Hypnosis, as defined by the American Psychology Association, is a set of techniques that can alter a person’s thoughts, feelings and behavior. Hypnosis works by enhancing concentration and minimizing distraction, as well as heightening one’s responsiveness to suggestions, made during the process.
The term “hypnosis” first appeared in 1853 in “Neurypnology”, a book by the Scottish physician James Braid. He defined it as a “peculiar condition of the nervous system” and argued that it was some sort of nervous sleep.
It’s a widespread misconception that hypnosis is a form of sleep. In fact, recent neuroimaging experiments show that hypnotized people’s brain activity is a form of consciousness on its own. When under hypnosis, brain activity changes to a particular and unique pattern, including reduced activity in the default mode network and increased activity in the prefrontal areas, responsible for attention. So, hypnotized people don’t “sleep” in the literal sense of the world – they’re, in fact, quite alert and awake.
To put it simply, hypnosis works by decreasing your attention span and thus, making you more susceptible to suggestions and induced thoughts.
Hypnosis is not a treatment on its own, but is used as a combination with other treatments to facilitate the success of a therapy. Researchers are certain that hypnosis can help with a number of psychological and physiological conditions, and especially pain relief and management. The so-called hypno-analgesia is a form of pain management treatment that can decrease patients’ sensitivity and thus, alleviate their pain. The link between hypnosis and perception has been studied excessively and it’s now certain that therapists can induce altered sensations into hypnotized people. A famous study involved patients, hypnotized to think that their limbs are getting heavier and more difficult to move. The induction was so strong that it produced total limb paralysis!
Of course, people differ in their degree of responsiveness. Susceptibility to hypnosis is a highly heritable trait and is linked to the degree of creativity, empathy and fantasy proneness. In some cases, hypnosis therapy might be extremely helpful, while in other might not produce any result at all.
But how does hypnosis actually work?
Hypnosis is widely used in cognitive-behavioral therapy to deal with psychological issues such as depression, anxiety or phobias. It can reduce the level of distress in patients and help them enter a more relaxed state. The mechanism is simple: it involves the therapist, creating a state of inner calmness and concentration and focusing the patient’s attention to a particular feeling, thought or behavior. It’s extremely useful not only in cases of pain sensitivity, but also for regression therapy – “bringing” patients back in time to deal with unresolved conflicts or traumatic memory.
The link between hypnosis and memories is, in fact, largely speculated and widely researched. The reality is quite different than what we’re used to seeing in movies or big screen (sorry, no walking zombies). Media presents the hypnosis as an eerie state in which people seem to lose their free will, as their minds get completely under the control of the hypnotist.
Hypnosis is indeed a powerful tool and a vast body of evidence suggests that therapist can in fact induce false or distorted memories in their patients. This lead to several countries, including Canada, to introduce a new law that post-hypnosis evidence would not be admissible in court.
To illustrate, a fascinating experiment involved hypnotizing participants, induced to see colorful Mondrian images in grey. Their subsequent brain scans showed altered activity in the brain regions that are responsible for seeing colour.