When I write Hypnosis and the ART of Achieving Compliance, I purposely emphasise the ART part of it. Whilst there is some science on the topic of hypnosis it remain contentious amongst scholars and neuro-scientists. Here I give you a piece I wrote in 2014 on the issue; it reflects my scepticism, which abides today.
For those involved in the practice of hypnosis, it is difficult to deny that something is taking place in the “mind” of those who undergo the so-called “induction process”. The operator or the person conducting the session delivers a set of verbal commands explicitly designed to take control of the subject or the person being hypnotized.
More often than not, this interaction leads to apparent changes in behaviour on the part of the subject. As they sit and listen to the operator’s words, they become more relaxed, more withdrawn into what seems like a different state of awareness, and eventually more compliant.
For centuries, since the time of Dr Franz Anton Mesmer, an Austrian physician in the 18th century who claimed to be able to render his patients suggestible to his will through the use of magnets, weird concoctions, and ritual movements; people have reported experiencing altered states due to the conscious influence of another person.
Mesmer called this phenomenon Animal Magnetism. He believed that every individual had their own magnetic flow, which could manifest as different maladies when disturbed. Furthermore, he thought himself able to perceive this flow and to be able to affect it through some of the techniques mentioned in the preceding paragraph.
Mesmerism, as it would eventually come to be known and whence the term “mesmerized” comes, has since been relegated into the obscure circles of esoteric practices and magic.
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However, this relegation has not lessened the reports of altered state of mind induced by seemingly well-versed operators. Even today, a Google search for “hypnosis clinics” returns thousands of hits. It is possible to refine this search by adding the name of a particular city to it, which makes these clinics ubiquitous in North America.
These sessions range from as low as $50 per session to several hundred dollars—most of them guaranteeing positive results at the conclusion of the sessions. Apparently, something is happening – at least in the subject’s experience.
In the 1950s, Dr Milton H. Erikson became a very influential figure in the field of hypnosis, and perhaps personal communication is general. Erickson was allegedly able to affect miraculous changes in his subjects.
Anecdotal and apocryphal stories show him curing bed-wetting, depression, chronic pain, and other psychological conditions. Something more interesting about Dr Erickson was his ability to read and decode nonverbal cues from his patients. His works were used by prominent communication and therapy experts like Gregory Bateson and Margaret Meads, eventually leading to the foundation of the American Society for Clinical hypnosis, which was an affiliate of several respected organisations.
His communication models were also studied and used in the development of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, an attempt at a pragmatic psychotherapy approach. Unfortunately, NLP has also gone the way of Mesmerism due to its reception by the new age community.
The scientific consensus on hypnosis is that something is occurring in the subjects’ brains in terms of activity. However, this activity is not dependent on external influences like the guiding of an operator. These brain functions are similar to those expected from individuals in deep meditative trance or contemplative prayer.
It is necessary to look at a different dimension of the individual experiencing hypnosis to understand its occurrences better. It is critical to explore the psychological dimension.
To what extent a person is genuinely in a different state of awareness remains undetermined and, thus far, not easily quantifiable by direct observation of the physical brain. When we look at the psychology of the social being, we encounter factors that vastly determine and affect behaviour.
Individual and group expectations play a role in decision-making processes; moreover, our inherent need to comply with expectations can cause us to bypass our critical factors and reorganise reality according to said expectations. We can say that an individual in a deep hypnotic trance may simply be giving in to patterns that will ensure successful interactions within the context of their experience.
Personally, and though it seems to be that some people make better subjects than others, I think that hypnotic trance is heavily dependent on context and the operator’s ability to present this context to the subject in a manner that they can, through their own ability to comply, change it to suit a particular need or expectation. It seems easier to compare the hypnotic process to the craft of an actor in which their character is essential to the production’s success.
It is, in a sense, a higher level of persuasion or the seduction of the mind.
Even in Dr. Erickson’s case, it appears that his success (at least those instances that we can corroborate as actual events), may have more to do with a certain charisma, and deeper, enhanced communication.
— Peyton Dracco