The world over, much is said about ‘hypnotism’, most of which is uninformed myth. This article aims to dispel those myths and to establish hypnotism as what it is―a holistic science.
The science of hypnotism first captured my interest at the age of twelve, when I picked up the book ‘How to Hypnotize‘ by Melvin Powers. And I was not impressed by what I read, for instead of abracadabra the book said ‘sleep’―there was no magic anywhere! Leaving the book to gather dust, I focused my teen spirit to more exciting things―like soccer.
My interest in the subject was renewed six year later, when I came across a person who claimed that his joint pains had been cured by a physician by the name of Dr. S.C. Das, using the unconventional method of subliminal suggestion. Intrigued, I sought an appointment with Dr. Das, and what followed was that I became a student of hypnotism under his guidance.
Hypnotism, per se, is not black magic―it is only the inability of the scientific community to accept the unconventional that has imparted a mystic color to this extremely useful science. Yes, I say science, for everything in hypnotism―from the first commands to the final stage where the subject is brought back to a conscious state―follows a set of logical patterns. A holistic science, hypnotism seeks to eliminate the suffering of the body through healing of the mind. There is no black magic involved; in fact, a subject can only be hypnotized if he/she is participating in the process with full willingness. Much of the myth that surrounds this science form is due to ignorance and the inability to conceive beyond the obvious. In fact, hypnotism, in its therapeutic avatar, can be used to cure a wide range of neurophysical and sociological ailments.
Modern science recognizes three different states of the human mind―the conscious, the subconscious, and the unconscious. While the conscious state is easily understood to be a state of complete awareness of the immediate environment, the other two states of mind are separated by only a thin line of distinction. A subconscious state is a situation where the mind is dimly aware of the immediate environment, and is functioning on the basis of past information; an unconscious state, however, speaks of a situation where there is no awareness, and the brain is carrying out only routine activities mechanically, not intelligently. Thus, while a state of restful slumber is said to be a state of subconsciousness, a comatose state is looked upon more as a state of unconsciousness (though there remain disputes as to whether the subconscious is functional in a state of coma as well).
It is the belief of many parapsychologists and psychiatrists that human nature is chiefly determined by the subconscious, with consciousness serving as an aid to take care of immediate tasks. The human mind has also been compared to an iceberg, with only one-eighth of it floating on the surface as consciousness, the rest seven-eighths being submerged in a stream of subconsciousness. And it is the attempt of the hypnotist/hypnotherapist to manipulate this seven-eighth portion to achieve medical ‘wonders’. To better understand the importance of the subconscious in our lives, let us take an everyday example.
Young children, especially toddlers, are not encouraged to sleep in narrow cots, for the simple reason that the child may fall from the cot in their sleep. However, it is extremely rare for adults to fall off cots, however narrow they may be, and however deep their sleep is. The most plausible explanation behind it is that perhaps over the years, our subconscious gets attuned to the fact that falling off a cot can be dangerous, and the moment that we take a look at a bed, its dimensions are automatically read by our brain which, through the subconscious, keeps us aware even as we sleep as to the degree of freedom that can be expected in the dimensions of that particular bed.
The Science Aspect
The theory of hypnotism embodies a very simple set of rules encompassing the nature of the ailment, the subject’s desire to be cured and the nature of the relationship between the patient and the physician. Simply put, for successful treatment through hypnosis, there should be―
a) An ailment that can be treated internally through the body’s own immune system.
b) The subject should have a strong desire to be cured, and
c) The subject should have complete faith in the physician and/or the methods used.
When one says that the ailment should be one that can be treated through the body’s own defense mechanism, there comes a question as to why would hypnotism be required at all in such a case. Can the body not fight off the ailment by itself? Actually, there are situations where the body’s immune systems are all in place, but there is still an onset of disease simply because the immune system is not strong enough. It is in such a situation that hypnotism can effectively strengthen the immune system by channeling more physical resources in that direction―after all, the human body is endowed with vast resources to ward off ailments; more often than not what is required is a proper allocation of specific resources rather than external intervention through medication which can only complicate the process.
For effective treatment, the subject should also have a strong desire to be cured. Yes, I know that sounds funny―why should a diseased person not want to be cured? But human psychology is complex, and while on the surface everyone expresses a desire to be healthy, the subconscious often expresses otherwise, especially in cases where the patient, after a long-term treatment of an ‘incurable’ syndrome has given up hope. In such situations, the hypnophysician needs to re-introduce faith, and that is where the patient-physician relationship becomes very important.
Hypnotherapy uses the susceptibility of the mind, in a subconscious state, to follow external commands to achieve the desired therapeutic results. But to do so, the subject is first of all required to be in a subconscious state! Therefore, the primary aim of the hypnotherapist is to make the subject feel relaxed ‘in body and in mind’. This state of heightened relaxation is achieved through a mixture of elements―a serene surrounding devoid of external disturbances, achieving familiarity with the subject through verbal and indirect communication, and finally, a set of verbal commands to enable the subject to enter a state of trance.
Once the subject enters the trance-like state, the therapist utters certain predetermined commands (such as ‘each day your back pain will get less and less severe’ or ‘you shall be able to put in greater concentration in your work’, etc.). These commands are repeated over and over again, the intent being to emboss these ideas firmly in the mind of the subject. The same may be achieved in one sitting, or it might take several sittings, depending on the receptiveness of the subject. It has generally been observed that people who are highly endowed with imagination are more receptive to hypno-suggestion, simply because they are less resistant to the unorthodox methods in use in hypnotherapy.
A Few Myths and Words of Caution
Owing to its somewhat bizarre nature, and also due to its use as an amusement trick by cheap magicians, quite a few myths have gathered around hypnotism. Let us take a look at these one by one.
a) A person can be hypnotized at will.
No matter what storybooks and magicians tell you, nary a person can be hypnotized unless, and only if, that person is actively participating in the process. As I have stated before, hypnotism is a science and not abracadabra―the subject needs yield to the pre-hypnotic suggestions for the trance to set in.
b) A person, once hypnotized, is completely under the control of the hypnotist.
While alleviation of physical pain and mental disorientation is possible through repeated sessions of hypnotherapy, the subject cannot successfully be required to indulge in acts which he/she is otherwise strongly against. The logic behind this is simple―we acquire our traits through years of observation and experience, and it is beyond the power of the hypnotist to fully erase the inherent checks and controls that a person has developed over the years. For example, we may look at the finger-burning test used by stage magicians, where the hypnotized subject is asked to touch a flame, whereupon the subject does exactly so, and lo, he does not even wince! Well, the trick lies in the words that the magician uses―I have never heard a magician say, “Touch the flame and nothing will happen”. Instead, what he says is something akin to, “Now you shall hold a strand of rope between your fingers”, thereby leading the subject to believe that he is not touching anything hot. The trick would probably fail were the magician to utter the word ‘flame’ even once, for we are inherently programmed to be afraid of close proximity to fire.
c) Fatal diseases like cancer may be treated by hypnosis.
Trust me, even something as wondrous as the human mind has its limitations! Owing to lack of empirical evidence one cannot state with absolute certainty that first stage cancer (where the disease is yet to take hold on the patient) cannot be treated through hypnosis, diseases such as these are best left to the experts in the field.
d) A weaker mind is hypnotized more easily than a stronger one.
Wrong! Firstly, one needs to establish as to what a weak mind actually means. If weakness means the inability to grasp and/or act on a situation, then a stronger mind is probably more open to hypnosis since hypnosis calls for active participation by the subject.
Having dissected the myths surrounding hypnotism, one still needs to look into the possible faux pas of this unorthodox science, the principal reason being the subjective nature of interpretations. In this context, one cannot resist the temptation to narrate an incident involving a hypnotherapist in a village in Rajasthan, India. This therapist, an expert in the field of hypnosis, was on a lecture-demonstration tour throughout India, educating the villagers against ‘Godmen’.
During one such demonstration, he had successfully hypnotized a young unmarried girl. However, the next day, the parents and relatives of the girl were at his door, baying for blood, as the girl was displaying symptoms of pregnancy since the preceding night. At a loss, the therapist re-hypnotized the girl and established a verbal communication with her to get to the root of the problem. Ultimately the hypnotist realized that the repeated use of the phrase ‘Your legs are getting heavier’ over and over during the pre-hypnotic session had left a strong impression on the girl’s mind, resulting in the near-disaster. Yes, you guessed it right; ‘Heavy Legs’ in the local vernacular indicates pregnancy!
There was yet another incident where a therapist had, in one sitting itself, cured a patient of mild asthma. However, while the respiratory problem did not recur for weeks, the patient started having frequent seizures. Fortunately, the therapist was able to see the flaw in his method of treatment―he had attempted to cure a long-term physical ailment too rapidly, and the disturbances in the internal mechanism which had given rise to the ailment had to seek out an alternate way to manifest themselves―the patient was finally cured both of asthma and of the seizures over a much longer period of six months.
Of course, such incidents are few and far between. However, it is always advisable for the subject to go through the set of commands before going into the trance, and to establish that he/she is completely comfortable with the language/phraseology.
Back In Time―The Origin of Hypnosis
Though hypnotism has been around for centuries, with Indian sanyasis over the ages reportedly possessing this marvelous ‘faculty’, the credit for taking the first steps towards establishing it as a medical tool goes to Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), a German physician. Mesmer believed that there was an internal field in every being which possessed magnetic properties, and it was the ebb and flow of this field which determined illness or sound health. He called this field “Animal Magnetism”, and stated that a trained physician could control the ebb and flow of this field, channeling magnetism from the universe to the subject and vice-versa.
To that end, Mesmer would treat his patients by feeding them iron solutions and then using magnets and ‘passes’ (passing his hands around the afflicted regions to channel the flow of the fluid). While his success record was reasonable, it was not extraordinary simply because his entire approach to the method used was faulty. The subjects who did get cured were not healed by the mysterious, non-existent Animal Magnetism, but by their faith in the physician and by the ‘passes’, which induced a somnambulistic state in their minds, thereby making them more receptive to Mesmer’s suggestions. And it was for this reason that Mesmer’s method (also known as mesmerism) failed to win over scientific opinion in its favor.
Mesmer’s work was taken further by Marquis de Puységur (1751-1825), a French noble, who first brought to light the power of suggestion integral to mesmerism. While experimenting with magnetic passes, de Puysegur observed that it was the sleep-like state or the state of trance which was induced in the subject during magnetic treatment, and the suggestions inherent to the treatment were extremely essential for the cure. He chronicled his findings in the book Mémoires pour servir a l’histoire et a l’établissement du magnétisme animal, a book that is perhaps the first scientific (albeit vaguely so) record of hypnotism as a tool of psychiatry.
But the story of hypnotism is left incomplete if one fails to mention James Braid, an English physician, and Emily Coue. Braid was the first person to deduce the real reason behind the success of hypnotism―in his book Neurypnology; or, the Rationale of Nervous Sleep, Considered in Relation with Animal Magnetism, Braid stated that hypnotic trance and the results obtained thereafter were ‘a peculiar condition of the nervous system, induced by a fixed and abstracted attention’.
Emily Coue (1857-1926) later developed the three Laws of Suggestion, viz;
1. The Law of Concentrated Attention
Whenever attention is concentrated on an idea over and over again, it spontaneously tends to realize itself.
This law is the basic premise of hypnotherapy which aspires to focus the attention of the subject towards combating the immediate ailment.
2. The Law of Reverse Action
The harder one tries to do something, the less chance one has of success.
While it may seem contradictory to the first law, in fact, the second law is totally in sync with it. The complex human subconscious at times acts in peculiar ways, increasing its resistance to change as the resolve of the conscious mind gears up towards change. In such situations, the hypnotherapist tries what is known as ‘negative suggestions’.
3. The Law of Dominant Effect
A stronger emotion tends to replace a weaker one.
This is merely an extension of the first law, suggesting that a strong motivational level can overcome the hurdles thrown up by lower levels of resistance.
Since the work of James Braid and Emily Coue, the science of hypnosis has advanced leaps and bounds, if only within the confines of a select scientific community. In the latter half of the last century, hypnotism started coming ‘out of the box’, so to say, and it is now a generally accepted mode of treatment for mental illnesses. One now waits for the day when ‘hypnotherapy’ would be an ‘over-the-counter’ mode of treatment for a wide range of ailments, from joint pains to epilepsy. Until then, I intend to make do with self-hypnosis; what are your plans?