Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness that is characterized by intense absorption with internal experience and a voluntary suspension of normal awareness. It is a trance that is induced by another person, often referred to as a hypnotist. It also involves high levels of suggestibility, which is believed to enable the hypnotist influence voluntary and involuntary behavior in the person who is in the hypnotic state.
There has always been an element of mystery and enigma associated with hypnotism. Hypnosis has often been talked about in ancient myths and folklore, and has been associated with magic spells, which a person uses to control the mind of others. It is this aspect of hypnosis that makes it a part of occultism, which also has made it a matter of skepticism.
Hypnosis, used in its current form is associated with the Scottish surgeon James Braid. He gave the term neurohypnology and wrote a book on it in 1843. He was also known to be the first person to use the terms hypnotism and hypnotist. Neurohypnology was then shortened to the term hypnosis. Due to the significance of Braid in the usage of hypnosis in its current form, he is often considered the first genuine hypnotherapist or the founder of hypnotherapy and the father of modern hypnosis.
Even though Braid is regarded as the first genuine hypnotherapist, the scientific roots of hypnosis can be traced back to the 18th century German physician, Franz Mesmer. He later established himself in Vienna and then in Paris. Mesmer was a strong believer in the theory of animal magnetism. He theorized that there was a natural energetic transference that occurred between all animated and inanimate objects and called it animal magnetism.
He believed that each individual or any other animate object has an invisible natural force or a magnetic force field. This magnetic force field influences the bodily functioning of the individual. For a healthy person, according to Mesmer, the force field is evenly distributed. But it is unevenly distributed for someone who is unhealthy.
|Franz Anton Mesmer|
Mesmer believed that he could use magnets (mineral magnetism) to evenly distribute the force field and thus cure the diseases of any person. After successfully using magnets to cure people, he began to use his own hands (animal magnetism) to cure them. Mesmer used to touch the body parts of his patients by magnets or his own hands and in doing so, he would cure his patients.
After being highly successful, Mesmer, in 1788, opened a clinic in Paris. He began to treat patients of hysteria, individually as well as in groups. He used the same techniques that he used in Vienna. His treatment involved patients of hysteria sitting in a darkened room, with soft music playing in the background. Mesmer, being dressed like wizard, then entered the room holding a stick in his hand that had a magnet attached to it. Mesmer used to mostly touch the effected part of the body of his patients by his hands, and sometimes by the stick with a magnet. Miraculously, the hysteria patients used to get cured by this. This led to Mesmer becoming very popular. His method of treatment came to be known as mesmerism.
Even though Mesmer became highly popular and his treatment was very effective, skeptics were not ready to believe him. After investigating the matter, they felt Mesmer’s method was unscientific and the treatment to be a mere imagination. Mesmer was considered to be a fraud and a charlatan, and was banned from practicing his method of treatment. Eventually, Mesmer faded away into obscurity.
Years later, further investigations into mesmerism revealed that instead of animal magnetism, Mesmer actually created a trance-like situation that also involved a lot of suggestibility. The induced trance made the patients of hysteria susceptible to suggestibility, which helped in the patients being cured. What Mesmer believed to be animal magnetism, was actually artificially created trance coupled with suggestibility. Later, modifications in mesmerism were made, eventually being known as hypnosis. Mesmer, thus, came to be known as the first person to use hypnosis, although it was not the kind of hypnosis that began to be used in modern times.
|Marquis de Puysegur|
One such person who made modifications in mesmerism was Marquis de Puysegur. He was a member of the Society for Harmony, a group that promoted animal magnetism. Puysegur discovered that artificially creating a peaceful, sleep-like scenario could induce trance in people. He named this situation as artificial somnambulism. He found this artificially induced sleep-like situation as an effective therapeutic technique.
Puysegur discovered that during this sleep-like situation, individuals are highly susceptible to suggestions. He found that people would follow instructions such as laughing, crying, or dancing. In the somnambulistic state, due to suggestibility, they believed that they could feel no pain, or they could feel sensation in parts of the body that are paralyzed. He also found that, people did not remember anything during the trance state, after they come out of it. In all, what Puysegur had found is almost what is known about hypnotism in today’s time.
Puysegur modified mesmerism and renamed it as artificial somnambulism, which was almost like the hypnotism practiced in today’s time. However, the person who gave hypnotism credibility and made it acceptable in the mainstream is the Scottish surgeon, James Braid.
Braid was initially skeptical about any trance inducing or artificial sleep-like situation. He was highly intrigued by the possibilities, and after extensive investigation, which involved a lot of experimentation, he changed his views. He believed that a trance situation could be created, but not in the ways in which Mesmer used to do it.
Unlike Mesmer, Braid induced trance by asking individuals to focus their attention on illuminated objects like a candle flame or small mirrors that were held at different distances from the face. This prolonged concentration, according to Braid, caused physical exhaustion, which made them susceptible to suggestibility. Any resulting change in behavior was explained by suggestibility, and not by any kind of magnetic field, as was believed by Mesmer.
Braid, thus, gave a proper scientific explanation for the induced trance, which made it acceptable in the field of medicine. A key feature discovered by Braid is that people have greater sensory awareness during the induced trance, for instance a person displaying an extremely high ability in hearing as compared to normal consciousness. He also found that during the trance, autonomic bodily processes can be controlled to a great degree. These findings were important to further establish it in the medical field.
Braid named this induced trance situation as neurypnology (meaning nervous sleep), which was also the title of his book published in the year 1843. In the book he described 25 different cases in which he used neurypnology to treat varied conditions such as pain in the spinal cord, stroke, paralysis, headache, and sensory impairment. He later changed the name from neurypnology to neurohypnology (taken from Hypnos, the Greek God of sleep). This was later shortened to hypnosis.
The efforts of Braid made neurohypnology (later named as hypnosis) as a subject of scientific research and a valid clinical technique that can be used for treating various medical conditions. He thus, came to be known as the first genuine hypnotherapist. He defined neurohypnology as "a peculiar condition of the nervous system, induced by a fixed and abstracted attention of the mental and visual eye, on one object, not of an exciting nature."
Braid might have given hypnosis credibility, but it became popular due to the developments that took place in France. The French physician Auguste Ambroise Liebeault was convinced about the effectiveness of hypnosis. Liebeault believed that all mental disorders, especially hysteria, can be treated by hypnosis. Very soon he successfully began treating many patients of hysteria and other disorders by hypnosis.
Liebeault began gaining a lot of popularity and his perspectives gradually began to develop into a school. In 1866, he established the suggestion-centered school of psychotherapy. Because Liebeault practiced near the city of Nancy, France, it came to known as the Nancy School. It was only during this time when the term hypnosis began to be used.
The Nancy School attracted many scholars and physicians. One of them was the physician Hippolyte-Marie Bernheim. At Nancy, Liebeault had been treating patients of hysteria successfully by simply hypnotizing them and telling them that their symptoms will be gone when they will be awakened. Bernheim was persuaded, and after that both of them began working as a team. Bernheim also became the spokesperson of the Nancy School.
Bernheim believed that everyone was susceptible to suggestibility, and that some are more susceptible than the others. According to Bernheim, the more susceptible to suggestibility the easier it is to hypnotize that person. This susceptibility to suggestibility and hypnosis, later, came to be known as the trait of hypnotiziability. In treating patients successfully with hypnosis, Liebeault and Bernheim together helped establish the idea that hysteria and other mental disorders have psychological causes.
During the same time, the famous French physician and neurologist, Jean Martin Charcot, was also using hypnosis on hysteria patients very successfully. Charcot was working at the La Salpêtrière hospital at Paris. He, however, differed in his views about hysteria and hypnosis. He believed hysteria to be a neurological disorder and hypnosis to be a clinical feature of it. Unlike Liebeault and Berheim, he did not think that everybody can be hypnotized or that hypnosis can be used to treat hysteria and other mental disorders.
Because Charcot believed hypnosis to be a clinical feature of hysteria, he felt that only hysterics can be hypnotized. He believed that hypnosis can be used to induce the symptoms of hysteria on hysterical patients, and thus used hypnosis only as a way of studying hysteria. He never felt of it to be as a treatment of hysteria. He was very efficient in hypnotizing patients, often demonstrating it for students.
The difference in perspective on the causes of hysteria and the usage of hypnosis between Charcot and his school of thought and the Nancy School led to a huge heated debate between the two. This is considered to be one of the earliest academic debates in psychology. Eventually, the Nancy school was triumphant over Charcot. The Nancy School, thus, became an important landmark in firmly establishing hypnosis as a method of treatment of mental disorders.
Even though Braid gave hypnosis scientific credibility and acceptance, and the Nancy school made it widely popular, over the years, hypnosis has always been associated with skepticism, uncertainty, and controversies. The heated debate on the use of hypnosis between Charcot and the Nancy School was just the beginning when it came to controversies associated with hypnosis.
One person who very openly claimed his reservations with hypnosis was Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and arguably the most well-known psychologist of the 20th century. Freud, early in his career, realized that many of his patients were actually suffering from hysteria. In 1885, he therefore, went to Charcot to study hypnosis.
After returning to Vienna, Freud found hypnosis to be not very effective. The reasons for this, according to Freud, were that everyone cannot be easily hypnotized, and that individuals deny what they have said or done in the hypnotic state. He also suggested that hypnosis may lead to the emergence of others problems.
The reasons for the ineffectiveness of hypnosis have been corroborated by researches done later on. Specifically, extensive research has been done on Freud’s claims of other problems coming into existence due to hypnosis.
A lot of research has been done on the concept of iatrogenesis. Iatrogensis refers to adverse effects or complications that may occur due to a medical treatment. It has also been found to be caused sometimes by psychotherapy.
A number of clinicians and researchers have claimed that dissociative identity disorder (DID), earlier known as multiple personality disorder is actually an iatrogenic condition. DID is a severe mental disorder in which an individual develops two or more relatively enduring identities or dissociated personalities. These identities occur in the individual alternately (that is why the identities are also referred as alters), displaying completely distinct behavior patterns, in which the individual is unable to recall anything that has taken place during the emergence any one of the alters.
The occurrence of DID has been very rare, which is what made clinicians feel that is an iatrogenic condition rather than a disorder. There has been compelling evidence that DID is caused by suggestion-based psychotherapy such as hypnosis or hypnotherapy.
The trance state during hypnosis makes individuals highly susceptible to suggestibility. In such a state, when the therapist asks some leading questions about another thought process or behavior pattern, it tends to induce DID. Such questions or instructions in a hypnotic state, which involves extremely high suggestibility, lead to the emergence of other alters.
Hypnosis is often used to discover presumed alters. The therapists sometimes try to reify the existence of alternate identities and thus, validating their existence. The patients’ constantly reifying and attending to alternate personalities adventitiously reinforces multiplicity.
Many studies have also shown that hypnotized patients show greater frequencies of alternate personalities as compared to non-hypnotized patients. Additionally, it has been found that therapists using hypnosis are more likely to diagnose patients with DID, which has been regarded to be as consistent with iatrogensis. Hypnosis or hypnotic therapy, therefore, has often been found to induce and facilitate the symptoms of DID.
Apart from facilitating the symptoms of DID, hypnosis has also been found to be one of the major causes of false memory syndrome. False memory syndrome is the condition in which a person’s identity and interpersonal relationships are centered on the memory of a traumatic event that has not taken place and is objectively false. The person’s life in a way is guided by the memory of an event or events that have never taken place. The false memory is so deeply ingrained in the individual that it orients his/her entire personality and lifestyle, leading to disruption in adaptive behavior.
There have been a number of individuals who have reported of being sexually abused in their childhood, but investigation did not reveal any forensic evidences. Likewise, a lot of people have reported of having paranormal experiences, with further investigation showing that none of such things have ever happened. Despite these events and experiences not taking place in reality, these people strongly believed in the occurrence of these events.
Research shows that some people develop such kinds of strong beliefs after going through hypnotic therapy. Hypnotic therapy involves recovery of lost memories – memories that have been repressed (pushed into the unconscious that is beyond conscious awareness), due to being traumatic. The idea behind this is that once those lost traumatic memories are recovered, they will help the patient to overcome the psychological problems that he/she has been experiencing.
Clinicians claim that this recovery of lost memories during hypnosis is not accurate. Sometimes, inadvertently, the therapist might implant false memories within the patient. The high susceptibility to suggestibility makes the individual under hypnosis believe things that have never occurred in the life of the person.
It has been found that the therapist due to suggestibility leads the person to believe such things. In the hypnotic state the person often says certain things that may be in his/her subconscious; something that he/she might have read somewhere or something that might have occurred with someone else. The therapist reacts based on these responses, and due to high suggestibility influences the person to believe that those events have occurred in his/her life. This then becomes strongly ingrained into the memory of that individual, leading him/her to develop false memory syndrome.
Many of such paranormal experiences like alien abduction, reincarnation, or encountering ghosts have been found to be actually a result of false memory syndrome that has been caused by hypnotic therapy. Therefore, instead of treating an individual from existing problems, hypnosis may actually lead to the development of newer problems like DID and false memory syndrome.
Over the years, despite the contributions of Braid and later the Nancy School in giving hypnosis scientific validity, it has still not got that credibility. The basic nature of hypnosis has not been able to dissociate it from occultism. Even though it has been used as a clinical method, both in terms of treatment and research, the idea of hypnosis is still strongly associated with the element of mystery and magic.
Apart from being a clinical method, hypnosis, has often been used for entertainment purposes. A trance being induced making a person follow all kinds of instructions draws good viewership. It has become a kind of magic show that people enjoy. Skeptics also have strong doubts about the very reality of hypnosis, often claiming it to be a make-believe act that has no truth in it. All these controversies and skepticism associated with hypnosis has made clinicians and experts not to consider it in mainstream psychology and psychotherapy.
The controversies associated with hypnosis certainly raise questions over its credibility. However, the significance of the discovery of hypnosis cannot be denied. It was the discovery of hypnosis that led to the idea that mental disorders can have a psychological cause. The causes of mental disorders are broadly categorized as somatogenic and psychogenic – somatogenic are biological causes and psychogenic are psychological causes.
The origins of the psychogenic causes of mental disorders are linked with Franz Mesmer. It was Mesmer’s method of treatment, mesmerism, which later developed into hypnosis, that for the first time led to the belief that mental disorders can have a psychological cause. The significance of hypnosis can be further exemplified in that it was this belief that made it possible to get rid of the superstitions associated with mental disorders, which was that all mental disorders are caused by being possessed by demons and ghosts.
Further, even though hypnosis has been plagued by alleged claims of ineffectiveness in terms of DID and false memory syndrome, in today’s time it has been found to very useful in the treatment of specific problems like anxiety, headaches, chronic pain, addictions, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This shows that hypnosis has not lost all of its credibility and is indeed effective with respect to some specific psychological problems.
Finally, hypnosis not yet completely being accepted as a part of mainstream psychology and still being associated with occultism has added to its intrigue, leading to a lot of curiosity. It has always been a subject of fascination. It may have its skeptics, but its skepticism has only increased its popularity among the masses and has made people wanting to know more about it.