What is Hypnosis?
Hypnosis is very difficult to define. Some hypnotists even disagree amongst themselves about a true definition, but I think the simplest definition would be ‘Hypnosis is an artificially induced state of relaxation where the susceptibility of the mind to suggestion is increased.’
When we talk about hypnosis, we are really talking about suggestion. To induce hypnosis, suggestions are given for relaxation and are accompanied by the repetition of carefully chosen key words and phrases that focus the attention and induce a state of increased suggestibility. In other words, this extreme state of relaxation and focusing of the attention makes the subject more responsive to suggestion. Hypnosis represents a ‘peak experience’ where the suggestions given by the hypnotist are remembered both in the conscious and unconscious mind and acted upon if desired.
You may have heard the question ‘How deeply is a particular person hypnotised?’ but it is more correct to ask ‘To what degree is a person hypnotised?’ The degree to which a person is hypnotised is directly linked to the degree to which that person responds to suggestion. Hypnosis is also a ‘consent state’ where the hypnotised subject always retains ultimate control of their actions. Hypnosis works particularly well when a person’s belief system overrides their skepticism. That does not mean to say that only gullible people can be hypnotised – on the contrary, hypnosis requires a certain amount of concentration on the part of the subject. Imaginative people who can lose themselves in daydreams often make good hypnotic subjects, but this is not always the case as scientifically minded people are also easily hypnotisable.
All human beings are susceptible to suggestion and are influenced by it on a daily basis – that’s how advertising works. Advertisers don’t sell you the product, they sell you the lifestyle and the happiness associated with the product. This is a subtle way of getting you to buy things you don’t really want!
A Brief History of Hypnosis
In the 17th century, Dr. Franz Mesmer discovered that by passing magnets over a patient’s body, he could cure all sorts of diseases. Mesmer thought that this was to do with the ‘animal magnetism’ of the universe. Unfortunately, Mesmer’s cures were limited to psychosomatic illnesses and his spectacular results were liberally interspersed with failures. Without realizing it, Mesmer was really relying on Suggestion as well as the Placebo Effect. Given the standards of medical practice of the day, Mesmer’s ideas were probably more effective than the bleedings, leechings and mercury poisonings that were considered normal treatment at the time!
When he was branded a charlatan and run out of Vienna by the medical authorities he set up in business again in Paris. A Royal Commission was set up to examine his claims in detail and again he was expelled by jealous doctors and physicians. ‘Mesmerism’ acquired a bad name and was largely forgotten until the end of the 19th century when Dr. James Braid and Dr. John Elliotson, working independently in England, looked again at Mesmerism. Both realised that the practice related to simple verbal suggestion. Braid called the phenomena Hypnosis, after the Greek god of sleep, Hypnos.
Just as Braid and Elliotson were beginning to have some success with hypnosis as a way of relieving pain during surgical operations, the chemical anaesthetic ether was discovered. Ether was fast, reliable and worked every time, whereas hypnosis was time consuming, unreliable and distrusted by skeptical medical practitioners and so it was forgotten about until after the second World war. Hypnotism was relegated to a popular music-hall entertainment and audiences gasped at the sight of needles being inserted into the arms of unsuspecting volunteers and subjects being told that they were chickens (still a popular stunt with stage hypnotists today!)
Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy
In the last twenty years or so, hypnotherapy has grown worldwide to industrial proportions. There are over 5,000 hypnotherapists in Britain.
Hypnotherapy is most often associated with stopping smoking and losing weight, but the list of conditions that can be improved using hypnotherapy is almost endless. Hypnosis often provides a short cut when dealing with fears and phobias and more recently pain management. The beautifully relaxing feeling of being hypnotised provides a ‘comfort zone’ where patients can explore their tribulations and the hypnotherapist can assist in helping the client to decide what the problem is, where it came from in the first place, and what needs to be done about it – following these simple steps: 1) desire for change; 2) change in thinking; 3) attitude change; 4) behaviour modification.
Hypnosis is a relatively narrow field of study and surprisingly, you don’t need any qualifications to set up as a hypnotherapist! The techniques are comparatively straightforward but a background in psychology is desirable. After all, if you are going to become a television engineer, it’s not enough to know how to turn the TV on and off – you should at least have some understanding of electronics!
In the United Kingdom, with the exception of demonstrations of hypnosis for educational purposes like the one you are going to see today, public performances of hypnosis for the purpose of entertainment are regulated by the 1952 Hypnotism Act. Alarmingly, most of the stage hypnotists you might see in pubs and clubs are more often than not performing illegally (this does not include hypnotists who perform in theatres who have special licences issued by the Home Office).
Always think twice about volunteering for these ‘comedy’ shows. Sometimes you may be asked to do things you may later find embarrassing.
Hypnosis relies on the enormous power of suggestion which is something we are all susceptible to. By playing with words and images, advertisers, politicians, clever lawyers and even some religions use suggestion to manipulate the way we think and perceive. They all use the tried and tested techniques of catching our attention and repeating the same ideas in such a way as to make them acceptable. Other modern therapies, including Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) Thought Field Therapy (TFT) Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) all rely almost entirely on this (never to be underestimated) power of suggestion, belief, imagination and of course the placebo effect. Hypnosis just happens to be the market leader. All have suggestion as their basis. The truth is that there’s no such thing as hypnosis, only suggestion – the implanting of ideas in the mind to change attitude and behaviour.
Copyright Andrew Newton 2008. All rights reserved.