Hypnosis, Hypnotism, and Suggestion
What is Hypnosis?
Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness. It happens when a state of mind is achieved in which suggestions alter someone's awareness, memory, or thinking in a way that the hypnotized person responds to the alteration as if it were reality. It's supposed to be done with a specific, clear short-term aim -- to get to the bottom of something that the patient is not able to bring to mind or to consciously stop doing.
Hypnosis is not a form of sleep, but of concentration that bypasses the usual critical or evaluative activities of the mind to get to underlying matters. The patient becomes much more open to suggestion and guidance -- not so much a loss of control as an openness, agreeing to what someone else is suggesting.
Most studies suggest that about 25% of people can be easily hypnotized, while about 20% just won't allow it. You can't tell if someone is easily hypnotizable by how easily suckered they are, or how quickly they go along with whatever someone tells them to do. The hypnotizable person is more often the one who gets totally caught up in a movie or TV show -- they can block off what's happening around them, suspend their disbelief, and enter into the story as if it were real and happening in their presence. Those who practice Hindu meditation techniques also find it easier to enter hypnosis -- they're used to being in a concentrative state. Also, children are usually easy to hypnotize, since their imaginative minds find it easier to fully enter into what the hypnotist is leading them to. Children also have not yet developed a large web of experience that matches what they see or feel to what they think, so it's easier for them to simply follow the pattern the hypnotist suggests to them. The focus it takes to stay in a hypnotic state can be harnessed for recovery from mental illness or addiction.
Critical thinking is present during hypnotism, but it's 'bracketed out', not acted upon. We do such bracketing without hypnotism, for instance, while having fun, in sports, in worship, on retreats. But those forms of bracketing are done with safety nets : the Scriptures, feedback from others, use of means of discernment, and hard thinking beforehand. Hypnotism sets the nets aside for a while.
An effect much like bracketing is 'trance logic', where real and hallucination coexist as equals. If asked to say which object is real, the hypnotized person can usually tell the difference. But the difference doesn't matter to them; under a trance, they'll deal with the real and the unreal in the same way. (There are some who fear that modern life is starting to resemble trance logic. To many others, the difference doesn't matter.)
Those who were in very deep states of hypnosis sometimes report that they can't remember anything that happened, even when given simple reminders. But this is rare, and only in the deepest states of hypnosis. Other than in those deep cases, the patient remembers what happened once reminded, even if told not to remember. (Occasionally, memories can be distorted by severe emotion, strong fantasy images, or drug abuse.) The patient's remembering often becomes an important part of treating their mental disorders. Hypnotherapy helps them to know what they otherwise would not consciously know, so they can come to terms with it.
How long has it been around?
The ancients of many lands used hypnosis, especially in India, Persia and Mesopotamia. They usually used it on themselves, and usually without mysterious window-dressing. But hypnotism was introduced to popular culture by Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). Mesmer was a sort-of-scientist, in a field which was the alchemy of his day, that of magnetism and electricity. He believed that the hypnotic state was an effect of magnetism, and set up some fairly hokey demonstrations that for a while seemed to have trendy France... well... mesmerized. Mesmer's demonstrations were quickly picked up by occultists and entertainment magicians, because people found it so interesting. (Stage hypnotists are still popular today.) Though Mesmer's theories were soon disproved, his fame caused scientists to study the phenomenon of hypnosis he was pointing to. In 1842, English eye scientist James Braid gave it the name 'hypnosis', from a Greek word for 'sleep'. Jean Charcot brought it to modern investigative scientific study, and Yale professor Clark Hull's work in the 1930s did much to develop a scientific understanding of it. Today, the study of hypnosis is closely tied into brain science. Since hypnosis changes the way the brain processes information, it shows us a lot about the patterns of certain activities in the brain, when matched to the modern technologies for brain scans.
What is it useful for?
Hypnosis is used medically for many things. Studies say that it works well for:
Treating nausea and stress-related bodily symptoms.
Managing some aspects of addictive behavior.
Treating pain from small incisions, burns, or breakage, and pain from cancers or ulcers.
Immediate or short-term relief from the pain of migraine headaches.
Reducing the level of drug use for cases of chronic pain (like, say, pains of the back or of misaligned hand or jaw joints).
Treating those who regress or go back to behaviors from their childhood.
Short-term concentration on one specific thing.
Accessing repressed or hidden memories.
Hypnosis' impact is mild, on-and-off, or on only a small proportion of people, for:
Managing behaviors caused by depression and some other mental disorders.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Managing moderate-to-strong fears and anxiety, working on both symptoms and spontaneous behaviors.
Certain kinds of rote study and memorization.
Relaxation and stress management.
Anesthesia. A century ago, hypnosis was widely used in parts of Asia when doing large operations, including amputations, but its usefulness for that kind of pain was not consistent or lasting. Better ways (ether, acupuncture, and then modern anesthetic drugs) soon took its place.
Some people claim that hypnosis works for these, but most evidence says not:
reducing the cancer itself (rather than just the pain from it),
medium- or long-term relief from the pain of migraine, backache, arthritis, etc.,
long-term weight loss,
stopping an addiction itself (such as to cocaine or to smoking), rather than just certain related behaviors,
getting others to want sex,
healing of skin lesions or shingles not caused by stress,
overall, long-term confidence-building,
prompting obedience or submission when not under hypnosis,
creating coherent thought amidst confusion,
root psychological problems,
achieving understanding of a subject.
Please remember that on these kinds of subjects, reports in the popular press, word-of-mouth, paranormal blogs, and promotional materials are almost always untruthful in some way. Hype abounds, especially with claims that hypnosis (or the regular use of a hypnotic state) is the secret to lose weight or quit smoking. Even press reports on solid medical tests are often written by those who have little understanding of testing or the subject tested, and thus they give a surface interpretation of the tests.
Hypnosis' most controversial use is on repressed memory. Hypnotherapy works, and works well, by bypassing the methods we use on ourselves for stifling a painful or traumatic incident or accident (like a rape, or a car accident where a loved one died). Once the incident comes out, both patient and therapist can work on it. But those inner controls are there for good reasons, and often hypnosis simply bypasses these reasons when it bypasses the controls. In the hands of careless or unscrupulous therapists or untrained self-appointed hypnotists (and there are many of each), false memories are created, or existing fantasies are mistaken for reality. These can be as weird as UFO abductions and body-snatchers or as serious as false accusations of sodomy and sexual attack (as happened with the accuser of Cardinal Bernardin). In such cases the false memories add yet another trauma to the pile the patient already has. The most risky situation is when a hypnotist says something which triggers the hypnotic subject's active phobia (an extreme, irrational fear of a particular thing).
There are forms of altered consciousness that are called 'self-hypnosis', and it has its uses too, though it is not as useful as its proponents sell it to be. In a way, nearly all hypnosis is really self-done, just that it is usually done with someone's guidance. "Self-hypnosis" is the version that uses your own guidance. The hypnotic state takes away many kinds of self-generated distractions, and improves concentration. It can also help as a self-treatment for recurring pains. It can be downright dangerous for use by those prone to self-deception, delusion, self-mutilation, fantasies, or denial -- a part of the population that's larger than you think, and might include you. Hypnotism can be a part of self-brainwash, of talking ourselves into something we ought to know better than to do. Some 'self-help' speakers even suggest using self-hypnosis to create a form of 'happiness', though real life generally intrudes fairly quickly on that. Some religious neo-devotionalists actually find the idea of 'brainwashing toward God' attractive, but that's not the way the God of Scriptures calls on us to think, and not the way the Soirit choses to work. In the Bible, the constant refrain is for us to choose goodness freely in each moment, and be responsible for that choice.
The clinical use of hypnosis is as a means of suggestion. Some people love to give orders, but most of us communicate what we want done by suggesting and asking. Jesus sometimes gave orders, but more often suggested. So did your mother. The devil doesn't have much command power; he usually works through twisted suggestions and nagging whispers. Advertisers also make suggestions. By using repetition and cleverness, they can sometimes get their way. This suggests a subtle but evil potential in anything that enhances suggestion. That's why it's used by those who want to build for themselves a cult following. But the truth is that hypnotism by itself is not of much use as a mind control tool. It would have to be one among a wide range of measures to control what is happening to the person, done together to gain some level of control or leverage.
Does the Bible Speak of Hypnosis?
Prophets and apostles entered into trances (for instance, Daniel 2:19 and Acts 11:15), but a prophetic trance is not the same as hypnosis. Hypnosis is something we put ourselves or each other into. The prophetic trance is something that overtakes the prophet or apostle, imposed on them from God, whether or not they want it at that moment.
Deuteronmyspeaks against a lot of ways to get altered states of consciousness: sorcery, charmers, mediums, spells. But none of these words translate to hypnosis. The passage is talking about practices that assign power and value to pagan gods and occultic practitioners. Hypnotism was clearly used that way by some of its practitioners back then, and is being used that way even today. But because it works through the brain's natural ways of working, hypnosis is not itself occultic. In that way, it is like acupuncture, yoga, or tai chi, something that happens in the natural physical world which the ancients discovered or developed and then used their non-Christian culture's resources to explain. If so, then it is fair game to look at the physical-world phenomenon of hypnosis through a Christian lens.
Why did the traditions object?
So why do most Christian, Moslem, and Jewish sources (unlike Hindu sources) get so troubled by hypnosis? The main historical reason is that these living religions encountered hypnotism by way of the ancient religions they most despised: Mesopotamians, European pagans, early Arab polytheists, and Canaanites. For those ancient opponent religions, hypnotism was a tool (among other tools) for opening up their minds and spirits to the kind of activities that today's faiths strongly opposed, such as sexual obsession, prostitution, war, vengeance, betrayal, and child sacrifice. When several Christian devotionalists tried self-hypnosis (mostly in the 300-1000 AD era), it produced little spiritual light or worthwhile action for the time spent with it.
The other reason is that in dealing with us, God chooses not to bypass the normal mental mechanisms that hypnosis bypasses. There are partial exceptions to that (prophetic trances, momentary conversion experiences, and such), but all of those exceptions are partial and fleeting, are done for a specific purpose, and happen more to body controls than to the mind. The Spirit does not skip over our will, our conscience, or our sense of moral or practical limit, or even talk around them. Instead, the Spirit works to transform them, transcend them, and work through them. God loves and respects each of us too much to do it differently. If God so rarely does even slight bypasses of these self- control systems, why should we do it as a spiritual practice ? Are we out to trick ourselves? Don't we value our freedom? Why would we do what God won't do, and then claim we're following God?
Both these objections speak to core matters of faith and practice, and either one would be cause for a Christian to reject hypnosis as a spiritual practice, even just to try it out. Yet, its use as medicine is a very different matter, and the Christian is free to utilize hypnosis for those purposes. However, if you do go that route, go to someone who is trained, experienced, and credentialed. Hypnosis is not a game. See here for other paranormal stuff.
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ver.: 02 August 2009.
Copyright © 2000-2009 Robert Longman Jr.