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Hypnosis is a mental state of relaxed consciousness in which the unconscious or subconscious parts of the mind can be more readily accessed than during full consciousness. The conscious mind is still present and the experience is usually (although not universally) remembered afterwards.
Natural and induced hypnosis
Hypnosis is a natural state experienced at times by nearly all human beings. For example, people often lapse into hypnosis while driving (highway hypnosis) - part of their attention remains focused on driving and reacts appropriately to external needs, but their mind wanders to other subjects. When they return to full alertness (suddenly or gradually), they may realise that they cannot remember any of the past few minutes, although in fact they were driving safely throughout. Similarly, the mind may wander while reading, and you may suddenly realise that you have read several pages of a book without absorbing any of the meaning. Some people experience hypnosis much more frequently than others, and similarly some people may be more susceptible to being hypnotised or to suggestions made under hypnosis than other.
Hypnotism is the act of inducing hypnosis in another person (or, in some cases, a chicken). Visual focus points, such as the clichéd swinging pendulum or watch, are rarely used. Usually the client focuses on the hypnotist's voice while he or she talks them through a mental visualisation, such as walking slowly down a series of steps into a deeper state of relaxation. The client retains their free will and is not under the hypnotist's command, but the degree of influence the hypnotist exerts over the client will vary depending on the nature and purpose of the hypnotism and the suggestibility of the client. Usually hypnosis can only be achieved if the client trusts the hypnotist and allows themself to relax fully. Unfortunately, classic pocket watches cannot be used as mind control mechanisms like in the movies.
Hypnotherapy refers to a variety of therapeutic disciplines involving hypnosis. While some forms of hypnotherapy are regulated by professional bodies and qualifications, the use of the term hypnotherapy itself is not fully regulated. Thus, in many countries, anybody who can hypnotise clients, which is a fairly simple skill to learn, and who claims to offer some form of therapy, can call themselves a hypnotherapist. Hypnotherapy is generally considered an alternative therapy and is not widely endorsed by the medical and psychiatric community. Like anything else, hypnosis can have a placebo effect and it can be used successfully as a complement to other forms of therapy as it can make the patient feel more relaxed and open.
There are some possible risks involved in hypnotism. One is that the greater access to the subconscious mind can sometime enable repressed emotions or memories (often traumatic) to be brought to the surface. Analytical hypnotherapy often focuses on achieving this result. However, it can also sometimes occur accidentally during other forms of hypnotism, where the hypnotist (such as a stage hypnotist or hypno-anaesthetist) may not have the psychiatric knowledge to deal with this situation, and the experience may have long-term psychological effects on the client. However, this risk is also present in most "talking therapies" and in many aspects of daily life. The overall risk is incredibly small and generally cited by those with little knowledge of the subject.
Another problem (as with any form of regression therapy) is that the "repressed" memories which come to light may often not be conclusively proven. In many cases genuine memories are discovered (though hypnotherapy is not necessary for old memories to be rediscovered). In some cases, however, the recovered memories are questionable and may be a creation of the client's own imagination, or confabulations. Sometimes the client may have been guided towards certain kinds of 'memories' by the suggestions of an eager therapist. Controversial cases include clients' claims to have recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, and these have sometimes been used as testimony in court cases, although their validity as legal evidence remains disputed.
Types of hypnotism
Hypnotic techniques are used for varying purposes by a wide range of practitioners, ranging from clinical therapists, to alternative therapy quacks, to mind-controlling cultists. The major branches of hypnosis and hypnotherapy are as follows.
This is a form of psychoanalysis using hypnosis, in which the client explores their thoughts, emotions and memories under hypnosis. In many cases this involves the retrieval of supposedly repressed memories of traumatic experiences, usually from childhood. Analytical hypnotherapy is particularly effective for deep-rooted problems such as phobias and some personality disorders, but should only be undertaken by competent trained professionals. Practice is regulated by professional bodies such as the National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotheraphists and American Council of Hypnotist Examiners in the USA, and the UK Confederation of Hypnotherapy Organisations in the UK.
Past life regression therapy
In this dubious 'therapy', clients are also encouraged to retrieve repressed memories while under hypnosis, but the memories are ostensibly from a 'past life'. This may be undertaken on the pseudotherapeutical basis that events in a former life are influencing patterns in the client's current life. Or the client may just be curious about who they were before they were themselves, as it were. Memories of past lives can never be conclusively proven or disproven, and claims made about past life regressive rest heavily on clients' convictions that what they have 'remembered' is real. Similar to hypnotic regression that reveals details of alleged alien abductions, these therapies rely heavily on suggestions by the hypnotist, who can prompt the subject. Critics have pointed out how it's interesting that almost everyone who has undergone such therapy turn out to have lead interesting lives, often at the sides of famous historical figures, completely ignoring any relatively boring or unglamorous cases where they find themselves dying of plague in a gutter. This may just be a response to the selective reporting of "interesting" regressions, however. In an episode of Penn and Teller: Bullshit! where this sort of hypnotherapy was shown, Penn Jillette thoroughly mocked the bad French accent by a subject who was claiming to be in the court of Marie Antoinette.
This is the simplest and probably the most common form of hypnotherapy, and involves making positive suggestions to a client, which have a greater impact on the mind due to hypnosis. It is similar to cognitive therapy in that it addresses thought patterns rather than analysing deeper causes. Post-hypnotic suggestion can be effective for dealing with self-confidence or self-esteem problems, for assisting in weight loss, or for helping clients to give up smoking or other addictions or compulsions. However, some individuals experience more success than others, and there is a lack of comparative research to determine whether it is more successful in addressing these problems than other techniques.
Self-hypnosis techniques can be easily learnt, or an external stimulus such as recorded music or speech can be used to induce hypnosis. Self-hypnosis may be used as a relaxation technique, or for post-hypnotic suggestion. Self-hypnosis CDs are often marketed on a range of topics, such as 'self-belief' or 'quit smoking'.
Hypnosis for pain relief
Hypnosis may sometimes be used to relieve pain, or enable patients to overcome pain - for example, for cancer sufferers. In rarer and more controversial cases, it has been used as an alternative to anaesthesia for surgery.
The dark side of post-hypnotic suggestion. In command hypnosis, the suggestions are more forceful and repeated, often combined with other brainwashing techniques, with the intention to change the client's beliefs, attitudes, emotions, perceptions or memories. Command hypnosis is among the "auditing" techniques used by Scientologists to manipulate new converts.
Stage hypnotism uses a milder form of command hypnosis for entertainment purposes. It is often a fairly crude form of comedy where volunteers are made to ridicule themselves by acting like an animal or impersonating a celebrity. Recently hypnotism and other suggestion techniques have been used in more thought-provoking ways by performers such as Derren Brown, who aims to expose the kinds of trickery used by fraudulent mediums and cultists.
Hypnotic breast enlargement
- Hypnosis, Skeptic's Dictionary