My friend Martha is a vivacious 23-year-old who has just completed a maths degree at Edinburgh University and is about to start as a statistician with a top London firm. Yet, two years ago, all this success was thrown into doubt when she awoke one day to find she had lost the use of her muscles.
Doctors were mystified: Martha's body seemed to be in perfect shape. And then the white-coated experts tried a remarkable experiment. They hypnotised her, and under this benign hypnosis she made it up and down the stairs. The all-in-the-mind nature of her ailment had been incontrovertibly revealed.
There is no compelling evidence that this exercise was vital to her eventual recovery, but the story is a poignant one. Hypnosis is a fascinating topic. I'm not talking about freak stage shows, but about any psychological trick that gets us to do someone's bidding without us fully realising why. A doctor knows that to ask a boy, "Can I look into your ears?", is inviting trouble. He asks instead, "Which ear should I look in first, your left or your right?" Introducing this tiny choice leads to a happy child, and to my mind counts as hypnosis.
So, how does hypnosis work in the classroom? The successful disciplinarians among us all have a touch of the hypnotist. How do you ask for silence? "Stop talking, please" has its limitations. "Give me your eyes and ears, thank you" replaces a negative (stop this) with a positive (do this) and replaces a request (please) with a self-fulfilling prophecy (thank you). Each child who hears your mantra will identify with all the previous students who have quietened at your bidding - you develop a spell. Sometimes students can cast a spell over themselves, even curse themselves. "Can't do fractions," they say. I always try to break this with, "Try saying 'Can't do fractions at the moment'."
Our parents "hypnotise" us as babies; to mature into adults is to learn to spot these techniques (which may be subconscious) and to free ourselves from them. There are such things as "damaging family myths", which tell us we cannot do things when we can. And what, for maths teachers, is the most damaging family myth of all? "Oh, he's never been able to do maths."
Maybe part of our job as teachers is to take students whose maths muscles are fine, but who are trapped in a negative view of themselves, and gently hypnotise them. Safe in our professional hands, we can ask them to walk up and down mathematical stairs. Maybe then they can go home and challenge preconceptions. We can all be mathematical hypnotherapists.
Jonny Griffiths teaches at Paston College in Norfolk.