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Hypnotism : A scientific approach


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 scientific purposes. 

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 hypnotism. 

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 them. 

Hypnotic phenomena

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 hypnotism. 

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 legal cases. 

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 problem solving. 

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 Judaism. 

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. 

Additional resources 

Berger, Melvin. Mind Control. Crowell, New York, 1985. 

Kirby, Vivian. Hypnotism. Hocus Pocus or Science? Simon and Schuster, New York, 1985. 

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, U.K., 1986.


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