Exploding Some Myths About Hypnosis
Prof Christopher C French
Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit
Goldsmiths, University of London
Ever since the time of Mesmer, and arguably back as far as the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, various healing techniques have been used to treat ailments that bear a resemblance to what we would now commonly refer to as hypnosis. However, much of what is widely believed about hypnosis is just plain wrong according to the findings of modern psychological research – and the same can be said for much of what is written in the numerous popular books on the subject.
The academic debate regarding the nature of hypnosis has been dominated in recent decades by two main opposing schools of thought. On the one hand, in line with the views of most of the general public, are those theorists who believe that hypnosis involves the induction of a unique altered state of consciousness known as a hypnotic trance. This trance state, it is claimed, is as different from normal wakeful consciousness as is, say, dreaming. When one is in this state, one’s mind allegedly works in a very different way: one is more susceptible to the suggestions of the hypnotist, including suggestions to hallucinate or become insensible to painful stimuli; one may be able to do things that one would ordinarily not be able to do, such as lift heavy weights or accurately recall detailed memories from many years ago; and one may become blind, deaf or unable to remember one’s name in response to the hypnotist’s suggestions. Such theorists are generally known as state theorists. One influential state theory, known as neodissociationism, explains a wide range of hypnotic phenomena in terms of different parts of the mental system that normally communicate with each other becoming cut off and compartmentalised in response to the hypnotist’s suggestions.
In contrast, non-state theorists believe that the whole range of so-called hypnotic phenomena can be explained in much more mundane psychological terms. They reject the idea that there is even such a thing as a hypnotic trance and believe that the behaviour shown by people who have gone through a hypnotic induction procedure can be fully explained in terms of simple compliance or else subjects trying their hardest to use various mental strategies in response to the instructions from the hypnotist to bring about the desired effects. They would argue that the interaction between the hypnotist and the subject is best understood as a complex social interaction in which both parties understand what is expected of them. Subjects bring to the situation all of their prior knowledge and beliefs about hypnosis and are further instructed by the hypnotist’s direct instructions. Once they understand what is supposed to happen they try – using techniques such as imagination, relaxation, or distraction as appropriate – to bring about the desired effects. Some subjects, especially those who are not very suggestible, realise early on that they are going to fail and simply give up. Others decide that they will simply fake it and pretend to be “hypnotised”. The final group are those highly suggestible, highly imaginative subjects who are successful in convincing themselves that they really are hypnotised.
It is undoubtedly true that the factors identified by the non-state theorists explain many of the phenomena typically thought of as “hypnotic” but there is a continuing debate amongst scientific researchers with regard to whether all phenomena can be explained in such terms. In particular, recent brain imaging studies suggest that there may really be such a thing as a hypnotic trance after all. Watch this space – this debate is not over yet. For now, let’s explode a few myths about hypnosis that, although widely believed by the general public, no serious scientific researcher would endorse.
Here are a few of the widely held but totally mistaken ideas that lots of people hold regarding hypnosis:
- Hypnotic induction requires relaxation and focussed attention: No, it doesn’t. Similar increases in suggestibility can be obtained with people peddling furiously on exercise bikes if they are given appropriate instructions. Some stage hypnotists simply do not bother with any induction procedures as they have realised that they are unnecessary.
- Hypnosis can be used to improve memory for past events: No, it can’t. After going through a hypnotic induction procedure, people may actually report more details but many of them are wrong. There is also a real danger of creating entirely false memories for events that never happened at all.
- Hypnosis can be used to “brainwash” people and make them hyper-obedient: Hypnosis cannot be used to make people do things against their will.
- Hypnosis can be used to mentally regress people back in time to their childhood and maybe even to their moment of birth: A few hypnotherapists go even further and claim that hypnosis can be used to regress people back to life in the womb or even back into past lives. Such claims are based upon false memories generated by fantasy and expectation. When people are apparently regressed back to childhood, analysis shows that the behaviour of the subject corresponds to how adults typically think a child of that age would behave not to how they actually would behave.
- People cannot lie when in a hypnotic trance: Oh yes they can.
Having exploded a few of the more widely believed myths, let us consider the two most common applications of hypnosis: stage hypnosis and hypnotherapy.
Simple compliance accounts for much of what is seen during a typical performance of stage hypnosis. Bear in mind that stage hypnotists carefully select which members of the audience will take part in their shows as volunteers. They do this on the basis of seeing who is most responsive to suggestions at the beginning of their performance. For example, they may ask everyone in the audience to close their eyes, relax and put both arms straight out in front of them. They will then suggest to the audience that their left arm is tied to a heavy weight which is pulling it down while their right arm is tied to a balloon which is pulling it up. They may repeat this suggestion for about a minute or more. By the end of this period, many members of the audience will still have both arms straight out in front of them, but a few will have lowered their left arm and raised their right. You can guess which members of the audience will be invited to take part in the rest of the show.
All of the volunteers will have a good idea of what is supposed to happen in the show from that point onwards and will do their best to oblige. Those with really good imaginations may be able to convince even themselves that they really are “hypnotised” and that they really are, say, 7 years old on the beach at Blackpool. Others will simply pretend because they are enjoying being the centre of attention and making everyone laugh. Maybe everyone will be surprised that shy wallflower Susan from Accounts is now, in response to the hypnotist’s suggestion, blatantly flirting with several men in the audience. But maybe Susan has always wanted to have the courage to behave like this – and now she’s got the chance at last!
Hypnosis, it is often claimed, can be used to treat a wide range of problems from phobias to overeating. For example, we all know people who have visited a hypnotherapist in an attempt to give up smoking. For some of them, it is successful and they never smoke again. For others, the first thing they do when they step outside is to light up a cigarette.
It is hard to assess how successful clinical applications of hypnosis in the treatment of psychological problems actually are for a number of reasons. First, in most therapeutic contexts, any test of efficacy requires that those being treated do not know if they are in the active treatment condition or the placebo condition. The placebo effect refers to the fact that just knowing that you are being treated is often enough for people to report improvement even if the “treatment” is therapeutically worthless, e.g., a sugar pill vs. a genuine pain-killer. Clearly, it is not possible to have a proper placebo condition in studies assessing hypnosis due to the very nature of hypnosis itself – you would always know whether or not you were in the hypnosis condition.
Second, the treatment will often be part of a package that contains several other elements, such as relaxation training. Might it be these other elements that have produced the improvement rather than the hypnosis?
Finally, might any improvement be due to what psychologists refer to as cognitive dissonance? Cognitive dissonance refers to the fact that we are not comfortable when we hold two dissonant cognitions – for example, two beliefs that contradict each. In such situations, we either change one of the beliefs or alter our own behaviour to make the cognitions sit more comfortably together. Anyone who has just shelled out a considerable sum of money in order to, say, give up smoking is clearly highly motivated to achieve their aim and initially believed that hypnosis would help them to do so. If, after the hypnotic treatment, they still feel the same urge to smoke, they can either (a) decide that actually hypnosis does not work as they expected, resign themselves to having wasted their money, and carry on smoking or (b) convince themselves that they really do not have such a strong urge to smoke, that their money was well-spent, and cease their bad habit. In practice, of course, both outcomes are common.
The take-home message from this is that hypnosis might work for some people in some circumstances to help them with their psychological problems – and, let’s be honest, to those people it doesn’t matter how it works only that sometimes it does. But hypnosis is very far from 100% guaranteed to work and it may not work for you.
More importantly, there are some clinical contexts where you should definitely not allow yourself to be hypnotised. Some psychotherapists wrongly believe that virtually all adult psychological problems are caused by trauma, typically sexual abuse, suffered during childhood. Furthermore, they believe that the memories of such abuse are typically repressed so that they could not be retrieved no matter how hard one tried. Finally, they believe that to resolve current psychological problems, the memories must be “recovered” using techniques such as hypnotic regression and guided imagery and then “worked through”. The danger here is that hypnotic regression, far from being a magical key to unlock hidden memories, actually provides a perfect context for the formation of false memories based upon imagination, expectation, and distorted fragments of real memories from various sources such as books, films and so on. Needless to say, false memories of childhood sexual abuse can have devastating effects not only on the person “recovering” such memories but also on those around them. It is worth bearing in mind that exactly the same techniques are used to “recover” memories of alien abduction and past lives.
The debate regarding whether all so-called hypnotic phenomena can be explained in fairly mundane psychological terms or whether the “hypnotic trance” really is a unique altered state of consciousness is likely to continue for some time yet. But we can be absolutely certain that many widely held beliefs about the nature of hypnosis are simply wrong. Many exaggerated claims are made for the power of hypnosis by those who have a vested interest in those claims and little regard for the results of scientific investigations. Hypnosis can be a useful therapeutic tool in certain circumstances but it is not a panacea. Furthermore, in the wrong hands, it can actually carry real risks that it may generate false memories for events that never happened at all.
Suggested Further Reading
Hypnosis: The Modern Scientific Perspective by Michael Heap. http://www.mheap.com/nature%20of%20hypnosis.html