“Forget the stage-show stereotypes. Hypnosis has helped people cut back on pain, anxiety, and depression medications, resolve intestinal problems, quit smoking, even have less stressful childbirth. There’s no pocket watch involved. Hypnosis is simply a state of concentration and focused attention — focused on a mental image. It’s a skill that must be learned from a trained therapist. With practice, hypnotizing yourself comes easily. Self-hypnosis is the path to training both mind and body to make a desired change.” WebMD
Hypnosis is not sleep. You will be aware during the entire process. Most people believe hypnosis is a kind of subconscious state so they don’t believe they are in hypnosis when it happens.
Your mind can’t be controlled. You will not become a zombie. You can even lie under hypnosis.
When most people think of hypnosis they think of a creepy old man controlling the mind of an innocent person to do horrible things. This is a stereotype promoted by Hollywood movies and it even makes for some scary scenes in a movie but it has nothing to do with the reality of hypnosis.
The problem with the common perception of hypnosis has to do with it’s name, the opposition by the barbaric doctors of the 18th century, misconceptions created by stage hypnosis and inaccurate portrayals of hypnosis in movies. I am going to address each of these in turn so you get the full picture of what hypnosis really is and how it is different from mind control.
First let’s begin with it’s name. In mid 1800’s Dr. James Braid was experimenting with the techniques of hypnosis and he noticed that after his subjects followed his instructions they would be in a very relaxed state with their eyes closed. Since his subjects appeared to be asleep he decided to name the method ‘hypnosis’ after the Greek God of sleep ‘Hypnos’. This name spread rapidly. Later after questioning his subjects he discovered that although they were relaxed and their eyes were closed they were far from being asleep. In fact they were very aware and highly focused on everything he said. With this realization he decided to change the name to ‘mono-ideaism’. Mono meaning one and ideaism referring to the idea or suggestion his subject was focusing on. This name more accurately reflected the reality of the hypnotic process of how the subjects focused on what the hypnotists was saying. Unfortunately the name hypnosis had stuck and with it the misconception that hypnosis has something to do with sleep. It doesn’t.
This leads us to…
Hypnosis Misconception #1: Hypnosis is a sleep like state.
Reality is that hypnosis is a state of highly focused awareness.
The hypnotic state is analogous to something called Dhayana which is the name of meditation in a system called Yoga. In the Yogic ‘Dhayanic Meditation’ the yogi focuses his or her mind entirely on an object or image. This exercise is meant to build concentration and still the thoughts of the mind. The Dhayanic meditation practice can be fairly hard for the novice practitioner as holding the mind still (on a single object/image) can be very difficult.
The hypnotized person is in a very similar state to the Dhayanic meditative state in that the mind is focused in one direction. The difference is that in Dhayanic meditation the practitioner has to exert a personal force of will on holding the mind steady on an object or image while in hypnosis the person just has to follow what the hypnotists if saying and focus only on the words of the hypnotist. That means that the hypnotist acts as a guide. Another difference is that instead of focusing the mind on just one image the subject is guided to focus his or her mind on a series of suggestions, thoughts and visualizations which helps a person create change in themselves. Much like a Dhayanic meditation but in a more dynamic way.
To restate this: In both Dhayanic meditation and hypnosis the person has a highly focused state of awareness. In Dhayanic meditation the awareness is focused on the chosen object/image. While in hypnosis awareness is focused on the words of the guide (hypnotist). In both cases the person has complete awareness, it’s just focused awareness.
The next big setback for hypnosis also happened in the 1800’s.
Dr. James Esdaile used hypnosis as preparation for his patients before surgery with a recovery rate that was unheard of in his time – and was comparable to recovery rates after the discovery of chloroform/ether.
What he did was conduct surgeries on prisoners in India, documenting them carefully. He ended up performing over 3000 surgeries with recovery rates of 95% while similar surgeries in England had a recovery rate of about 50%. What he did was have a lackey pass a metal plate over the patient’s body for about 2 days till the boredom put the patient into a deep trance. Then he would perform the surgery (even stuff like amputations!). He found that not only did the recovery rate go up to over 95% but postoperative shock went down considerably as did blood loss! (now we know that hypnosis reduces shock and bleeding but back then this was revolutionary).
Dr. James Esdaile took his results back to England for review by his fellow doctors and was shocked by the feedback he got. Essentially the doctors in England formed a committee to analyze his results and decided that hypnosis should not be applied to English patients because, I quote ‘If God didn’t mean for people to suffer he wouldn’t have invented pain’. It’s possible that they were too lazy to do the methods of were just jealous of their colleagues results and didn’t want to give him any fame. Dr. James Esdaile, shocked and disappointed went back to India to carry on his work.
Surprisingly a year later chloroform/ether was discovered that made a patient unconscious during the operation, reduced bleeding and improved recovery rate (comparable to Dr. James Esdaile’s results). For some reason ether/chloroform was not ignored using the same logic that ‘God meant for people to suffer’ apparently God had changed his mind about patient suffering. This was a big setback for the development of hypnosis techniques and was the an example of doctors setting back medical development for personal reasons.
After this setback hypnosis entered it’s dark ages. It was only the stage hypnotists that kept hypnosis alive over the next half century with their fancy and hyped up stage performances. In stage hypnosis it was discovered that with just a little encouragement many individuals would act incredibly silly thereby entertaining the entire crowd. This became a means of livelihood for several generations of stage hypnotists.
Stage hypnosis may seem to be a situation in which several members of the audience come under mind control but that is not the actual situation. The whole performance is an elaborate and very effective setup. What happens is that the stage hypnotist determines which members of the audience are most ready to follow along with the instructions (with a relaxation exercise as well as ‘suggestibility tests’). The people selected tend to be those who are oppressed by their normal social roles and need a means of letting go. Just like people let go of their inhibitions when drunk (i.e. alcohol reduces inhibition and becomes an excuse to act silly) in the same way they let go and act silly on stage with the excuse of being hypnotized.
It isn’t that simple but that is the basic idea of how stage hypnosis works. It’s an act and NOT mind control. To get the selected performers ready to follow the instructions of the stage hypnotist the individuals have to pass a series of tests. Relaxation, suggestibility and willingness to volunteer are a part of the process of selection –as well as creating an aura of expectation and convincing the stage performers that they are the ‘stars’ of the show. This increases the mental pressure (and willingness) on the volunteers to perform. The stage hypnosis performers are aware during the entire experience and can refuse any command that goes against their belief system. That is why a stage hypnotist will only ask the volunteers to do stuff that they would probably do if they were drunk anyways. And that’s how the whole stage hypnosis performance comes to be. More explanation of how stage hypnosis is done will come in another post.
All of the above explanation is just to explain…
Hypnosis Misconception #2: Hypnosis is mind control and stage hypnosis shows mind control in action.
Truth: It’s a show based on a process with no mind control. Participants are aware throughout and can reject any suggestion that doesn’t fit their belief system.
Finally, hypnosis is used in Hollywood movies as a method of mind control to create interesting stories. No one has ever been controlled with hypnosis so the stories in the movies are pure fantasy. However, images created by movies last – i.e. they create a strong impression – so many believe the movie hype even though there is nothing in the news media to corroborate such stories.
In summary the myths of hypnosis are as follows;
It’s mind control.
You are in a sleeplike state during hypnosis
You might lose control and reveal your secrets
you might not wake up
Myths 1 and 2 required an explanation of why this misconception came to be, which I have done.
Myths 3 and 4 are also wrong. Since you are aware during the entire process of hypnosis there is no question of ‘not waking up’. Your attention is simply very focused. If the hypnotist stops talking you will notice and simply open your eyes to see what’s going on. Also, since you are aware you have complete control over your mind – that means you can easily lie while in the state of hypnosis if you want to. It also means that that hypnosis can’t be used to make criminals tell the truth. There is simply no mind control involved.