Probing Question: Does hypnosis work?

By Melissa Beattie-Moss March 18, 2014

You're growing tired. Your eyelids are getting heavy. You're feeling very sleepy...

Most of us recognize these words as the Hollywood script of a hypnosis session. Typically portrayed as the tool of comics and hucksters ("At my command, you will crow like a rooster...") or nefarious, mind-controlling villains, hypnosis has a serious type-casting problem to overcome. Beyond the stereotypes, is there any validity to hypnosis as a therapeutic technique? Hypnotherapy—or medical hypnosis—has a long history as a controversial treatment for physical and psychiatric ailments. Many leading medical figures since the 18th century (including Austrian physician Franz Mesmer, for whom the verb "mesmerize" was coined) experimented with putting patients into trance states for healing purposes. Determined to know whether this new medical treatment was genuine or a hoax, King Louis XVI of France commissioned a panel of experts, including Ambassador Benjamin Franklin, to investigate Mesmer's claims. In 1784, the Franklin Commission released its report, which found "mesmerism" to be "utterly fallacious" and without merit.

"It has taken centuries for medical hypnosis to regain credibility," says Penn State psychology professor William Ray. "In the 1950s, reliable measures of hypnotizability were developed, which allowed this research field to gain validity. We've seen more than 12,000 articles on hypnosis published since then in medical and psychological journals. Today, there's general agreement that hypnosis can be an important part of treatment for some conditions, including phobias, addictions and chronic pain."

Ray's own research uses hypnosis as a tool to better understand the brain, including its response to pain. "We have done a variety of EEG studies," says Ray, "one of which suggests that hypnosis removes the emotional experience of pain while allowing the sensory sensation to remain. Thus, you notice you were touched but not that it hurt." More recent research using modern brain imaging techniques show that the connections in the brain are different during hypnosis. In particular, those areas of the brain involved in making decisions and monitoring the environment show strong connections. What this means is that under hypnosis the person is able to focus on what they are doing without asking why they are doing it or checking the environment for changes. Despite increasing recognition by the medical establishment, popular myths about hypnosis persist, such as the belief that it is a truth serum, that it causes subjects to lose all free will, and that hypnotists can erase their clients' memories of their sessions. In truth, hypnosis is something most of us have experienced in our everyday lives. If you've ever been totally engrossed in a book or movie and lost all track of time or didn't hear someone calling your name, you were experiencing a state similar to a hypnotic one. The hypnotized person is not sleeping or unconscious—quite the contrary. Hypnosis (most often induced by a hypnotherapist's verbal guidance, not a swinging pocket watch) creates a hyper-attentive and hyper-responsive mental state, in which the subject's subconscious mind is highly open to suggestion. "This doesn't mean you become a submissive robot when hypnotized," Ray asserts. "Studies have shown us that good hypnotic subjects are active problem solvers. While it's true that the subconscious mind is more open to suggestion during hypnosis, that doesn't mean that the subject's free will or moral judgment is turned off."

Are some people more easily hypnotized than others? "Yes, although the reason is not clearly understood," explains Ray. "Hypnotic responsiveness doesn't seem to correlate in expected ways with personality traits, such as gullibility, imagery ability or submissiveness. One link we've found is that people who become very engrossed in day-to-day activities—reading or music, for example—may be more easily hypnotized." In the late 1950s, Stanford University was the first to establish a reliable "yardstick" of susceptibility (aptly called the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scales). Through subsequent studies, researchers learned that 95 percent of people can be hypnotized to some extent (with most scoring in the midrange on the Stanford Scale) and that "an individual's score—reflecting the ability to respond to hypnosis—remains remarkably stable over time. Even twenty-five years after their initial Stanford Scale tests, retested subjects were getting almost the same scores, the same level of hypnotic responsiveness."

Understanding the exact mechanism behind hypnosis may require decoding the workings of the unconscious mind. While it may be near-impossible to arrive at that knowledge, hypnosis has come a long way since it was debunked by The Sun King's commission. Who knows? If he could review the case today, Benjamin Franklin might even be persuaded—("You're getting sleepy... Your eyelids are getting heavy...")—to change his mind. William Ray, Ph.D., professor of psychology, can be reached at wir@psu.edu.



Disclaimer: Results may vary depending on adherence to the program and suggestions made.

"Hi Hendrik, Well I am doing very well. Been surrounded by a lot of drunk people lately. I was sober on my bachelors too so I have been through the pitts and survived. I have gotten so far because of you. This is a victory for the both of us! You are the best in what you do!!! Thank you so much " ...

"Still doing well here. Its 7 days tomorrow, and I listen to your CD every night at 7pm. I'm loving my new life. I have also joined the local gym, and have been walking every night for 45 mins. No longer drink coffee or Tea at all. In fact I have cut out anything with Caffeine. I'm drinking about 10 glasses of Water per day. Eating natural fruits and taking Vit C every day. I've had a few times when I've craved, but nothing too serious. I'm taking each day by day, but will listen to your CD for as long as it takes. Thanks for helping me get my life back."

"Hi Hendrik, Hope you are well. Thought I would pop you a probably way overdue mail, to share with you where I currently find myself. I had a session with you just over a year ago […] The purpose of my visit was for you to guide/assist me with my stop smoking attempt. Initially, it was extremely difficult and I honestly thought that I had wasted your and my time. Constantly reminding myself of the important things that you taught me and opened my mind to on that day, is what helped me through the very difficult first days and weeks, maybe even months. I am very pleased to report, that since that day, I have managed to avoid that "first one" and have not had a single cigarette since. I can distinctly remember riding home that day on my motorcycle, from your place in Villeria to my home in Centurion. I was in a total state of relaxation and it was a rather tricky ride home for me. Upon arriving at home, my Wife and two Sons were eager to hear what had happened, but I was so relaxed or possibly tired, that I could not share the whole experience with them. It took sharing bit by bit over the following few days for me to share the entire experience with them. I am so happy that I did what I did back then, I'm not sure who the credit for this success should go to, you or myself. What I do know is that what you did for me on that day was very valuable and it was an experience that will remain with me for a long, long time. Thank you so much."