Hypnosis isn’t just one thing, but describes a range of mental states in which one is receptive to suggestions. Stage hypnosis and clinical hypnosis aren’t the same phenomenon. There are a number of popular myths and misconceptions about hypnosis, and several models to explain hypnotic phenomena. I learned the basic techniques of hypnosis in grad school and practiced on friends. But since I never got certified as a hypnotist, I limited the use of hypnotic techniques in my clinical practice. I usually only did one “trance induction” per client, when it seemed appropriate, with the goal of teaching them self-hypnosis while they were “in a trance.” Outside of work, I’ve hypnotized friends at their request, for such things as pain relief.
I put quotation marks around trance because trance induction is only one model – the best known – for hypnosis; but no model is perfect for all occasions. (See my past post on the Model Muddle.) Traditional trance induction involves a verbal induction, which may start with something like “You are getting very sleepy . . . .”, sometimes accompanied by a visual stimulus such as a pendulum, whose motion the subject is told to follow with his eyes. But some verbal inductions suggest that the subject’s eyelids “are getting very heavy” and will soon shut. A technique called guided fantasy can also induce a trance, as can a well-told story.
Stage hypnosis is another thing entirely. The silly on-stage behaviors of the “hypnotized” volunteers from the audience appear to be best explained by a social role model of hypnosis. This role-playing proceeds from one of the popular myths about hypnosis: that the hypnotist can control his “subject’s” behavior. Anyone who comes forward when the stage hypnotist invites volunteers is a wanna-be performer, predisposed to do whatever he’s told. The hypnotist “auditions” the crowd to see which people are the most suggestable, weeding out the less suggestable. The volunteers he selects to go on stage know they’re absolved of all responsibility for any silly thing they may do, because they’re seen as being under the hypnotist’s control. He earns his paycheck before his subjects are on stage, because he knows the people he’s selected will act-out the role of hypnotic subject, as it’s popularly understood.
Some people are better hypnotic subjects than others, and clinical hypnotists have ways of assessing “depth of trance” before making therapeutic suggestions. They don’t exert control over the behavior of their clients, but help them harness the power of their imagination and will, to bring about desired changes in behavior. A good hypnotic subject is one who wants to experience a trance state, and expects something good to come from it – if only a feeling of relaxation. It helps if the subject thinks hypnosis can help them achieve a desired goal, such as pain control, quitting smoking, or losing weight.
A good subject can be taught self-hypnosis, and learns that any power she’d thought resided in the hypnotist in fact resides within herself. When a placebo pill works to relieve pain, it’s because the person taking it wants and expects it to – another example of how motivation affects perception. People can learn to use trance to re-direct their mind away from pain, or from nicotine cravings. Naturally occurring events can temporarily result in relief from pain. If you were flying in an airliner while you had a splitting headache, and the plane experienced extreme turbulence for two minutes and seemed to be falling out of the sky, it’s likely that you’d lose all awareness of your headache for those two minutes. If panic can re-direct the mind away from pain, so can other things.
Post-hypnotic suggestions can help people to change behavior, but there’s nothing magical about their power. A hypnotist working with a client on smoking cessation will give positive suggestions while he’s in trance, then may give post-hypnotic suggestions that he won’t feel like smoking after the session, and if he does smoke, the cigarette will taste terrible. What the hypnotist can’t supply for the client is willpower. If the client takes a puff after the session and throws the cigarette away because it tastes awful, this experience may help him to fight cravings and stop smoking. But if he resumes smoking despite the initial bad taste, the post-hypnotic suggestion quickly fades.
The only “magical” element of hypnosis is the magic of the human imagination. Hypnotic subjects don’t lose control in trance, and can’t be hypnotically forced to do things they don’t want to do. People can’t get “stuck” in trance. While positive hypnotic suggestions can help people marshal their inner resources to change chosen behaviors, there’s no truth to the notion that it can improve memory or sharpen the recall of details of past events. Indeed, it can encourage the development of false memories.
In a later post I’ll be writing about Ericksonian hypnotherapy, which revolutionized our understanding – and the practice – of clinical hypnosis in the latter half of the twentieth century. Dr. Milton Erikson was a genius psychotherapist, whose influence on the profession is evidenced by the fact that the Milton Erikson Foundation sponsors the Evolution of Psychotherapy conferences – the world’s largest convocation of psychotherapists.