In the past months, I have been working with law professor emeritus Alan Scheflin on two chapters on “The Dark Side of Hypnosis” for a forthcoming International Handbook of Clinical Hypnosis. I decided to use Hubbard and Scientology as an exemplar of cult mind control. Naturally, I went to the world authority on Hubbard and his cult, my colleague and dear friend, Jon Atack. Scheflin focused on one chapter on the U.S. government mind control program MKUltra and George Estabrooks. I focused on authoritarian cult leaders like Ron Hubbard of Scientology infamy and others. For anyone interested in Scientology or the topic of cults, I recommend Atack’s paper Never Believe a Hypnotist. It is of interest that Hubbard used those very words. Hubbard was, in fact, a hypnotist. 

Most people know that after my deprogramming from the Moon cult, I became fascinated to learn how my mind got hacked by the cult. I began learning about the psychology of persuasion, influence, thought reform, brainwashing, and mind control. I am a licensed mental health counselor interested in updating the legal system to understand better and manage undue influence issues. I’m a member of the New England Society of Clinical Hypnosis (NESCH), The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH), and The International Society of Hypnosis (ISH). I use my knowledge of hypnosis to help explain it to people and rarely use it in my practice as I seek to establish high levels of trust with anyone contacting Freedom of Mind. 

I became interested in this topic in 1980 when a friend, a social worker, invited me to a workshop on hypnosis. She introduced me to Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), explaining that John Grinder and Richard Bandler developed it based on the work of psychiatrist Milton Erickson. Erickson was the founder of ASCH. 

I attended the workshop and became deeply interested in NLP, moving to Santa Cruz, CA, to apprentice with John Grinder. I attended extensive training programs and read many books. I decided within a year to no longer be involved with any forcible deprogramming. I sought to find a legal, non-coercive way to assist people in cults to reevaluate their involvement. In less than two years, I became disillusioned. I realized that NLP was an amoral system based on “doing what works” with no values or consideration of ethics. It is completely dependent on the practitioner’s ethics. I decided to get my master’s degree in counseling psychology and start taking courses with the Erickson Institute as well as other credentialed experts. 

Today NLP is all over the internet, and several now-identified disinformation influencers touted their knowledge of NLP. From my perspective, NLP is a set of models for understanding how people operate from different mental models. For individuals trained in its methodology, it provides protection to detect it when it is being used. If a person wishes power, money, and sex and cares little about ethics, it can be very harmful. 

With NLP, it’s essential to understand that ethical therapists will not just use it deliberately and covertly on anyone. Ever. They will teach it to the person and explain how and why it works. This is vastly important when it comes to deprogramming or exit counseling and helping people reintegrate. It’s about teaching people how to control their own minds, not controlling their minds for them. If you are in the hands of the practitioner, you are in an amoral system. The goal is for you to be in your own hands with the assistance of a practitioner who helps you learn how to do so.  

Bandler and Grinder reportedly agreed to a business arrangement with Tony Robbins, who took his knowledge of NLP and developed it into a multimillion-dollar enterprise, teaching, and training corporate executives, including former presidents. I was only able to find one event that linked Tony Robbins and Donald Trump. 

I developed the Influence Continuum and the BITE Model of Authoritarian Control to help create a simple framework for assessing ethical influence, including informed consent. The more BITE Model criteria are utilized, the more unethical a group or relationship will be assessed to be as the goal is making people into a pseudo-cult identity: dependent and obedient.   

I’ve continued doing workshops and learning about the topic of hypnosis for over forty years now. When researching my book The Cult of Trump, I contacted my colleague, Stephen Lankton, the Editor-in-Chief of the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis. I had seen Trump using some NLP techniques and patterns and asked him for the latest definition of hypnosis. He told me he asked eighteen experts in the field and got eighteen different answers. He was unwilling to go on the record about Trump’s public speaking voice and interaction style. 

What we can say definitively is that hypnosis is not sleep. It is a state of heightened concentration that makes people more suggestible. Neuroscientifically speaking, the part of the brain that lights up in a trance is the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). It is normal for people to go in and out of states of consciousness throughout the day. Being in a flow state feels great, and it allows a heightened ability to accomplish a lot. I am a big fan of learning how to do self-hypnosis but caution the public from listening randomly to strangers with no mental health credentials or ethical guidelines. Caveat Emptor! If you are going to use a cell phone app, make sure you have really checked the credentials of the people you are allowing in your mind. In my professional opinion, many things called “guided meditations” or “visualizations” are, in actuality, hypnotic inductions. They may be utterly clean and beneficial. However, they also might be used to influence you unduly. That is why I recommend really doing solid research into any person or program that wants your time and money. Make sure they have high ethical standards. Fully informed consent is essential to anything worthwhile. 

The Hypnotic effects of being Online: Ever heard of or experienced doom-scrolling? This phenomenon occurs when one checks a social media app. The next thing you notice is that it is an hour later. In hypnosis, this is called “time distortion,” and it is a feature of a trance state. I was interviewed by Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin of the Center for Humane Technology on their podcast Your Undivided Attention. A hypnotic trance is, at its core, a concentration of attention with heightened suggestibility.  

Atack and I talk about hypnosis and its positive and negative uses. I relied on a clinical psychologist trained in hypnosis when I underwent treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was so fearful and worried. I had trouble sleeping and was overcome with distress. I was able to go into a state of deep relaxation, and my therapist recorded the trance sessions, which I loaded onto my iPod and could listen to if and when I had trouble sleeping or was just overcome with anxiety.  I could fully trust my therapist and was able to direct my mind’s positive healing power to get well. It is well known that high levels of cortisol undermine the immune system’s ability to heal the body. I could focus on the three months of chemo and radiation, accept the treatment as helping me to defeat the cancer cells, and visualize my future healthy self.  

The negative side of hypnosis is something Atack is familiar with, having been a member of Scientology and studying L. Ron Hubbard’s techniques. Atack talks about Hubbard’s statement Never Trust the Hypnotist and his surprise at how hypnotic all of the Scientology systems really are. Hubbard purported to have learned hypnosis at 16, which he discussed in his book Science of Survival, wherein he also stated never to trust the hypnotist. This hypnotic technique called the “double bind,” was often used by Hubbard. In Dianetics, Hubbard uses the words hypnosis or suggestibility, trance, and reverie and makes statements like nothing in Dianetics comes from hypnosis. Later in the book, it’s said that a lot of hypnotic research went into Dianetics.  

Atack tells us when Hubbard received the commission to write the book, he felt deep trance hypnosis wasn’t popular, so he needed to come up with something new, which proves there was zero research behind the method. We talk about Freud and his dismissal of what would become the dianetic technique in a 1909 lecture at Clark University in Massachusetts. Freud posited that the problem with the technique was “it makes you ever more dependent upon the therapist, so it has the exact opposite effect of what you want.” 

Atack discusses that Scientology is the most extreme form of mind control ever devised, telling us that authors Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman in Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change state it has the most debilitating set of rituals in any cult in America. We talk about the effects of being in Scientology, which can reverberate in one’s life for many years after exiting it. This differs from other cults, in which the effects may not last as long. Atack tells us, “it’s more likely that if you’ve been in Scientology without help, you’ll never recover.” 

This aligns with Scientology getting people to reinforce the condition in themselves, like the method of “study-tech,” where a believer is instructed to constantly look up the meaning of words to indoctrinate themselves into the Hubbard language system. We talk about the Training Routines (TRs), which include the predator stare technique and how that affected Atack long after leaving the group. Staring into a cult member’s eyes is a form of eye fixation. It also reinforces the cult belief that the Scientologist needs to become the master of Matter, Energy, Space, and Time (MEST) to achieve God-like powers in the upper levels of the “bridge to total freedom.” 

Atack tells us Scientology also has the most elaborate loaded language of any group and how people start to think within the concepts of that language. People believe those things without applying thought to them, which means breaking free is difficult because critical thinking is an important piece of letting go of false belief systems. Essentially, people are indoctrinating themselves. 

I am grateful to Jon Atack and all of his incredible contributions to the field, as he has been involved with helping to write academic textbook chapters as well as helped to edit the updated edition of Combating Cult Mind Control. 

Ultimately, what is most important is understanding that it is your mind, and only you should control it—exercising reality testing, but finding trustworthy people and credible experts and sources of information is vital. Never trust anyone or anything blindly. Always be open to evidence to change your beliefs or revise your past commitments. 

We encourage you to check out Atack’s book, Opening Our Minds, and his Youtube channel.