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Is Hypnosis Dangerous? Beliefs About Hypnosis & Expectation Of Negative Effects

Updated on June 27, 2011

Is Hypnosis Dangerous?

Beliefs About Hypnosis & Expectation of Negative Effects
Beliefs About Hypnosis & Expectation of Negative Effects


Since the early 1980’s increasing public and professional concern has been expressed over the possible dangers of hypnosis. A flurry of lurid newspaper reports has suggested that the largely unregulated use of hypnosis may be causing physical, emotional and psychological harm to participants, though exact figures are difficult to establish.

The unusual and the scary has an enduring and entertaining appeal, thus some hypnotists have used their talents to encourage people to engage in silly acts on stage whilst hypnotised. Indeed, hypnotism acts have replaced karaoke and quizzes as a popular entertainment in many pubs and clubs partly due to the massively popular TV shows of former Radio One disc jockey Paul McKenna. However, the ethics and the safety of stage-hypnosis are increasingly being called into question. Moreover, in addition to the ethical issues involved, there may be a case to answer for more tangible risks; there is the possibility that hypnosis for entertainment may pose very real risks to the physical and emotional health of participants. Entertainers claim that volunteers consent to perform, but whether this implicit consent is fully informed remains a point of considerable conjecture.

These issues are not new. In 1952, the UK Hypnotism Act was introduced to limit stage performances of hypnotism. This was largely the result of a case in which two young women required extensive psychiatric treatment after attending a stage hypnosis display. However, the prospect of much tougher enforcement and penalties governing hypnosis acts for public entertainment emerged after a Parliamentary debate on 12th December 1994 (see Appendix 3). Some of the cases cited in this debate prompted Ministers to consider criminal penalties for show business hypnotists who contravene Government guidelines or cause injury to spectators they put in a ‘trance’. Under existing legislation, stage hypnotism acts are required to be licensed by the local authority and are subject to guidelines which include a number of prohibitions, including the provision that no harm should come to anyone and no offensive acts should take place. The maximum penalty for infringement of the rules under existing legislation is a fine of £400. However, in the debate, Colin Pickthall, Labour MP for Lancashire West, claimed that existing laws are inadequate since a ‘loophole’ allows unregulated stage hypnotism to take place if it were being conducted for the purposes of research. Mr Pickthall further claimed that misused or badly-used hypnosis could result in ‘severe damage’ and he cited the case of Sharon Tabarn, the daughter of a constituent, who died five hours after being told to emerge from a trance as if she had experienced a 10,000-volt electric shock. Mr Pickthall cited reports of other after-effects of hypnosis, including violent headaches, uncontrollable anger, panic attacks and sleeping disorders.

Mr Tim Smith, the MP forBeaconsfield, spoke of a constituent, Mr Christopher Gates, who had been hypnotised by Paul McKenna, the TV personality, in March of that year. He said Mr Gates was hypnotised for more than two hours during which the 1952 Home Office guidelines were not followed. The alleged infringements included the fact that he was asked to regress in age and was left unattended for the whole of the interval. Mr Gates later felt unwell and was referred to a psychiatric unit for four weeks. Nine months later his condition had deteriorated severely and he thought of himself as eight years old and behaved like an eight-year-old child. The MP stated that Mr Gates had to be accompanied by an adult at all times.

Calling for tighter controls against the ‘cowboys’ in the business, Mr Pickthall is reported in The Electronic Telegraph (14th December 1994) Home News as having said: ‘For many people it is a relatively simple business to learn to hypnotise someone else - and within days to be hypnotising people on stage. We would not entertain for a moment untrained, unskilled, unlicensed people operating on people’s bodies, and in public for that matter. But we seem to be prepared to allow untrained, unlicensed people to operate in people’s minds, in public. It’s very easy, because hypnotism and its effects can be very funny, to turn it into a funny subject. It is in fact very serious and a lot of people have been seriously hurt by it.’

In response to the debate, Mr Michael Forsyth, the Home Office Minister announced a review of the 1952 Hypnotism Act. Mr Forsyth said it was clear that, ‘whether they are justified or not, there are genuine concerns about the possible adverse consequences which some people might suffer after participating in performances of stage hypnotism’. Mr Forsyth stressed the review would take medical advice on the possible risks to people taking part in acts of public entertainment involving hypnotism and would examine the problem of enforcement.

Despite concerns such as these, previous attempts to ban hypnotism for public entertainment have been unsuccessful. In March 1953, a month before the Hypnotism Act (1952) came into effect, what was then the London County Council voted unanimously to ban stage hypnotism completely, while MPs later sought to restrict stage hypnotism with an unsuccessful Private Member’s Bill in 1979 aimed at banning hypnotists from advertising. Both the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Independent Television Company (ITC) publish and adhere to strict guidelines on the broadcasting of hypnosis (see Appendices 1 and 2). In the light of widespread public and professional concerns over the incidence of negative sequelae being reported, the Home Secretary appointed a panel of experts to consider the effects of participation in performances of stage hypnosis. The panel invited both clinicians and participants in stage hypnosis to submit evidence. On the 11th of October 1995 the panel submitted their report to the Home Office. Subsequently a circular was issued advising local authorities of the outcome of this review.

The overall conclusion was that there may be some unwanted effects associated with participation in stage hypnosis, but these were experienced by a tiny minority of participants and rarely had long-lasting impact. Thus there was no case for banning stage hypnosis, only for tightening up existing regulations. However, one obvious point that arises from this review is how little systematic empirical research has been conducted in the general area of possible negative posthypnotic effects (NPHE). Thus whilst references are often made to anecdotal reports of NPHE following both stage and clinical hypnosis, empirical studies are thin on the ground.

It was considerations such as these which prompted the research presented in this thesis. The first aim of this thesis, therefore, was to review the evidence for alleged NPHE, including the historical antecedents of beliefs and attitudes about such NPHE. Consequently, here is presented a general introduction and review of the existing empirical literature. In Chapters 1 and 2 some recent anecdotal accounts are examined in some detail and an overview is provided of the sorts of problems that have been associated with hypnosis. Chapter 3 presents a historical survey of hypnosis and discusses the idea that NPHE may be comparatively recent phenomena, reflecting more the effects of expectations and beliefs than the consequences of a fairly invariant physiological state associated with hypnosis. Consequently it is in the 19th Century that the popular image of hypnosis as a state of automatism and profound suggestibility, open to obvious abuse, emerged. This popular image of hypnosis persists to the present day and its presence and influence in popular culture is discussed in Chapter 4.

Chapter 5 then explores the issues involved when cases based on this image have been brought before a court of law; these include issues of automatism, duress and the extent of control inherent in hypnosis. For example, can one, through hypnosis, subjugate and render an individual helpless or unconscious of alleged, usually sexual, assault, or coerce hypnotised individuals into criminal or antisocial behaviour?

As a result of these kinds of legal cases, particularly those emerging in the latter half of the 19th century, and the early concern about the potential of hypnosis as a form of control a number of researchers began to look at these issues in the laboratory. This experimental work is presented and discussed in some detail in Chapter 6.

Laboratory work, however, clearly has its limitations, so, in Chapter 7 many of the issues raised in the preceding chapters are discussed in relation to a real-life situation, that of stage hypnosis. Many of the issues surrounding the alleged NPHE relate to important questions about the phenomenology of hypnosis and theoretical explanations of hypnotic phenomena. These aspects are, therefore explored in Chapters 8 and 9. Chapter 10 then presents a summary and conclusion.

On the basis of the evidence reviewed, it is hypothesised that NPHE, if and when they arise from the procedures defined as ‘hypnosis’, do so largely as a consequence of exaggerated beliefs and expectancies held by participants about the nature and effects of hypnosis, or from factors not actually specifically associated with the use of such procedures per se. The main aim of this thesis, therefore, was to test empirically the hypothesis that most of the public concern about the problems associated with hypnosis arises from exaggerated beliefs and expectations about the nature of hypnosis.

Although hypnosis has a high public profile, as evidenced by the Government enquiry, very few higher education institutions offer any expertise or training at all in experimental or clinical hypnosis. The result is that the controversies that surround hypnosis are as poorly understood by many psychologists, as well as politicians, clinicians, legal experts and members of the general public; the general response being one of over-credulity concerning the traditional stereotype of hypnosis. There is thus a pressing need to train experimental researchers in this neglected area of study. It is anticipated this contribution to the field will have some implications in both academic and applied settings. It will be useful for hypnosis research in general, and has obvious implications for the application of hypnosis in the entertainment, clinical and forensic arenas.


Is Hypnosis Dangerous?: Beliefs About Hypnosis and Expectations of Negative Effects
Is Hypnosis Dangerous?: Beliefs About Hypnosis and Expectations of Negative Effects

A detailed study of the available literature and evidence from clinical, experimental and entertainment hypnosis including a comprehensive analysis of hypnosis in popular art and culture.

A detailed study of the available literature and evidence from clinical, experimental and entertainment hypnosis including a comprehensive review and detailed analysis of hypnosis in popular art and culture which, the author suggests, has historically given rise to exaggerated beliefs and many widespread myths and misconceptions about hypnosis that contribute to expectation of negative effects.

This work attempts to answer the questions pertaining to the alleged incidence of negative effects arising from the use of hypnosis in clinical, experimental, therapeutic and entertainment contexts.

It is argued that any such negative effects arising from the application of hypnosis do so not because of any dangers inherent in hypnosis itself or its techniques and applications but are due almost entirely to pre-existing beliefs about hypnosis and expectations of possible negative effects based on widespread misunderstanding about hypnosis as a discrete altered state of consciousness.

The author suggests that in fact hypnosis is not such an altered state but a psycho-social context in which compliance and belief are integral factors.

This argument is presented within the context of the academic dispute between physiological 'state' and social compliance 'non-state' theories.



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