As harmonic progressions and rhythmic music echoed in the Gund Commons Ballroom on the night of Nov. 30, dozens of students prepared to experience hypnosis. Social Board invited Evan Gambardella, a “motivational mind wizard,” to perform at Kenyon. With popcorn in hand, students gathered to watch their peers get hypnotized — and a few chose to participate in the show.
When an individual is hypnotized, Gambardella explained at the event, they are fully awake, alert and aware. Rather than a form of mind control, he said, hypnosis is a type of trance where a subject doesn’t care as much as they usually would about what they are doing. That might be why several students were willing to publicly perform a variety of strange actions that were requested of them on stage that night.
At different points in the program, Gambardella asked participants to imagine they were professional horse scouts, to attempt to read the minds of select students in the audience and even to forget their own names. Later on in the show, when he asked some students to say their names into a microphone, each claimed to have temporarily forgotten it.
Tess Abraham-Macht ’25 described her experience of engaging in the performance that night in an interview with the Collegian. While she didn’t forget her name, she did experience some other strange effects. “I felt like I had to do what he was saying and my body was just doing it,” she said. “And I was in a liminal space. I definitely felt weird and not like myself, and I was just blindly following what was happening.”
Hypnosis is possible because our brains sometimes struggle to perceive reality, Gambardella explained. When we watch television, for instance, we react emotionally to things that we know consciously are not real, he said. In a similar way, hypnosis involves shifting one’s focus to reinterpret reality. “It’s actually a practice of sculpting our imagination,” he said.
As Abraham-Macht and fellow participants danced on stage, delivered roasts to the hypnotist and completed several other commands from Gambardella, the event introduced students to the theory of practicing hypnosis to improve mental health. Anxiety, Gambardella said, “is imagination mingled with memory.” He asked two students who said they feared public speaking to spontaneously deliver a speech to the audience. At another point, participants impersonated animals they were scared of. Through ordering his subjects to test their fears, Gambardella attempted to show the audience that we are capable of redirecting our thoughts in a positive direction. At the beginning of the event, he made a promise: “Everything by design in this program is going to make you better than when you walked into the room.”
Delaney Klace ’25 watched intently from the audience. She said that it was especially entertaining to watch her cousin, Abraham-Macht, engage in the show. “It was really weird to see her on stage and have a completely blank expression. It didn’t seem like there were any thoughts behind her eyes.”
Klace believes that while hypnosis might help to temporarily relieve anxieties, it isn’t a true solution to mental health problems. “Maybe immediately after [hypnosis] you would feel different or kind of like a weight has been lifted. But I definitely think in order to solve actual mental health problems you need to seek out help from a therapist.”
For Abraham-Macht, the experience felt like a balance between having fun and practicing affirmational thinking under her apparent state of hypnosis. “Half of it was maybe this comedic thing for the audience and then half was sort of about finding internal peace,” she said. “I thought that it was interesting that there was that sort of self-love aspect of it.” Regardless of whether the hypnosis session had its intended effects on the participants, both the audience and the performers immersed themselves in the surreal experience.