How Things Work: Hypnosis

Even though it originated in the early 1800's, hypnosis is a psychological phenomenon that is still not fully understood by scientists and doctors today. From quitting smoking to sheer entertainment, hypnosis has a wide range of applications that offer an interesting technique of connecting to one’s subconscious on a deeper level.

Many people mistakenly believe that when under hypnosis, inhibitions are lost and a sleeplike state commences in which the subject will perform every whim of the hypnotist. While brain waves are relaxed and heart rate may decrease, a state of hyperactivity begins. Individuals become extremely concentrated on the task at hand proposed by the hypnotist and can zone out other distracting stimuli — making it seem that they may be sleepy. Furthermore, while inhibitions are lost and many people will perform embarrassing things while under hypnosis, people do have a choice and hypnotists do not have the power to make people perform things that they do not want to do.

In the late 19th century, French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot implemented hypnosis for the first time as a treatment for hysteria. This first application in medicine led to a plethora of studies performed by psychologists throughout Europe and America seeking to better understand hypnosis and its usefulness in medicine. Emile Coué, a French pharmacist, sought to understand the theory behind hypnosis and consequently popularized the current term “the power of suggestion.” His modification of past hypnosis theories included three major laws: the Law of Concentrated Attention, the Law of Reversed Effect, and the Law of Dominant Effect.

Under the Law of Concentrated Attention, Coué pointed out that when an individual dwells upon one topic repeatedly, it often will spontaneously appear in one’s conscious mind later when similar conditions or a primed word or activity is experienced. In the Law of Reversed Effect, Coué emphasizes that the harder an individual tries to do something, the smaller the chance of success for that individual. Lastly, the Law of Dominant Effect states that a stronger emotion or suggestion will tend to replace weaker ones while under hypnosis. Coupled with previous hypnosis theory, Coué helped to better describe the effects and power of hypnosis throughout the early 20th century.

Current studies on hypnosis provide detailed analyses on brain activity during hypnotic states using electroencephalographs (EEGs). EEGs can provide data measurements for electrical activity in the brain. Some studies claim that while under hypnosis, individuals experience an increase in low-frequency waves that are associated with sleeping and a decrease in high-frequency waves that are associated with heightened levels of concentration, alertness, and wakefulness. This data disproved many earlier theories that did not consider the possibility that hypnosis was a sleeplike state; however, this data confirms that the conscious mind does become subservient to the subconscious mind.

Along with brainwave data, researchers studied the effect of hypnosis on the cerebral cortex. Studies have shown that while under hypnosis, activity in the left hemisphere decreases and activity in the right hemisphere increases. This evidence supports many claims by psychologists that creativity and impulsivity levels become heightened under hypnosis.

In the modern day, hypnosis has been accepted and endorsed for medical and therapeutic purposes by many professional organizations, such as the British Medical Association and the American Psychological Association. Hypnosis has been used to treat many psychological illnesses, phobias, and physical diseases through medical hypnotherapy. While its utility and success rate to cure problems and illnesses is heavily debated, many patients place their trust in hypnosis when medication and other techniques fail.