When one thinks of hypnosis, images of volunteers on stage responding to different names or stimuli come to mind. However, stage hypnosis is often actually the result of someone “faking it.”
Dasha Sandra, a U3 Honors student in the Department of Psychology studying hypnosis and hypnotizability at McGill’s psychological research Raz Lab, explained the difference between stage hypnosis and clinical hypnosis.
“Stage hypnosis is usually done for entertainment and happens in front of an audience,” Sandra said.“[So, participants have] social pressure on them, [leading them to follow the] hypnotist’s commands and pretend they are in a trance, even if they are not.”
However, clinical hypnosis can be used therapeutically to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety, and to study the human mind and mental health.
“Clinical hypnosis is done in a private setting,” Sandra said. “The hypnotherapist does not give ‘commands,’ [but rather] gives suggestions and invites the patient to experience [them].”
The hypnotic experience is purely internal; despite feelings of deep relaxation, the mind and body remain alert. The hypnotherapist cannot control an individual’s actions.
“If a person doesn’t want to do something in real life, [they] will not do it under hypnosis,” Sandra said. “There is no element of pressure in clinical hypnosis, unlike in stage hypnosis.”
Although being under hypnosis may offer similar feelings of relaxation as taking a nap, you never lose consciousness under hypnosis—making it a safe practice.
“Under hypnosis, the person is conscious at all times and is able to exit the trance [at any time],” Sandra said. “When a person is hypnotized they are very absorbed in the task, but if something dangerous happens in their surroundings, they will be aware of it and will exit the trance.”
Sandra explained that there are many steps involved in hypnotherapy for anxiety reduction.
“A way to put a person in a hypnotized state [is through] induction, a deeply relaxing [and] beneficial [state] to anyone suffering from anxiety,” Sandra said. “[Next,] the hypnotherapist will use suggestions for relaxation, [such as] feeling restful heaviness in the body or the use of imagination”.
The ability for a patient to become hypnotized depends on “hypnotizability”—which refers to how hypnotized a person can be. Absorption and “belief” in hypnosis are related to the amount of resistance the person may experience, and how beneficial the hypnosis session will be.
“Some people are naturally more hypnotizable than others,” Sandra said. “Research has found evidence that [the ability to be hypnotized] is linked with different traits and abilities. For example, people who tend to get more absorbed in their thoughts are more likely to be hypnotizable. Other studies have shown that imagination also plays a role.”
Ultimately, Sandra emphasized that those who are more hypnotizable have more efficient use of cognitive resources.
“Studies [have] shown that [hypnosis] may be related to better concentration and a more efficient use of cognitive resources when dealing with information.”
Scientists have yet to thoroughly investigate the the interactions and relationships between the placebo effect and hypnosis.
“Both placebo effects and hypnosis involve expectations [and] suggestion,” Sandra said. Hypnosis has been called “placebo without deception.”
However, there are key differences between the hypnosis and placebo.
“When a person is entering a hypnotized state, they are told exactly what is going to happen,” Sandra said. “Whereas when dealing with placebo, we are giving the person false information. While hypnosis [does have] some elements of placebo effects, such as expectations and suggestion, [it] is an honest technique that gives control to the participant.”
Ultimately, hypnosis offers a new gateway to exploring the complex networks of human minds.