Demystifying Hypnosis

Erin Volpe, PhD

“You are getting very sleepy...”

What do you think of when you hear the word hypnosis?   If you’re like most people, you probably think of an old swaying stopwatch or some non-descript swirling black and white graphic image.  Perhaps you think of traveling performers who delight audiences when their participants cluck like chickens on stage.  Maybe you think ofmagic, mind control, or voodoo. Whatever picture comes to mind when you think of hypnosis, it likely came from our popular culture streams, television, or movies.  In fact, we’ve all seen these images.  But the truth is, there are many common misconceptions about hypnosis, even among doctors. So then what is this strange phenomenon really? And does it actually have some clinical merit?

The Basics:  What is hypnosis?

At its most basic level, hypnosis is a state of deep relaxation, which allows a person to refocus his or her mental energy as directed by their hypnotist or therapist.  It is a way of quieting the realities of the external world in order to bring one’s internal thoughts, feelings, and experiences to the forefront.  Some people are more hypnotizable than others, although researchers have not fully discovered why this is. Multiple studies have found that one’s hypnotizability is unrelated to other traits such as gullibility, psychopathology, trust, submissiveness, imaginative abilities, or compliance.  It is also related to a person’s ability to become absorbed in activities (reading, listening to music, even daydreaming). 

Inducing a hypnotic trance is no act of magic either.  Rather than the wizardry most people might imagine, hypnotic induction typically involves a subject staring fixedly at a spot on the wall and listening to the soothing voice of a hypnotist.   This combination of focused attention and relaxation will do the trick for most people.

While hypnotized, subjects can fully interact with the hypnotist or therapist—they can speak, move, even open their eyes.  Hypnotized individuals are not passive, nor are they “at the will” of the hypnotist; rather, they are active participants and problem solvers who bring to the table their own ideas and values.  In fact, researchers have noted that a person will not do in hypnosis what they would not otherwise do out of hypnosis.  Interestingly, hypnotized subjects will tell you that they experience their responses to hypnotic suggestions as occurring “on their own,” and without the participants’ conscious effort.  For example, if the hypnotist suggests the participants’ arm feels very light and will begin to float up in the air, the hypnotizable subject will experience his or her arm rising up as if on its own despite the fact that the person is obviously the one making the movement.  This disconnect between levels of consciousness is unique to hypnosis as compared to other clinical techniques, and it is what makes it such a useful tool in treating certain kinds of problems (particularly physical pain or anxiety). 

Common misperceptions:  What hypnosis isn’t

With mounting research efforts in the area of hypnosis, scientists are discovering more evidence that de-bunks some of the skepticism of the technique. 

  • Hypnosis is not the same as having an especially vivid imagination.  Research has uncovered that many imaginative people are not good hypnotic subjects, and no relationship between the two traits have been found.   While hypnotized, subjects experience situations as if they are actually occurring (similar to a dream state) rather than imagining they are occurring.  Sophisticated studies using positron emission tomography (PET) have confirmed this (Szechtman, 1998).
  • Hypnosis does not work by placebo effect.  Research done in the late 1960s at the University of Pennsylvania found that for poorly hypnotizable people, hypnosis had the same effectiveness in reducing pain as a sugar pill (placebo).  However, by contrast, the hypnotizable subjects benefited three times more from hypnosis than by placebo (McGlashan, 1969).
  • Hypnosis is not faking or being compliant.  Clever experimental research studies have found ways to examine differences between faking and really experiencing hypnosis (e.g., Evans & Orne, 1971).  Fakers respond differently to experimental conditions than do the hypnotized subjects (including lie detector tests).  Fakers also tend to “overplay” their role and report odd experiences which are rarely, if ever, reported by real subjects. 
  • Hypnosis is not being asleep or unconscious. When I discussed hypnosis with a senior psychologist at a recent conference, she expressed hesitance about using this technique stating, “I like my clients to be conscious and know what is going on.”  In fact, her idea of hypnosis was quite erroneous, but commonly held.  Hypnosis is a unique state of conscious experience, but it is not the same as beingunconscious or asleep.  Hypnotic subjects can easily respond and actively participate in the endeavor.  Moreover, individuals under hypnosis will act in accordance to their morals and free will, just as they would while not hypnotized (Nash 2001, 2008).  They are able to say “no” and also to terminate the hypnosis on their own.
  • Hypnosis cannot be used to recover memories.  Many people believe hypnosis can be used to “uncover” or recover early memories.   Under certain conditions, people can have a difficult time discerning an imagined past memory (similar to a dream) and a historically accurate past memory.  For this reason, memories “recovered” during hypnosis do not stand up in court, and should not be considered historically accurate.

What is hypnosis good for?

Extensive research on this subject has determined that hypnosis is a very useful tool in alleviating pain from cancer or other chronic illnesses.  Under the right clinical conditions, it can also boost the effectiveness of psychotherapy for disorders such as anxiety, obesity, and insomnia.   On the contrary, drug addiction and alcoholism do not respond well to hypnosis, and research data on the effectiveness with smoking cessation remains uncertain.   Medical research has identified the benefit of hypnosis in irritable bowel syndrome and nausea associated with chemotherapy as well. 

Hypnosis is a vehicle or a technique to be used in therapy and in medical settings, but not a treatment all its own.  There is nothing that can be done with hypnosis that can’t be done without it; it’s simply another way to reach a goal if a person happens to have an adequate level of hypnotizability and the conditions are appropriate. 

While popular culture still tends to portray hypnosis as the eerie, mystical, and magical phenomenon most people first think of, the truth is that there has been a great deal of solid research in this area.  Although there is a still much to learn about this clinical phenomenon, studies of hypnosis have amassed evidence supporting use of this technique in various clinical situations.  

References and suggestions for further reading:

Evans, F. J., & Orne, M. T. (1971). The disappearing hypnotist: The use of simulating subjects to evaluate how subjects perceive experimental procedures.  International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 1971, 19, 277-296.

Nash, M. R.  (2001). The truth and hype of hypnosis.  Scientific American, 285, 46-55.

Nash, M. R., & Barnier, Amanda.  (Eds.) (2008) The Oxford handbook of hypnosis:  Theory, Research, and Practice Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

McGlashan, T. M., Evans, F. J. & Orne, M. T. (1969). The nature of hypnotic analgesia and placebo response to experimental pain. Psychosomatic Medicine, 1969, 31, 227-246.

Nash, M. R. (2001) Szechtman, H. et al., (1998).  Where the imaginal appears real:  A positron emission tomography study of auditory hallucinations.  Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci, 95: 1956-1960.

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