Hypnotism is the scientific and clinical use of
hypnosis. Hypnosis, or a hypnotic state, is a temporary condition of altered
attention in an individual. A hypnotist is a person who uses hypnotism.
Scientific evidence suggests that hypnotism is useful when it is practised
by qualified professionals. For example, some professionals use hypnotism to
treat patients who have certain medical or psychological problems.
People have used hypnotic techniques since ancient times. But the practice
of hypnotism has been condemned at times because of its misuse or because of
ignorance, mistaken beliefs, and overstated claims. Today, professional
organizations accept hypnotism when it is used for valid medical or
What hypnotism is
Scientists have shown that hypnosis is a natural part of human behaviour
that affects psychological, social, and physical experience. There is no
magic connected with hypnotism, and the hypnotist has no special power. The
effects of hypnotism depend on the willingness and motivation of the person
being hypnotized. In hypnosis, a change in the quality and focus of a
person's attention alters his or her internal and external experience.
Hypnosis has been compared to dreaming and sleepwalking. The term hypnosis
comes from the Greek word hypnos, which means sleep. However, hypnosis is
not actually related to sleep. It involves a more active and intense mental
concentration. Hypnotized people can talk, write, and walk about. They are
usually fully aware of what is said and done.
A hypnotist uses certain methods to induce (guide) hypnosis in another
person. As the person responds to the methods, the person's state of
attention changes. This altered state often leads to various other changes
or phenomena. For example, the person may experience different levels of
awareness, consciousness, imagination, memory, and reasoning or become more
responsive to suggestions. Additional phenomena may be produced or
eliminated. Such phenomena may include sensations, blushing, sweating,
paralysis, tensing of muscles, and anaesthesia (loss of pain sensation).
Scientists have shown that changes in almost every body function and system
may occur with hypnosis.
None of the experiences of hypnosis are unique. Some or all of the phenomena
can occur without the use of hypnotic techniques. For example, people who
are very responsive to hypnosis show an increased responsiveness to
suggestions before they are hypnotized. This responsiveness increases during
People once believed that hypnotists could force their subjects to perform
criminal acts or other actions against the subjects' will. There is no clear
evidence to show that hypnosis causes such behaviour. Hypnotized people can
and do resist suggestions. They do not lose control of their actions and can
distinguish between right and wrong.
Public performances of hypnotism are responsible for many popular
misconceptions about hypnosis. Many people are first exposed to hypnotism
through a magic show or a film. Such presentations often make hypnotism
appear simple. They may tempt untrained people to try to perform hypnotism
on themselves or on other people.
The hypnotic experience
Some people can go into hypnosis within a few seconds or minutes. Others
cannot be hypnotized easily. There are various levels of hypnosis. For
example, with light hypnosis, the person becomes rested and follows simple
directions easily. In deep hypnosis, complete anaesthesia may be
experienced. In the treatment of medical or psychological problems, the
level of hypnosis is not usually related to the effectiveness of treatment.
Inducing hypnosis in another person can be achieved through several
techniques. Perhaps the best-known techniques use direct commands. These
commands consist of simple suggestions repeated continuously in much the
same tone of voice. The hypnotist instructs the subject to focus his or her
attention on an object or fixed point, such as a spot on the ceiling. Then
the hypnotist tells the subject to relax, breathe deeply, and allow the
eyelids to grow heavy and to close.
Many professionals use verbal and nonverbal techniques known as indirect
inductions. Such procedures usually omit the use of a focal object. The
subject responds to a story or a mental puzzle presented by the hypnotist.
The hypnotist does not tell the patient to relax or to close the eyes.
Instead, the hypnotist suggests these actions indirectly through the story
or puzzle. The hypnosis treatment remains much the same.
Some hypnotists give their subjects a challenge suggestion to test for
hypnosis. For example, the hypnotist may say, "You will have difficulty
moving your right hand." The person may then find the movement difficult or
impossible to perform. Such tests do not necessarily indicate a hypnotic
state. They may merely demonstrate a person's response to suggestion.
Historically, various drugs occasionally have been used to help induce
hypnosis. However, drugs and special tools or other gimmicks are rarely
necessary for inducing hypnosis. Most professionals do not make use of
There are many individual differences in what a person
experiences with hypnosis. A hypnotized person may experience changes in
awareness, creative imagination, reasoning, and wakefulness. Physical
changes within the body also may be produced by suggestion. These phenomena
include changes in blood flow, blood pressure, heart rate, and sensations of
cold and heat.
Professionals sometimes concentrate on a certain phenomenon of hypnosis to
help treat their patients. One useful phenomenon is the ability of some
hypnotized people to remember forgotten experiences. After people have a
shocking or painful experience, they often repress (block) memories
associated with the experience from their conscious thoughts. Sometimes, the
repressed memories influence the individual's normal behaviour and may
result in certain forms of mental illness. For example, during World War II
(1939-1945), soldiers occasionally developed amnesia (loss of memory) as a
result of some of their experiences. By hypnotizing these patients, doctors
were able to help the patients remember their experiences and relieve the
emotional tensions that had built up. This treatment helped the patients
regain their health.
Another hypnotic phenomenon is called age regression. The doctor or
therapist suggests that the hypnotized patient is a certain age. The patient
may then recall or "relive" incidents in his or her life. If the hypnotist
suggests that the patient is 7 years old, for example, the patient may
appear to talk, act, and even think much as a 7-year-old. In this way,
patients may remember events and feelings that may have had some bearing on
their present illness. The patient can then reinterpret the situation with
additional information, new insights, and increased coping skills.
Sometimes, at the hypnotist's command, subjects may believe they are living
in some past or future time. They may feel that they have travelled back to
the Middle Ages or on to the next century. Untrained hypnotists may look
upon such changes as proof that the individual was or will be reincarnated.
Most professionals consider these fantasies to be much the same as dreams
and unrelated to past or future reality.
Ending the hypnosis session is generally not difficult. A person usually
remains in hypnosis until given a signal by the hypnotist. The hypnotist may
count to five, make an indirect suggestion, or produce some type of sound.
Sometimes the subject ends the experience even when no signal is given.
Occasionally a hypnotist may have difficulty ending the hypnosis. This
problem is one of the reasons why only trained professionals should practise
Uses of hypnotism
Modern methods of hypnotism have helped scientists increase their
understanding of the human mind and body, and normal and abnormal behaviour.
Hypnotism is used in research; in medicine, particularly surgery and
dentistry; and in psychotherapy. Hypnosis has occasionally been used in
Hypnotism has been the subject and a tool in many studies. Tests have been
developed to measure a person's hypnosis experience. Research into people's
susceptibility to hypnosis has shown that children can usually be hypnotized
more easily than adults and that males and females can be hypnotized.
Some doctors use hypnosis as a sedative to soothe patients who are nervous
or in pain. Some patients become less aware of pain with hypnosis, while
others report no pain at all. Doctors may use deep hypnosis as a form of
anaesthesia, so that patients will feel no pain while undergoing surgery or
childbirth. Hypnotism has also been used to lessen the discomfort of
patients recovering from surgery or other medical procedures.
Doctors also have made use of the ability of a hypnotized person to remain
in a given position for long periods of time. In one case, doctors had to
graft skin onto a patient's badly damaged foot. First, skin from the
person's abdomen was grafted onto his arm. Then the graft was transferred to
his foot. With hypnosis, the patient held his arm tightly in position over
his abdomen for three weeks, then over his foot for four weeks. Even though
these positions were unusual, the patient at no time felt uncomfortable.
Some dentists may use hypnotism as an anaesthetic. After the patient has
been hypnotized, the dentist drills the tooth and fills the cavity. The
patient remains relaxed and feels comfortable throughout the procedure.
Mental health professionals who may use hypnotism include psychiatrists,
psychologists, and clinical social workers. Therapists may use hypnosis as
the main focus or as a part of the treatment. Hypnotism may be used to calm
disturbed patients. This treatment may help the patients to become more
aware of their feelings, modify their behaviour, and learn new ways of
thinking and solving problems. Psychological conditions that have been
treated through hypnosis include anxiety, depression, phobias, stress, and
Hypnosis helps some people control or stop such problem habits as eating
disorders and smoking. Hypnotism has been used to improve learning, reading,
sleep, speech problems, sports performance, and behavioural problems.
Hypnotism can also be effective in controlling certain physical problems
that are linked to psychological factors. These so-called
psychophysiological problems include certain conditions in the nervous
system, as well as some ailments of the heart, stomach, and lungs. Hypnotism
occasionally has aided in the treatment of patients with chronic illnesses
like arthritis, cancer, multiple sclerosis, pain, and stroke.
Hypnosis occasionally has been used with witnesses and victims of crime. In
hypnosis, people may remember important clues, such as a criminal's physical
appearance or another significant detail that might help in solving the
crime. Care must be taken to also obtain independent information as people
can lie and make mistakes while hypnotized. Hypnosis cannot make a person
give away a secret.
Dangers of hypnotism
Hypnotism can only be dangerous if it is abused. Only a qualified
professional should practise hypnotism. Although many people can learn to
hypnotize, the skill is not a substitute for training in medicine and
psychology. People who practise hypnotism need sufficient education and
experience to be able to analyse a condition, determine that hypnosis is an
appropriate treatment, and evaluate the results.
An untrained person cannot deal with the difficulties that might occur as
the result of inappropriately hypnotizing an individual. For example, an
unqualified hypnotist may give treatment for the wrong condition or may
overlook significant details. An inappropriate suggestion may mask or cover
an illness or symptom. If the hypnotist uses an incorrect method or
approach, a symptom may be interpreted as a completely different problem.
The symptom may remain undetected, and the subject may not learn the proper
skills for solving the real problem. In addition, alternative treatment
techniques may be ignored or may not be used effectively.
Some people learn self-hypnosis, also called autohypnosis. Self-hypnosis
should be used only after an expert has determined that it is the
appropriate treatment for the particular problem. A person learning
self-hypnosis should have professional instruction. Complications may arise
if self-hypnosis is practised incorrectly.
Throughout history, various cultures and groups have used rituals and
techniques that can best be described as hypnotism. Hypnotic experiences
have been described by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks and by tribal
cultures. References to deep sleep and anaesthesia have been found in the
Old Testament and in the Talmud, a collection of sacred writings of
Mesmerism. The scientific development of hypnotism can be traced to
the efforts of Franz Anton Mesmer, an Austrian doctor who became prominent
during the 1770's. Mesmer called his work animal magnetism.
Some people believed that disease developed when invisible magnetic fluids
were cut off or improperly distributed. Mesmer used water tubs and magnetic
wands to direct the supposed fluids to his patients. Many patients claimed
that this treatment cured them.
In 1784, a French commission was formed to study the claims of Mesmer and
his followers. The commission reported that the magnetic fluids did not
exist. It explained the cures as a product of the patients' imaginations.
Many of Mesmer's patients and students helped spread the belief in animal
magnetism, which became known as mesmerism. Students of mesmerism continued
to experiment with some of his methods. Some of these people soon found that
magnets or fluids were unnecessary.
Scientific studies. The term hypnotism was used by James Braid, a
British doctor who studied suggestion and hypnosis in the mid-1800's. Braid
pointed out that hypnosis differed from sleep and that hypnotism was a
physiological response in the subject, not the result of secret powers.
Perhaps Braid's most valuable contribution was his attempt to define
hypnotism as a phenomenon that could be scientifically studied. During this
same period, James Esdaile, a Scottish doctor working in India, began to use
hypnotism as an anaesthetic in major surgery, including leg amputations. He
performed about 200 operations with the aid of hypnosis.
During the late 1800's, the French neurologist Jean Martin Charcot performed
landmark experiments involving hypnosis. He found that hypnosis relieved
many nervous conditions. His clinic for nervous disorders achieved a
widespread reputation among scientists of the time, including the French
psychologist Alfred Binet and the Austrian doctor Sigmund Freud. Also in the
late 1800's, the French doctors Hippolyte Bernheim and Ambroise Auguste
Liebeault explored the role of suggestibility in hypnosis. These two
scientists used hypnosis to treat more than 12,000 patients.
Freud was especially interested in the work of Charcot and Bernheim. He used
hypnotized people in his early studies of the unconscious state. For various
reasons, Freud abandoned the use of hypnosis in his clinical practice.
However, he continued to view hypnosis as an important research phenomenon.
Late in his life, Freud modified his once negative views on hypnotism.
During the early 1900's, the Russian physiologist and psychologist Ivan
Pavlov sought to discover a physiological basis of hypnosis. Pavlov
maintained that hypnosis is based on inhibition (blockage) of certain nerve
impulses in the brain.
Hypnotism became widely used by doctors and psychologists during World War I
and World War II. Hypnosis was used to treat battle fatigue and mental
disorders resulting from war. After the wars, scientists found additional
uses of hypnotism in clinical treatment.
Berger, Melvin. Mind Control. Crowell, New York, 1985.
Kirby, Vivian. Hypnotism. Hocus Pocus or Science? Simon and Schuster, New
Atkinson, William W. Mental Fascination. Kessinger, Kila, Montana, U.S.A.,
1996. Reprint of a book exploring hypnotism in 1907.
Durbin, Paul. Kissing Frogs: The Practical Use of Hypnotherapy.
Kendall/Hunt, Dubuque, Iowa, U.S.A., 1996.
Evangelista, Anita. Dictionary of Hypnotism. Greenwood Press, London, 1991.
Lawson, Mike. Hypnosis, The Entrancing Art. Helketh, Ormskirk, Lancashire,