Hypnosis is a passive, relxed state during which a persons memory and perception are altered and the person is more responsive than usual to suggestion. A hypnotic state typically is caused by the monotonous repetition of words and gestures by the hypnotist.
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Hypnosis as Entertainment
"Look deep into my eyes," said the hypnotist to his newest subject, 15-year-old Juan. "You are feeling very relaxed," he repeated over and over again in a low, calming voice. It was Spirit Week at Juan's high school, and this assembly was one of the highlights. Much to the delight of his classmates, Juan really did appear to be hypnotized after a couple minutes of listening to the hypnotist's voice. When the hypnotist suggested that Juan recall an event from his childhood, Juan acted as if he were blowing out the candles at his fifth birthday party and then playing with one of his gifts, a fire truck. When asked to think about his favorite kind of music, Juan acted as if he were playing the drums. And when the hypnotist suggested to Juan that he was caught in a snowstorm, he started shivering uncontrollably. Juan's friends roared with laughter as they watched him respond to the hypnotist's suggestions.
Was Juan really hypnotized? Probably not, if we define hypnosis as a state in which a person is unaware of what he or she is doing. More likely, Juan was feeling relaxed and open to suggestions from the hypnotist, and he knew that he was part of the show. So behavior that might have seemed strange in other contexts was perfectly acceptable in this setting. When his friends asked him later if he remembered what had happened, he said that he did.
Hypnosis as a Form of Therapy
Many people think that hypnotism is something done just for fun, but actually it often is used as a way of helping people deal with various behavioral and emotional problems. Experts disagree about how valuable this technique is, and no one has been able to explain exactly how it works. Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that hypnosis might be quite helpful in some cases for the treatment of pain, depression, anxiety, stress, sleep disturbances, eating disorders, and many other problems.
Health care professionals who use hypnosis, sometimes called "hypnotherapists," are very different from the "stage hypnotists" who put on entertaining shows at theaters and schools. Typically hypnotherapists are licensed physicians, psychologists (sy-KOL-o-jists), or social workers who have received considerable training in the uses of hypnosis. Unlike entertainers, their goal is not to persuade a person to act strangely or be silly, but instead to produce feelings of relaxation, calmness, and well-being. Usually, they will begin the session by suggesting these states of mind and instructing the person to imagine or think about pleasant experiences. Some people are more easily hypnotized than others, but most people who experience hypnosis report changes in the way they feel, think, or behave. They may feel as if they have entered a different level of consciousness (inner awareness), or they may simply feel more focused, attentive, relaxed, and therefore better able to concentrate on their inner thoughts and feelings without being distracted.
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Today we use the term "mesmerize" to mean "fascinate" or "amaze." For example, we might say, "The child was mesmerized by the colorfil new toy," or "I am mesmerized by your smile." This modern word is derived from the name of Franz Anton Mesmer, an Austrian physician who introduced the "healing art" of mesmerism in the late 1700s. Mesmer claimed that certain people(including himself) had special powers over the "invisible fluid" he believed was contained within the human body. Mesmer thought that disease was the result of blockages in the flow of this fluid through the body and that he and other special people could use the power of their touch and their gaze to restore healthy flow of this fluid in sick people.
Mesmer used his so-called powers to produce a trancelike state in his patients, who often experienced convulsions (intense shaking) or delirium (confusion and an overly excited state) by the end of the healing session. Many people claimed to have been healed by Mesmer, but the authorities in France, where he was living at the time, soon called his practice into Question. In fact, the American statesman Benjamin Franklin was a member of a committee of physicians and scientists appointed by the king of France, Louis XVI, to investigate Mesmer in the 1780s. Nevertheless, mesmerism spread to England, France, and other European countries in the 1800s and became qit e popular. While Mesmer's methods may seem questionable to us today, he is credited for his role in the eventual development of hypnotism as a practice that can help some people deal with physical and psychological conditions.
Suggestion and Choice
Contrary to popular belief, people who are hypnotized do not lose control over what they are doing. While they may be more likely to respond to the therapist's suggestions, they can choose whether to follow these instructions. People remain aware of what they are doing and are likely to remember everything after the session is over. Hypnosis is not the same as the sleeplike trance that often is portrayed in movies and television shows, and it does not have the magical powers that sometimes are associated with it. Within limits, hypnosis can make a person much more likely to believe in or cooperate with another person (the hypnotist) and do what he or she asks. In other words, it seems that hypnosis is all about the power of suggestion.