Hypnosis – 3 science-busting myths you’ll be glad to know
Is hypnosis a science, or is it a mystical art that magicians use to make people do funny things that entertain us all? If it is a science, is it recognised and used in the medical profession?
In this blog, I’m going to look at the different types of hypnosis, its origins, and how different professions are putting it to good use, to help you decide whether hypnosis is science or pseudoscience.
What do we mean by hypnosis?
The word hypnosis can conjure up many things but, for most people, the word 'hypnosis' is usually associated with party tricks or funny displays on stage with a charismatic character mystically making members of an audience do weird and mysterious things - often making them look silly.
Many people are familiar with seeing stage hypnotists perform the art of 'putting people to sleep' and making them do things that they wouldn’t ordinarily do in their everyday lives. More often than not, this has led to certain beliefs and misconceptions about hypnosis.
Many people wonder if hypnosis is real or magic, and some even wonder if it is safe. In this article, I hope to address these issues and explain the science behind hypnosis.
Let’s begin with what hypnosis is...
In reality, hypnosis is a phenomenon of the human mind. It is a natural state - a form of intense concentration or focus in which the state of mind is relaxed and can be open to suggestion. It is a state which most of us experience every day – you do not have to have your eyes closed to experience hypnosis!
When did hypnosis start?
Hypnosis has been around for many centuries, mainly in the form of self-hypnosis - people who meditate, chant, or perform repeating rituals are all undertaking a form of hypnosis. It is being deemed as one of the foremost psychological interventions.
Do you have to be put to sleep to be hypnotised?
You don’t have to be put to sleep to be hypnotised. In fact, we have all experienced different levels of hypnotism. Examples of hypnotic states where your eyes are wide open are;
- When you are absorbed in a TV programme or film, and you can hear someone talking to you, but you do not have any idea of what they have said.
- Driving to a familiar destination without any conscious awareness of the tasks you were performing to get there – you just arrived at your destination.
- Being so absorbed in reading that you tune out the rest of the world.
- Focusing so much on a computer game that you shut down your responses to others.
This is why advertising within and between programmes is so useful – you are in a suggestible state.
What are the biggest myths surrounding hypnosis?
- Myth one - hypnosis doesn’t work and is just a sideshow performance
- Fact - hypnosis is a real and safe psychological tool
While hypnosis has been great at entertaining audiences, it is now used in hospitals, clinics, and GP surgeries as a psychological tool to improve the health and well-being of individuals. Increasingly, psychologists are using it as an additional tool to change behaviours and habits, and to manage pain.
'The most frequent clinical uses of hypnosis include: breaking bad habits, overcoming insomnia, recalling forgotten experiences, and as an anaesthetic for managing pain' (Clifford N. Lazarus, PhD Psychology Today 2019).
One of the things scientists have discovered is that there is an essential link between the desire to be hypnotised and successful outcomes.
'It seems to work best when you’re highly motivated, and your therapist is well trained and understands your particular problem' (Mayo clinic Goal-orientated hypnotherapy 2015).
- Myth two -hypnosis is just mumbo jumbo
- Fact -neuroscience takes hypnosis seriously
Science has really begun to take an interest in hypnosis and its applications. Dr David Spiegel, at Stanford University, found that when he scanned the brains of people who were hypnotised, that the brain underwent significant changes and the results showed that hypnosis is, in fact, a distinct form of consciousness.
Three specific elements of change were identified:
1. There was a decrease in activity in the part of the brain associated with emotion and the processing of thoughts. This means you are so absorbed in hypnosis that you are not worrying about anything else. This allows stress levels and the production of cortisol, a substance that is produced when the body is under stress which needs to be reduced.
2. They found an increase in the brain-body connection; this allows for a change to occur between thoughts and behaviours. It is a powerful way to change the way we use our mind to control our view of things and our bodies.
3. Finally, they found that there was a disconnection between someone’s actions and their awareness of performing these actions. So in reality, when we are engaged in doing something, we don’t think about it, we just get on with it. Hypnosis allows a person to engage in activities that are self-suggested or suggested by a clinician without being self-conscious. This enables them to practice new ways of behaving, thinking and feeling that they can incorporate into their daily lives.
- Myth three -hypnosis is only useful for mental health
- Fact -hypnosis can be used across a range of disciplines, including education and sport
Hypnosis is proving useful where there is no medical explanation of neurological issues. Some examples of these are treating chronic pain, addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder, and easing anxiety or phobias.
Hypnosis has, however, been used across a range of disciplines and not just for mental well-being.
Documented evidence exists of where it has been used to improve learning and is being used to help children read and improve focus, and it is also being used to improve student performance.
A scientific study carried out at the University of Minnesota clearly showed that learning performance increased in people who were hypnotised. In his research in 2011, Dr David Wark found that alert hypnotic subjects (no eye closure) performed better in speed reading and comprehension, and had reduced mistakes in learning. He also found that hypnosis-trained students got better results.
De Vos and Louw undertook a study in 2006 which also showed that alert or relaxed hypnosis with mental training worked to increase student achievement.
Does hypnosis improve sports performance?
Hypnosis has been used to improve sports performance - many athletes have used it to overcome physical and psychological barriers to progress in their field.
In 1956, the Russian Olympic team had 11 hypnotists accompany them to the Melbourne Olympics. Scientific articles about hypnosis and the sporting world have been published covering all aspects of sport, including overcoming pain and injuries. Tiger Woods was well known for using hypnotism from the age of 13 to help focus and block out distraction on the golf course.
In 2012, Felix Baumgartner was the first person to jump out of a capsule at an altitude of 128,100 feet above the earth and reach supersonic speed without travelling in a jet or a spacecraft. Hypnosis was a part of his mental training.
Which professions are using hypnosis to find solutions?
Hypnosis has been used by the police to obtain details on a particular crime so that they can pursue their enquiries. The crown prosecution service in England has produced specific guidelines on the use of hypnosis for the police service. While evidence given under hypnosis may not be admissible in court, police have used it to pursue leads or open other lines of enquiry.
Dentists are increasingly using hypnosis to help patients control their fears of going to the dentist or to treat teeth grinding and other mouth conditions.
Surgeons are now beginning to use hypnosis as part of their toolkit to help patients deal with pain and fears of surgery. It is even being deployed as a sedation technique for a specific type of brain tumour, where the surgery requires the patient to stay awake as the tumour is so close to the areas that control vision, language, and body movements that they need to be able to make sure these vital abilities remain intact. Usually, these surgeries would be performed with some use of general anaesthesia such as the 'asleep, awake, asleep' technique.
Studies, where hypo-sedation has been used, have shown that patients tend to recover better, need less pain medication, and retain more awareness.
So, is hypnosis science or pseudoscience?
There is still much debate as to whether hypnosis is an art or science. However, it is now recognised as a form of medical treatment and is continuing to gain momentum in the science world, with many countries worldwide recognising its unique value to the health and well-being of individuals. Medical bodies such as the British Medical Association (BMA) have also recognised its importance, and have given credence to it being used in clinical and medical situations.
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