How hypnotism works? Four common myths BUSTED cover image

How hypnotism works? Four common myths BUSTED

Dorian Minors • May 1, 2015

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

A man stands at the oceanside, watching a photo of his forgotten brothers drift out to sea. The man is Major Ben Marco, and he has just come to the end of an awful adventure; the result of brainwashing many years ago. One that led to him forgetting his commanding officer summarily executed the other members of his platoon under the spell of hypnosis. One that involved himself being 'activated' and thus attempting to kill the U.S. president elect. One that ended in tragedy, as others were killed to stop them from committing terrible acts against their will or awareness. Some of you have picked up that I'm talking about The Manchurian Candidate, and of course, none of this has happened. But it reflects on our collective psyche that this movie was so popular. The idea that hypnotism is so powerful as to be a tool of our government (or in the 1962 version, the North Korean government) to assassinate people. Our fascination with performers like Peter Powers is testament to this. As is our invention of the word 'mesmerise', for the physician who discovered the power of suggestion, Franz Anton Mesmer. Hypnotism captures our interest. So, it's unsurprising that this question is one of the most common questions that enters my inbox:

what's the deal with hypnotism (and is it worth my time)?

So let me deal with the most common questions asked about hypnotism by busting the myths surrounding it:

Four Common Myths:

  1. Hypnotism is an altered state of mind, like a trance
    We're about to learn that hypnotism is, contrary to popular belief, not a magic trick. We're about to learn that hypnotism is, contrary to popular belief, not a magic trick.
  2. When hypnotised, one is at the mercy of the hypnotist's whims
  3. Hypnotism doesn't work
  4. Hypnosis is a form of psychology or therapy (this is the important one)

There is a long history behind hypnotism and the power of suggestion. From stories of surgical procedures being performed under hypnosis from as early as the 1800's to the on-stage antics of those at a hypnotist show. Unfortunately, like so many things, the media has altered the truth of these things and blown them way out of proportion. And as usual, The Dirt Psychology is here to fix that. Hypnotism is an altered state of mind One, two, three, click. And now you are in a very deep sleep. The 'trance-like' state of a hypnotised person is the essential characteristic of the phenomenon. Unfortunately, there is no real evidence to support that being hypnotised is remotely close to the experience of sleep, or that there is any physiological response to requests to 'go to sleep'. Graham Wagstaff's 1998 study neatly summarises the research of himself and many others when he says there is "a category error in the use of the term 'hypnotic state'". Brain scans and EEGs show no significant differences between non-hypnotised and hypnotised people, certainly not one that would allow us to support the idea of a 'hypnotised state'. One researcher and his colleagues over the years, Graham Jamieson, has found changes in the activity of the anterior cingulate (involved in the phenomenon of speaking in tongues in a similar way) as well as small changes in the cortex, all brain regions that are responsible for higher order thought. It would seem that it's not so much an altered state of mind as it is one of many ways one can increase one's susceptibility to the power of suggestion. Hypnotised people are like robots

Unfortunately, you can't make someone beat on someone else for you (unless they want to do it)... Unfortunately, you can't make someone beat on someone else for you (unless they want to do it)...

Nope. As we talked about above, hypnotism isn't even an altered state of mind. Just an altered way of thinking. We can certainly produce the 'hallmarks' of a hypnotism in the lab, like inducing hallucinations, but this is a product of the power of suggestion. As psychologists Steve Lynn and Judy Rhue explain in their book, although the things people do under hypnosis may feel involuntary, they actually aren't. People will resist or refuse things that go against their character. In fact, activities undertaken while hypnotised requires just as much attention and brain resources as when not hypnotised. This might be something to do with the anterior cingulate (mentioned above), which is seen to be involved in out of body experiences and the like. It seems to become active during hypnosis which may contribute to feelings of involuntariness. But they are perfectly under control (just like when people speak in tongues). Hypnotism doesn't work So, it's not like what we see in the movies. But it's not a crock either. The American Psychological Association talks about this on their website and I encourage you to check it out. Hypnosis is consistently clinically successful for addiction, chronic pain and other illnesses. As I have mentioned throughout the article, hypnosis seems to interact with our suggestibility. Our openness to things. However, it's a far cry from the 'placebo' effect, in which people think they have received treatment, but haven't, and yet get better anyway. Where the placebo effect has received mixed results, hypnosis is consistent and can work for the significant majority of people. It depends on our motivations, beliefs and expectations. For those that go in with an open mind, it appears to allow those people the ability to access certain mental faculties and skills. These same skills and faculties can also be accessed by other means but hypnotism is also a fairly successful tool.

HOWEVER

Hypnotism is a form of psychology or therapy

The era of lying on couches and getting cured by wacky things ended a long time ago. Darn that 'science' business! The era of lying on couches and getting cured by wacky things ended a long time ago. Darn that 'science' business!

Hypnosis is NOT a form of therapy. It's not a form of psychotherapy. It's not a form of psychology. It's merely a TOOL that facilitates our ability to experience actual therapy. The classic image of a person in a chair waking up from a trance cured will probably not be your experience of hypnosis because hypnosis is not a treatment. Many of the emails I get and the questions asked of me in person are concerned with trying hypnosis from a 'hypnotherapist'. My advice will always be, be very, very careful. Often, the word 'therapy' and 'hypnosis' when combined, indicate a person who doesn't know what they're doing (or are looking for some easy cash). Now, we've talked about how people aren't really under the spell of the hypnotist, but suggestion is still a powerful thing. Using suggestion alone, with no mention of hypnosis, one can induce hallucinations, amnesia and insensitivity to pain in a clinical setting. The effects are short-lived and often come to no harm, but still indicate that in the hands of an inexperienced person, hypnosis could have a very poor outcome for us. So, if hypnosis is something that interests you, make sure (as that APA website I linked to before says):

"Clinical hypnosis should be conducted only by properly trained and credentialed health care professionals (e.g. psychologists) who also have been trained in the use of hypnosis and who are working within the limits of their professional expertise."

The executive summary (i.e. what does this mean for me)

You wouldn't be looking at an article about hypnosis unless you or someone you know had a problem. Learn why 65% of people probably have, or will experience a mental disorder at some point in their lives, and what that really means. Or for something less gloomy, learn the secrets to sexual satisfaction (according to psychology). Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.