The pitch might go something like this: "Psst, hey, buddy. Afraid of the dark? Want to quit smoking or maybe lose some weight? Look at what I've got for you: A little bit of
magic. Guaranteed to work, and only $49.95 a pop. Hypnotism."
It's been said that hypnotism is the most widely known but least understood means of altering consciousness. And because a lot of people will try to sell you on hypnotism in
various forms, take a few minutes to become better-informed consumers. Let's see what we know and what we don't about hypnotism.
Hypnotism got its first day in the sun when an 18th-century Viennese physician named Anton Mesmer mixed faith healing, mysticism and astrology, dressed them up in scientific
terminology and sold the resulting brew to the public as mesmerism, a miracle cure for pain. Mesmer's underlying theory rested on magnetic animal fluids, but his name for it
was later replaced in the mid-19th century with the term hypnotism, from the Greek work Hypnos, the god of sleep. Shortly afterward hundreds of operations including amputations
and cataract removals were performed with hypnosis as the only anesthetic.
Hypnotism continued to gain scientific respectability as it was studied with increasing precision, and in the 1930s Clark Hull initiated true psychological research in the field
at Yale University. Unfortunately, this research program made history for another reason: One of the experimental subjects successfully sued Yale for damage as a result of her
hypnotic experience, and Hull's program was terminated. Hull then turned his energies to learning theory, which conveniently relied on rats, rather than people, as the experimental
subjects. In recent years Ernest Hilgard of Stanford University and Martin Orne of the University of Pennsylvania have set the standard for scientific research in the field of
To hypnotize someone, the hypnotist must first create conditions that will deeply relax his subject, exercise his imagination and thus guide him toward a) giving up some control
to the hypnotist and b) accepting some distortion of reality. While media presentations of this process commonly involve the hypnotist whipping out a magically imbued mandala,
which is seductively swung back and forth while the powerless subject is inexorably drawn into a deep, hypnotic state, that's not what really happens. In fact, the hypnotist might
just ask his subject to concentrate on a thumb-tack stuck in the wall and to gradually become relaxed or sleepy. (Sleep is used as a convenient metaphor, but the subject does not
actually go to sleep.) If everything goes according to plan, the subject finds it easy to follow the hypnotist's suggestions in terms of behavior and experience.
Ernest Hilgard has characterized the deeply hypnotized state as follows:
1. The planning functions decrease, and the subject waits for the hypnotist to tell him to do something.
2. Attention is redistributed, and the subject will focus on only what the hypnotist tells him to focus on.
3. Reality testing is reduced, and distortions of reality are accepted without question.
4. Suggestibility is increased, although there is less of this than is commonly supposed.
5. Acceptable roles are readily enacted, even when they involve complex activities.
6. Post-hypnotic amnesia is often present, so subjects won't remember what took place while they were hypnotized until a prearranged signal is given.
With all these unusual qualities, it's surprising to find that brain activity patterns (EEG) and all other physiological measurements (e.g., respiration and heart rate) of hypnotized
people are characteristic of the waking state. So, by all bodily appearances, hypnosis is a variation of the normal waking state, and about the most definitive statement top
scientists are willing to make is something like, "Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness."
To gain a better understanding of what hypnosis is and is not, let's briefly review some of the most common myths surrounding it.
1. You can be hypnotized against your will. False. Even if this is the basic stuff of many fictional accounts involving hypnotism, that's just what it is: fiction. The first rule
of becoming hypnotized is that you must be willing.
2. Everyone is equally susceptible to hypnotism. False. Although many unethical or ignorant practitioners of hypnotism would have you believe that anyone can be deeply hypnotized
(by themselves, at least), nothing could be further from the truth. (See "Who's Susceptible to Hypnotism?")
3. Only a hypnotist can hypnotize you. Once again, this might be bad for business, but it's false. With practice you can learn to hypnotize yourself, just as a hypnotist would, and
teaching self-hypnosis is a goal of hypnotic training. In fact, if you keep reading, you'll see that you might not even need to get hypnotized at all in order to meet your goals.
4. Hypnotism allows you to do all kinds of things you cannot do otherwise. False. Still another bad break for the hypnotherapy business, and quite a shocker, but there is a high
correlation between responsiveness in the wakeful state and responsiveness in the hypnotized state. In other words, there is only a relatively small increase in suggestibility, and
most of the things people can do after hypnotic induction, they can do anyway.
5. Hypnotism is pure bunk-the province of carnival showmen and insecure people who like to lord power over others. False. Even if incompletely understood by modern science and
overhyped by many of its practitioners, hypnotism has obvious potential value not only for helping us understand basic psychological processes, but also for dealing with applied
situations such as managing pain or retrieving material from memory.
Should hypnosis have a place in your repertoire of mental training tools? As explained previously, hypnosis doesn't necessarily have unique abilities in terms of altering your behavior,
and most people can't become deeply hypnotized anyway. Don't assume that it's useless, however, because anything that can help people go through surgical procedures as traumatic as
amputation of an arm without anesthesia must have something going for it. In fact, the field of pain control has seen some of the most impressive applications of hypnosis, and, properly
used, anything that can help you sit on top of pain might also help you make big gains.
If you've tried other methods or are just curious, and especially if you sense that you are highly susceptible to hypnosis, you might find a good hypnotherapist or perhaps a self-hypnosis
guide and give it a try for things like pain management or breaking a mental barrier blocking a PR (personal-record) lift.
"The Shadow," made famous in a 1940s radio serial, used hypnotism to "cloud men's minds" and to discover "the secrets that lurk in the hearts of men." Less dramatic but closer to the
truth, you might use hypnosis to simply "relax your mind" and "learn new responses." Maybe this is a case of shrinking a shadow by throwing more light on the subject.
Who's Susceptible to Hypnotism?
Contrary to popular opinion, the ability to become deeply hypnotized varies widely among different people, and most folks are only slightly or moderately susceptible to hypnotism.
Generally, a person's ability to become hypnotized can be determined from the first attempt, and although some people who are initially difficult to hypnotize might later become hypnotizable,
hypnotic susceptibility has been shown to be quite a stable characteristic. A convenient way to measure one's hypnotic susceptibility involves a standardized test (the "Stanford Hypnotic
Susceptibility Scale"), which is administered in the waking state. This test contains 12 items, graduated in difficulty, and your score comes from the number of items you pass.
The first item tests whether or not you fall over in response to the suggestion that you are swaying back-ward; the second item tests whether your eyes close while you stare at a target
and are told that you are getting sleepy; and so forth. The final item on the list is passed if you can recall no more than three of the previous items. Nearly half the people tested only
scored from 0 to 4 on this test, although scores from 5 to 12 indicate the ability to achieve deeper levels of hypnotism. Based on his research, Ernest Hilgard has estimated that roughly
one out of four university students (the population he tested extensively) can achieve satisfactory levels of hypnotism and perhaps 5 to 10 percent can reach more extreme advanced levels.
Even though hypnotism is a measurable, stable characteristic, predicting who is susceptible based on personality characteristics is no easy matter. Broadly speaking, however, the people
who are most hypnotizable have the ability to become deeply involved in subjective experiences and can relax easily and not be afraid to relinquish reality testing for a period of time.
Early childhood experiences seem to be a key determinant of one's hypnotic susceptibility, as the capacity to become deeply absorbed in imaginative experiences appears to come from parents
who were deeply involved in such things as religion, music, reading or an appreciation of nature. Also, severe childhood punishment appears to be a contributing factor, with the conjecture
being that this teaches children blind obedience and/or to escape to the realm of imagination.