medium and high in his
hypnotizability scale. Here is a summary of his findings:
1. Low Hypnotizability
Limited degree of dissociation
Sharply focused attention with concomitant and constant peripheral awareness
Biased toward cognitive dynamism
Relatively remote from or somewhat independent of ecological (contextual) influence
2. Mid-range Hypnotizability
Moderate tendency to dissociate
Capable of focalized attention with less emphasis on vigilant peripheral awareness
Moderate degree of suggestibility
Tends to shift away from "brain" orientation to "heart" or intuitive feeling
Seeks mid-way balance between internal commitments and responsivity to social or
3. High Hypnotizability
Extreme propensity to dissociate
Marked ability for total absorption
Almost complete abandonment of peripheral awareness and readiness to respond
uncritically to new signals.
Clear preference to be dominated by the "heart" rather than the "brain."
Bias towards feelings and intuition over logic and rationality
Ready to suspend critical judgement and comply with impositions from the outside.
Ecologically sensitive and most vulnerable to persuasion.
Since these authors' subjects were primarily psychiatric patients, they found that there
were certain diagnoses which seemed most common to those who fell in one or the other of these
three groups. Typical mental disorders of the three groups are as follows:
1. Low Hypnotizability
Obsessive compulsive disorder
Schizoid, paranoid, and avoidant personality disorders
2. Mid-range Hypnotizability
Borderline, passive-aggressive, and antisocial personality disorders
3. High Hypnotizability
Multiple personality disorder
Post traumatic stress disorder
Histrionic and dependent personality disorders
Of special interest to psychiatrists using hypnosis in treatment are those patients who are
in Grade 5, who comprise about 4% of the human population. Herbert Spiegel listed a number of
personality traits which are common to this group, who can do any type of hypnotic maneuver
1. Posture of trust
Intense, innocent expectation of support from others
Expect all attention and concern be focused on them
Lack of cynicism
2. Suspension of critical judgement
Willing to replace old premises and beliefs with new ones, without usual cognitive
screening and scrutiny
3. Affiliation with new events
4. Relative telescoping of time
Focus almost exclusively on the present, not past or future
Do age revivification when asked to age regress under hypnosis
5. Trance logic
Unaware of extreme incongruity
6. Excellent memory
Talented in rote and eidetic (visual) memory
Learning is uncritical; take in everything
7. Intense capacity for concentration
Writers who watch characters behave in their minds and then write about them
8. Fixed personality core
Dynamism so fixed it is subject to neither negotiation nor change
Special kind of learning which occurs at critical times and remains intact throughout
9. Role confusion
Paradoxical relationship between hard core dynamism and chameleon-like malleable
overlay provokes role confusion and reactive sense of inferiority
10. Greatest susceptibility to possession by benevolent spirits (My addition from MPD
Slippery connection between mind and body allows possessing spirit easiest pathway to
borrow the body. Mind goes into "yellow submarine" where awareness is controlled by possessing
In his introduction to Shamans of the 20th Century, by Ruth-Inge Heinze, Stanley
Krippner writes that "shamans were the world's first physicians, first diagnosticians, first
psychotherapists, first religious functionaries, first magicians, first performing artists, and first
story-tellers. Shamans can be defined as community-assigned magico-religious professionals who
deliberately alter their consciousness in order to obtain information from the 'spirit world.' They
use this knowledge and power to help and to heal members of their community, as well as the
community as a whole."
In her stories of contemporary shamans, Heinze reports on a number of different
procedures that shamans use in this helping mission. In her stories, and other similar reports, there
are listed a number of procedures, all of which some, but not all, shamans regularly use. Each
procedure requires a certain mental faculty, and I have attempted to group these procedures
together, based on the likelihood that a certain degree of hypnotizability would be required to
accomplish them. My hypothesis is that among shamans there is the same range of hypnotizability
as among the rest of the population. Therefore, some shamans would be more comfortable doing
certain procedures which are easiest for someone with their level of hypnotizability.
For example, a shaman with low hypnotizability might be quite comfortable repeating a
ritual the same way each time, a ritual which has been standardized for centuries. But the same
shaman would be incapable of becoming possessed by a benevolent spirit, no matter how hard he
or she might try. That procedure requires high hypnotizability. Yet a shaman with high
hypnotizability might be able to learn an ancient ritual, the same as would the low hypnotizable
shaman, but he or she would not want to do it indefinitely, since it is not as interesting to do as to
roam around in the "spirit world."
A shaman in the mid-range of hypnotizability might be more interested in a flexible
procedure, which changes from client to client, but which does not require going into a trance
state. Such procedures might be those related to healing specific illnesses of clients, with the use
of specific incantations or herbal medicines. Such a shaman might also use psychedelic drugs to
bring about his or her own altered state of consciousness, something a highly hypnotizable shaman
would not need to do.
This hypothesis is completely speculative at this point, since, to the best of my knowledge,
no one has tested the hypnotizability of professional shamans, by the methods outlined by the
Spiegels. So it is suggested as an explanation as to why such a wide range of procedures are all
grouped under the term "shamanic."
Low Hypnotizability Procedures
Exorcizing evil spirits with rituals
Propitiating deities for blessings
Mid-Range Hypnotizability Procedures
Fortune-telling or omen-reading
Ritual dancing leading to trance state
Use of psychedelic drugs to induce altered state of consciousness
High Hypnotizability Procedures
Being a medium with ability to invoke spirits and directly communicate with them
Direct apprehension of future events - precognition
There has been an incorrect assumption on the part of Western psychology and psychiatry
that all "human minds" are essentially alike, and one can talk about what "the human mind" does.
Therefore, when we observe shamans of other cultures, if we assume the same to be true with
their minds, we focus on their procedures and tend to grade the procedures as more or less
shamanic. "Who" the shaman is tends to be related to "what" he or she does, not what kind of a
mind he or she might have.
However, at least in the area of hypnosis, it is clear that there is a spectrum for the trait of
hypnotizability. It is also true that there are certain mental disorders which will most likely occur
to those in one of the three broad groupings. It is also true that there are certain mental traits
which are more likely to occur in those in one of the three broad groups. Therefore, it might be
true that certain procedures which have been used by shamans in many cultures over many
centuries are most easily done by a professional shaman who is in one of the three broad groups.
In Stanley Krippner's description of shamans, he writes that they are persons "who
deliberately alter their consciousness in order to obtain information from the 'spirit world.'" This
would imply that only those shamans who are highly hypnotizable would qualify for that
designation. My hypothesis is that such a qualification is unnecessarily limiting. My hypothesis is
that there are many shamans who are endowed with low or mid-range hypnotizability, who can
perform the other types of shamanic procedures listed above, but not voluntarily go easily into
trance state and commune with spirits in another dimension. They may fully believe in the
existence of these spirits and their world, but they are not able to travel there without the aid of
psychedelic drugs or other assistance, none of which are needed by the highly hypnotizable
shamans. All are shamans, but not all can do everything listed, especially in the area of easily
altering their own state of consciousness.