Last week, a Florida school board announced a $600,000 settlement involving a high school principal who hypnotized dozens of his students. Three of those students died shortly after their hypnosis sessions.
George Kenney, principal of North Port High in Sarasota County, hypnotized more than 70 students to help calm their anxieties and improve their performance in sports and other extracurricular activities. He received permission from many parents to do so, according to reports.
In March 2011, one student, 16-year-old Marcus Freeman, died in a car accident, allegedly after using self-hypnosis techniques Kenney had taught him while driving. The following month, Wesley McKinley, 16, was found dead from an apparent suicide. Kenney later admitted to hypnotizing McKinley three times, including the day before he committed suicide. In May of that year, another student, Brittany Palumbo, 17, also committed suicide. She, too, had been hypnotized by Kenney at one point.
Families of the deceased students filed a wrongful death civil suit against the school board in 2012. They alleged officials could have done more to prevent Kenney from hypnotizing his students. As a result of last week's settlement, each family will receive $200,000.
But some people, like licensed hypnotist Anthony DeMarco, say it's difficult to explicitly link hypnotism to the students' deaths. For more, we spoke with DeMarco, who's also co-founder of the Academy of Professional Hypnosis.
The subconscious mind is far more powerful than most realize.
[Hypnotists] effectuate a bypass of the conscious mind so that we are able to make suggestions to a person's subconscious mind. This is the power of hypnosis, because the subconscious mind is 1,000 times more powerful than the conscious mind.
Many hypnotists specialize in specific issues.
What we do is complementary to the traditional allopathic professions. We teach that every hypnotist must practice within their own limitations, to practice what they feel capable of, such as [hypnotizing for] smoking, weight, simple situational stress. If there are other issues that walk into the office, if they are not up to something, then we strongly advise them to refer to other hypnotists who are experts in those particular issues.
Hypnotism in sports is common practice, correct?
From what I have read, Kenney was using hypnosis to relax individuals and to increase their ability in sports. This has been done for [many] years. They've done it in Russia in the Olympic Games to improve the ability of their weightlifters. In Sweden, they've used hypnosis for skiing. In fact, I met the fellow 25 or 30 years ago who was the sports hypnotist for the Philadelphia Eagles football team. In all probability, this was what principal Kenney was doing with them.
Teaching a client self-hypnosis is common practice. Clients are advised never to self-hypnotize while driving a moving vehicle, operating equipment, or even while operating any sort of appliance.
The safeguard that I use, and that most hypnotists use, is I have them touch their thumb and forefinger together on both hands, and have them raise both hands up so they can't have them on the steering wheel. There is such a thing as waking hypnosis, but it's just a standard to tell them to close their eyes.
How many times have you driven a car and you went about eight miles, and you don't even remember driving? You follow all of the laws, you stopped when you were supposed to stop, but you didn't even remember driving that far. How many people get hypnotized by looking at a bonfire or a fireplace where they're in a lethargic frame of mind? They can hear people talking, and they're not drowsy, but they're just in a serene state. This is what hypnosis is similar to. I know of no one who would self-hypnotize while driving an automobile. No one. That's impossible.
There are hundreds of ways hypnotists bypass the conscious mind into the subconscious one. A hypnotic state, or relaxed state, is induced simply through the power of suggestion. The subconscious mind does not deduce; it accepts everything as true.
When we suggest to them that they're relaxing, their conscious mind slips to the side and their subconscious mind comes to the front. Your subconscious mind is the repository for everything you have witnessed since birth. If I tell a 500-pound woman that she's thin and getting thinner every day, and I use what is so essential to hypnosis, and I keep repeating it, she begins then to think thin, to eat thin, to become thin. The subconscious mind controls 99 percent of our life's actions because we are one giant memory. We act and react in accordance with what we have learned from the time we are born. This is the strength of hypnosis.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.