Have you ever watched a hypnotist on a stage call for audience volunteers who wind up clucking like chickens or doing something equally embarrassing? Do you wonder if hypnosis is “real” – or merely hype for entertainment purposes only?
These are great questions. Let’s explore the truth behind hypnosis. After all, some people claim this deep relaxation technique has therapeutic value.
Wikipedia says that “hypnosis is a state of human consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness and an enhanced capacity to respond to suggestion.”
Any time we talk about consciousness we risk straying from conventional science to Woo Woo Land. Mental states are hard to gauge. The best tools we have are electrodes that connect parts of the body to sensors which detect changes in body temperature, pulse rate, and other physiological changes associated with what the subject is thinking and feeling.
Consciousness is, above all, the most personal and subjective aspect of life we experience. People who find hypnosis helpful sing its virtues, while others who get few positive gains dismiss it as a parlor trick or pseudoscience.
Hypnosis is “a technique for putting someone (or yourself) into a state of concentration where you are more suggestible,” according to Psychology Today. The slow-brain-wave mental state induced by hypnotism is called a trance.
Ancient cultures around the world had oracles who used isolation from society, fasting from food, taking psychoactive drugs, and meditation – not necessarily in that order – to achieve a trance-like state. Oracular divination taps into what we might call the Matrix today, the Big Unknown or Group Mind. Spiritual practitioners have long held to the accuracy of their “channeled” information despite mundane skepticism.
Seeking altered states of consciousness is a human characteristic, by the way. Harvard graduate, medical doctor and best-selling author Doctor Andrew Weil published the definitive text on this subject titled “The Natural Mind: A New Way of Looking at Drugs and the Higher Consciousness” in 1973. He pointed out that children everywhere love to spin around until they fall down, dizzy and giggling, enjoying that reprieve from normal waking state consciousness.
People enjoy quieting the always-chattering “monkey mind” – and hypnotism is an effective tool to do just that. While in a focused, relaxed, suggestible state of mind, we can better tap into the subconscious mind where habits and phobias originate.
Talking about personal experiences while in an induced hypnotic trance brings subconscious material to consciousness for “rational, adult” processing and (hopefully) resolution.
A hypnotic therapist uses a soothing tone of voice, repeated words and phrases (“You are getting sleepy, sleeeepy…”), and mental images (“You are walking down ten steps…”) to calm the subject to the point where their limbs are limp until instructed otherwise.
Only one in ten people is easily led into a trance state. These people are called “highly hypnotizable.” Everyone else varies in their willingness to give up conscious control to a hypnotist. Trust is key when building a patient-caregiver relationship.
That said, as the Mayo Clinic points out, going under hypnosis does not make you completely helpless:
“It’s important to know that although you’re more open to suggestion during hypnosis, you don’t lose control over your behavior.”
- Hypnotism is being used successfully to treat:
- Pain control for “cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, temporomandibular joint problems, dental procedures and headaches”
- Hot flashes that accompany menopause
- Behavior change treatment of “insomnia, bed-wetting, smoking, obesity and phobias”
- Fatigue from radiotherapy in breast cancer patients
Hypnotism dates back to a physician from Vienna, Austria named Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), from whom we get the terms “mesmerize” and “mesmerism.” Using magnets and elaborate series of hand gestures coupled with suggestive imagery like visualizing diseased fluid draining rapidly from the body – this touring healer claimed to cure ” blindness, paralysis, convulsions and other ‘hysterical’ conditions, as well as effective treatment of menstrual difficulties and haemorrhoids.”
Due in part to Mesmer’s flamboyant showmanship, and also because it has been difficult to separate genuine results from a placebo effect, hypnotism has received a lot of scorn and derision from psychological nay-sayers over the decades.
It might surprise you to know that the scientific proof that hypnosis has a measurable effect on the human brain surfaced only recently. In 2016, a team led by Stanford researcher David Spiegel looked at 57 brain scans recorded during guided hypnosis sessions “similar to those that might be used clinically to treat anxiety, pain or trauma.”
The research team used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. What they discovered has transformed hypnosis from a pseudoscience to an actual science:
“By scanning the brains of subjects while they were hypnotized, researchers at the [Stanford] School of Medicine were able to see the neural changes associated with hypnosis.”
Now that we all know that there is something to this hypnotism thing, be advised that, like any therapy, there can be a downside from unintended side-effects. The Mayo Clinic article previously cited includes the following four adverse reactions to hypnosis:
- Drowsiness or dizziness
- Anxiety or distress
- Creation of false memories
The Mayo Clinic continues with this warning, aimed at people seeking to discover their “past lives” and reincarnational purpose by means of hypnotic therapy sessions:
“Use special caution before using hypnosis for age regression to help you relive earlier events in your life. This practice remains controversial and has limited scientific evidence to support its use. It may cause strong emotions and can alter your memories or lead to creation of false memories.”
After all, we can’t all have been Cleopatra or Alexander the Great.
Despite its hazards, hypnotherapy is gaining ground in the United States and has become trendy. You can find a certified hypnotist online with little trouble – and if you don’t want to lie on a couch or sit in a comfy chair at the caregiver’s office, there are hypnotists who work remotely, as reported firsthand in The Atlantic.
Be sure that you check the qualifications of any hypnotist you consult medically (and not for sheer entertainment) because there are many charlatans out there who promise much more than they deliver.
My sole experience with hypnotism occurred when I was in college. I actually paid good money for help losing weight – to an obese hypnotist. Need I say that no good came from those sessions?
These days, there are credible certification boards like the National Guild of Hypnotists (NGH) and the American Hypnosis Association – to name just two. It is always preferred to use trusted resources to find an effective therapist who can help you resolve personality issues and mental malaise.
Or, bypass the clinical route altogether and hypnotize yourself with these step-by-step instructions from WikiHow. (Just be sure you’re not operating heavy machinery or watching the kids.)
YouTube is another online resource for students of hypnosis.
By now, you might really be getting sleeeeepy. Repeat after me: “I feel like leaving a positive, upbuilding comment after reading this illuminating article.”