Hypnosis has been used with variable success for hundreds of applications, including entertainment, analgesia and psychoanalysis. Generally, people under hypnosis become more susceptible to suggestion, causing changes in the way they feel, think, and behave, although contrary to popular belief they do still remain in control of their actions. This suggestibility has led some psychologists to believe that a state of hypnosis doesn't actually exist, but strong social expectations are being played out by the person who believes that they are in a state of hypnosis.
Hypnosis also generally stimulates a feeling of relaxation, and this has helped its development into a therapy - hypnotherapy - although some of the treatments practiced, such as regression, are viewed by some with scepticism. When a subject is put through the process of regression it is claimed that they may invent false memories due to the social expectation placed on them. These memories cannot therefore be held to be reliable.
Hypnosis has further been described as "The suspension of the critical factor" which expands on the idea of "increased suggestibility". A person who claims to be hypnotized sometimes appears to accept as true statements that they would normally reject. For example, statments such as "you have forgotten your name" would not normally be accepted, but under hypnosis people do claim that they do not know their own name. It appears as if the hypnotized subject accepts the authority of the hypnotist over their own experience. When asked afterwards some subjects appear to be genuinely unable to recall the incident, while others would say that they had known the hypnotist was wrong but at the time it had seemed easier just to go along with his instructions. Some hypnotists would claim that this showed the difference between a deep and a shallow hypnotic trance while sceptics would question the validity of the demonstration.
Those who practice hypnosis claim the hypnotic state is fairly common and in some ways cannot be distinguished from intense concentration when awareness of one's surroundings is lost. They quote as an example the experience, when driving, of suddenly finding oneself much further down the road without any memory of driving the intervening distance. Similarly, when a person is watching television and focuses so intently on the prgramme that he/she ceases to be aware of the sides of the screen.
Both these descriptions suggest the nature of hypnosis although any definition offered is necessarily vague and unscientific in description.
Hypnosis is usually brought on by a hypnotist carrying out an induction procedure. Different people respond more or less successfully to suggestion. Some people do seem able to display 'enhanced functioning', such as the suppression of pain, under hypnosis. However, studies suggest that these qualities are not exclusive to hypnosis, and it is the drama and fantasizing that encourages the behavior.
Experienced hypnotists claim that they can hypnotize almost anyone with the exception of the very young, the very elderly and people with a very low IQ, particularly those with an inability to concentrate. Intoxicated people would also prove very difficult. They also claim it is a myth that people with strong will power cannot be hypnotized, as they claim these generally make the best subjects. Hypnotism depends upon the cooperation of the hypnotist and the subject; when a person with strong will power decides to cooperate with a hypnotist, hypnosis can occur. Alternatively, since hypnosis does depend on cooperation, no one can really be hypnotized against their will (Liébault). Being a hypnotist is not a source of power over other people.
Many religious and cultural rituals contain many similarities with techniques used for hypnotic induction and induce similar states in their participants.
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Scientists first became involved in hypnosis around 1770, when Dr. Franz Mesmer started investigating an effect he called 'animal magnetism' or 'mesmerism' (the latter name still remaining popular today.) The evolution of Mesmer's ideas and practices led James Braid (1795-1860) to coin the term and develop the procedure known as hypnosis in 1842. He rejected Mesmer's misleading idea of magnetism inducing hypnosis, and ascribed the creation of the 'mesmeric trance' to a physiological process - the prolonged attention on a bright moving object or similar object of fixation. He postulated that "protracted ocular fixation" fatgued certain parts of the brain and caused the trance, "nervous sleep." At first he called the procedure neurhypnotism but the current word soon emerged. Braid developed his ideas over time, down-playing his early idea of nervous sleep and increasing the role of psychological factors rather than fatigue. He came to recognise the role of intense, focused concentration by the subject on the hypnotist, a condition he called monoideism.
Braid attempted to use hypnotism to treat various psychological and physical conditions. He had little success, notably in his attempts to treat organic conditions. Other doctors had better results, especially in the use of hypnosis in pain control, a report in 1842 desribed an amputation performed on a hypnotised subject without pain. The report was widely dismissed and there was strong resistance in the medical profession to hypnotism, but other successful reports followed. Dr. James Esdaile (1805-1859) performed over 300 operations using hypnosis as pain control. The development of chemical anaesthetics soon relegated hypnotism in this role.
The deaths of Braid and Esdaile curbed the interest in hypnotism. Experimentation was revived into the 1880s, mainly in continental Europe where new translations of Braid's work were circulated. The neurologist Jean Martin Charcot (1825-1893) endorsed hypnotism for the treatment of hysteria. La méthode numérique, still more popular on the continent than in England, led to a number of systematic experimental examinations of hypnosis in France, Germany and Switzerland. The process of post-hypnotic suggestion was first described in this period. Exaggerated claims were still made, extraordinary improvements in sensory acuity and memory were reported under hypnosis.
From the 1880s the examination of hypnosis passed from medical doctors to psychologists. charnot had led the way and his study was continued by his pupil, Pierre Janet Janet described the theory of dissociation, the splitting of mental aspects under hypnosis (or hysteria) so skills and memory could be made inaccessible or recovered. Janet provoked interest in the subconscious and laid the framework for reintergration therapy for dissociated personalities.
Also in this period Ambroise-Auguste Liébault first wrote of the necessity for cooperation between the hypnotiser and the subject, for rapport. He also emphasised, with Bernheim, the importance of suggestibility. Sigmund Freud met with Charcot and also Bernheim. Back in Vienna he developed abreaction therapy using hypnosis with Josef Breuer. Freud ended up rejecting hypnosis as a useful tool.
After this spate of interest the study again fell into abeyance. The modern study of hypnotism is usually considered to have begun in the 1930s with Clark Leonard Hull at Yale. An experimental psychlogist his work Hypnosis and Suggestibility (1933) was a rigourous study of the phenomena, using statisical and experimental analysis. The main result of Hull's study was to rein in the extravagant claims of hypnotists, especially regarding extraordinary improvements in cognition or the senses under hypnosis. Hull's experiments did show the reality of some classical phenomena - hypnotic anaesthesia and post-hypnotic amnesia, hypnosis could also induce moderate increases in certain physical capacities and change the threshold of sensory stimulation, attenuation effects could be especially dramatic.
Studies continued after the war, Barber, Hilgard, Orne and Sarbin also produced substantial studies. Ernest Hilgard and André Weitzenhoffer created the Stanford scales in 1961, a standardised scale for susceptibility to hypnosis, and properly examined susceptibility across age-groups and sex. Hilgard when on to study sensory deception (1965) and induced anaesthesia and analgesia (1975).