Hypnotism is a curious topic. At one end of the scale, many mental specialists rely on it as a therapeutic tool; at the other, it is a popular component of stage magic and as such generates widespread scepticism. As far as I'm concerned it is a load of old guff. Not so for Chris Hughes, 34, a British hypnotist, who this week attempted to perform a mass trance over the internet to celebrate World Hypnotism Day on Monday. The event was to take the form of a live webcast, for which more than 6,000 people signed up from more than 85 countries, having been called into action via Facebook and Twitter.
Hughes hoped that it would enter the book of Guinness World Records for the highest number of people ever put into a trance online. "This is the first attempt of its kind to hypnotise people via social networking sites," he said proudly beforehand. He promised there would be no Paul McKenna-like practical jokes played on listeners and that it would be entirely safe at all times. It was simply an experiment to inject participants with a little more confidence and help them with any personal goals at the beginning of this new year.
And yet, upon signing up, I couldn't help but notice that there was a hefty disclaimer to wade through: "Under no circumstances including but not limited to negligence shall Chris Hughes be liable for any special or consequential damages in any way whatsoever now or in the future that result from the participation in this hypnosis webcast." It went on to say that his methods were no substitute for the care of a qualified doctor. But of course.
The trance session was due to begin at 8.30pm GMT on Monday, which meant 12.30am on Tuesday in the UAE - well past my usual bedtime. Still, it did not call for any extraordinary athletic measures. Hughes simply wanted his listeners to flop down in a comfortable chair at the designated time, with a computer and internet connection so he could transmit his soothing thoughts to us. Fine. I would remain open-minded and listen attentively.
At 12.25am I sat down and called up the site. Music came streaming through my earphones, the kind of floaty pan-pipes music that you might have heard in a spa. There was the odd chirrupy bird noise thrown in for good measure; 12.30 came and went. The online twitterers were twitching. "Is this music it?" some asked crossly. My eyelids were sinking - was Hughes already working his magic with the bird noises, or was I simply tired?
At 12.42 Hughes posted a message on Twitter saying they were nearly there. Extraordinary oversubscription was apparently causing server problems that his paranormal powers couldn't contend with. At 12.46 the bird noises abruptly stopped. "Er, are we live?" came the faintly amateurish question from a British voice. It was Hughes, who had sprung to life and set about explaining the basics of hypnotism and what he was going to do.
"There is a lot of misconceptions about it," he said, proving that while he might have magical powers they did not, perhaps, extend to his grammar. Fifteen minutes of wittering followed, in which he explained about the three parts of the mind - the conscious, the subconscious and the unconscious. Hypnotism, we were told, tapped into the subconscious. The more intelligent you were, the easier it supposedly was. "That's why students are good at it," he said gravely. Seriously?
But after all this padding came a flaw. Following "legal" missives from various countries, Hughes explained, the session couldn't be streamed live and so it would not be breaking any record. But, like all good self-publicists, he remained undefeated. The session would be available as a download, he said, and posted the necessary link. The download was nearly 19 minutes long. The pan-pipe bird noises came back, Hughes talked slowly over them. We were told to make sure we were not driving or operating heavy machinery. Finally, he began. "Place your feet flat on the floor and your hands in your lap, start to let your body relax." I was practically asleep, so could hardly have been more relaxed.
"Take a long deep breath and hold it for a mental count of three, allow your eyes to close." My head started to droop. Hughes pressed on. "Relax all those tiny little muscles in your eyelids to the point where they just don't work." The words limp, loose and floppy were used. We were then urged to try to open them. I could, but felt like I was cheating poor Hughes so hurriedly shut them again. My head itched; I tried to ignore it.
Next, he told us to picture ourselves being covered with a "warm blanket of relaxation". His voice dropped, becoming huskier. I felt near-violated. "I want you just to imagine a staircase with 20 steps; you are standing right at the very top." He counted us down the steps, and with each step we were supposed to relax further. At five, we were apparently "halfway to the basement of relaxation". But here's the thing, we only went down 10 steps and then moved on. "You now notice how good you feel," he said, but I was worrying about the rest of the steps. What was down there, Chris?
Then to the goals. Hughes mentioned just three - losing weight, becoming more confident and giving up smoking. "Oh a cigarette," said a voice in my head. "I'd quite like one of those now." But Hughes ploughed on, telling us to picture ourselves in six months' time having attained our goals, because the "power" to change ourselves lay within us. This sort of hypno-speak went on for a few more minutes. I started thinking about what time I wanted to go to the gym the next morning, told myself I needed more milk and wondered whether I had enough petrol in my car.
Hughes ignored this flagrant rule-breaking and started to count us out, cutting off at five and ending the podcast. It felt a bit sudden. A subsequent flick on Twitter revealed there were other sceptics too. True, some thought it was "soooooo awesome". but others were dubbing it "brainwashing". Personally, I was relaxed and sleepy. But who wouldn't be long after 1am having been sitting down almost motionless for over half an hour? My eyes fell upon my nearby cigarette packet. Oh why not, I thought, lighting one up.
Hughes's magic might have been slightly wasted on me.