Monday, February 14, 2011

Demystifying Hypnosis

I had heard the word “hypnosis” tossed around a few times over the years, but I only stopped to think about the concept after I saw a stage-show in Knott's Scary Farm's “Haunt” event in 2008. In the show, a hypnotist called “the hypno-chick” chose about 20 members of the audience to participate in the show and be hypnotized. All of my life, I've been a people-watcher, and I know what responses to expect from people, given different character qualities, different moods, and various circumstances. What fascinated me about the show is that the people, in responding to the various statements given to them (IE suggestions that the onlookers were zombies who were going to attack, etc) weren't acting. I know acting. The participants were not faking.

Therefore, my observations stuck in my head, and I pondered the topic. Since that point in time, I've heard people's differing opinions on hypnosis, and for the most part they fall into two categories. Many people see hypnosis as fake: it's an act, it's a fraud, it's pretend, it's make-believe, it's people pretending to believe things they don't believe and feel things they don't feel, so that they can act a certain way or have fun or trick people. The other group of people take hypnotism much more seriously, they think that it's ominous: dangerous, mind-control, scary, irresponsible, destructive, or deceptive. Basically, most people seem to feel vaguely that hypnosis is either fake or that it will steal your mind and soul.

Now, since I was first introduced to the concept, I have been able to do my own research on the topic, including taking an online course about what hypnosis is, and how it works, from The Hypnosis Motivation Institute. Now here's the first question: is hypnosis fake? Is it just an act? A set of people pretending to be hypnotized for whatever reason? I would certainly say “no.” People find hypnosis helpful for a bunch of staple goals, such as pain reduction (even in surgery), confidence in public speaking, or breaking an addiction (for instance, to cigarettes). There is good evidence that it actually works. One could pin it all on a placebo effect, except that placebo effect can only explain a success rate of 33.4%, not anything like 75%. Additionally, the placebo effect would not be powerful enough to explain how a man, under hypnosis, would be able to skip anesthetic and yet experience a 83-minute surgery on his hand without pain.

The effects are not fake, and therefore, whatever hypnosis is, it isn't a fraud. Why do these things work, and how? Good question! I like the way you think.

Two Applications of Hypnosis

I do not think that hypnosis is mind-control, I do not think that it is dangerous, and I don't think that it could cause you to do anything that goes against your convictions. It's impossible to hypnotize a non-violent person and get them to even do so much as to hit another person with a piece of printer paper! (Yes, leading hypnotherapy professions and researchers have tried these various things, to see what the limitations of hypnosis are.) Now, there are two applications of hypnosis: short term, and long term. The short term applications include relaxation, being in a dream-like state, pain management, or reacting to hypothetical situations as though they were real (for instance, as in stage hypnosis shows). The (currently known) long term applications can include weight-loss, ceasing addiction, increasing confidence, and more healthy breathing patterns.

The Subconscious

How does it work? Hypnosis works by effecting the subconscious. Well that just brings up more questions! What is the subconscious? Is it some sort of psycho-babble concept that offers half-baked explanations of human motivations? The subconscious is actually quite simple, it consists of any function of your brain which is not consciously controlled. If you are driving along, consciously thinking about your date later that night, and then you inadvertently miss your exit, it's because you were delegating the task of “driving” to your subconscious, while you set your conscious thoughts toward whatever you're thinking about. Your subconscious keeps track of habits and memory of physical skills. You don't have to try to remember how to tie your shoe, you just do it. “How to tie a shoe” is a task stored in your subconscious, and you no longer have to consciously think about how to go about doing it. Who makes up your dreams? You do. You don't consciously think up your dream scenarios, but it is your brain inventing them. Therefore, it's controlled by your subconscious.

Dreaming is important for something else as well, REM sleep helps us to process new information and store long term memories. The Amygdala also keeps track of situations which have hurt us in the past, so that we can avoid them in the future. Without any sleep for an extended period of time, a person can actually go insane. So basically, the subconscious serves short-term and long term functions. Short-term, it provides us with dreams, and allows our frontal lobe to take a break while we rest. Long term, it keeps track of habits, activities we repeat, fears, processing memory and learning, and associations. Therefore, it makes sense that hypnosis can be used for short-term functions, or long-term goals.


One reason I say that hypnosis is not dangerous is that, unlike brain-washing, it is trust-based, in both applications. If a person does not want to be hypnotized, they cannot be hypnotized. If a person does not feel safe being hypnotized, then they won't be hypnotized. If a person does not trust the hypnotist, they will not be hypnotized. Hypnosis is a lot like guided imagery: a person makes a suggestion of what you can imagine (imagine a place which makes you feel sad), and you choose to take that suggestion and actually look at it in your mind. A hypnotist leads, and the person follows. If there is a lack of trust, the hypnotherapist can lead, but no one will follow, and so there is no hypnosis going on.

What about once a person is already in a the state of hypnosis? Is it still a trust-based lead-and-follow relationship? Absolutely! For instance, for people who are under hypnosis, if the hypnotist is repeating back to them something they want to believe (IE “You no longer feel compelled to pick up a cigarette when you are stressed, instead you feel like relaxing.”), and the person does not accept that message, it is called an “ab-reaction.” If an ab-reaction occurs, the therapist will not repeat the message, but rather will ask the subject about their reaction, once they are in a normal state of alertness. You can never force someone to believe something they wouldn't otherwise believe, in long term application.

Short-term Effect: A Guided Dream

In short-term application, you can get someone to temporarily accept a false reality and react to it as if it were real – it's like a guided dream where the hypnotists narrates what the dream is, and the hypnotized person chooses how to react to the dream. This is the point at which you can understand why a person would do, under hypnotism, something they have a conviction against doing in real life – they are still aware of the their choices and actions, just like you determine your choices in a dream, even if they forget what happened after hypnosis ends, just like people forget their dreams

Why do people forget their dreams? Well, when you are asleep, the part of your brain which judges realities objectively to see if they make sense, and the part of your brain which records memory, is off. This explains why, when asleep, we don't question impossibilities – why is it that you walk into a house, and then as you enter another room, it's your friend's house instead? It also explains why you forget dreams, unless you quickly make a conscious effort to record them into your memory when you are more awake. Similarly, through the “guided dream” sort of stage hypnosis, the same parts of the brain are turned off, and the participants may not question impossibilities, or remember what happened very clearly. Even so, while under hypnosis, they are completely aware of their thoughts and decisions. Do we make long-term changes in what we believe based on a dream, though? No. For the same reason, stage hypnotism, which is only like a guided dream sequence, does not produce lasting changes (like the other uses of hypnotism can do).

Short-term Effect: Pain Management

Another short-term use of hypnosis is pain reduction, such as in the case of child-birth or surgery with anesthesia. You do not consciously choose to feel pain; the pain is felt in your mind, but it's in the subconscious jurisdiction of the mind, and can therefore be managed through hypnosis. I do not have much further information of this, except to say that the ability to hypnotize a person who needs serious surgery when no pain drugs are available is one of the most humane ways of using hypnotism I've ever heard of.

(Continue with Part II)


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