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What is Hypnosis?

Updated on March 22, 2012

Franz Mesmer's arrival in Paris in 1778 caused an immediate sensation. This Austrian doctor was demonstrating a process of 'animal magnetism' to treat many forms of illness. Waving his hands over his patients' faces and gazing into their eyes, he would 'mesmerize' them with an iron rod and bring them into a deep trance. Although Mesmer's success did not last long, his music hall-type demonstrations were to pave the way for a growing interest in the science of hypnosis.

A process which is still little understood, hypnosis remains a mystery in many respects.

Serious research is being carried out almost continuously in the Soviet Union and the United States, and we now know many important facts which with further research may eventually form a theory of hypnosis.

When a subject is hypnotized for the first time, he will usually be asked to sit or lie down in a quiet room. The operator or hypnotist will explain what is going to happen and reassure him about a number of points which many people misunderstand.

Most adults can be hypnotized at least to some degree, and people who are highly intelligent, well-adjusted and extroverted are as likely to be good subjects as anyone else. It is certainly not a sign of a 'weak mind' that a person can be hypnotized, nor is there any kind of battle of wills involved in the process.

Really good subjects, however, who have been hypnotized on several occasions, may find it difficult or even impossible to resist except by refusing to stay in the room with the operator. Usually the subject has to be prepared to be co-operative if the induction is to succeed.

Most operators then work on their subjects for some time, putting them at ease and asking them to relax particular parts of the body in turn. At about this time, the so-called hypnotic patter will be started.

The operator repeats in a warm tone of voice, calculated to induce drowsiness, such phrases as: 'You are feeling more and more relaxed; nothing seems to matter except listening to my voice; your eyelids feel heavier and heavier, and you are starting to feel drowsy.' There is no attempt to reason with the subject, to provide him with explanations, nor to frighten him, but simply a repetition of confident assertions that he is having certain experiences.

Many operators also ask their subjects to gaze fixedly at a small shiny object or a spot of light. This is so positioned that the subject has to roll his eyes upwards into a rather uncomfortable position described as 'a double upward internal squint' in order to see it. This makes the subject feel sleepy so that he wants to close his eyes and increases suggestibility for reasons which are by no means fully understood. The subject soon reaches the stage where he cannot help closing his eyes and, if challenged to open them by the hypnotist, finds that he cannot do so. From then onwards there is a ready response to more complicated verbal suggestions.

It is possible to arrange these suggestions along a scale. Some will be accepted readily by the majority of subjects even in the early stages of hypnosis, while others will only be accepted by a few and then after a deep stage of hypnosis has been reached. Closing the eyes, rigid contraction of all the muscles in a limb, and the loss of the ability to feel a light touch on the arm, are suggestions which can be demonstrated in order of difficulty at a relatively early stage. Inability to remember familiar facts and vivid illusions that parts of the body are moving represent yet further increases in difficulty. All subjects tend to be able to accept increasingly difficult suggestions as they are hypnotized more frequently.

Research has thrown doubt on many of the claims made by early hypnotists, and has shown that some things which occur are less remarkable than they might at first appear. A lightly hypnotized subject may perform feats of strength which he seems unable to accomplish in his normal state.

However, he may not normally have adequate motivation, and limits of performance can easily be pushed up to the levels achieved in hypnosis by the setting up of rewards or fear of punishment.

Hypnotism depends partly on the characteristics and expectations of the subject, and partly on the use made by the operator of a set of techniques that can be learned and practiced. The operator's own personality is important to a far lesser degree, although there are subjects who seem to respond only to one particular operator.

The way in which a person responds to hypnosis seems to be influenced by what he thinks it is normal for a hypnotized person to do. In one experiment, a student was 'accidentally' allowed to overhear two psychologists discussing the way in which another subject, already hypnotized, had reacted. They remarked that he had been unusual in that his left hand, rather than his right, had been the first to succumb to hypnotic control. This discussion was, of course, part of the experiment, and there had been no difference between the two hands. Nevertheless, this student did react much more readily with his right hand when hypnotized and continued to do so on each subsequent occasion until the experiment had been explained.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, in the early days of the study of hypnosis, the celebrated French neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot, demonstrated to his students that there were three main kinds of hypnotic state. The lightest, which he called lethargy, resembled natural sleep, except that muscles became hyper-excitable and contracted strongly if pressed or stroked. This state could be transformed into a catalepsy if the hypnotist raised his subject's eyelids so that the eyes were open. In this state, a limb placed in any position, no matter how uncomfortable it would normally be, remained there indefinitely. The third and deepest state, called somnambulism, could be developed from either lethargy or catalepsy by gently rubbing the subject's head. This classification and the methods used for transforming one state into another are now highly suspect, and apparently no longer observed. It seems to be that each of Charcot's new subjects rapidly developed strong expectations about the way he would behave when hypnotized, since, once recruited, he spent most of his waking hours in close contact with people who already took the classification for granted. The whole system represented a sort of self-sustaining myth and is still little understood today.

Expectations can certainly influence behavior under hypnosis. But will a person who has been hypnotized do things which he knows to be dangerous to himself or to others? Would he pick up poisonous snakes or throw acid in the eyes of the hypnotist? Successful methods have gradually been developed in setting up situations, where the subject, if in his normal state, would have every reason to believe that the suggested action would really be dangerous.

As he holds the beaker of fuming acid in his hands, he sees it dissolve the metal filings he puts into it, but still flings the contents into the face of the hypnotist without hesitation when told to do so. Fortunately, the experimenter is protected by a sheet of invisible, non-reflective glass. It was once thought that the hypnotized person might develop some special sensitivity which enabled him to see it and realize that he could safely throw the acid, but this possibility now tends to be discounted.

There is little doubt that in these experiments acts will be committed which a person would normally refuse to agree to do.

It has been suggested, however, that this is not because the hypnotized subject is deprived of his moral sense, but rather that the volunteer who takes part in hypnosis does so with certain very powerful expectations at the back of his mind.

Suppose that the subject in an experiment was to come out of the hypnotic state, to find that he really had been forced into murdering someone. He would certainly express contempt for those who put him into his terrible predicament. The subject who enters an experiment with hypnosis assumes the existence of a sort of unwritten 'contract', limiting the experimenter's freedom of action. If, during the hypnosis, there seems to be any discrepancy between the terms of this 'contract' and the behavior of the hypnotist, it seems likely that the subject assumes the behavior is not to be taken at its face value.

Nevertheless, it is often very difficult to persuade a subject to go against his normal moral codes. However, if the hypnotist can alter the subject's view of the situation so that certain actions might seem appropriate, then the difficulty can often be overcome and the subject so persuaded.

In one particular experiment, a direct suggestion was strongly resisted, that a research assistant should be stabbed to death with an obviously lethal knife and the subject showed clear signs that he was coming out of hypnosis. When the direct suggestions were stopped, however, and the hypnotist had persuaded his subject that he was back in a prisoner-of-war camp, awaiting execution, it became quite easy to induce the desired assault by a further delusion that the assistant was a prison guard who had discovered him just as he was making a successful escape.

The hypnotist may suggest to a good subject that a bitter lemon is an orange, and it will be eaten with every sign of enjoyment. He may bring in an empty tray, suggesting that there is an appetizing meal on it, and not only will the non-existent food be eaten with most convincing pantomime, but changes in the size of the stomach will also occur.

Negative hallucinations may also be induced and the subject may be prevented from having experiences which would be normal in a particular situation. Tell him that he is no longer able to see the research assistant, and he will behave as if he is no longer present. If asked to look carefully around the room to see if the research assistant is hiding somewhere, he will give only the most furtive of glances to the place where the assistant is actually standing.

He is probably not pretending, at least not in any normal sense. If the research assistant marches up to him and grips him by the hand, he will give every indication of being terrified, and will say that something terrible is happening but that he cannot describe what it is.

A particular kind of hallucination which has been very carefully investigated is the removal of the normal sense of pain. Major abdominal surgery has even been performed on some subjects without any signs of pain or distress, and a number of films have been made to record such operations.

Carefully controlled experiments on pregnant women have shown that labor can be shortened and distress reduced or eliminated.

Dental operations of a normally painful nature can be carried out without even the help of a local anesthetic.

Great differences of opinion exist among psychiatrists as to the effectiveness of hypnotic treatment in cases of mental illness, as well as the wisdom of using it even if results are successful.

Psycho-analysts may not deny that direct suggestion under hypnosis can be used to remove symptoms of many kinds of neurotic illness, but they argue that it does nothing to cure the underlying illness.

Symptoms may either return, or be replaced by others even more serious. At the other end of the scale, so-called behavior therapists would say that the symptoms are the illness, and that there is nothing which can be called an underlying illness at all.

If hypnosis can be used to relieve symptoms, as it undoubtedly can in certain cases, they would argue that it should be used. But it is in fact seldom tried with such disorders, as there is very little evidence of successful results.

Hypnotism can, however, often be used with considerable success to treat loss of memory, particularly when the incidents for which an amnesia had developed seem to be associated with unbearable emotions, such as fear, grief, or hate. But most forgetting is not of the dramatic kind associated with amnesia. It usually takes place gradually with the passage of time. There is substantial evidence that the hypnotized subject may be made to re-live earlier experiences, particularly those of childhood.

Careful enquiry often reveals that many of the 'memories' recovered are entirely fictional, but most authorities think that a certain amount of positive evidence really does exist. Some of the most impressive evidence has arisen when adult subjects have been regressed to infancy, and have displayed involuntary behavior appropriate to that age.

Suggestions given during the hypnotic state may also be made to influence the subject's behavior after he has returned to normal. Such post-hypnotic suggestion may involve no more than telling the subject during hypnosis that, when he awakens, he will have an irresistible urge to take his shoes off, as soon as he sees the hypnotist make a specified signal. After being awakened, subjects usually forget that such an instruction has been given, but when the signal is made, the required act will usually be performed. The subject will usually rationalize his behavior, perhaps by claiming to have a stone in his shoe, and may show signs of considerable distress if prevented from carrying on the required action. With this simple type of posthypnotic suggestion, there is evidence that the giving of the relevant signal actually returns him once again to the hypnotic state he had entered.

A rather different form of post-hypnotic suggestion is attempted when the hypnotist tries to produce a long lasting change in his subject's habits or state of mind. It is usually necessary to repeat the hypnosis at frequent intervals, perhaps even daily for a while, if success of a relatively permanent kind is to be achieved. Experiments of this type have been carried out in order to stop patients smoking, but a very large proportion of cases prove to be failures in spite of the use of sophisticated techniques.

Since no one really understands how hypnotism works, it is rather difficult to say who should be regarded as qualified to use it. If it is used as an aid to the diagnosis and treatment of physical or mental illness, the hypnotist should obviously work in consultation with a doctor or psychiatrist, if he is not qualified himself. Medical practitioners are, however, very strongly discouraged from working in collaboration with hypnotists who lack a generally recognized medical qualification.

Interest in hypnosis waxes and wanes and it is inevitable that a technique which is so little understood will be regarded with suspicion by many responsible people.

Many very active professional associations are working throughout the world to bring together psychiatrists, physicians, surgeons, dentists and psychologists who wish to use and study the phenomena. Doctors specializing in physiology are now also beginning to make an increasingly important contribution to this science.

In inexperienced or irresponsible hands, the use of hypnosis can undoubtedly be followed by serious consequences for the subject, although the number of such cases on record is surprisingly small. It seems that it is only subjects who were already on the verge of a nervous or psychiatric breakdown who have been seriously disturbed by the effects or after-effects of hypnotism.

However, it is undoubtedly wise to steer clear of casual experimentation, whether in the role of subject or operator, in view of such potential dangers.


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