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Your tired, old ideas about hypnosis will begin to grow heavy...

By John Söderlund


Svengali, the sinister character in George Du Maurier's nineteenth century novel Trilby, earned himself timeless notoriety for his unscrupulous abuse of hypnosis to his own advantage.

As if by some unfathomable magical ability, he was able to sway others to behaving and thinking in ways they would not have chosen but for his persuasive suggestion.

Franz Anton Mesmer, the Austrian physician who had earlier been credited with the "discovery" of hypnotism, had at least something to do with propagating the idea that this was an other-worldly phenomenon, describing it as a technique which allowed one to transport others to an entirely different "state of mind" from that enjoyed during normal consciousness.

Not surprisingly, probably more than any other discipline in psychology, hypnosis has been shrouded in mysticism, uncertainty and confusion.

Mesmer suggested the hypnotic phenomena he was able to induce were the function of the re-balancing of magnetic fluids within the body, with disease arising from a disequilibrium in these fluids. But two commissions established to investigate Mesmer's findings concluded, with sombre assuredness, that these supposed magnetic phenomena were merely the result of "imagination".

But the suggestions of hypnosis as mystical, confusing and often dangerous in the wrong hands came as part of the package from the earliest beginnings of the use of hypnosis in medical circles.

In 1953, the Psychological Medicine Group Committee of the British Medical Association recommended, after observing the use of hypnosis in the USA, that "a description of hypnosis and of its psychotherapeutic possibilities, limitations and dangers, be given to medical undergraduates, and instruction in its clinical use be given to all postgraduate psychiatric trainees and possibly to trainee anaesthetists and obstetricians."

This long legacy of uncertainty about where exactly to place hypnosis continues to trouble establishment opinions in the healthcare professions.

More recent research has investigated a slew of variables which was hoped would uncover a telling physiological correlate of hypnosis, including blood pressure, respiratory functioning and skin temperature and resistance - all of which drew explanatory blanks. So did other less mainstream, medical attempts to turn hypnosis into a quantity more easily assimilable into the existing corpus of assumptions about the way people tick.

Both state and non-state theorists now tend to agree there is no obvious physical manifestation of hypnosis.

Research aside, the suggestion by some that hypnosis was an entirely different state of mind raised the potential this held for accessing a consciousness not accessible in normal waking life, notwithstanding the scepticism of the medical fraternity. The most obvious application in the early years of Freudian-dominated psychology was that of the recovery of long-repressed memories - a potential boon for the hypnosis trade and one which attracted attention for a number of decades.

The best publicised use of hypnosis to this end was the recent work of some hypnotherapists who were instrumental in "uncovering" hitherto "inaccessible" memories of childhood abuse in subjects. Not surprisingly, when the fathers of these children were fingered as the culprits and the only evidence were the "memories" generated in an hypnotic state, the hypnotherapists found themselves in turbulent legal waters.

The "false memory syndrome", as it has become known, has done the public image of hypnosis about as much good as Mesmer's magnetic convictions. It has also publicly aired the disappointing thesis that hypnosis may be an activity more of the generation of memories than their recovery, casting doubts on the professional ethics of a whole body of practitioners who claim to be recovering what they may well be manufacturing and further fuelling confusion about what really happens in hypnosis and what it can justifiably claim to do.

Much of the formal research into hypnosis has also been confounded by the suggestion (implicit in the recovered memory controversies) that hypnosis may be less a phenomenon than a complex contractual relationship between hypnotist and subject. Determining which subjects are "faking" hypnosis has consistently clouded experimental work and these problems have yet to be convincingly controlled if the scientific jury is to move towards a verdict on the matter.

In toto and somewhat ironically, the hypnosis research which set out to bring it into the sedate, professional fold has opened more debates than it has concluded in the past century.

Mark Prendergrast, writing in Hypnogenesis, an online magazine for hypnosis and hypnotherapy ( reviews the wealth of literature which explores the mechanisms at work in an hypnotic relationship,from the authoritative Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry to the strictly modernist opponents of hypnosis about the use of hypnosis in memory recovery.

"An overwhelming body of research indicates that hypnosis does not increase accurate memory, but does increase the person's willingness to report previously uncertain memories with strong conviction. Furthermore, the hypnotised individual has a pronounced tendency to confabulate in those areas where there is little or no recollection; to distort memory to become more congruent with beliefs . . . and fantasies; and to incorporate cues from leading questions as factual memories. Finally there is a high likelihood that the beliefs of the hypnotist will somehow be communicated to the patient in hypnosis and incorporated into what the patient believes to be memories, often with strong conviction," he quotes the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry as saying.

When a subject agrees to be hypnotised, he or she tacitly agrees to abide by the suggestions of the hypnotist. This state of heightened suggestibility can work quite well if the goal is to stop smoking, lose weight, enhance self-esteem, reduce perceived pain, or improve one's sex life. But it is not an appropriate method for retrieving supposedly repressed memories, Prendergrast continues.

And these doubts about hypnosis as a phenomenon are not new. French psychologist Hippolyte Bernheim wrote in 1888: "It is incredible with what acumen certain hypnotised subjects detect, as it were, the idea which they ought to carry into execution. One word, one gesture, one intonation puts them on the track."

Notwithstanding the theoretical confusion which seems to pervade the field, clinical psychotherapeutic applications of hypnosis have yielded positive results, particularly for treating conditions such as insomnia, obesity, mild phobias and addictions. But difficulties continue to arise in determining whether it is necessary to postulate an "hypnotic state" to explain these beneficial effects.

This view of hypnosis as an altered state, something entirely different from our conscious waking lives, has been progressively eroded in professional circles over the years. Stage hypnotists have done little to help salvage the state view of hypnosis as a serious clinical endeavour.

The increasingly popular, non-state approach points to the role of the subject in ensuring the success of the hypnosis and the relationship between therapist and subject.

Despite it's ambivalent popular image, however, whatever the flavour of hypnosis you prefer, it remains a closely guarded professional grouping, which may account for the apparent allure that an hypnosis certificate appears to hold for therapists. Clinicians are discouraged from practising hypnosis without having attended professional courses, which are typically extortionately priced and surprisingly well attended. More than any other broad approach, therapists are encouraged to be cautious about using hypnosis without comprehensive training, possibly a throwback to the mythological state view which suggested one could get stuck in the nether regions of consciousness, unable to escape without the skilled intervention of a properly trained hypnotist.

And despite these controls and the perennial debate between state and non-state theorist, clinicians inevitably develop a brand of their own, weaving it into other schools of thought, extracting ideas and suggestions, trance scripts and random suggestions at will.

Arguably, the therapist who has most gracefully embraced this ambivalence about the state of the hypnosis industry is Milton Erickson. Less concerned about differentiating hypnosis from the normal run of therapeutic work, Erickson was given to weaving trance inductions and suggestions into his conversations with clients in a manner which suggested he cared little for the state vs. non-state debate nor for whether what he did met the criteria for either. The response of the client to the suggestion was far more important than the question of whether it was a function of conscious compliance or unconscious processes.

His work, which continues to inform the training of tens of thousands of hypnotherapists, is regarded as the standard by which other approaches are measured. The contributors to this edition of the magazine all draw to one or another extent on Erickson's legendary thinking. As you make your way through them, your tired old ideas about hypnosis will begin to grow heavy and fall asleep as a new view of hypnosis awakens in you.


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