Hypnosis and the power of suggestion

Hypnosis is often stereotyped as being a kind of meager hocus-pocus that conjures imagery of rotating spirals and swinging pocket watches.

It is often lumped together with the likes of extrasensory perception and other psychic abilities. Some people even regard hypnosis as utter fraudulence.

On the other hand, hypnosis may be viewed as a practical exercise with the ability to entertain, decrease pain and even promote weight loss. For some, it is a powerful aid when it comes to overcoming an addiction such as smoking.

Why are there such opposing views of hypnosis?

According to a popular phrase that Maxwell Gwynn, a professor of psychology at Laurier, shared with The Cord in an interview, “hypnosis isn’t what you think it is. It’s what you think it is.”

What this seemingly contradictory phrase is suggesting is that hypnosis isn’t necessarily how it is traditionally presented in the media. Instead, it is comparable to a self-fulfilling prophecy. For instance, if you believe hypnotism will have a certain effect on you, then it will.

Hypnosis in action

A famous study was conducted in the 1960s to illustrate this notion that hypnosis is not how it is traditionally portrayed in the media and is instead exactly what you expect it to be.

In this study a professor taught the same course to two different classes.
In the first class, the professor mentioned that hypnosis brings about a feeling of stiffness and rigidness in your dominant arm. In the second class, this tidbit of information remained unspoken.

Later on, when the professor hypnotized his students, he found that students in his first class reported that their dominant arm felt stiff and riged, even though this was not something that was suggested to them during their “hypnotic trance”.

The students from the second class, on the other hand, did not report the same feelings.

That is, the professor’s first class thought that experiencing stiffness in their dominant arm was suppose to happen, so it did – but only because they expected it to.

Studying hypnosis

In Gwynn’s laboratories, a typical hypnotic induction is not brought about by swinging watches and flashing lights. Rather, it is done though the use of a pre-recorded auditory tape.

“The information we give to all the participants is standardized for the induction part,” explained Gwynn.

The hypnotic induction is where participants are told to close their eyes,
focus their attention, listen exclusively to the voice on the tape and to relax and feel sleepy.

After the induction, participants will be given suggestions. An example of a suggestion is telling a participant to imagine that their arm feels light, is filled with helium and is rising like a balloon.

After suggestions, like the one mentioned above, are provided the participant is asked to reply in a booklet the extent to which they experienced the suggestion. The results are then recorded and analyzed.

Hypnosis as a science

When asked if hypnosis is a science, Gwynn, who considers himself a hypnosis skeptic, said, “it can be investigated scientifically.”

“We create hypotheses about what’s going to happen, we manipulate variables and we look at responses to those manipulated variables.”
In short, scientific experiments are designed and used to study hypnosis, but just because hypnosis can be investigated scientifically, doesn’t mean hypnosis itself is a science.

“Even though hypnosis has been studied for centuries, there is no one clear definition of what it is,” explained Gwynn.

“Some people would say that hypnosis is whatever occurs after an hypnotic induction, but that’s a circular definition because there isn’t really any sort of well defined state of hypnosis. We haven’t seen any brain changes or physiological indicators that would indicate that someone is hypnotized or in a trance.”

Furthermore, EKGs and fMRIs have been used to determine if there are any brain functions that are unique to hypnosis. Some studies show that there is an increase in alpha wave activity in a participant after a hypnotic induction.

However, results like this are very inconsistent.

“They’ve never found one sort of physiological difference in the brain of someone who is supposedly “hypnotized” compared to someone who isn’t,” said Gwynn.

Hypnotic suggestion

According to a 2006 study conducted by Bryant and Kapur, “the ability to experience suggested emotional numbing is related more closely to hypnotic susceptibility than to the effects of a hypnotic induction”

That is, the aspect of suggestion is what produces the effects felt by the participants, not the hypnosis itself.

Franklin Ramsoomair, a licensed hypnotherapist in the Waterloo region, spoke on the topic of suggestion during an interview with The Cord.

“The power of suggestion is infinite,” he said. “Once you have a receptive individual you can plant suggestions [but it depends] on what they respond to.”

According to Ramsoomair, hypnosis works by planting subliminal messages.

This can be done by making suggestions.

“It’s like when you go to a grocery store; you tend to buy certain brands on a regular basis because that brand has been imprinted on you since you were young.”

An example of a suggestion is imploring the participant to believe that smoking is nauseating or that studying is fun.

Who can be hypnotized?

Though some people believe that in order to be hypnotized the participant needs to be weak-minded and gullible, Gwynn insists that this is not the case.

“Being hypnotized is not related to things like gullibility or intelligence or strong- or weak-mindedness or anything like that,” he said.

“In fact, if you’re quite low on intelligence you’re probably not going to be responsive to hypnosis because you’ll be unable to follow along with the instructions provided.”

As mentioned previously, your ability to be hypnotized comes down to your attitude about hypnotism.

That is, if you have positive motivations and a positive attitude, you are likely to be able to be successfully hypnotized.

For example, if you are motivated to lose weight, start exercising and eat healthy and you genuinely believe that hypnosis can help you with this endeavor, then likely it will.

According to Gwynn, you also need a certain amount of imagination in order to be hypnotized, but the best prediction of how responsive a person will be under hypnosis is a variable called absorption.

You are likely high in this quality if you strongly relate and empathize with the protagonist when watching a movie, a television show or when reading a book.

Furthermore, if when doing these sorts of activities you begin to lose awareness of everything else around you, you are likely high in absorption and thus will likely be responsive to hypnosis.

Hypnosis as entertainment

“There are debates as to why people do what they do up on stage,” stated Gwynn in regards to stage hypnosis.

“Some stage hypnotists will tell you that they bring people up on stage and put them into a trance. [They will tell you] that participants will do incredible things that they would never do under normal circumstances when they’re in a trance, because of the power the hypnotist has over them,” he said.

“The social psychological interpretation, however, is quite different than that,” explained Gwynn.

“People go on stage and they don’t enter a trance or anything like that, but they do things that they wouldn’t normally do because it gives them a chance to behave totally out of character and disavow responsibility.”

This is comparable to when people act intoxicated after only one drink when in reality it takes them four drinks to be affected by the alcohol. That is, they act out of character and blame the alcohol (or hypnotism) for their behaviour, even when it is not actually the alcohol’s (or hypnosis’s) doing.

In an alternative situation, hypnotism may be compared to someone consuming a number of placebo “alcoholic” beverages. That is, though this person is actually sober, they believe themselves to be drunk, so they behave that way.

Again, this is like a self-fulfilling prophecy in that this person believes himself to be drunk, so he behaves that way. They blame the alcohol (or the hypnosis) for their behaviour, when really they are just fulfilling, perhaps unconsciously, their own expectations of what alcohol (or hypnosis) affects them.

Persuasion and everyday hypnosis

According to a 2009 Psychology Today article by Dr. John Ryder, “[The experience of a hypnotic trance] feels vaguely familiar to countless other moments in your life where you were absorbed in a zone, lost in thought, enthralled by bliss, or perhaps simply meditating.”

That is, the experience of a so-called “hypnotic trance” is no different than that which you experience on a daily basis, just as the results of EKGs and fMRIs suggest.

Because of this, even if you’ve never actually been hypnotized, you likely experience what it is like to be hypnotized on a somewhat regular basis.
Furthermore, you’ve also probably experienced the hypnotic power of suggestion in the form of persuasion. Likely you’ve been on both sides of this equation: the person persuading and the person being persuaded.

Suggestion may also manifest itself in the form of self-persuasion.

For example, when someone goes through a hypnotic induction that is followed by suggestions from the hypnotist that the scent of cigarettes is horrific and the taste is unbearable, the person is really just allowing themself to believe things that will help him get where he wants to be.

This demonstrates the power of your mind. If you tell yourself x enough times and provide yourself with justifications to believe x, even if they aren’t necessarily strong or accurate justifications, you will still come to believe x.

That is, for instance, if you convincingly tell yourself enough times that you hate the taste of McDonald’s hamburgers, you will come to believe it.

Myths about hypnosis

  1. In hypnosis you lose complete mental control and you lose your willpower.

  2. The devil or demons could take over your mind and body while you’re under hypnosis.

  3. You can remain in a hypnotic trance forever.

  4. Hypnosis is only a placebo effect.

    1. While hypnotized you can be made to do something against your morals.

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