Hypnosis has a 'real effect' on the brain


For my birthday one year, a friend presented me with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—the "DSM," for short—which is published by the American Psychiatric Association and contains diagnostic criteria for pretty much every type of odd behavior ever observed. I recognized myself on almost every page, which I was told later is a typical and quite "sane" reaction. Still, after folding down almost every other page—"I've got that. And I've got that. Oh, and I've got that"—it did seem like I should do my best to knock a few of the disorders out of my personality.

So I talked it over with a psychiatrist friend, who explained that it really isn't done that way. You don't, apparently, just "knock a few disorders" out of a complex and troubled mind. You don't just "fix" some stuff—my epic-scale procrastination, for instance; or the fact that I simply cannot stop myself from eating all of the bread in the bread basket at a restaurant. No, you have to go see a guy and talk about it and try to dredge up enough shadowy memories so that it can all be blamed on your parents.

"Does anyone ever get better?" I asked.

"You're asking the wrong question," my friend said, which is where my quest to get stuff done sooner and stop it with the bread ended.

So my dog-eared DSM is collecting dust in anticipation of the day—never to come—when I might zip through it again and tick off the cures.

I brought it down from the shelf last month, though, when I read that Dr. Herbert Spiegel—a Freudian analyst who became a trailblazing hypnotist—had died at 95.

Dr. Spiegel treated anxiety, smoking, posttraumatic stress syndrome—and a host of other disorders that I probably also have—with hypnosis. In the 19th century, doctors had experimented with the method—Franz Mesmer more or less invented hypnosis, and Sigmund Freud practiced it in his early days. But by the time Dr. Spiegel began treating patients that way in the early 1940s, hypnosis had become just a carnival act—creepy magicians in threadbare white tie, state fair "mentalists" in caftans and dark makeup.

And there was something disturbing about Dr. Spiegel, too: his efficiency. He put you under, you had a therapeutic conversation, he snapped his fingers, and . . . done. Pay the lady on the way out.

Actors came to him for help with stage fright. People afraid to fly found themselves, after treatment, happily boarding planes. Smokers were cured. In other words, people got better.

And Dr. Spiegel got famous. Well, not famous famous, but known in Manhattan media and political circles as an interesting, effective and fast-acting healer. He even had a regular table at Elaine's, the Upper East Side hangout with its heyday in the '60s and '70s. The names of his clients are confidential, yet when one recalls a few of the more notorious Elaine's regulars—Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote and George Steinbrenner among them—it's clear he could have had a lot to work with.

And it's equally clear that he will be missed. The current crop of famous compulsives and disordered personalities could surely use a quick dash into Dr. Spiegel's office for a little subconscious retreading. If he could cure chain-smokers, couldn't he keep Tiger Woods out of strip clubs? And imagine if the entire cast of the freak show now called "NBC's late night troubles" spent an hour or two in Dr. Spiegel's wakeful sleep. Might not work, but at least they'd all be silent.

So why doesn't everybody do this? Why not just put yourself under and fix your issues?

Looking for explanations, it's tempting to lapse into paranoia. (An "Axis II" disorder, according to my DSM. And, yes, that page is folded down, too.) Of course they don't want you to know about hypnosis's power. They want to bleed you, an hour a week, in a talking cure that doesn't really work.

But the truth is, not everyone is susceptible to hypnosis. Dr. Spiegel, in fact, developed an accurate and (typically, for him) efficient test of a patient's ability to lapse into a relaxed focus: The higher you can roll your eyes upward, the easier you are to put under. Those who can't roll them high enough are just out of luck.

Which probably describes me, unfortunately. I have only two settings: asleep and hungry. Still, I'd have liked to have met Dr. Herbert Spiegel before he died to take a shot at whittling down my disorders. Or, failing that, it would have been nice to have had dinner with him at Elaine's, rolling my eyes upward as he tried to put me under, and methodically eating all of the bread in the basket.

Mr. Long is a Hollywood writer and producer.

Health News November 16th 2009