The portrayal of hypnosis in popular culture often involves a mysterious figure swinging a pocket watch and repeating the phrase "You're getting sleepy, very sleepy," exerting absolute control over their subject. However, this depiction is far from the reality of hypnosis.
Steven Jay Lynn, PhD, a psychology professor at Binghamton University, State University of New York, is an esteemed expert on hypnosis. His contributions to the judicial system have been significant, offering valuable insights into the practice. Lynn believes that hypnosis has numerous clinical applications that remain untapped due to prevailing misconceptions.
In a recent publication titled "Reconciling myths and misconceptions about hypnosis with scientific evidence" in BJPsych Advances, Lynn and his colleagues, Madeline Stein and Devin Terhune from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King's College, addressed several errors and misconceptions surrounding hypnosis. Here are some common myths and questions commonly encountered in practice that are widely believed to be true of hypnosis.
Myth: Hypnotized people are unable to resist suggestions.
It is often believed that deeply hypnotized individuals display "blind obedience" and automatically comply with whatever the hypnotist suggests. This is not accurate. People don’t lose control over their actions during hypnosis, contrary to the media's portrayal that hypnosis is a form of mind control. In reality, individuals can resist and even oppose hypnotic suggestions. Their sense of control during hypnosis depends on their intentions and expectations regarding voluntary control. Rest assured, at no point is a patient relinquishing control to the hypnotist.
Myth: Hypnosis is a "special state."
Hypnosis is frequently misrepresented as a unique state where defense mechanisms are weakened, and a state of "physical relaxation and conscious unconsciousness" allows access to the subconscious depths. However, people can respond to hypnotic suggestions even while alert and engaged in activities like riding an exercise bike. Hypnosis typically takes place in the theta brain wave state, that state of being where you aren’t asleep, nor are you fully awake; an otherwise highly suggestible state of being where your subconscious mind is more active than your conscious mind. The term "conscious unconsciousness" is contradictory and inaccurate since highly suggestible individuals remain fully conscious and aware of their surroundings during hypnosis. It is more precise to consider hypnosis as a set of procedures using verbal suggestions to modulate awareness, perception, and cognition, rather than invoking unnecessary notions of "special states."
Myth: People are either hypnotizable or not.
While responsiveness to hypnosis can exhibit stability over time, it is inaccurate to assume that people are either entirely hypnotizable or not at all. Individuals vary in their responsiveness, often responding to certain suggestions while not to others. Nonetheless, most people are sufficiently hypnotizable to benefit significantly from therapeutic suggestions.
Myth: Responsiveness to suggestions reflects mere compliance or faking.
The suggested behaviors experienced during hypnosis can appear so different from everyday life that doubts arise about the authenticity of hypnotic responses. However, neuroimaging studies have shown that hypnotic suggestions activate specific brain regions (e.g., visual processing) consistent with the suggested events (e.g., hallucinating an object). These findings provide compelling evidence that hypnotic effects manifest at the neurophysiological level, aligning with individuals' reported experiences.
Myth: Hypnotic methods require exceptional skill to administer.
A prevalent misconception revolves around the idea of a mesmerist or magician-like hypnotist possessing extraordinary powers of influence, capable of hypnotizing anyone. This notion is entirely mythical. In reality, successfully administering a hypnotic induction and specific suggestions, though not requiring extraordinary gifts, does rely on the creation of a meaningful, therapeutic patient-practitioner relationship. Hypnosis unfolds amidst this collaborative and trusted relationship.
Myth: Hypnosis is the same as or akin to meditation and/or relaxation.
These are actually not the same states of being, though they are related and lie on a continuum, sharing the characteristic of encountering challenges, rather than countering and fighting against them. One will often, if not always, be relaxed while in a hypnotic state, but hypnosis is not simply relaxation. One may feel similar to how they feel when meditating while in a hypnotic state, but meditation is not hypnosis. Understanding how these states relate to one another is helpful in understanding how and when to use each one.
Myth: Hypnosis is a form of psychotherapy that should only be performed by a licensed mental health professional.
Hypnosis is actually not psychotherapy and should not, nor is intended to, take the place of psychotherapy. Hypnotists work very collaboratively and empathically with their patients to understand what they would like help with. Through an in-depth interview, using various models of analysis, the client conveys exactly what they’d like to achieve through the hypnotic process.
When the client is in trance, the hypnotist uses the the information given to them during the interview to start to repave the neural pathways in the brain that will create positive change in the patient’s life. By a certain point, the patient should not need to cognitively effort to create the desired changes in their life. The changes should eventually happen organically.
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