Hypnosis In & Under Research

2 Oct

The Guardian website recently posted one of the better pieces on hypnosis I’ve read in the “mainstream” in recent years. After a fascinating discussion of hypnosis being used in research to reverse synaesthesia, the author goes on to talk about other recent research into hypnosis or using hypnosis. Several of his comments made me smile and inwardly go, “Yes! Someone spreading accurate info about hypnosis in the mainstream!” This was less surprising when, later in the blog/article, the author self-identified as a researcher studying hypnosis!

As I’ve said before, it’s a wonderful feeling when research backs up what you already knew. Or, in the case of a lot of the recent hypnosis research, what hypnotists and hypnotherapists (and their subjects) have known for centuries. For instance, we have the paragraph:

If the experience is novel for AR, it is equally new to science because no one had suspected that synaesthesia could be reversed. Despite the originality of the discovery, the technique responsible for the switch is…the long-standing practice of hypnosis.

While the discovery is intriguing, I’m not sure why it’s so surprising. How many thousands of hypnosis stage shows have showcased people exhibiting positive (seeing what’s not there) and negative (not seeing what is there) hallucinations? Temporarily forgetting the number 6? Failing to experience pain? We’ve known for ages that the mind affects the body, and does so better and more easily when hypnosis is involved. The surprising thing here is that no one apparently thought to apply it to synaesthesia before now.

Hypnosis had not only altered her experience but had modified the workings of specific brain pathways in ways that we cannot usually manage through conscious will alone.

A simple, but I think highly important, statement. I’ve often come across hypnosis-related articles where, inevitably, someone will comment, “Well, that’s all very well and good, but I stopped smoking/lost weight/got over my fear of navel lint just by eating nothing but curry/sheer force of will/prayer.” Round of applause, good show, well done. But those comments miss the points.

Firstly, what is willpower but focus and concentration on a goal or task? And what is hypnosis but deep focus and concentration? Those people who got by “through sheer force of will” may very well have been accessing their own capability for self-hypnosis. (See also prayer and meditation.)

Secondly, sure, many people have managed remarkable changes in their lives through “sheer willpower”, but it’s usually a hard struggle and in some cases (such as recovering from a phobia), downright traumatic. Some things cannot be altered through mere conscious effort, and even those that can be can go through that alteration so much more easily and comfortably with the knowledgeable application of hypnosis, which can work directly on the emotions behind our conscious thoughts and efforts.

When my mother had started to worry about the amount of ibuprofen she was taking each day just to manage, she tried the hypnosis MP3s I recommended and has since been able to stop taking daily painkillers (and a reduced dosage when she does need them). When I wanted to start eating more healthily, I knew that conscious effort had failed me repeatedly in the past. Most of us have had that experience; you spend a few days enthusiastically eating salads, then reluctantly eating a few carrots, then thinking, “I really should have a salad instead of this delicious burger, but…” After a few days of daily hypnosis, I found myself just wanting to eat fresh foods, including lots of vegetables; even just looking at a photo of a fast food burger made me feel a bit ill.

Back to the Guardian posting:

If you’re not familiar with hypnosis, I suspect you might be entertaining visions of a Victorian gentleman in a three-piece suit swinging a pocket watch in a brain scanner, but there is no magic to the procedure

There’s not even any magic to this outdated image, though they didn’t realize it in Victorian times. Focusing on a swinging watch or pendulum can indeed draw someone into hypnosis, firstly because of that magic word, “focus”; and secondly because their eyes are mimicking our natural REM (rapid eye movement) state – a state that is akin to hypnosis.

– it simply requires that someone concentrates on your voice. Even the relaxation part has been found to be optional after an innovative study managed to hypnotise people while on exercise bikes.

Even the voice part is optional! People are hypnotized daily by being drawn into the story in the book they’re reading, by their daily commute (ever heard of “highway hypnosis”, where you reach your destination but can’t remember the path you took?), by their own daydreams. Any time we enter into flow – whether giving a speech, chatting conversationally, running, playing sports, writing a blog entry – we’re accessing a kind of natural, instinctive hypnosis.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about hypnosis is that not everyone is hypnotisable to the same extent: countless research studies have shown that we each differ in our susceptibility…and no reliable methods have been found to alter how hypnotisable we are

I’ll point out – in my layperson’s way – that we can all become more talented hypnosis subjects through practice. The author and I may be on slightly different pages here regarding the term “susceptibility”, but I know from personal experience that I’ve started to respond more easily to certain types of suggestions (such as those for hand levitation) through repeated practice over the past few years. How the suggestion is phrased can also have an effect; one of my most responsive hand levitations happened when the suggestion tapped into a childhood memory of playing that game where you press the back of your hand against a wall or door frame for a while, then step away and watch in fascination as your hand slowly floats up.

…only a minority – about 10% of the population – experience changes in the workings of perception, memory and thought.

Having never been given suggestions to these ends, I can’t offer any personal reference. Although, if amnesia counts under “memory”… just last night, I completely missed the middle section of the MP3 to which I was listening. That sort of amnesia used to frustrate me, but it happens so frequently I had to accept it…or spend a lot of time frustrated.

But perhaps even more mysterious is why we have the capacity to be hypnotised at all. As a species, about 10% of the population can have their reality profoundly altered simply by tuning in to suggestions made by someone else – something that is deeply weird when you think about it.

As stated above, hypnosis has been linked to the REM state. The REM state has, in turn, been linked to processing memories, learning, emotions, and instinctual responses. It’s not at all mysterious that we’d turn to a waking REM state (hypnosis) to effect change in those same processes, as when a PTSD sufferer is able to detach from the emotions causing them problems or when a dieter wishes to change their instinctual eating habits.

Because the misunderstandings around hypnosis have such a long history, those who study and use this fascinating psychological tool still have a long road ahead. But research like that discussed in the Guardian piece gives me hope that we’ll get there.

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