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Hypnosis Isn't Fakery, Article Suggests

The cover story in this month's issue of Scientific American magazine is an article aimed at shattering the myths about hypnosis. It shows how hypnosis works and what medical benefits people may get from using it.

Though often called fakery or wishful thinking, hypnosis has been shown to be a real phenomenon with a variety of therapeutic uses, especially in controlling pain.

John Rennie, editor-in-chief of Scientific American, talks to us about "The Truth and the Hype of Hypnosis."

It's this month's cover story for you. What's so significant?

It's a fun article and something people know something about but probably would like to know more about. People hear about hypnosis from scientific studies and court reports. Here, we try to explain what it is, how it works and when it works and when it doesn't.

Does the practitioner matter?

Becoming a hypnotist is becoming very easy to do. You read a script--and now there tends to be a standardized script: 'stare at this dot, you feel your thoughts fading away,' and it is not very difficult.

So if anyone can do it, and you are looking into hypnosis for medical reasons, how do you decide if it is right for your particular condition?

If you are going for medical reasons, you definitely want a doctor's advice as well. Hypnotists are not doctors and shouldn't be regarded as such.

Hallucinations and hypnosis: What is the connection found by scientists?

Scientists have temporarily created hallucinations, compulsions, and certain types of memory loss, false memories, and delusions in the lab so these phenomena can be studied in a controlled environment.

Scientists have been looking at what exactly it means to be in a hypnotic state. Are they just imagining things or really hallucinating things? This has been studied a number of ways. One significant way was through PET scanners to measure activity of the brain. It shows that what happens to a person in a relaxed state, and you hear a certain phrase you sometimes imagine you are hearing that voice again. Also, hypnotizing and then telling a person, 'okay, now you can hear this voice again.' There the brain activity is much more similar to when they are actually hearing it.

Many imaginative people are not good hypnotic subjects. Why?

They really seem to be different skills in a way. I could be very imaginative because I can keep inventing lots of new things, but being hypnotized is not only imagining; it's more about a daydream's state of mind that comes without any effort. Some people listen to music and they can get really caught up in the music. This correlates well with people who can be easily hypnotized.

How do you know if people are faking?

A certain element of trust is involved, but also, you try to weed out the fakers. For trained hypnotists, spotting fakers is not very hard. People who fake being hypnotized tend to do th things we would all try to do. They live up to the stereotype of things. They are almost too good, too compliant, too quick to respond to things. Someone who was really hypnotized would really have to work at being in that state. Not all suggestions are taken as easily as someone who is faking might take them. Also, someone who does this frequently can easily recognize the fakers out there.

What are the medical benefits?

Pain from cancer and other chronic conditions--amazing that in some cases pain relief matches relief given from morphine--these are obviously a few isolated cases, but still impressive.

Hypnosis can boost the effectiveness of psychotherapy. It can help with curbing obesity, insomnia, anxiety, and hypertension. How does it work?

It has sort of the same effectiveness as meditation. If you remove things from a person's mind that is adding to their stress, hypnosis can be successful but highly variable.

How comfortable do medicapeople feel about using hypnosis as part of treatment?

As it becomes better known and the benefits realized, it will become better used.

The article mentions that it can help women in labor. How?

Here you would have to go over the hypnotic process with the mother before her labor. She would have to understand how it worked so that when she was in the midst of labor, she would know how to look for the cues to help her begin to relax if she were in pain.

What about benefiting people having outpatient surgery?

Again, more time and prep ahead of time, the more time/acceptance you would have for a hypnotic session afterwards. You might be thinking how you could hypnotize someone already experiencing pain, but you'd be surprised. They have been able to hypnotize people and keep them in that state while they are peddling on bicycles.

Can hypnosis help people to recall past events in their life?

A lot of people talk about it in regression to when they were little kids, but evidence tends to suggest that hypnosis does not give people the ability to regress to when they were kids and remember something in any reliable way.

It can help with remembering details if you've recently been in a car accident, but precisely because hypnosis is so caught up with hallucinating on demand, it's easy for people to start making things up. If a person is asked to remember their childhood to take themselves back, psychologists would say they are acting the way an adult thinks a 3-year-old should behave, and that's a problem because you can invent things through illusion and hallucination. Therefore, hypnosis should be viewed skeptically for use in evidence of child abuse: Hypnosis makes it muddier.

The staff at the magazine participated in a study. Some of you were hypnotized. How did it work?

The feeling is that you are not in a mindless zombie state. Your own sense of it is like you are meditating, daydreaming, r in a lightly dozing state in bed. The person who is hypnotized is collaborating very closely with a hypnotist. What's interesting is this is going on in something separate from the hypnotized person's conscious activity.
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