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5 Myths About Hypnosis, and the Truth

1. No, a person is not under the clinician's total control.

Key points

  • The practice of hypnosis has been around for many years, yet it is often misunderstood.
  • Research suggests that hypnosis can help treat anxiety, depression, insomnia, pain, and smoking.
  • The experience of control during hypnosis depends on the patient's intentions and expectations.

Let’s test your knowledge of hypnosis. Answer the following true/false questions:

  1. Hypnotized participants display blind obedience to the clinician, such that participants respond to suggestions irresistibly.
  2. Hypnosis can help us recall repressed childhood memories and "past life" events.
  3. Hypnosis is a sleep-like trance state of consciousness.
  4. Hypnosis is a state of focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterized by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion.
  5. Hypnosis is just fakery and pretending.
Leandrodecarvalho for pixabay
Source: Leandrodecarvalho for pixabay

The correct answer to all these questions is “false.” How did you do?

Modern hypnosis is said to have started with the work of Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer, who claimed he was using a form of ‘animal magnetism’ on his patients. The term ‘hypnosis’ was introduced in the 1840s by James Braid, a Scottish surgeon who believed hypnosis was a sleeplike trance state. 19th-century French neurologist Jean Charcot, one of Freud’s mentors, thought hypnotism to be a special physiological state. Freud himself, drawing on the influence of Charcot and of his other mentor, Josef Breuer, used hypnosis early in his career to probe his patients’ unconscious, before opting for the technique of free associations. Later, the influential 20th-century American psychiatrist Milton Erickson used hypnosis as a tool to access the resources of his patients’ unconscious mind while subverting their conscious defenses.

In recent decades, having been brought under the purview of empirical science, the practice of hypnosis has shown itself to be an effective tool in the treatment of a host of mental and physical health problems including anxiety and depression, insomnia, pain, irritable bowel syndrome and smoking. Yet in the popular imagination, hypnosis has retained a somewhat murky reputation, in part because of how it is depicted in movies and other entertainment media: a mind control means for turning people into murderous automatons or making them cluck like chickens. Many myths and misconceptions remain about the technique.

The psychologist Steven Jay Lynn of Binghamton University, who’s been studying hypnosis for decades, has published several recent papers in which he and his colleagues seek to refute some of the popular myths about hypnosis.

A common such myth is that hypnotized people can’t resist suggestions and are compelled to blindly obey the hypnotist’s suggestions. In fact, however, "people can resist and even oppose hypnotic suggestions. Their experience of control during hypnosis depends on their intentions and expectations regarding whether or not they retain voluntary control.” Lynn and colleagues conclude: “Hypnotized individuals retain control over their actions and can resist hypnotic suggestions.” Hypnosis is not something that is done to you, but something you do.

Another myth is that hypnosis is a “special state” of altered consciousness where one’s defenses are neutralized, allowing entry into one’s subconscious. However, research has failed to support this idea. “People can respond to hypnotic suggestions even while they are alert and on an exercise bicycle… during hypnosis, even the most highly suggestible individuals remain fully conscious and cognizant of their surroundings.” Despite repeated attempts, researchers have not succeeded in finding discrete purported markers of the hypnotic state. Lynn and his colleagues suggest that rather than being a trance state, hypnosis is “a set of procedures in which verbal suggestions are used to modulate awareness, perception, and cognition.”

Many people believe that hypnosis is a sleep-like state (the term hypnosis derives from Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep), and that its effects can be attributable to relaxation. However, psychophysiological studies have shown that, unlike sleepers, hypnotized participants remain awake and aware of their surroundings during hypnosis.

Moreover, the effects of hypnosis cannot be attributable to relaxation. Research found that an exercise-based induction was not less effective than a relaxation-based induction. Hypnosis also differs from mindfulness: “Whereas hypnosis steers spontaneous mental activity toward suggested events, mindfulness practice calls for observation of spontaneous thoughts and emotions with an accepting, nonjudgmental attitude.” Research has indicated that, unlike mindfulness practitioners, highly suggestible individuals do not tend to show superior metacognitive ability.

Misunderstandings about hypnosis are not confined to the lay public. The authors note that the American Psychological Association in 2015 defined hypnosis as a state of "focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterized by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion." Yet this definition and others do not concur with the evidence. Research has refuted the idea that focused attention is a core feature of hypnosis. When researchers instructed participants to focus attention on imagery and suggestions that directly contradicted the hypnotist’s suggestions, participants continued to respond to suggestions despite focusing attention on incompatible imagery. Lynn and colleagues write: “Highly suggestible participants, who indicated they were deeply hypnotized, nevertheless recounted, almost word for word, a telephone conversation they overheard during hypnosis.”

Much popular fascination around hypnosis centers on the is the idea that it can aid memory and that hypnotized individuals may be able to access long-repressed childhood memories. Indeed, people who have been hypnotized often feel confident that their memories, obtained under hypnosis, are accurate, However, the research has long refuted this notion. Hypnosis does not enhance the reliability of memory.

The psychologist Michael Nash of the University of Tennessee, having reviewed 60 years of empirical studies exploring whether childhood psychological or physiological faculties are reinstated during hypnotic age regression, concluded: “There is no evidence for a literal reinstatement of childhood functioning during hypnotic-age-regression procedures.” In fact, people who are age-regressed to earlier historical times invariably recall details and scenes that are incompatible with factual data from the suggested period. Generally, people’s recollections tend to be consistent with information provided by the experimenters about their supposed past-life experiences and identities. In this way, participants do not actually recall the past; instead, their responses reflect their current expectancies, fantasies, and beliefs about it.

Another popular myth holds that responsiveness to suggestions reflects nothing more than compliance, pretending, or faking. However, “neuroimaging studies reveal that the effects of hypnotic suggestions activate brain regions (e.g., visual processing) consistent with suggested events (e.g., hallucinating an object). These findings provide convincing evidence that hypnotic effects are represented at the neurophysiological level consistent with what people report.” Apparently, many suggestible participants genuinely experience the effects of hypnotic suggestions in an involuntary manner. Michael Nash concluded: “Though often denigrated as fakery or wishful thinking, hypnosis has been shown to be a real phenomenon."

The study of hypnosis, Lynn and colleagues assert, "provides valuable insights into the nature of consciousness, including the role of expectancies, attitudes, imaginings, meta-awareness, and the experience of involuntariness in generating responses to suggested events."

They conclude: "Hypnosis functions as an effective stand-alone or more commonly adjunctive technique that provides clinicians with an efficient, cost-effective, and flexible methodology to alleviate a myriad of psychological and medical conditions, facilitate resilience, and enhance human potential."

Facebook/LinkedIn image: New Africa/Shutterstock

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