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What is Hypnotism?

Updated on November 30, 2016

Hypnotism the study of hypnosis or the art of inducing it. Hypnosis is an induced state of extreme suggestibility. The hypnotized subject concentrates exclusively on whatever is presented to him by the hypnotist and is highly motivated to carry out the hypnotist's instructions. A hypnotist may direct the subject's concentration to such a degree that he will perform actions that would be extremely unusual or difficult for him in a normal state. In some ways, hypnosis resembles sleep, but a person in the hypnotic state is able to speak and act and may appear to be awake. Contrary to popular belief, the hypnotist does not exercise any magical power over his subject. In fact, hypnotism depends on cooperation between the subject and the hypnotist.

Hypnotism, under various names, has been practiced in many different ways since ancient times. Although it has been the subject of many different theories, its exact nature and mechanisms are still not clearly understood. In recent years, psychologists and psychiatrists have been attempting to learn more about the state through experimental research. Hypnotism has been found to have practical value as a means of anesthesia in medicine and dentistry and as an aid to psychiatric treatment for certain kinds of mental illness.

Hypnotism has considerable fascination for many people, and stage performers, charlatans, and amateurs have exploited its dramatic appeal. Physicians and psychologists warn, however, that hypnotism should never be attempted by untrained persons, since amateur hypnotists risk psychological damage to their subjects.

The Hypnotic Trance

There are many different techniques for inducing the hypnotic trance, but all have certain common features. The hypnotist must first gain the confidence and cooperation of the subject and then have him assume a comfortable and relaxed position. He then focuses the subject's attention, perhaps by having him stare at a bright object. At first the subject is told things that are partially true. For example, the hypnotist monotonously repeats words that suggest to the subject that he is becoming drowsy, that his eyelids are heavy and that he is going to sleep. If he is staring upward at a bright object, his eyes will be strained and his lids may indeed feel somewhat heavy. Gradually the subject's suggestibility is increased and he can be led to believe things that are obviously not true.

Not all persons can be hypnotized, and the trance is induced more easily in some people than in others. In addition, there are differences in the depth of hypnosis that can be produced. In a light trance the subject becomes quite drowsy and will carry out simple commands. When he is awakened, he usually remembers everything that occurred and feels as if he had been conscious throughout the experience. In a deep state of hypnosis the subject can open his eyes and walk around without disturbing the trance, and unless during the trance the hypnotist has instructed him to remember, when aroused from the trance he usually recalls little or nothing that happened.

Behavior Under Hypnosis

Under a deep hypnotic trance many kinds of unusual and interesting behavior can be induced by suggestion. For example, part or all of the body can be anesthetized so that the subject will not feel the jab of a pin or experience pain during a surgical operation. Other bodily changes, such as increased heart rate, can be induced. Such extreme muscular rigidity may be achieved that the subject's body can be moved about like a board. At the hypnotist's suggestion a subject may be able to perform acts that require unusual physical strength, courage, or concentration.

A hypnotic subject may be led to believe things that are not true and to behave as though they were. For example, if he is told that there is a dog in front of him, he will appear to see the dog and pet it or play with it. An important and somewhat similar phenomenon is called hypnotic age regression. For example, if a subject is told that he is six years old, he may then speak and behave like a six-year-old and even write his name the way he did at that age. Subjects can recall details of events that happened long in the past and can reenact important or highly emotional early experiences that might have contributed greatly to a personality disorder.

Suggestions made by the hypnotist during a trance may be carried over to the posthypnotic, or waking, state and may be acted on by the subject without his being aware of the reason for his behavior. Behavior in response to posthypnotic suggestion has interested psychologists because of its similarity to unconsciously motived behavior in the ordinary waking state. For example, if a subject is told that on awakening he will move his chair to the other side of the room when he sees the hypnotist scratch his head, the subject will carry out the command when the signal is given, although he is unaware of why he is doing it. If he is asked, he may try to give a reasonable or a fanciful explanation or he may simply report his strong irrational impulse to perform the act. Posthypnotic suggestion may be used to relieve severe symptoms as an aid to psychiatric treatment.

History of Hypnotism

In primitive societies, sorcerers used spells and incantations to put people into trances so that they could perform such extraordinary acts as walking on hot coals or branding themselves with fire. In the 18th century the German physician Friedrich Anton Mesmer found that by stroking or making passes over his patients' bodies, he could induce the phenomenon we now call hypnosis. He began to use the method for treating certain nervous disorders. Mesmer believed that the effect, which became known as mesmerism, stemmed from a force in the physician's body. The 19th-century English doctor James Braid rejected this idea and concluded from experiments that the effect was a form of nervous sleep induced by suggestion. He invented the name "hypnotism," which is derived from the Greek hypnos, meaning "sleep." Braid's work gained a favorable reception, but interest in hypnotism declined after his death in 1860. It re-emerged in France in the 1880's, when, at Nancy, A. A. Liebault and H. Bernheim developed Braid's ideas. In Paris, Jean Martin Charcot, noting that hypnotic phenomena resemble the symptoms of hysterical mental patients, believed that suggestibility is a form of abnormal behavior. Charcot's pupil, the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, abandoned the use of hypnotism when he found that its effectiveness was only temporary. However, his experiences with hypnosis played a part in the development of his theories of psychoanalysis and his techniques of free association and dream interpretation.

During World War II, hypnotism was employed as a method for the rapid treatment of combat fatigue and other disorders. Since that time, investigators have used hypnotism principally as a research tool for studying personality processes and as an aid to treatment.

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