How wicked cool stuff works: Hypnosis

 
 

You are getting very veeery sleepy… be careful or Ekaterina Tikhoniouk might have you quacking like a duck

What is the first thought that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘hypnotism’? For most people it is the image of a slick fellow in a suit, swinging a golden pocket watch in front of you and chanting ‘You are feeling very, veeeery sleepy.’ Others imagine armies of human zombies, obeying every whim of the charismatic hypnotist – or it might just be Matt Lucas’s character from Little Britain.

hypnosisThese, though, are common misconceptions that the general public has about hypnotism and about how and why it is used. Firstly, there is no need to move an object in front of the volunteer’s face or to tell them that they are feeling drowsy; and secondly, hypnotism is not total mind control. It is based on the person voluntarily giving up control to the hypnotist and eagerly following the suggestions planted in his or her mind.

Also, hypnosis isn’t a deep sleep, but rather a state of focused consciousness, in which the person is in a highly compliant and suggestible frame of mind, while at the same time still being subconsciously aware of all that is going on around him or her.

Many of these misconceptions arise because, to this day, there is still no set medical definition for what hypnosis actually is. One interesting hypothesis is that hypnosis is a normal state of mind, one that most people go in and out of every day. When you are absorbed in watching a film, driving down a long monotonous road, or listening to music that engrosses you, you are in hypnosis. According to this theory, we experience hypnosis every day and don’t even realise it.

But there is quite a lot of strife surrounding the question of what hypnotism is, with many leading researchers disagreeing with each other. Some lines of research stick faithfully to the earlier theory of hypnosis as an altered mental state, while others argue that this process doesn’t reflect an altered state of consciousness but is based on human behaviour – the participant will often want to please the audience and the hypnotist.

But then again, such strife is not uncommon in the history of hypnotism. Hypnotism has been surrounded by controversy ever since its discovery in the late 18th century by Franz Mesmer, an Austrian physician. He originally hit upon it during his attempts to cure people’s ailments by means of passing magnets back and forth over their bodies in order to restore their ’magnetic flux’. This caused them to pass into a trance-like state that allowed him to plant suggestions into their minds, miraculously ‘curing’ minor symptoms and ailments that had arisen from stress and other psychological problems. They were, to coin the phrase, mesmerised.

Since Mesmer’s time, many different methods for hypnotising people have emerged. There’s no actual need for flamboyant rituals and lengthy relaxation techniques- the only important part is that the participant must be aware of the fact that they are going to be hypnotised. It is quite a simple process- it involves directions for relaxation, followed by many different suggestions aimed to produce many different things, such as amnesia, tomfoolery, pain relief, and many more. Hypnotised people are very suggestible and will willingly join with the hypnotist in enacting a role expected of them.

This interesting attribute of hypnosis is taken advantage of in stage hypnotism. Ever since its discovery, stage hypnotists have put on shows in theatres, boathouse clubs and pavilions, shocking and amazing audiences with their abilities of ‘mind control’.

Many stage hypnotists reinforce this belief by using certain tricks and deceptions, such as selecting out the most compliant and suggestible subjects out of the audience, off-microphone commands to the participants, as well as ‘sleight of hand’ tricks that deceive the audience into thinking that they had been under the influence of hypnosis too.

But the amazing thing is that most hypnotists don’t even have to resort to trickery to achieve their baffling feats of ‘mind control’. The main thing is that the person must want to be hypnotised. Hypnosis illustrates a basic human need to fit in – the participants expect to be hypnotised, so when told to go into hypnosis, they instantly obey, as they feel that this is what is expected of them. Most people will go along with the hypnotist’s suggestions, as they know that a hypnotised person is not responsible for his or her actions.

It is also possible that people do what the hypnotist tells them to, no matter how silly the request, because they believe that this is what should happen. Thus the volunteers are happy to dance around the stage, pretend to be animals, and generally make fools of themselves for the general amusement of the audience.

Funny stuff aside, hypnosis also has a serious side. It is used more and more often in modern medicine. Hypnosis in itself cannot cure physical illness, but it is proven to help alleviate pain and discomfort, especially in physical therapy, rehabilitation and during serious illnesses. A number of hospital studies have shown that hypnotherapy before and after major operations has a noticeable positive effect on patients’ recovery times and general wellbeing. Patients that received hypnosis reported less pain, nausea and anxiety post-surgery.

Hypnosis has many other uses. It is used to treat depression, anxiety, eating disorders, sleep disorders, and post-traumatic stress, as well as smoking and weight management, and could be applied to many others. There have even been ludicrous rumours that the American government have tried and failed to use hypnotism as a ‘military weapon’, another humorous example of the hype surrounding hypnosis.

Despite all the research about hypnosis, there are still many things we do not know about hypnotism. It has been around for more than 200 years, baffling scientists and researchers, as well as amusing countless droves of onlookers as the hypnotist makes yet another volunteer strip of their clothes or pretend to be a duck.

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