Patricia Galvin MS
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Glastonbury CT 06033
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The versatility of hypnosis is unparalleled. Hypnosis occurs under dramatically different social settings: the showroom, the clinic, the classroom, and the police station. Showroom hypnotists usually work bars and clubs. Their subjects are usually people whose idea of a good time is to join dozens or hundreds of others in a place where alcohol is the main social bonding agent. The subjects of clinical hypnotists are usually people with problems who have heard that hypnotherapy works for relieving pain or overcoming an addiction or a fear, etc. Others use hypnosis to recover repressed memories of sexual abuse or of past lives. Some psychologists and hypnotherapists use hypnosis to discover truths hidden from ordinary consciousness by tapping into the unconscious mind where these truths allegedly reside. Finally, some hypnotic subjects are people who have been victims or witnesses of a crime. The police encourage them to undergo hypnosis to help them remember details from their experiences.
Hypnosis: the common view challenged
The common view of hypnosis is that it is a trance-like altered state of consciousness. Many who accept this view also believe that hypnosis is a way of accessing an unconscious mind full of repressed memories, multiple personalities, mystical insights, or memories of past lives. This view of hypnosis as an altered state and gateway to occult knowledge about the self and the universe is considered a myth by many psychologists. There are two distinct, though related, aspects to this mythical view of hypnosis: the myth of the altered state and the myth of the occult reservoir.
Those supporting the altered state theory often cite studies that show that during hypnosis (1) the brain’s electrical states change and (2) brain waves differ from those during waking consciousness. The critics of the mythical view point out that these facts are irrelevant to establishing hypnosis as an altered state of consciousness. One might as well call daydreaming, concentrating, imagining the color red, or sneezing altered states, since the experience of each will show electrical changes in the brain and changes in brain waves from ordinary waking consciousness.
Those supporting the unconscious occult reservoir theory support their belief with anecdotes of numerous people who, while hypnotized, (a) recall events from their present or past life of which they have no conscious memory, or (b) relate being in distant places and/or future times while under hypnosis.
Most of what is known about hypnosis, as opposed to what is believed, has come from studies on the subjects of hypnosis. We know that there is a significant correlation between being imaginative and being responsive to hypnosis. We know that those who are fantasy-prone are also likely to make excellent hypnotic subjects. We know that vivid imagery enhances suggestibility. We know that those who think hypnosis is rubbish can’t be hypnotized. We know that hypnotic subjects are not turned into zombies and are not controlled by their hypnotists. We know that hypnosis does not enhance the accuracy of memory in any special way. We know that a person under hypnosis is very suggestible and that memory is easily “filled-in” by the imagination and by suggestions made under hypnosis. We know that confabulation is quite common while under hypnosis and that many States do not allow testimony which has been induced by hypnosis because it is intrinsically unreliable. We know the greatest predictor of hypnotic responsiveness is what a person believes about hypnosis.
Hypnosis in its socio-cognitive context
If hypnosis is not an altered state or gateway to a mystical and occult unconscious mind, then what is it? Why do so many people, including those who write psychology textbooks, or dictionary and encyclopedia entries, continue to perpetuate the mythical view of hypnosis as if it were established scientific fact? For one thing, the mass media perpetuates this myth in countless movies, books, television shows, etc., and there is an entrenched tradition of hypnotherapists who have faith in the myth, make a good living from it, and see many effects from their sessions which, from their point of view, can only be called “successes.” They even have a number of scientific studies to support their views. Psychologists such as Robert Baker think such studies are about as valid as the studies which supported the belief in phlogiston or the aether. Baker claims that what we call hypnosis is actually a form of learned social behavior.
The hypnotist and subject learn what is expected of their roles and reinforce each other by their performances. The hypnotist provides the suggestions and the subject responds to the suggestions. The rest of the behavior--the hypnotist’s repetition of sounds or gestures, his soft, relaxing voice, etc., and the trance-like pose or sleep-like repose of the subject, etc.--are just window dressing, part of the drama that makes hypnosis seem mysterious. When one strips away these dramatic dressings what is left is something quite ordinary, even if extraordinarily useful: a self-induced, “psyched-up” state of suggestibility.
Psychologist Nicholas Spanos agrees with Baker: “hypnotic procedures influence behavior indirectly by altering subjects’ motivations, expectations and interpretations.” This has nothing to do with putting the subject into a trance and exercising control over the subconscious mind. Hypnosis is a learned behavior, according to Spanos, issuing out of a socio-cognitive context. We can accomplish the same things in a variety of ways: going to college or reading a book, taking training courses or teaching oneself a new skill, listening to pep talks or giving ourselves a pep talk, enrolling in motivation courses or simply making a willful determination to accomplish specific goals. In short, what is called hypnosis is an act of social conformity rather than a unique state of consciousness. The subject acts in accordance with expectations of the hypnotist and hypnotic situation and behaves as he or she thinks one is supposed to behave while hypnotized. The hypnotist acts in accordance with expectations of the subject (and/or audience) and the hypnotic situation, and behaves as he or she thinks one is supposed to behave while playing the role of hypnotist.
Spanos compares the popularity of hypnosis with the nineteenth century phenomenon we now call mesmerism. Furthermore, he draws an analogy between the belief in hypnosis and the belief in demonic possession and exorcism. Each can be explained in terms of sociocognitive context. The conceptions of the roles for the participants in all of these beliefs and behaviors are learned and reinforced in their social settings. They are context-dependent and depend upon the willingness of participants to play their established roles. Given enough support by enough people in a social setting, just about any concept or behavior can become adamantly defended as dogma by the scientific, theological, or social community.
Another psychologist, E.M. Thornton, extends the analogy between hypnotism, mesmerism, and exorcism. She maintains that hypnotic subjects are asked basically to take on “what really amounts to a parody of epileptic symptoms.” If some hypnotic or mesmerized subjects seem possessed, that is because possession involves a similar socio-cognitive context, a similar role-playing arrangement and rapport. The central beliefs differ and the dominant idea of an altered state, of animal magnetism or of invading demons, gives the experiences their distinguishing characteristics. Deep down, however, hypnotism, mesmerism, hysteria, and demonic possession share the common ground of being social constructs engineered mainly by enthusiastic therapists, showmen, and priests on the one side, and suggestible, imaginative, willing, fantasy-prone players with deep emotional needs or abilities on the other.