It’s not the Demon Headmaster with swirly eyes or waving a pocket watch before your face to make you more suggestible; it’s not all glory being given to the Hypno-Toad’s bedazzling looks; it’s not Rosario Dawson making James McAvoy into Thomas Crown or whatever Trance was about. It’s also not Paul McKenna promising to make you thin, happy and rich. Debate continues to rage as to whether Hypnosis Is Real and actually a thing, and whether it actually has any viable uses besides making somebody cluck like a chicken whenever you click your fingers (and even if it’s possible to make somebody cluck like a chicken whenever you click your fingers). That’s before you even get into the concept of self-hypnosis… The one thing everyone can agree on is that hypnosis doesn’t work for everyone – and it’s difficult to prove that it works for some people even, because all you can go in is their word – and that it might have something to do with how suggestible you are and the make up of your brain. Which is pretty cool. Does the practise work at all, though? Are all those stage magicians simply hacks? Was the US military mistaken in trying to utilise the form to brainwash people? Is Paul McKenna an awful man who preys on the low self-esteem of others? Should all glory go to the Hypno-Toad? Here are ten compelling pieces of evidence that hypnosis works.
Maybe Paul McKenna wasn’t lying after all. The celebrity hypnotist had made millions from his racket of self-help books, CDs, DVDs, and motivational speaking tours. McKenna promises all sorts of things in the titles of his releases and performances, saying that he can make people lose weight, get rich, and give up smoking. At the very least, there’s a kernel of truth to that last one. Maybe even more than a kernel – there’s a veritable popcorn bag full of research papers and empirically scientific studies that have found placing people under hypnosis and telling them to ditch the fags works a surprising amount of the time. Seriously, there’s a lot of them. A 90.6% success Rate for smoking cessation over the course of six months to three years, 87% reported abstinence from tobacco use, even a reported increase in people not wanting to take smoking back up years later, because of the hypnosis. It makes you wonder what you spend all that money on those patches for.
Hypnosis can apparently satiate your cravings for a low-level drug like cigarette smoking, but what about the stronger stuff? Yep, that too. Methadone addicts, cokeheads, stoners and alcoholics alike have all been the subject of studies which saw hypnosis greatly increase their chances of kicking bad habits and staying that way. And who needs drugs when hypnosis can replicate the feeling of being high anyway? One study in the sixties (when else) looked into whether the brain-altering effects of LSD could be replicated in a laboratory, with no acid around, simply by getting somebody to remember what happened last time they took it. Guess what? Totally worked. Which makes sense, because hypnosis is often about tapping into unconscious parts of the brain and hallucinogenics do exactly the same thing. Those creative types who would usually use drugs for inspiration have even used hypnosis from time to time, with surrealist André Breton employing it to spur on automatic writing.
Maybe cure isn’t the right word, but hypnosis – a practice that’s all about getting into your head – is certainly good at soothing problems to do with your head. Studies have found that putting somebody into trance, and telling them that they’re less anxious, or less depressed, actually can have an effect on satiating those problems. It’s been used in hospital wards to reduce anxiety over surgery (both before and after), working especially well to people who don’t want to go down the route of medicine or traditional therapy. It can also be used in the treatment of problems that are about as well understood by science as Hypnosis Is Real. Phantom limb syndrome (no relation to the Venture Bros villain see above) is a singularly odd phenomenon where people who have lost a limb still get the sensation of it being there – sometimes causing immense pain. Except it’s all in their head since, well, the limb is definitely not there. Studies have prove hypnosis is very effective in treating that, too.
Warner BrosOne of the most common arguments against stage hypnosis is that it’s dependant on both people involved being into the idea of hypnotism. Which is to say, they’re cheating, with the person who’s being hypnotised being conscious the whole time and then faking whatever comes after, essentially. Well look out haters, science is here again! Researchers at Aalto University in Finland and the Universities of Skövde and Turku in Sweden launched a full-blown study into the effects of hypnosis on an individual’s eyes. They mainly worked with a woman who could enter a state of deep hypnosis almost instantly, with the utterance of a single word. They then used a bunch of fancy gizmos to monitor how her eyes changed, before and after entering the hypnotic state. And they did exactly what you’d expect: glazed over, because she was in a trance. That’s not really something you can fake. Unless you’re an extra in The Walking Dead or something.
Right, one more for you Paul McKenna and then you can pack up your snake oil and get out of here. A favourite of the self-help brigade is promising that they can improve your memory – make you better at giving speeches, make sure you never lose your keys, that sort of thing which actually affects people and their day to day life. Nowadays it’s in vogue to tell people to construct a Sherlock-style “memory palace” in your head, a familiar space where you store each important memory in a specific room or location. Turns out you needn’t go to all of that mental strain to help you remember birthdays; you could just get hypnotised. This is one that nobody can ever seem to agree on, and it probably doesn’t work for everyone, but there is research to suggest that hypnosis can improve your memory. Again, it’s all about unlocking a part of your brain that you previously had trouble accessing, or simply couldn’t. It makes perfect sense hypnosis would help.
Everybody knows about the idea of sleight of hand – the magician’s trick that is the underpinning of most great illusions, where a card/dove/long line of colourful handkerchiefs is expertly concealed through some shifty movements, possibly also be distracting you with something shiny, explosive or rabbit-shaped. Sleight of mouth is totally a thing too, though. It’s part of something called “covert hypnosis”, which is essentially the polar opposite of your fancy, bombastic stage hypnosis: instead of being complicit and aware of being hypnotised, somebody suggests something to you without even noticing. It’s like another person using subliminal imagery on you, basically, by muttering some operant phrase when you’re in a suitably suggestible state. Covert hypnotists tweak your mind subconsciously, without you even realising it. It’s like the Inception thing of tricking people into having an idea themselves, but nudging them towards it. Except not in their dreams.
Admittedly, celebrities do all sorts of kooky things. Madonna and her kabbalah worship that’s mainly centred around expensive water, every famous person who’s ever been part of a cult or the Freemasons, basically everything Howard Hughes did throughout his entire life (but especially all the crazy Mr Burns stuff towards the end of it). That “there’s no smoke without fire” rule sort of applies, however. Especially because most celebrities have entered into hypnotherapy for legit reasons and, because you see them constantly in the public eye, you know it must have worked. Unless Orlando Bloom’s chocolate addiction is what made him basically leave acting. But Tiger Woods also used hypnosis to help him focus and block out all distractions – which worked except for all those mistresses, apparently – and no less a wonder than Albert Einstein used to practise self-hypnosis. In fact, it was in one of his trances where it’s said he came up with the theory of relativity. Which is neat.
Again, the CIA do all sorts of kooky things. Like the whole MKUltra program that grew out of their initial dabblings with hypnosis, where the drugged and tortured a group of mostly young American men and veterans in an attempt to crack mind-control. That was terrifying and morally reprehensible. They started off mildly less bleak, however. In documents that were classified until a few years ago, the CIA set out the viability of hypnosis in interrogation: “A priori considerations prejudicing successful interrogation by trance induction suggest a possible variant technique.” Which is to say, they were still sort of hooked on that mind-control thing years later. Just like in The Men Who Stare At Goats! According to their studies, there was success in hypnotizing people when they were already suggestible, when they were actively trying to avoid going into a trance, and even when they were already asleep. Obedience varied to different levels when they were actually hypnotized, but people tend to listen to the CIA whether they’re mind-controlled or not.
A lot of the CIA’s dossier of evidence draws on the years and years of existing study of hypnosis. It’s an argument made for UFOs and ghosts as well, but again, no smoke without fire. Why would people be so entranced, so intrigued by the idea of hypnosis, for records to have been passed down from as far back as the 18th century, if it wasn’t real? Almost every culture throughout history has stories of trances and states that are easily recognizable as hypnotism. India and China even have ancient records of hypnotism being used to relieve pain during surgery, years before they had anything approaching real anaesthetic. Not sure a dangling watch would calm anyone down… From there the practice of using it in surgery was transported over to Europe. In 1974, a young man having an operation to remove a tumour was put under using hypnosis, and emerged safe and sound (because he was Jacob Grimm, of Grimm’s Fairy Tales). It was even used to treat PTSD in the World Wars and the Korean War.
Hypnosis and the placebo effect are “so heavily reliant upon the effects of suggestion and belief,” said R Barker Bausell, “that it would be hard to imagine how a credible placebo control could ever be devised for a hypnotism study.” Which is to say that hypnosis and the placebo effect may very well be two sides of the same coin. And science is very much set on the existence of placebos – they just don’t know why they work. Countless pharmaceutical studies have been done where people have been given tablets that do nothing, are told it will clear up some condition, and then it does it as well as the participants who get the actual medicine. Sometimes the placebos even do better.
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Tom Baker is the Comics Editor at WhatCulture! He’s heard all of the Doctor Who jokes, but not any about Randall and Hopkirk. Read more from Tom
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