Hypnotism has been around for centuries, yet it has struggled for mainstream acceptance

On February 9, 1978, 12-year-old Kimberly Leach realized that she had left her purse in one of her classes at Lake City Junior High School in Lake City, Florida and returned to the classroom to retrieve it after a school assembly. That was the last time she was seen, until her body was found 2 months later near the Suwannee River approximately 35 miles west of the school. The only witness to Kimberly’s abduction was Clarence Anderson, who said he saw a young girl in front of the school being led to a white van by a man he thought was her father. However, he was unable to provide a detailed description of either the man or the girl he observed. At the request of Assistant State Attorney Bob Dekle, Anderson subsequently underwent 2 hypnosis sessions, after which he was successfully able to describe in detail their clothing and identify the murderer as the infamous serial killer Ted Bundy.

Hypnotism has been around for centuries, yet it has struggled for mainstream acceptance even though it has helped people solve crimes, recall memories, and overcome bad habits. It has the reputation of being nothing but a cheap parlor trick and is portrayed in movies as a tool used by villains to administer mind control or brainwashing, but in reality, hypnotism doesn’t come close to its stereotype. During hypnosis, a person is guided into a state of heightened relaxation called a trance where the subconscious mind becomes focused and receptive to the instructions of a hypnotist. In this state, the subject is highly suggestible, but contrary to popular belief, a hypnotist can’t get them to do anything they don’t want to do. Even though studies have shown changes in brain activity during hypnosis, many are still reluctant to use it as a treatment.

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Let’s first go back to the beginning of hypnosis as a science. How many times have you been mesmerized by something? Hypnotism dates back to ancient times, but the modern era of the practice begins in the late 1700s with the Austrian physician Franz Mesmer, who was the first person to bring it out of the realm of mysticism and into scientific study. Mesmer believed that running through the human body was a force that he called “animal magnetism” and that this force could be channeled from one person to another to produce healing effects. Later to be known as mesmerism, Mesmer would give his patients medications with high doses of iron and proceed to move magnets over their bodies. This, along with a lengthy set of hand movements called mesmeric passes, would put the patients in a trance-like state, after which they emerged feeling better than before. Mesmer would eventually scrap the magnets after realizing that his patients were improving without them, leading him to believe that he possessed magnetic powers. His techniques garnered criticism and he was eventually denounced as a charlatan, but his theories were picked up and developed in the 19th century by British surgeons John Elliotson (1791-1868) and James Esdaille (1808-1859), who used mesmerism to perform surgery, including amputations.

James Braid (1795-1860), a physician who coined the term “hypnosis” after the Greek word for sleep (hypnos), became interested in the subject after arriving late for an appointment and found his patient entranced by the flickering flames of an oil lamp. Braid realized that while in this trance, the patient was particularly agreeable to his suggestions. He came to the conclusion that hypnosis is simply a state of fixation of the attention and that a number of beneficial effects can be achieved while in this state. Psychologist Clark Hull (1884-1952) is credited with beginning the modern study of hypnosis, and he determined that the practice has nothing to do with sleep, but is, in fact, quite the opposite. In his book, Hypnosis and Suggestibility, he offered a thorough examination of hypnosis and showed how pain can be reduced through trance. Doctors trained by Hull even successfully treated pain in many wounded soldiers in World War II when morphine was not available.

From Mesmer to Hull, hypnosis evolved from a mystical ritual to a very real science, but what exactly is going on? Hypnotism is like unlocking a door to the subconscious mind. People are constantly aware of their conscious mind in their day-to-day activities, as it’s the voice inside their head that chooses what to say in a conversation, what to eat for dinner, or how to solve a problem they are facing. But in doing all these things, the subconscious mind is hard at work making sense of the world and storing memories to be recalled for later use. The subconscious mind does most of the thinking. When a new idea comes out of the blue, it’s because the subconscious mind already thought it out and proposed it to the conscious mind to put it into use. Think about it like a captain and crew on a ship. The captain stands on the bridge giving out orders, but it’s the crew that actually carries out those orders. The subconscious mind takes control every night as we sleep, which is perhaps why we dream and why our dreams can sometimes seem real, but hypnosis has nothing to do with sleeping. Psychiatrists theorize that hypnosis subdues the conscious mind and allows the subconscious mind to be accessed directly.

The major misconception regarding hypnosis is that while in a trance, people lose all self-control and won’t remember their experiences. That’s not true. When a people enter a hypnotic trance, they suddenly become highly suggestible and approach the hypnotist’s ideas as if they were reality. It’s almost like “playing pretend” as kids do, but on an intense level. If a hypnotist suggests that you are tanning on a beach, you will suddenly feel as if the sun’s rays are shining down on you. The feeling will seem very real, but at the same time you are completely aware that it’s all imaginary. While under hypnosis, a person becomes uninhibited, which is the reason why stage hypnotism can be extremely entertaining. Embarrassment completely flees a person’s mind while in a trance, so when a hypnotist suggests that subjects cluck like a chicken whenever they hear the sound of a bell, they’ll probably embrace the idea completely. However, subjects’ sense of safety and morality remain intact, so a hypnotist can’t force people to do something that they don’t want to do.

When it comes to the question of whether or not hypnosis is real, there’s no doubt that something is going on inside the brain of a person in a hypnotic trance. In-depth research of the electrical activity in the brain has shown that subjects under hypnosis display a boost in the lower-frequency waves associated with sleep and a drop in the higher-frequency waves associated with full wakefulness, which supports the idea that the conscious mind is subdued while in a trance, allowing the subconscious mind to come to the forefront. Researchers have also observed that during hypnosis, activity in the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex reduces, while activity in the right hemisphere increases. It is believed that the left hemisphere of the cortex is the logical control center of the brain and, by contrast, the right controls imagination and creativity. This may explain why a person under hypnosis becomes uninhibited and lets their creativity flourish while the impulsive subconscious mind takes control. During one study, the brain scans of participants hypnotized and induced to perceive colorful images as being gray showed reduced activity in the parts of the brain that control color perception. Conversely, those areas of the brain increased activity when they were asked to perceive color.

The debate about whether or not hypnosis can be used as a tool to recall memories is ongoing. Police interrogators and therapists commonly use hypnosis as a way to dig up past memories from witnesses and patients, but many states have created laws against using the technique when it comes to legal issues. There is no question that hypnosis can help a person recall or enhance memories, but it is also possible that a hypnotist can insert fabricated memories into a person’s subconscious mind because of their suggestibility while in a trance. However, if a hypnotist is careful not to create false memories in his or her subject, memory recall is undoubtedly possible because the subconscious mind stores all of a person’s memories. In an episode of MythBusters, 3 individuals were shown a fake fight, not knowing they would be quizzed on it afterward. When asked about the actors’ appearances and words exchanged between the two, the subjects weren’t able to recall many details. But when they were hypnotized, they were asked the same series of questions and were all able to remember more specifics. One person suddenly remembered the conversation, another recalled one of the actors’ names, and the third got a flashback to one of the fighters’ neck tattoo.

Besides memory recall, hypnosis is often used as a tool for habit control. During this technique, the hypnotist helps the subject focus on a particular habit that they want to kick and connect the habit with something negative. For example, the hypnotist may induce a feeling of nausea at the very thought of smoking and if done correctly, the subject may feel sick every time he or she thinks about smoking. The ability to access the subconscious mind directly during hypnosis can be a very powerful tool to train the mind to detach from a bad habit.

To this day, hypnotism remains a highly debated topic, but entrances the imagination. As researchers continue to grasp how the practice works within the mind, hypnosis will further break away from its mystical stereotype and enter the realm of accepted science.


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