Skeptical about hypnosis?
If you are skeptical about hypnosis you are right to be so. But let’s take a moment to think about what this means.
With my colleague Roger Elliott of Hypnosisdownloads.com I have been using hypnosis to dissolve phobias, crack addictions, lift depressions, stop panic attacks and improve different types of performance for fifteen years. In short, I know hypnosis works. But at the same time, I can understand why some people are skeptical about hypnosis. After all, despite the reams of scientific research attesting to its therapeutic efficacy, traditionally hypnosis has been presented in a rather less than rational way.
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘hypnosis’? A man with a pointed beard with mesmeric eyes commanding a powerless subject to obey commands? I call this ‘movie hypnosis’. Or perhaps you think of hapless victims of stage show antics barking like a dog or imagining they are five years old. Surely all those people who seem to be hypnotized are acting? They must be stooges, ‘playing along’ for entertainment value, or at best they must be exceptionally weak-willed individuals?
It’s no wonder hypnosis has a bad name, when it is presented as pure entertainment on the one hand or as something ‘mystical’ – a mysterious force – on the other. You could hardly be expected to take it seriously after that.
You may be interested to know why hypnosis has been presented in such a weird and wacky way.
An early populariser of hypnosis, Anton Mesmer, used hypnosis to effect many psychological and psychosomatic cures in fashionable circles in 18th century Europe. Mesmer – whose name inspired the term ‘mesmerism’ – knew his methods were effective, but himself attributed their success to a ‘universal fluid’ that permeates all things. He called this ‘animal magnetism’.
Rather than understanding that hypnosis is a natural part of what it is to be human, Mesmer declared that this external power was necessary to produce hypnosis. In the age of burgeoning scientific reasoning his mystical ideas were thrown out by the scientific establishment. Not because they didn’t work, but because, unsurprisingly, no evidence for this ‘universal fluid’ could be found by the scientists commissioned to investigate Mesmerism (who included Benjamin Franklin). In this way the baby was thrown out with the bath water. And hypnosis has been linked to mumbo jumbo ever since.
Until recently people haven’t understood what hypnosis is and therefore have attributed it to all kinds of strange things, or else they have taken a skeptical stance and concluded that it cannot be a ‘real’ state of mind or body. In fact, many (maybe even most) hypnotists themselves don’t know how or why hypnosis works.
Which is one reason you are right to be skeptical.
Added to that, when you hear some of the claims made for hypnosis it seems eminently sensible to be skeptical! But of course it is also sensible to look deeper into hypnosis on the premise they we can be skeptical about skepticism, especially if there is a danger that it is really disguised laziness of thought.
A closed mind is not skepticism, it is merely a closed mind. We cannot be genuinely skeptical about something we haven’t really explored. Early skeptical astronomers, when confronted with Galileo’s ideas, were even said to refuse to look through the newly invented telescopes lest they see something that might change their minds. Skepticism for them became a flight from truth.
There are many myths about hypnosis, one of which is that you have to believe in it for it to work. I have seen hundreds of people who were skeptical but could still be helped with applied hypnosis. A person doesn’t have to believe in the existence of a bus to be transported by it. You don’t have to believe in the reality of rain or sunshine in order for these elements to affect you. The existence of something is independent of people’s belief in it. If this were not the case, we would have to spend all our time trying to convert non-believers rather than just helping them access the part of their minds that can best help them.
When people have been hypnotized they may believe that, because it felt so natural or even common place, they have not been hypnotized at all. Others report feeling totally focused or having been aware of physical and psychological alterations.
And this is not surprising because hypnosis is not a state of unconsciousness like, say, a coma. Hypnosis usually consists more of a parallel awareness. Consciously, people may be aware their hand is becoming numb or that they are visualizing, so the conscious mind can still be active.
Something similar happens when our unconscious mind produces a blush or a panic attack and our conscious mind watches this and is aware of it. The part of the mind that produces the blush, the unconscious mind, is clearly separate from the conscious mind which is thinking ‘Oh no, I’m blushing.’
Hypnosis is a distant state but one that occurs frequently for all of us every day. Some of the effects and phenomena that occur or, if you are skeptical, seem to occur, can appear quite strange but once you understand what hypnosis is then it becomes quite normal.
For example, when hypnotized, people usually become very still for long periods of time, almost as if they are paralyzed. We call this catalepsy. They may become insusceptible to pain; they may hallucinate with eyes closed, like a strong daydream, or even with their eyes open. They may lose track of time and awareness of their immediate surroundings, becoming more absorbed inwardly.
This sounds weird, until you realize that we all experience this state of mind and body regularly. For at least two hours every night we experience dream sleep, which occurs during the rapid eye movement (or REM) phase of sleep. When you dream at night, you become temporarily paralyzed as nature doesn’t want you to act out your dream for real. You lose track of time and your immediate surroundings and become absorbed inwardly in the contents of your imagination.
This also occurs in many hypnotic trance states. Your eyelids become temporarily locked shut, as nature doesn’t want you dreaming with your eyes open. This also occurs during hypnosis when people report their eyelids becoming heavier. In fact, we could call a dream the deepest hypnotic trance in that when you are having a dream you mostly believe totally in the reality of your own imagination.
During dreaming, the eyeballs move rapidly from side to side beneath the lids; this also occurs during hypnosis. You can actually sometimes see your hypnotized subjects’ eyes performing rapid eye movements. And remember the old fashioned way of inducing hypnosis by swinging a watch in front of the eyes? This encourages the subject to access the REM state by mirroring those eye movements.
So the very same people who say they are skeptical about the existence of hypnosis or whether they themselves can be hypnotized will then go on to describe a dream they had. People who don’t deny the reality of dreaming or the REM state may deny the validity of the hypnotic state. This is like believing in bread but not in the existence of wheat or oat cakes, because these things don’t seem to be immediately connected to bread.
Another parallel between these states is that we usually don’t recall our dreams – nature wants us to forget them – their content is not for the conscious mind. And amnesia is a common feature of hypnotic trance. In fact, REM sleep with its dreams and hypnotic phenomena overlap to such an extent that the only element that distinguishes them is the state of sleep itself.
What is also fascinating is that REM phase sleep is markedly different to deep sleep and is even called ‘paradoxical sleep’ by sleep scientists. Why? Because when you are dreaming your central nervous system and brain are working in ways similar to when you are awake. And when REM occurs independently of sleep we call it hypnotic trance.
A hypnosis skeptic may describe a road traffic accident in terms of how time seemed to slow down and everything became ‘dreamlike’. What they are describing is classic hypnotic phenomena. They may even go on to tell you that now, whenever they approach the spot where they had the accident, they feel a little anxious. Now they are describing a post-hypnotic effect.
Situations can put us into hypnosis, make us more suggestible and produce post-hypnotic phenomena just as well as hypnotists can. Because hypnosis is all around us it can be hard to spot. This reminds me of that old story of the young fish who went to the wise old fish to ask him what this water was they had all heard about!
It’s true to say that people can become more suggestible during the REM state and hypnosis is really just a quick way of learning. Sometimes people need to learn how not to smoke, or how to feel calm where before they felt anxious. When we use hypnosis, we focus the mind so it can learn effectively. It’s not conscious learning that is taking place so much as unconscious learning – the unconscious mind is the part that produces emotional responses and physical changes.
A hypnotherapist is no more trying to control someone than a sailing instructor. People who are good at being hypnotized tend to be good at focusing their mind and also at being creative. People who develop phobias or addictions are also more hypnotizable because they have already been strongly hypnotized by the phobia or the addiction. They need to be taught how to take the reins to control their own hypnotizablity. But everyone can be hypnotized as long as the hypnotist is flexible enough to appeal to the interests and personality of the person they are hypnotizing.
As we explain in Master Series article ‘What is hypnosis?’ we all become more suggestible – and therefore better able to learn – during hypnosis because the REM state is the optimum learning state. Most REM happens before you are born, during the last trimester of fetal development. The unborn baby spends a massive 85% of its time in REM. It seems that ‘pre-wired’ instincts are laid down in the brain during this pre-birth REM stage. So during life it makes sense to re-enter the REM stage in order to learn and update instinctive responses.
Skepticism is valuable if it is a slave and not a master – and not an escape from or excuse for a search for truth.
Far more interesting than hypnosis itself is what can be done with hypnosis. You don’t have to spend energy believing in something you know works.
Now I’m off to the bottom of the garden to look for fairies. There must be one about here somewhere...
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