Hypnotism is a special psychological technique with specific physiological characteristics; the act of being hypnotized resembles sleep, except this ‘sleep’ is more like a trance or daydreaming state, characterized by a level of awareness which is quite distinct from the ordinary conscious state. This condition is marked by a certain level of enhanced receptiveness and responsiveness in which equal significance is given to the inner experiential perceptions and the external reality.
The Hypnotic State
A person that is hypnotized listens and responds only to the communications of the hypnotist and they typically respond in an uncritical and automatic fashion while ignoring every other aspect of the natural environment except those pointed out by the hypnotist. Hypnotism’s effects aren’t limited to just sensory changes either, the awareness and memory of the hypnotized individual may be altered by suggestions and the effects of these suggestions may be extended (post-hypnotically) into the subsequent waking activity of the subject.
History and Early Research
Hypnotism dates back as far as the first days of medicine, science and sorcery; and as a matter of fact, hypnotism has been used in all 3 at some point. Scientifically, it can be traced back to the 18th century with Franz Mesmer, a German physician who employed hypnotism in his treatment techniques while working in Paris and Vienna. He had a belief that hypnotism stemmed from an occult force (termed “animal magnetism”), which flowed through the hypnotist into the subject. A very short time later, his beliefs were discredited; however, his methods, which were later referred to as “mesmerism,” – named after Mesmer – were of continued interest to medical practitioners. Several clinicians were able to use hypnosis without fully understanding its true nature or even referring to it as such. It wasn’t until the 19th century when James Braid, an English physician studied the phenomenon more in-depth and coined the terms ‘hypnosis’ and ‘hypnotism’ after the Greek God of sleep – Hypnos.
In the 1880s, hypnotism attracted a widespread scientific interest. An obscure French country physician, Ambroise-Auguste Liébeault who made use of the mesmeric techniques was able to get the support of Hippolyte Bernheim, a professor of medicine in Strasbourg. They suggested that hypnotism had nothing to do with physical force or physiological processes; rather it focused on the psychological meditated response to suggestions. At a similar period, the visit of Sigmund Freud, an Austrian physician who came into France around that period was impressed by the therapeutic potential of hypnotism for neurotic disorders. When he got back to Vienna, he was able to make use of hypnotism to help neurotics recall events, which they had apparently forgotten. He started developing his system of psychoanalysis, however, the theoretical considerations – and the difficulty encountered in hypnotizing some patients – prompted Freud to discard hypnotism in favor of free association.
Although the adoption and rejection of hypnotism by Freud had its impact, there was some progress recorded in the use of hypnotism in the psychoanalytic treatment of soldiers who had experienced combat neuroses during World Wars I and II. Subsequently, hypnotism acquired other limited use within the medical establishment. Different scholars have come forward with their perception of hypnotism and how they think it can be understood, however, we are yet to have a generally accepted explanatory theory for this phenomenon.
Applications of Hypnotism
Officially, hypnotism has been endorsed as a therapeutic method by medical, dental, psychiatric and psychological associations all over the world. It has been especially useful in preparing people for anesthesia, enhancing drug response and reducing the required dosage. It is also useful in childbirth because it helps expectant mothers get rid of discomfort while avoiding anesthetics that could impair the child’s physiological function. Some have used hypnotism in an attempt to quit smoking and it is also very useful in the management of, otherwise uncontrollable, pain like the chronic pain associated with terminal cancer. It is also useful in the reduction of fear of dental procedures, and as a matter of fact, people who are naturally the most difficult to treat by dentists are typically the very same people who respond the best to hypnotic suggestions. In psychosomatic medicine, hypnotism has been used in a vast array of approaches. Patients are sometime even trained to relax and carry out certain self-hypnosis exercises – in the absence of their hypnotist – which can help them with ongoing conditions such as high blood pressure, headaches and functional disorders.
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Robert Galarowicz ND
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