It is very difficult to give a definitive explanation to the concept of hypnosis, given that it is a process involving the human mind, and of course each of our minds is entirely unique. However, it is possible to understand the basic characteristics of hypnosis and this allows us to explore some of the science behind it.
Hypnosis itself is characterised by a trance-like state, somewhere between sleeping and being awake. Whilst we are fully conscious, our mind shuts itself off from external stimuli and focuses purely on the voice of the hypnotist and what it is asking us to do. Hypnotised individuals are open to extreme suggestions, well outside the realm of what they would normally be comfortable to do. They are deeply relaxed and have a heightened sense of imagination, feeling things are real when they are not.
Some researchers believe that complete immersion in books, films or daydreams, to the point of fully engaging our emotions is a type of self-hypnosis as we enter a similar state. However, real true and deep hypnosis is achieved through intentional relaxation and exercises designed to calm and focus the mind.
In conventional hypnosis we are able to adopt the suggestions of the hypnotist and treat them as if they are in fact a reality. All of our senses are fooled by this reality, for example if we were told we had burnt our tongue on a bowl of soup, we would feel the sharp burning sensation as if it were real. Similarly, if we were told that we were holding a hedgehog we would be able to feel the sharpness of its spikes. We also respond to suggestions about how we should be feeling, even if this is not the case. If we are told that we find something funny we may burst into laughter, despite the fact that there is nothing of amusement happening.
The process of hypnosis calms and sends the conscious mind, the one that acts as a filter for our subconscious ideas and actions, to sleep. This is a theory that has gained wide acceptance in the psychiatric community. Without the filter of the conscious mind, the hypnotist can take advantage of the extreme suggestibility that the subject is open to. Traditional hypnotist shows can be immensely entertaining as they are able to manipulate their subjects to do ridiculous things. However, despite being hypnotised our sense of safety and morality remains intact and we cannot be forced to do anything against our will. This is because hypnosis relies on the suggestions being made to the subconscious mind, and whether we are consciously aware of it or not, there are certain lines that even our subconscious cannot be persuaded to cross.
One of the most popular uses of hypnotism today is to induce habit-control, for example in smokers or compulsive eaters. In this instance the hypnotist focuses on the particular habit that the subject wishes to break. He then accesses the subconscious and manipulates it against the habit.
For example he may suggest that smoking will cause nausea. If the association is embedded in his subconscious correctly, the subject will then feel nauseous every time he thinks about smoking. An alternative to this method is the increase of willpower by suggestion through hypnosis.
Our subconscious is told that we are not dependent on this habit and so it becomes easier to break. Habit-control hypnosis is available not only in person, but also through audio channels such as cds and tapes. However, because this form of hypnosis is mass-produced and not specifically tailored to a subject’s needs it is often not effective in the long term.
Psychiatric hypnotherapy is a common practise in dealing with some negative behaviours including anxiety and phobias. It is also effective in some counselling scenarios where bringing memories and repressed emotions can assist in the resolution of a number of problems.
Medical hypnotherapy is a very controversial form of the practise as some doctors and unconventional medical practitioners believe that hypnotic suggestion can lessen pain and symptoms of some diseases, and even cure others. The rationale behind it is that if the subconscious believes that it is free of pain or disease then the body respond and will heal itself. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence supporting this theory, and indeed many women use hypnotic suggestion in childbirth as a way to combat the pain.
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