Why does stage hypnosis continue to be such a crowd pleaser? Sheer amusement can’t completely explain the fascination that audiences have with these — for lack of a better term — “stupid human tricks.” It’s more likely that people are drawn to hypnosis demonstrations for the same reason that we’re fascinated with understanding the content of our dreams. Hypnosis shows us the power of the unconscious to rule our behavior, even if only temporarily. In dreams, our unconscious convinces us that we’re flying, falling, talking to people who are no longer alive, and either achieving our most cherished goals or completely failing to protect ourselves from a dreaded outcome. In hypnosis, our unconscious also takes on a seeming life of its own, following not our conscious controls, but the commands of someone who is temporarily in charge.
What is hypnosis?
To understand hypnosis, we need to start by defining it. Most simply, hypnosis involves a change in the way we sense, perceive, feel, think, and act while following the suggestions of someone else.
Hypnotic suggestions work best when you suspend your own conscious control over your behavior. This is a pretty serious commitment. Why should you give over the keys of your mental ignition over to this stranger? The chances are that before you even know what’s happening, the hypnotist has already partially hypnotized you into believing that he or she is a trustworthy and safe expert. Part of this process is an informed consent of sorts. Ethically, it’s vital for the hypnotist to assure you that you will not experience any harm (and a reputable hypnotist makes good on that pledge). However, hypnotists also work hard at this pre-hypnosis stage to establish their credibility. You’ll be more likely to follow the suggestions of a person who seems to be in control, in charge, and knowledgeable. Element #1 of hypnosis, then, is suggestion.
The second element of hypnosis is focus of attention. Many hypnotists will explain the process as nothing more than focusing of attention. In fact, many people are effectively hypnotized when they’ve become so engrossed in a movie that they forget everything else except what they see on the screen in front of them. Hypnosis involves a similar process. By focusing on the sound of the hypnotist’s voice, you are effectively turning off your own thoughts. It’s now much easier for the hypnotist to substitute your thoughts with the ones he or she is trying to implant. It’s not always possible to turn off all outside noises, however, especially in a group setting. In these cases, hypnotists will use what’s called a “paradoxical” statement to keep those extraneous noises from interfering with your attentional focus (more on this later). Incidentally, if you want to hear a great "hypnotic induction" script, just listen to the words of the Phantom of the Opera song, "The Music of the Night" ("Turn your face away, from the garish light of day, turn your thoughts away from bold, unfeeling light, and help me make the music of tne night..."). By the end of the song, Christine (his beloved) has completely passed out. She will do his bidding from then on. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom was the consummate hypnotist.
The third element of hypnosis is relaxation. Once your attentional focus is secured, hypnotists will take you through a standard relaxation exercise. With your eyes closed, you’ll be asked to unwind from head to toe, letting yourself slip down in your chair while your muscles gradually feel more and more at ease. Because you are focusing only on the hypnotist’s voice, you’ll also pay less attention to any thoughts that could interfere with this relaxation.
Imagery is the fourth key to the success of the hypnotic induction. To help you relax completely, hypnotists will have you imagine that you’re heading down-down-down a flight of stairs, an escalator, or perhaps an elevator (notice: down, and not up). You’ll be given a countdown as you get closer and closer to the bottom, and by the time you’ve reached the very bottom (often at the count of 10), you’ll feel that you’re asleep. Before the show (or session) ends, the hypnotist will take you back, in reverse order, out of the trance (up and up).
It’s when you think that you’re asleep that the mystery begins. If you were truly asleep, then how could you possibly obey the hypnotist’s instructions? Because you are incapable of moving while you’re actually asleep (unless you have sleepwalking disorder), you wouldn’t hear what the hypnotist has to say. If you’re receiving hypnotherapy and you're fast asleep, you won’t be able to incorporate the hypnotist’s suggestions into your waking behavior. Going to a hypnotist to get an hour’s worth of sleep with no behavior change is not something that most people are willing to pay for. If all of this is taking place on stage, you wouldn’t be able to talk, get up, and do any of the funny things you’re being asked to do if you were truly asleep. Parenthetically, some people will do nothing but sleep during a stage hypnosis demonstration, but they’re not the people we pay to see.
Therefore, hypnosis must involve some state of altered consciousness in which we retain some conscious awareness even while being unable to remember later what took place while we were hypnotized. We’ll look next at how this altered consciousness comes about.
Why does hypnosis work?
The roots of hypnosis can be traced back over the millennia, but the person usually associated with using a trance-like state for therapeutic purposes was the Austrian physician Franz Mesmer (1734-1815). Though he was soon discredited, Mesmer (from whom we have the word “mesmerism”) led his enthusiastic followers to believe that by channeling their animal “magnetism,” they would overcome their ailments. James Braid (1795-1860), an English physician, proposed that Mesmer’s techniques, to the extent that they worked, relied on the process of suggestion. It’s Braid who coined the term “hypnotism” (after the Greek God of sleep, Hypnos). It was Jean Marie Charcot (1825-1893), a French neurologist, who began to use hypnosis as a form of treatment for the then-popular disorder among women known as hysteria (from the Greek, meaning “wandering uterus”). Freud, studying with Charcot, attempted to learn the technique to treat his patients, but as he wasn’t a very good hypnotist, eventually found that he could reach the unconscious mind of his patients through free association instead (the "talking cure"). Pierre Janet (1859-1947), also a French neurologist, continued to practice hypnosis even as it became eclipsed by psychoanalysis. Janet was known for successfully using hypnosis to treat a women suffering from a form of blindness known at the time as “hysterical blindness,” meaning that it did not have a physical cause.
Though they didn’t know how it worked, Braid, Charcot, and Janet believed that hypnosis in and of itself could promote healing. It wasn’t until the work of the Canadian psychologist Nicolas Spanos became popular that this classical view of hypnosis began to be challenged. Spanos (1942-1994) believed that hypnosis was not a true change of mental state but instead the enactment of social roles by hypnotist and patient. Think of it this way. When you go to see a hypnotist, you expect to be hypnotized. Therefore, you willingly act out the role of a hypnotized person. Though you may seem to be asleep, following suggestions, or in other ways acting like you are under the hypnotist’s spell, this is all part of a role. If you’ve ever seen stage hypnosis, you might have had this thought yourself. To even qualify as a volunteer, you have to pass through a set of tests (such as raising your hands in the air at the hypnotist’s suggestions). If you don’t pass those tests, or if you don’t behave according to instructions while on stage, you’ll be thanked for your participation and sent back to your seat. So if you want to stay on stage, you’ll go along with the act.
Another approach to hypnosis that relies on social psychology was that of psychiatrist Milton Erickson (1932-1974) who regarded hypnosis as a form of communication. His method of hypnotic induction didn’t involve relaxation but instead special use of language. For example, he would speak the same phrase over and over again, but with different wording or order, until the patient literally went into a daze of stupor and confusion (like the effect of listening to a boring lecturer on a student). Erickson also advocated the use of paradox. As I mentioned earlier, modern stage hypnotists use this method to ensure that their subjects are not startled by a sudden noise (“you will hear noises, but these will not bother you”). Erickson used paradox to suggest to his patients that they were in complete control over their ability to follow his suggestions or had a choice when, in fact, they didn’t (“you can relax your fingers first and your toes next or your toes first and your fingers next”). Erickson also used story-telling metaphors of people “just like you” who successfully overcame a problem, instilling the image of success without directly telling his patients that they, themselves, would be successful.
Spanos and Erickson’s theories each add to our modern understanding of hypnosis. Some people play along with the role of being hypnotized and others are “talked” into a trance-like state. However, the scientific understanding of hypnosis currently rests most heavily on a version of Charcot’s notion that mental dissociation is the true basis of hypnosis. This is the neodissociation theory of Stanford psychologist Ernest Hilgard (1904-2001). Hilgard believed that hypnotists take advantage of the normal mental activity that we engage in all the time when we “split” our consciousness into parts. One part of our mind may take over routine, habitual behaviors that we can carry out with no thought. Offloading those routine tasks into one part of consciousness allows you to put your executive functions (“conscious mind”) at work on the problems that face you that do require actual “thought.”
The neodissociation theory of hypnosis says that hypnotists take control over your behaviors and even your perceptions by inserting themselves into control of these executive, planning, functions of your mind. You may “watch” yourself performing the actions suggested by the hypnotist from the part of your mind dissociated from this executive function and believe that you are carrying them out of your own accord. However, the hypnotist is the one pulling the mental strings.
One well-known use of hypnotherapy is pain control. According to Hilgard, the hypnotist’s suggestions work not by eliminating the cause of the pain, but by shifting awareness of the pain into a dissociated portion of your mind. The pain is technically still there, but you’re not conscious of it any longer.
There remains debate about whether hypnosis is truly an “altered state.” Yet, some studies using brain scans suggest that people do perceive stimuli differently while they are in a hypnotic state (Kosslyn et al., 2000). We also know that people vary widely in their hypnotizability, but as of yet, no one knows why. Hilgard tried for years to find correlations between personality and ability to be hypnotized, but he never was able to pin anything down.
How can hypnosis work for you?
Stage hypnosis may, unfairly, give the process a bad reputation. As I pointed out at the beginning, if you see a stage hypnotist who is a trained hypnotherapist, that person knows not only how to put on a great show, but how to handle a variety of situations. If you’re in need of hypnotherapy, however, you’re better off getting a private consultation than hopping up to volunteer for a stage hypnosis demonstration.
Hypnotherapy is increasingly being incorporated into evidence-based treatment and becoming a standard in clinical-based practice. Among its uses include pain control, weight loss, treatment of sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, and sports psychology. It is particularly effective when combined with cognitive behavioral treatment, giving the therapist tools to work both on your conscious and unconscious thoughts and beliefs.
For more information on receiving hypnotherapy, check out the American Psychological Association’s (APA) site on hypnosis as well as APA’s Division on Psychological Hypnosis.
We’ve come a long way since Mesmer. I hope this primer in the basics of hypnosis has given you insight into what we know- and don’t know- about this fascinating and mysterious process.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012
Kosslyn, S. M., Thompson, W. L., Costantini-Ferrando, M. F., Alpert, N. M., & Spiegel, D. (2000). Hypnotic visual illusion alters color processing in the brain. American Journal of Psychiatry, 157, 1279-1284