Scientific and clinical use of hypnosis
Information and Theories 3/14/04
Article printed from World Book INFORMATION FINDER.
HYPNOTISM, pronounced HIHP nuh tihz uhm, is the
scientific and clinical use of hypnosis. Hypnosis,
or a hypnotic state, is a temporary condition of
altered attention in an individual. A hypnotist is
a person who uses hypnotism. Scientific evidence
suggests that hypnotism is useful when it is
practiced by qualified professionals. For example,
some professionals use hypnotism to treat patients
who have certain medical or psychological problems.
People have used hypnotic techniques since ancient
times. But the practice of hypnotism has been
condemned at times because of its misuse or because
of ignorance, mistaken beliefs, and overstated
claims. Today, professional organizations accept
hypnotism when it is used for valid medical or
What Hypnotism Is
Scientists have shown that hypnosis is a natural
part of human behavior that affects psychological,
social, and physical experience. There is no magic
connected with hypnotism, and the hypnotist has no
special power. The effects of hypnotism depend on
the ability, willingness, and motivation of the
person being hypnotized. In hypnosis, a change in
the quality and focus of a person's attention
alters his or her internal and external experience.
Hypnosis has been compared to dreaming and
sleepwalking. The term hypnosis comes from the
Greek word hypnos, which means sleep. However,
hypnosis is not actually related to sleep. It
involves a more active and intense mental
concentration. Hypnotized people can talk, write,
and walk about. They are usually fully aware of
what is said and done.
A hypnotist uses certain methods to induce (guide)
hypnosis in another person. As the person responds
to the methods, the person's state of attention
changes. This altered state often leads to various
other changes or phenomena. For example, the
person may experience different levels of
awareness, consciousness, imagination, memory, and
reasoning or become more responsive to suggestions.
Additional phenomena may be produced or eliminated.
Such phenomena may include sensations, blushing,
blood flow, sweating, paralysis, tensing of
muscles, and anesthesia (loss of pain sensation).
Scientists have shown that changes in almost every
body function and system may occur with hypnosis.
None of the experiences of hypnosis are unique.
Some or all of the phenomena can occur without the
use of hypnotic techniques. For example, people
who are very responsive to hypnosis show an
increased responsiveness to suggestions before they
are hypnotized. This responsiveness increases
People once believed that hypnotists could force
their subjects to perform criminal acts or other
actions against the subjects' will. There is no
clear evidence to support this belief. Hypnotized
people can and do resist suggestions. They do not
lose control of their actions and can distinguish
between right and wrong.
Public performances of hypnotism are responsible
for many popular misconceptions about hypnosis.
Many people are first exposed to hypnotism through
a magic show or a motion picture. Such
presentations often make hypnotism appear simple.
They may tempt untrained people to try to perform
hypnotism on themselves or on other people.
Because of these possible dangers, many governments
have outlawed public performances of hypnotism.
The Hypnotic Experience
Some people can go into hypnosis within a few
seconds or minutes. Others cannot be hypnotized
easily. There are various levels of hypnosis. For
example, with light hypnosis, the person becomes
rested and follows simple directions easily. In
deep hypnosis, complete anesthesia may be
experienced. The level of hypnosis is not usually
related to the effectiveness of treatment.
Inducing Hypnosis in another person can be achieved
through several techniques. Perhaps the best-known
techniques use direct commands. These commands
consist of simple suggestions repeated continuously
in much the same tone of voice. The hypnotist
instructs the subject to focus his or her attention
on an object or fixed point, such as a spot on the
ceiling. Then the hypnotist tells the subject to
relax, breathe deeply, and allow the eyelids to
grow heavy and to close.
Many professionals use verbal and nonverbal
techniques known as indirect inductions. Such
procedures usually omit the use of a focal object.
The subject responds to a story or a mental puzzle
presented by the hypnotist. The hypnotist does not
tell the patient to relax or to close the eyes.
Instead, the hypnotist suggests these actions
indirectly through the story or puzzle. The
hypnosis treatment remains much the same.
Some hypnotists give their subjects a challenge
suggestion to test for hypnosis. For example, the
hypnotist may say, "You will have difficulty moving
your right hand." The person may then find the
movement difficult or impossible to perform. Such
tests do not necessarily indicate a hypnotic state.
They may merely demonstrate a person's response to
Historically, various drugs occasionally have been
used to help induce hypnosis. These drugs include
thiopental ("truth serum"), alcohol, and other
drugs. However, drugs and special tools or other
gimmicks are rarely necessary for inducing
hypnosis. Most professionals do not make use of
Hypnotic Phenomena. Hypnosis brings about many
different kinds of experiences. A hypnotized
person may experience changes in awareness,
creative imagination, reasoning, and wakefulness.
Physical changes within the body also may be
produced by suggestion. These phenomena include
changes in blood flow, blood pressure, heart rate,
and sensations of cold and heat.
Professionals sometimes focus on a certain
phenomenon of hypnosis to help treat their
patients. One useful phenomenon is the ability of
some hypnotized people to remember forgotten
experiences. After people have a shocking or
painful experience, they often repress (block)
memories of it from their conscious thoughts.
Sometimes, the repressed memories influence the
person's normal behavior and result in certain
forms of mental illness. For example, during World
War II (1939-1945), soldiers occasionally developed
amnesia (loss of memory) as a result of some of
their experiences. Through hypnosis, doctors
helped the patients remember their experiences and
relieve the emotional tensions that had built up.
This treatment helped the patients regain their
Another hypnotic phenomenon is called age
regression. The doctor suggests that the
hypnotized patient is a certain age. The patient
may then recall or "relive" incidents in his or her
life. If the doctor suggests that the patient is 7
years old, for example, the patient may appear to
talk, act, and even think much as a 7-year-old. In
this way, patients may remember events and feelings
that may have had some bearing on their present
illness. The patient can then reinterpret the
situation with additional information and increased
Sometimes, on the hypnotist's command, subjects may
believe they are living in some past or future
time. They may feel that they have traveled back
to the Middle Ages or on to the next century.
Untrained hypnotists may look upon such changes as
proof that the individual was or will be
reincarnated. Professionals consider these
fantasies to be much the same as dreams.
Ending the Hypnosis Session is generally not
difficult. A person usually remains in hypnosis
until given a signal by the hypnotist. The
hypnotist may count to five, make an indirect
suggestion, or produce some type of sound.
Sometimes the subject ends the experience even when
no signal is given. Occasionally a hypnotist may
have difficulty ending the hypnosis. This problem
is one of the reasons why only trained
professionals should practice hypnotism.
Uses of Hypnotism
Modern methods of hypnotism have helped scientists
increase their understanding of the human mind and
body, and normal and abnormal behavior. Hypnotism
is used in research; in medicine, particularly
surgery and dentistry; and in psychotherapy (see
PSYCHOTHERAPY). Hypnosis has occasionally been
used in legal cases.
Hypnotism has been the subject and a tool in many
studies. Tests have been developed to measure a
person's hypnosis experience. Research has shown
that children can usually be hypnotized more easily
than adults and that males and females can be
Some physicians use hypnosis as a sedative to
soothe patients who are nervous or in pain. Some
patients become less aware of pain with hypnosis,
while others report no pain at all. Physicians may
use deep hypnosis as a form of anesthesia, so that
patients will feel no pain while undergoing surgery
or childbirth. Hypnotism has also been used to
lessen the discomfort of patients recovering from
surgery or other medical procedures.
Physicians also have made use of the ability of a
hypnotized person to remain in a given position for
long periods of time. In one case, doctors had to
graft skin onto a patient's badly damaged foot.
First, skin from the person's abdomen was grafted
onto his arm. Then the graft was transferred to
his foot. With hypnosis, the patient held his arm
tightly in position over his abdomen for three
weeks, then over his foot for four weeks. Even
though these positions were unusual, the patient at
no time felt uncomfortable.
Some dentists may use hypnotism as an anesthetic.
After the patient has been hypnotized, the dentist
drills the tooth and fills the cavity. The patient
remains relaxed and feels comfortable throughout
Mental health professionals who may use hypnotism
include psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinical
social workers. Therapists may use hypnosis as the
main focus or as a part of the treatment.
Hypnotism may be used to calm disturbed patients.
This treatment may help the patients to become more
aware of their feelings, modify their behavior, and
learn new ways of thinking and solving problems.
Psychological conditions that have been treated
through hypnosis include anxiety, depression,
phobias, stress, and problem solving.
Hypnosis helps some people control or stop such
problem habits as eating disorders and smoking.
Hypnotism has been used to improve learning,
reading, sleep, speech problems, sports
performance, and behavioral problems.
Hypnotism can also be effective in controlling
certain physical problems that are linked to
psychological factors. These so-called
psychophysiological problems include certain
conditions in the nervous system, as well as some
ailments of the heart, stomach, and lungs.
Hypnotism occasionally has aided in the treatment
of patients with chronic illnesses like arthritis,
cancer, multiple sclerosis, pain, and stroke.
Hypnosis occasionally has been used with witnesses
and victims of crime. In hypnosis, people may
remember important clues, such as a criminal's
physical appearance or another significant detail
that might help in solving the crime. Care must be
taken to also obtain independent information as
people can lie and make mistakes while hypnotized.
Hypnosis cannot make a person give away a secret.
Dangers of Hypnotism
Hypnotism can only be dangerous if it is abused.
Only a qualified professional should practice
hypnotism. Although many people can learn to
hypnotize, the skill is not a substitute for
training in medicine and psychology. People who
practice hypnotism need sufficient education and
experience to be able to analyze a condition,
determine that hypnosis is an appropriate
treatment, and evaluate the results.
An untrained person cannot deal with the
difficulties that might occur as the result of
inappropriately hypnotizing an individual. For
example, an unqualified hypnotist may give
treatment for the wrong condition or may overlook
significant details. An inappropriate suggestion
may mask or cover an illness or symptom. If the
hypnotist uses an incorrect method or approach, a
symptom may be interpreted as a completely
different problem. The symptom may remain
undetected, and the subject may not learn the
proper skills for solving the real problem. In
addition, appropriate nonhypnosis treatment
techniques may be ignored or may not be used
The American Medical Association (AMA) requires all
physicians who use hypnosis to do so only for
purposes related to their special practice.
Similar standards have been set for clinical
psychologists and dentists. Ethical codes usually
stop professionals from advertising themselves as
hypnotists and from listing the problems they
treat. Some physicians, dentists, and
psychologists take specialty board examinations
that certify that they have met advanced
qualifications in the use of hypnotism.
Many scientists believe that the use of hypnotism
in legal situations can cause serious problems. In
1985, the Council on Scientific Affairs of the AMA
reported that memories refreshed through hypnosis
may include inaccurate information, false memories,
and confabulation (fact and fantasy combined). The
report recommended guidelines for the legal use of
hypnosis. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled
that in some instances recollections obtained
through hypnosis could be used by defendants as
testimony in criminal cases.
Some people learn self-hypnosis, also called
autohypnosis. Self-hypnosis should be used only
after an expert has determined that it is the
appropriate treatment for the particular problem.
A person learning self-hypnosis should have
professional instruction. Complications may arise
if self-hypnosis is practiced incorrectly.
Throughout history, various cultures and groups
have used rituals and techniques that can best be
described as hypnotism. Hypnotic experiences have
been described by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks
and by tribal cultures. References to deep sleep
and anesthesia have been found in the Old Testament
and in the Talmud, a collection of sacred writings
Mesmerism. The scientific development of hypnotism
can be traced to the efforts of Franz Anton Mesmer,
an Austrian physician who became prominent during
the 1770's. Mesmer called his work animal
Some people believed that disease developed when
invisible magnetic fluids were cut off or
improperly distributed. Mesmer used water tubs and
magnetic wands to direct the supposed fluids to his
patients. Many patients claimed that this
treatment cured them.
In 1784, a French commission was formed to study
the claims of Mesmer and his followers. It
reported that the magnetic fluids did not exist.
It explained the cures as a product of the
Many of Mesmer's patients and students helped
spread the belief in animal magnetism, which became
known as mesmerism. Students of mesmerism
continued to experiment with some of his methods.
Some soon found that magnets or fluids were
Scientific Studies. The term hypnotism was used by
James Braid, a British physician who studied
suggestion and hypnosis in the mid-1800's. Braid
pointed out that hypnosis differed from sleep and
that hypnotism was a physiological response in the
subject, not the result of secret powers. Perhaps
Braid's most valuable contribution was his attempt
to define hypnotism as a phenomenon that could be
scientifically studied. During this same period,
James Esdaile, a Scottish doctor working in India,
began to use hypnotism as an anesthetic in major
surgery, including leg amputations. He performed
about 200 operations with the aid of hypnosis.
During the late 1800's, the French neurologist Jean
Martin Charcot performed landmark experiments
involving hypnosis. He found that hypnosis
relieved many nervous conditions. His clinic for
nervous disorders achieved a widespread reputation
among scientists of the time, including the French
psychologist Alfred Binet and the Austrian
physician Sigmund Freud. Also in the late 1800's,
the French physicians Hippolyte Bernheim and
Ambroise Auguste Liebeault explored the role of
suggestibility in hypnosis. These two scientists
used hypnosis to treat more than 12,000 patients.
Freud was especially interested in the work of
Charcot and Bernheim. He used hypnotized people in
his early studies of the unconscious state. For
various reasons, Freud abandoned the use of
hypnosis in his clinical practice. However, he
continued to view hypnosis as an important research
phenomenon. Late in his life, Freud modified his
once negative views on hypnotism. See FREUD,
During the early 1900's, the Russian physiologist
and psychologist Ivan Pavlov sought to discover a
physiological basis of hypnosis. Pavlov maintained
that hypnosis is based on inhibition (blockage) of
certain nerve impulses in the brain.
Hypnotism became widely used by physicians and
psychologists during World War I and World War II.
Hypnosis was used to treat battle fatigue and
mental disorders resulting from war. After the
wars, scientists found additional uses of hypnotism
in clinical treatment.
Various American scientists have made important
advances in the study of hypnotism during the
1900's. Morton Prince showed that hypnotized
people can maintain several mental activities at
the same time. Clark L. Hull demonstrated that
hypnosis is a form of heightened suggestibility.
Milton H. Erickson developed new strategies of
hypnotism by combining clinical and research
techniques. Harold Crasilneck showed that hypnotic
strategies can be effective with stroke patients.
Herbert Spiegel described the natural hypnotic
talents of patients. The studies of Ernest and
Josephine Hilgard helped increase understanding of
pain mechanisms in the body. Research by Martin
and Emily Orne showed the importance of social and
psychological factors in hypnosis.
Contributor: Ray William London
Related Articles in Information Finder include:
Mental Illness Psychoanalysis Suggestion
Mesmer, Franz Psychology Trance
Kelly, Sean F. and R. J. Hypnosis: Understanding
How It Can Work for You. Addison-Wesley, 1985.
Wallace, Benjamin. Applied Hypnosis: An Overview.
Wolberg, Lewis R. Hypnosis: Is It for You?
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