How Does Hypnosis Work?
What is Hypnosis?
Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness in which the hypnotized individual is unusually receptive to suggestions. It was first associated with religious ceremonies and the supernatural. In the 19th century, hypnosis took a concrete, scientific form with Austrian physician Friedrich Anton von Mermer's "Animal Magnetism". Animal magnetism, now referred to as "Mesmerism", from Mesmer's name, uses magnet to transfer healing powers of the therapist to patients. According to a committee appointed by the French Academy of Science, mesmerism was found to be therapeutically effective, but that the theoretical foundation of the practice was weak. Because of this, the French government prohibited Mesmer to practice mesmerism in Paris.
Hypnosis is commonly compared to the first two stages of sleep, but that is a misconception. The hypnotic state is qualitatively different from sleep. First, hypnotized individuals are aware and can remember (unless instructed to forget) events before, during and after hypnosis. Second, EEG patterns show predominance of alpha and beta waves, resembling the alert and/or relaxed stages of wakefulness.
According to estimates, 10-20% of the population are known to be very susceptible to hypnosis, while another 10-20% of the population are not hypnotizable at all. Research shows that individuals who can easily absorb experiences and who like to engage particularly in imaginative activities are shown to be more susceptible to hypnosis; but these are weak predictors. Psychological research also shows that hypnotized individuals are unlikely to follow suggestions that are in conflict with their moral beliefs, thus reflecting the power of will.
Steps in Hypnosis
To illustrate how hypnosis works, here are some basic steps hypnotists use to hypnotize individuals:
- Minimize distraction. Make the individual comfortable. As much as possible, the focus should be on the hypnotist. This is to maximize the effect of hypnosis on the patient.
- Let the patient concentrate on something specific. You may ask the patient to imagine a scene or force him/her to look attentively at a ticking watch. This is to put the patient in a relaxed state.
- Tell the patient what to expect. This is the first step to making the patient suggestible. For example, tell the patient that he/she will feel relaxed, or experience pleasant or floating sensation. In this way, the patient will indeed try to relax and achieve pleasant sensation.
- Suggest events or feelings that will surely happen or is already happening. Through this, the patient will attribute the supposed effects to the therapist's words, making him/her suggestible. And further expectations from the patient increase his/her vulnerability to suggestion. It is said that hypnosis is achieved when patients start to expect and follow more suggestions from the therapist.
Theories on Hypnosis
Two of the most popular theoretical explanations on how hypnosis work are Hilgard's Divided State of Consciousness and the Social Cognitive Behavior View of Hypnosis.
Hypnosis as a Divided State of Consciousness. Ernest Hilgard (1977, 1992) theorizes that hypnosis splits consciousness into two separate components - the follower and the hidden observer. In one experiment, Hilgard asked the participants before hypnosis to press a key to indicate that they feel any pain during hypnosis. Hypnotized individuals are then instructed to submerge their hands in a bucket of ice-cold water and to "feel no pain". Surprisingly, all the participants pressed the key while under hypnosis, and the number of times they pressed the key is positively correlated with the length of time their hands were submerged in ice-cold water, although all reported feeling no pain during and after hypnosis.
Hypnosis as a Social Cognitive Behavior. The Social Cognitive View of Hypnosis states that hypnosis is a learned behavior. Proponents and followers of this view establish that hypnosis can be achieved only in individuals who know how hypnotized individuals are supposed to behave. Although this theory is far from being accepted, it sheds light into other factors that may influence the practice of hypnosis, including, but not limited to, factors, such as attitudes, expectations and beliefs of good hypnotic participants, and the social context in which hypnosis occurs.
Applications of Hypnosis
Hypnosis is applied and utilized in many different areas, such as in psychotherapy, in medical treatment and dentistry, in legal cases and criminal investigations, and in sports. In psychotherapy, it was found that hypnosis is effective in treating alcoholism, somnambulism and suicidal tendencies; although it is least effective in treating overeating and smoking, requiring mostly the patient's motivation to change. Medical treatment and dentistry utilize hypnosis to reduce painful feelings during surgical procedures that require few or no anesthetics, but there is no evidence that hypnosis can increase pain threshold. Legal cases and criminal investigations use hypnosis as a means to enhance accuracy of recall of witnesses, especially of traumatizing events. Lastly, in sports, hypnosis is often used to motivate athletes, and increase their expectations for winning; although hypnosis cannot increase muscular strength and endurance.
Leading Figure in Hypnosis
Erel Cardena is president of APA (American Psychological Association) division 30, or the Hypnosis Division. Cardena is a hypnotherapist and a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. He finished his doctorate degree in Psychology with emphasis on altered states of consciousness, when he emigrated to the US. His research interest involves explaining Hilgard's theory of hypnosis as a divided state, uncovering applications of hypnosis, particularly treatment of traumatized and mentally-ill patients. Erel Cardena's first encounter with hypnosis comes from his father's hypnosis workshop in Mexico.