Supernatural mind control, placebo effect or something in between? Hypnosis takes us on a journey into the mind…
In its simplest terms, hypnosis is a process by which someone becomes less aware of conscious thought and inhibition, and more open to suggestion. Changes in the brain’s neural activity can alter the subject’s perceptions and emotions, enabling them to focus their thoughts and filter out distractions. One key area involved in such altered states includes the frontal lobe, which accounts for a large portion of the brain’s mass and is responsible for a person’s personality, emotions and long-term memory.
Changing the brain’s frontal lobe function in turn alters a person’s subjective experience of reality, cognitive processes shift and elective actions occur without conscious volition. Other areas of the brain that are involved with altered states include: the parietal lobe, which can distort the subject’s perception of space and time; the thalamus, which can induce the feeling in a subject that they’re ‘in a world of their own’; and the reticular formation, which receives sensory information from the outside world and determines what is important and what’s not, so as to prevent us from suffering sensory overload.
Typically a hypnotist will ‘induce’ the subject into a highly suggestible state, via techniques such as progressive relaxation or surprise – however, a formal induction isn’t a prerequisite for hypnotism to succeed. Clinical hypnosis is conducted to address both psychological and physical problems. For example, it has been used to reduce the experience of pain in severe burn victims and of women in labour, and offer relief from nausea to patients undergoing chemotherapy. Hypnosis is also used to treat those with anxiety and various phobias as well as to modify behaviour in the treatment of eating disorders and smoking cessation.
Hypnotism is a form of dissociation that works by allowing the patient to respond to suggestion while ignoring competing or incompatible stimuli. This is achieved by means of existing mental faculties. People who are hypnotized have the same physical and mental abilities that they possess in a normal state. They cannot be empowered to perform acts of superhuman strength, nor can they be forced to recall events that they never retained, such as memories of their infancy.
Who can be hypnotized?
The ability to be hypnotized falls along a normal distribution, or bell-shaped curve, with the majority of people being moderately responsive to hypnotic suggestion, and smaller numbers at the extremes, either very difficult or very easy to hypnotize. Hypnotisability – much the same as IQ – is a relatively stable quality that will remain consistent throughout adulthood.
Scientists are always searching for characteristics that will predict successful hypnotism. They have ruled out any association between hypnotisability and being ‘weak willed’ or gullible. Nor are people with dissociative qualities or excellent imaginations especially open to this practice. However, it does appear that people who have the ability to become completely engrossed in daydreams or music are more likely to respond to hypnosis than those who cannot.