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When you hear the word hypnosis, you may picture the mysterious hypnotist figure popularized in movies, comic books and television. He waves a pocket watch back and forth, guiding his subject into a, zombie-like state. Once hypnotized, the subject is compelled to obey, no matter how strange or immoral the request.
This popular representation bears little resemblance to actual hypnotism. Subjects in a hypnotic trance are not slaves to their masters. They have absolute free will.
Hypnosis is a trance state characterized by extreme suggestibility, relaxation and heightened imagination. It’s not really like sleep, because the subject is alert the whole time. It is most often compared to daydreaming. You are fully conscious, but you tune out most of the stimuli around you. You focus intently on the subject at hand, to the near exclusion of any other thought. In the daydream your imaginary world seems somewhat real to you, in the sense that it fully engages your emotions. Imaginary events can cause real fear, sadness or happiness, and you may even jolt in your seat if you are surprised by something. Milton Erickson, the premier hypnotism expert of the 20th century, contended that people hypnotize themselves on a daily basis. But most psychiatrists focus on the trance state brought on by intentional relaxation and focusing exercises. This deep hypnosis is often compared to the relaxed mental state between wakefulness and sleep.
People have been entering hypnotic-type trances for thousands of years, but the scientific conception of hypnotism wasn’t born until the late 1700s.
An Austrian physician, Mesmer believed hypnosis to be a mystical force flowing from the hypnotist into the subject. Although critics quickly dismissed the magical element of his theory, Mesmer’s assumption that the power behind hypnosis came from the hypnotist, and was in some way inflicted upon the subject, took hold for some time. Hypnosis was originally known as mesmerism, after Mesmer, and we still use its derivative, mesmerize today.
In conventional hypnosis, if the hypnotist suggests that your tongue has swollen up to twice its size, you’ll feel a sensation in your mouth and you may have trouble talking. If the hypnotist suggests that you are afraid, you may feel panicky and start to sweat. But the entire time, you are aware that it’s all imaginary. Essentially, you’re “playing pretend” on an intense level, as kids do.
In this special mental state, you feel uninhibited and relaxed. This is because you tune out the worries and doubts that normally keep your actions in check. You might experience the same feeling while watching a movie: As you get engrossed in the plot, worries about your job, family, etc. fade away, until all you’re thinking about is what’s up on the screen In this state, you are also highly suggestible. That is, when the hypnotist tells you do something, you’ll probably embrace the idea completely. This is what makes stage hypnotist shows so entertaining. Normally reserved, sensible adults are suddenly walking around the stage clucking like chickens. Fear of embarrassment seems to fly out the window. A hypnotist can’t get you to do anything you don’t want to do.
The predominant school of thought on hypnosis is that it is a way to access a person’s subconscious mind directly. Normally, you are only aware of the thought processes in your conscious mind. You consciously think over the problems that are right in front of you, consciously choose words as you speak, consciously try to remember where you left your keys.
But in doing all these things, your conscious mind is working hand-in-hand with your subconscious mind, the unconscious part of your mind that does your behind the scenes thinking. Your subconscious mind accesses the vast reservoir of information that lets you solve problems, construct sentences or find your keys. It puts together plans and ideas and runs them by your conscious mind. When a new idea comes to you out of the blue, it’s because you already thought through the process unconsciously.
Your subconscious also takes care of all the stuff you do automatically. You don’t actively work through the steps of breathing minute by minute, your subconscious mind does that. A lot of the small stuff is thought out in your subconscious mind.
Your subconscious mind is the real brains behind what you do. It does most of your thinking, and it decides a lot of what you do. When you’re awake, your conscious mind works to evaluate a lot of these thoughts, make decisions and put certain ideas into action. It also processes new information and relays it to the subconscious mind. But when you’re asleep, the conscious mind gets out of the way, and your subconscious has free reign.
Psychiatrists theorize that the deep relaxation and focusing exercises of hypnotism work to calm and subdue the conscious mind so that it takes a less active role in your thinking process. In this state, you’re still aware of what’s going on, but your conscious mind takes a back seat to your subconscious mind. Effectively, this allows you and the hypnotist to work directly with the subconscious
You conscious mind is the main inhibitive component in your make-up. It’s in charge of putting on the brakes. When your subconscious mind is in control, you feel much freer and may be more creative. Your subconscious mind does have a conscience, a survival instinct and its own ideas, so there are a lot of things it won’t agree to.
The subconscious regulates your body’s sensations, such as taste, touch and sight, as well as your emotional feelings. When the access door is open, and the hypnotist can speak to your subconscious directly, they can trigger all these feelings. Additionally, the subconscious is the storehouse for all your memories. While under hypnosis, subjects may be able to access past events that they have completely forgotten. Psychiatrists may use hypnotism to bring up these memories so that a related personal problem can finally be resolved. Since the subject’s mind is in such a suggestible state, it is also possible to create false memories. For this reason, psychiatrists must be extremely careful when exploring a hypnotic subject’s past. Whether or not hypnosis is actually a physiological phenomenon, millions of people do practice hypnotism regularly, and millions of subjects report that it has worked on them.
Hypnotists’ methods vary and before a hypnotist brings a subject into a full trance, they generally test their willingness and capacity to be hypnotized. The typical testing method is to make several simple suggestions, such as “Relax your arms completely,” and work up to suggestions that ask the subject to suspend disbelief or distort normal thoughts, such as “Pretend you are weightless.”
Depending on the person’s mental state and personality, the entire hypnotism process can take anywhere from a few minutes to more than a half-hour.
Hypnosis can be used for behavioral modification. In this, a hypnotist focuses on one particular habit that is embedded in your unconscious (smoking or overeating) With the control panel to your mind open, the hypnotist may be able to reprogram your subconscious to reverse the behavior. Some hypnotists do this by connecting a negative response with the bad habit. The hypnotist might suggest to your subconscious that smoking will cause nausea. If this association is programmed effectively, you will feel sick every time you think about smoking a cigarette. Alternatively, the hypnotist may build up your will power, suggesting to your subconscious that you don’t need cigarettes, and you don’t want them.
A psychiatrist may hypnotize you in order to work with deep, entrenched personal problems. This can be particularly effective in addressing phobias, unreasonable fears of particular objects or situations. Another form of psychiatric hypnotherapy involves bringing underlying psychiatric problems up to the conscious level. Accessing fears, memories and repressed emotions can help to clarify difficult issues and bring resolution to persistent problems.
In the relatively short history of modern hypnotism, there have been dozens of hypnotic techniques and a wide range of explanations of the phenomenon. But in the end, this explanation of hypnosis amounts to pretty much the same thing. When you absolutely convince somebody that you’ve brought about a change in their subconscious, they register this information as a fact. Like any fact, this information will take root in the subconscious mind. So, even if the hypnotic state is nothing more than a figment of the subject’s imagination, hypnotic suggestions can still reform their deeply held beliefs. The end result is the same!
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