Hypnosis, as defined by the American Psychological Association Division of Psychological Hypnosis, is "a procedure during which a health professional or researcher suggests that a client, patient, or experimental participant experience changes in sensations, perceptions, thoughts, or behavior." Any definition is necessarily vague, as the underlying mechanism is little understood. Some theories view hypnosis as an altered state of consciousness, others as a type of focused attention. Psychologists have recently researched hypnosis and found a strong correlation between the ease of putting someone in a state of 'hypnosis' and their level of suggestibility. Generally, under hypnosis people become more receptive to suggestion, causing changes in the way they feel, think, and behave, although contrary to popular belief they do still remain theoretically in control of their actions. This suggestibility has led some psychologists to believe that hypnosis does not actually correspond to any underlying mechanism of the human mind, but is merely a social construct so well-known that strong social expectations are played out by the person who believes that they are in a state of hypnosis, with people behaving in a way that they think a hypnotized person would behave, placing the phenomenon in a purely social aspect.
However, some controlled scientific experiments seem to suggest that hypnosis may change conscious experience in a way not possible when people are not under hypnosis, at least in "highly hypnotizable" people. For example, according to one of these experiments, color perception was changed by hypnosis in "highly hypnotizable" people as determined by positron emission tomography (PET) scans. Other claims that hypnosis has been used with variable success for hundreds of applications, including entertainment, analgesia and psychoanalysis are widespread and well-documented.
Hypnosis also generally stimulates a feeling of relaxation, and this has helped its development into a therapy — hypnotherapy — although some of the treatments practiced, such as regression, are viewed by some with skepticism. It is claimed that when participants are put through the process of regression, they may invent false memories due to the social expectation placed on them. These memories cannot therefore be held to be reliable.
Hypnosis has further been described as "The suspension of the critical factor" which expands on the idea of "increased suggestibility". A person who claims to be hypnotized sometimes appears to accept statements as true that they would normally reject. For example, statements such as "you have forgotten your name" would not normally be accepted, but under hypnosis people do claim that they do not know their own name. It appears as if the hypnotized participant accepts the authority of the hypnotist over their own experience. When asked afterwards some participants appear to be genuinely unable to recall the incident, while others would say that they had known the hypnotist was wrong but at the time it had seemed easier just to go along with his instructions. Some hypnotists would claim that this showed the difference between a deep and a shallow hypnotic trance while skeptics would question the validity of the demonstration.
Those who practice hypnosis claim the hypnotic state is fairly common and in some ways cannot be distinguished from intense concentration when awareness of one's surroundings is lost. They quote as an example the experience, when driving, of suddenly finding oneself much further down the road without any memory of driving the intervening distance. Similarly, when a person is watching television and focuses so intently on the program that he/she ceases to be aware of the sides of the screen.
Both these descriptions suggest the nature of hypnosis although any definition offered is necessarily vague and unscientific in description. While many of the attributes of hypnosis may be well grounded in science, many other claims are commonly thought to be pseudoscience. Furthermore, as with most forms of therapy, there is always the risk of the Hawthorne Effect, the desire for a client to please the therapist or justify the expense of therapy, or hopeful thinking.
Hypnosis is usually brought on by a hypnotist carrying out an induction procedure. Different people respond more or less successfully to suggestion. Some people do seem able to display 'enhanced functioning', such as the suppression of pain, under hypnosis. However, studies suggest that these qualities are not exclusive to hypnosis, and it is the drama and fantasizing that encourages the behavior.
Experienced hypnotists claim that they can hypnotize almost anyone with the exception of the very young, the very elderly and people with a very low IQ, particularly those with an inability to concentrate. Intoxicated people would also prove very difficult. They also claim it is a myth that people with strong will power cannot be hypnotized, as they claim these generally make the best participants. Hypnotism depends upon the cooperation of the hypnotist and the participant; when a person with strong will power decides to cooperate with a hypnotist, hypnosis can occur. Alternatively, since hypnosis does depend on cooperation, no one can really be hypnotized against their will (Liébault). Being a hypnotist is not a source of power over other people.
Many religious and cultural rituals contain many similarities with techniques used for hypnotic induction and induce similar states in their participants.
Self-hypnosis — hypnosis in which a person hypnotizes themselves without the assistance of another person to serve as the hypnotist — is a staple of hypnotherapy-related self-help programs. It is most often used to help the self-hypnotist stay on a diet, overcome smoking or some other addiction, or to generally boost the hypnotized person's self-esteem. It is rarely used for the more complex or controversial uses of hypnotism, which require the hypnotist to monitor the hypnotized person's reactions and responses and respond accordingly. Most people who practice self-hypnosis require a focus for their attention in order to become fully hypnotized; there are many computer programs on the market that can ostensibly help in this area.
Scientists first became involved in hypnosis around 1770, when Dr. Franz Mesmer started investigating an effect he called 'animal magnetism' or 'mesmerism' (the latter name still remaining popular today). Abbé Faria was the first to affect a breach in the theory of the "magnetic fluid", to place in relief the importance of suggestion, and to demonstrate the existence of "auto-suggestion"; he also established that nervous sleep belongs to the natural order. From his earliest magnetizing séances, in 1814, he boldly developed his doctrine. Nothing comes from the magnetizer; everything comes from the subject and takes place in his imagination (The Indian concept Sammohan Bhavana shakti). The evolution of Mesmer's ideas and practices led James Braid (1795-1860) to coin the term and develop the procedure known as hypnosis in 1842. He rejected Mesmer's misleading idea of magnetism inducing hypnosis, and ascribed the creation of the 'mesmeric trance' to a physiological process — the prolonged attention on a bright moving object or similar object of fixation. He postulated that "protracted ocular fixation" fatigued certain parts of the brain and caused the trance, "nervous sleep." At first he called the procedure neurhypnotism but the current word soon emerged. Braid developed his ideas over time, down-playing his early idea of nervous sleep and increasing the role of psychological factors rather than fatigue. He came to recognize the role of intense, focused concentration by the participant on the hypnotist, a condition he called monoideism.
Braid attempted to use hypnotism to treat various psychological and physical conditions. He had little success, notably in his attempts to treat organic conditions. Other doctors had better results, especially in the use of hypnosis in pain control, a report in 1842 described an amputation performed on a hypnotized participant without pain. The report was widely dismissed and there was strong resistance in the medical profession to hypnotism, but other successful reports followed. Dr. James Esdaile (1805-1859) performed over 300 operations using hypnosis as pain control. The development of chemical anesthetics soon saw the replacement of hypnotism in this role.
The deaths of Braid and Esdaile curbed the interest in hypnotism. Experimentation was revived into the 1880s, mainly in continental Europe where new translations of Braid's work were circulated. The neurologist Jean Martin Charcot (1825-1893) endorsed hypnotism for the treatment of hysteria. La méthode numérique, still more popular on the continent than in England, led to a number of systematic experimental examinations of hypnosis in France, Germany and Switzerland. The process of post-hypnotic suggestion was first described in this period. Exaggerated claims were still made, extraordinary improvements in sensory acuity and memory were reported under hypnosis.
From the 1880s the examination of hypnosis passed from medical doctors to psychologists. Charcot had led the way and his study was continued by his pupil, Pierre Janet. Janet described the theory of dissociation, the splitting of mental aspects under hypnosis (or hysteria) so skills and memory could be made inaccessible or recovered. Janet provoked interest in the subconscious and laid the framework for reintegration therapy for dissociated personalities.
Also in this period Ambroise-Auguste Liébault first wrote of the necessity for cooperation between the hypnotizer and the participant, for rapport. He also emphasized, with Bernheim, the importance of suggestibility. Sigmund Freud met with Charcot and also Bernheim. Back in Vienna he developed abreaction therapy using hypnosis with Josef Breuer.
After this spate of interest the study again fell into abeyance. The modern study of hypnotism is usually considered to have begun in the 1930s with Clark Leonard Hull at Yale. An experimental psychologist, his work Hypnosis and Suggestibility (1933) was a rigorous study of the phenomenon, using statistical and experimental analysis. The main result of Hull's study was to rein in the extravagant claims of hypnotists, especially regarding extraordinary improvements in cognition or the senses under hypnosis. Hull's experiments did show the reality of some classical phenomena - hypnotic anaesthesia and post-hypnotic amnesia; hypnosis could also induce moderate increases in certain physical capacities and change the threshold of sensory stimulation, attenuation effects could be especially dramatic.
Studies continued after the Second World War. Barber, Hilgard, Orne and Sarbin also produced substantial studies. Ernest Hilgard and André Weitzenhoffer created the Stanford scales in 1961, a standardized scale for susceptibility to hypnosis, and properly examined susceptibility across age-groups and sex. Hilgard went on to study sensory deception (1965) and induced anesthesia and analgesia (1975).
Hypnosis is a natural, altered state of consciousness, where the conscious (analytical) mind is bypassed, and the subconscious (creative) mind is accessed. This allows the client to use the power of visualization and suggestion, given by oneself or another, to change and improve behavior patterns.
A person may not be hypnotized to do anything that goes against his or her moral values or beliefs, as the conscious mind is always protecting the individual from any harm. It is possible, however, to bring about negative and unnecessary behavioral changes through the inexperienced administration (or deliberate maladministration) of hypnotic suggestion. Given the potential for serious behavior modification, it is always advisable to check the credentials of hypnotherapists.
Hypnosis, in itself, is just a state of mental and physical relaxation, along with a more focused sense of concentration. Although the eyes are usually closed, hypnosis is not sleep (as is often popularly assumed), and most people find that they are more aware of smells, sounds, and feelings than usual. This concentrated awareness is what allows the hypnotherapist to plant positive suggestions and images in the mind of the client to bring about lasting changes.
- Mind control, Research by G. Wagstaff, Dept. of Psychology, University of Liverpool
- Hypnosis, Compliance and Belief by G. Wagstaff, (1981).
- The Highly Hypnotizable Person, Michael Heap, Richard J. Brown & David A. Oakley, (2004), Routledge
- Better and Better Every Day, Emile Coue, (1960).
- Uncommon Therapy, Jay Haley (about the psychotherapeutic intervention techniques of Milton Erickson)
- Advanced Self Hypnosis, Melvin Powers, Thorsons Publishers, 1973, ISBN-0-7225-0058-0
- Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism, Georgia Byng
- Hypnosis, from the Skeptic's dictionary (http://skepdic.com/hypnosis.html), skeptical review of the veracity of hypnosis.
- Hypnotic Visual Illusion Alters Color Processing in the Brain (http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/157/8/1279), Am J Psychiatry 157:1279-1284, August 2000.
- Hypnosis Studied With fMRI and PET brain scans (http://www.futurepundit.com/archives/002344.html) (digest of several scientific articles)