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ARCATA, Calif., December 10, 2013 – William Rockefeller drove the Metro-North train that derailed and killed four passengers in New York last week. His lawyer, Jeffrey Chartier, attributed the crash to “highway hypnosis.” 

This is a clever defense that greatly shaped news coverage over the past several days. By describing an experience most people have had, the expectation is surely that the public will sympathetically believe it was simply an accident that could have happened to anyone, and therefore Rockefeller can avoid punishment.

However, highway hypnosis is not an accurate explanation for this tragedy.

Highway hypnosis has characteristics both similar and different from hypnosis used in a clinical or medical setting, or even in a stage show. 

The most important way these are all similar is that control still resides within the person, despite the appearance of being out of control or under the control of another person. 

Hypnosis is a heightened state of internal focus. Hypnotherapy is about helping people use that inward focus to discover their subconscious abilities to resolve issues that may be cognitive, emotional, somatic or behavioral, and which are simply beyond the scope of conscious control.

Even when in this enhanced state of inner awareness, people are perfectly capable of responding to external stimuli. In fact, this responsiveness can even become amplified, which is what is on display when audience members at a hypnosis stage show willingly volunteer and then follow instructions to perform silly and potentially embarrassing acts. It is always their choice to do so or not, and the art of stage hypnosis is in guiding people to the state of mind that allows automatically making these choices without objection from the conscious mind.

When genuinely experiencing highway hypnosis, drivers (or train engineers) are being guided by that same inner locus of control that allows us to safely and automatically do many ordinary and familiar things without full conscious focus. The context for this extends beyond vehicular travel and often includes: cooking, personal grooming, playing music, and a variety of other activities that rely on muscle memory developed from repetition.

Placed back in the context of driving, most people have a routine when getting in the car. While not everyone follows the same sequence, most people will consistently follow their own pattern in some combination of closing the door, putting the key in the ignition, starting the engine, buckling the seatbelt, checking one or more mirrors, releasing the emergency brake and engaging the gear shift. 

However, many people will find it difficult to automatically answer if you ask them to list these steps in the order they typically do them. That’s because the question is seeking a conscious response and the activities are all done subconsciously. 

This is also what allows us to drive to our destination and then realize, as we’re exiting the highway, that we don’t recall going past the last several exits. It also applies to non-highway driving, such as a routine trip with various turns on local roads to get to work, school or the market. Such driving often occurs as if on auto-pilot while thinking about other things.

Hypnotists will often point to such examples of highway hypnosis to illustrate that hypnosis is a natural and ordinary experience we all have on a regular basis. A more thorough explanation also points out that the “trance” one seems to be in during highway hypnosis is not equivalent to hypnosis overall. 

Trance is an example of a “hypnotic phenomenon.” Others include time distortion, amnesia, anesthesia/analgesia, and hallucination, both positive and negative. 

These are common human experiences – sensing time flying by or practically standing still; forgetting something; not feeling pain until visually observing a cut or bruise; and thinking we see things that aren’t there (positive hallucination) or not seeing something “hidden in plain sight” (negative hallucination). 

So while hypnotic suggestion can generate such phenomena, including trance, each of these occurs naturally without necessarily constituting hypnosis. That includes the “driving trance” that we call highway hypnosis even though the driver is not really hypnotized.

It is also important to note that both terms, hypnosis and highway hypnosis, are misnomers. That is, they derive from the Greek word “hypnos,” which means sleep, when neither term is about sleep at all. 

In fact, because of this, after coining the term hypnosis in 1840, James Braid subsequently tried unsuccessfully to change it. So now we have a long history of misunderstanding a word that doesn’t really mean what it seems to mean, plus adaptations of it that imply things that aren’t true.

There is no question that a long trip on a straight stretch of road (or track) can create eye fatigue and drowsiness. But falling asleep behind the wheel is not the same as highway hypnosis.

Dave Berman, C.Ht. is a clinical/medical hypnotherapist and life coach practicing in northern California and globally via Skype.

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