Hypnosis – so what’s it all about?

MarkW, Going Postal

The subject of hypnosis is one that often evokes more misinformed comments than almost any other.  It is something embedded in popular culture, but very few people have any “proper” experience of it.  Songs, books and films all cover it, but all do so in an exaggerated way, that bears no real resemblance to reality.

So what actually is it?  I think one of the best definitions I have heard is

An altered state of mind in which the attention is highly focused and which bypasses critical thinking

This trance state is far from a zombie-like experience so often portrayed, in fact quite the opposite.  It is perfectly possible to be highly active and even perform “super human like” functions in a trance state.  Once in this state, any suggestion will become the reality to the person in trance.  Lemons can become sweet, you can feel an icy wind, causing the hairs on your arm to stand up in goose bumps, or pain can disappear like a morning mist, all through the power of suggestion.

Medical researchers have conducted fMRI studies on hypnotised subjects and found that entirely different parts of the brain are in use whilst others are silenced in the hypnotic state, giving hard empirical evidence that the phenomena is indeed real.

A bit of history

Before we go into more detail on the what, or even the how and why, it is useful to cover a little bit of history.  Evidence of hypnosis-like states are no doubt out there, and are not restricted to any particular region or culture.  In the Western world, one the earliest and more famous proponents was Franz Mesmer.  His version of trance work relied on faulty thinking, believing in magnetic flows and their manipulation, however his techniques of suggestion did get results, probably because people wanted to believe.  This quickly came to an end when Benjamin Franklin observed his methods.  He was very scathing in a written report, and subsequently Mesmer fell out of fashion.

The next interesting figure was James Braid, who is responsible for coining the term hypnotism, derived from the Greek, hypnos (sleep).  He published a very successful paper on hypnotism via fixation, that was translated into 16 languages.  He discovered his method whilst staring at a light as he waited at his doctors for an eye examination.  This fixation method is still moderately commonly used to this day, although somewhat adapted, and is responsible for the swinging watch trope that many are familiar with.

Around the same time another mesmerist based in India performing interesting work.  James Esdaile worked for the East India Company and become the surgeon at Hoogly Hospital.  He read of the process of mesmerisation and decided to carry out the procedure on a patient in extreme pain.  He succeeded with his painless surgery, and to such an extent that large numbers of patients would turn up at his hospital looking for this new treatment.  He performed every kind of operation from amputations to abdominal surgery all with patients completely mesmerised in what he called the Esdaile state.  At the time, surgery mortality was 50%, Esdaile’s however was 8% and patients recovered much more quickly.

A more modern hypnotist many have heard of is Milton Erickson, who contracted polio, and whilst bedridden, careful observed how his sisters and mother talked to each other especially as they tried to persuade each other.  From these observations, Erickson devised a whole raft of theories on language and suggestions that are the subject of whole books, and heavily influenced modern day hypnosis practice.

More practical aspects

A common refrain of people when first introduced to hypnosis is “I cant be hypnotised”  This may stem from belief, maybe from a failed induction attempt by an inexperienced hypnotist or some other source.  Stanford University tried to answer this very question by conducting experiments to determine just how many people where susceptible to hypnosis.

Researchers recorded an induction script onto a tape in a monotone voice and played it back to their test subjects.  Their results showed around 20% were highly suggestible, 50% averagely suggestible and the remainder non suggestible.  This experiment and its results are often cited as a rule.  It is however, total nonsense.  What they have actually measured is the susceptibility of subjects to a monotone tape.

And experienced hypnotist would pace and check the subjects state at critical parts of the induction, and would use an involving tone of voice that varied in interesting ways (in pace and tone for example) to maintain and capture that critical focus that was mentioned earlier.  They would also adapt their session according to the responses (or lack of) in their subject.  Hence, the number of people that are capable of being hypnotised is in reality far higher, some practitioners claim they have a 100% success rate and that there is no barrier whatsoever to hypnotising willing subjects.

The other flaw in this argument is that most people experience trance on a daily basis.  Every sat staring out a window and day dreamed?  That’s trance.  Ever sat in the cinema amongst a whole lot of strangers, the lights go down and suddenly you completely forget all about them?  That’s trance.  Ever been driving home and been mulling over a problem of some sort and then find yourself pulling into your driveway?  Who was driving the car for the last 30 minutes?!  That’s trance.  It is selective focus of parts of the mind.

What about the doctors?

Hypnosis is medical circles was actually much more commonly accepted than today.  In 1955 the British Medical Association approved the use of hypnosis in the areas of psycho-neuroses and hypno-anaesthesia in pain management in childbirth and surgery. At this time, the BMA also advised all physicians and medical students to receive fundamental training in hypnosis.  In the US 3 years later, the American Medical Association also approved a report on the medical uses of hypnosis as an orthodox medical treatment.  More recently, the British Psychological Society also endorsed the use of hypnotherapy in 2001.

The how

A “classical” hypnotic session starts with an induction, which is just fancy hypno-talk for the process of going into the altered mental state.  A good hypnotist will also have a pre-talk, explaining the process and what to expect.  A classic of the field is the Elman induction named after Dave Elman, an American hypnotist who is regarded as one of the fathers of modern hypnosis.  His observations and experiences are given in his book Hypnotherapy (also known as Findings in Hypnosis or Explorations in Hypnosis depending on the publisher).  Dodgy copies are floating around the internet as it went out of print some time ago.

One of Elman’s key observations was that as people were hypnotised in more and more sessions, they became more and more responsive to the suggestions.  Elman condensed the whole process down and repeatedly took his subjects in and out of hypnosis in the first few minutes of a session, quickly getting them to their most suggestible and focused state, at which point change was most effective.

This however is not the only method.  Other hypnotists have developed “instant” inductions, a type of shock that instantly disrupts your normal thought processes and in the moment of confusion, hypnotic suggestions are introduced.  Derren Brown demonstrated this on TV at a bookies where he slapped the counter and said, “It is the winning ticket!”  The cashier paid out on a lost bet.  Inductions are in fact an art, the hypnotist is watching and testing the subject, and leading them into trance can take many forms.

Once in trance, the subject is given the suggestions and commands to effect the desired change.  Note I use the word desired.  It is virtually impossible to hypnotise a subject to behave in a way that they object to.  However with careful manipulation, the subject can be deceived into behaving a certain way that they would not normally do, and indeed, would normally object to.  Again, Derren Brown explored this theme in his show “The Assassin”, in which a volunteer was hypnotised to assassinate Stephen Fry during a theatre show.

The commands can alos be post hypnotic commands, that is, to be carried out whilst going about your normal life.  It could be to maintain correct posture for example.  These commands can have a particular trigger, maybe you are reaching for a cigarette, and it is only then that the hypnotic effects are felt.

What does it feel like?

As already mentioned, it is very similar to day dreaming, you are fully aware of things going on around you but you don’t really care.  You feel relaxed, and are following the hypnotist like you would follow along for a good story teller, fascinated with what’s going to happen next.

The why

So why the interest in this altered state?  What use is it?  Well first off, it is very relaxing and pleasant experience as mentioned.  And as we heard earlier, you can change the mind’s perception of reality.  Having your limb amputated without anaesthetic?  No problem!  We can simply alter your perception and there is no pain.  In fact, dentistry in the US used to use hypnotic pain management fairly regularly in the 50s and 60s.  But that’s only the start.

In fact the mind has such a powerful effect on the body that it is accounted for in drug trails of new medicines.  The technical medical term for it is the Placebo effect, an effect so strong, it is estimated to be responsible for 50% of all drug effectiveness.

Most people will have come across medical hypnosis for issues such as weight loss, smoking cessation or maybe phobia cures.  This however, is only the tip of the iceberg.  Any normal bodily process or thought can be modified by hypnosis.  Now reread that last sentence again.

ANY normal bodily process or thought can be modified by hypnosis.

Weight loss or weight gain?  Muscle loss or muscle gain?  Breast size decrease or increase? See this or this.  A stage hypnotist in more adult themed shows will often give female participants an orgasm.  And then a whole load more, and tell her she will be this orgasmic for the rest of her life.

Suffering from irritable bowel syndrome?  Allergies?  Depression?  Stuttering?  Hair loss from alopecia?  Snoring during the night?  Impotence?  Hypnosis can help with all of these and more.

The mechanism of action of these processes is unclear and untested, the results however are stacking up.  The working theory at the moment is that the subconscious mind is controlling these functions and through hypnosis, they are modified to produce physiological changes.  In the case of breast enlargement, blood flow is modified and hormones released for example.

So dear reader, given the above statement, if you could modify anything about yourself for the better, what would you change?  You really are limited only by your imagination!

© MarkW 2018
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