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The Efficacy and Scientific Evidence of Hypnosis





The definition of Hypnosis?

If we were challenged to describe what Hypnosis was in one short paragraph, we could save some time to borrow from the father of 20th-century Hypnotism Hippolyte Bernheim by quoting from his 1903 publication:

“I define hypnotism as the induction of a peculiar psychical [i.e., mental] condition which increases the susceptibility to suggestion. Often, it is true, the [hypnotic] sleep that may be induced facilitates suggestion, but it is not the necessary preliminary. It is the suggestion that rules hypnotism.” Hypnotisme, suggestion, psychotherapie (pg15)

We could shorten this to describe hypnosis as being in a mind of enhanced hyper-suggestibility. 

The roots of Hypnosis lays at the door of animal magnetism

Back in the 18th century the German physician Franz Anton Mesmer developed an approach to therapy that in his view channeled a property of nature he described as animal magnetism. Lending his name to the movement he created, this form of therapy rose in prominence and became known as mesmerism. 

Claims of great therapeutic success drove the rise of mesmerists, who popped up all over the place offering their therapeutic services. 

The Franklin Commission and the beginning of evidenced-based therapy

The government of France stepped in take a scientific approach to this phenomenon of mesmerism by setting up the Franklin commission. The commission conducted experiments by creating standardised controlled tests that still hold value today. The commission concluded the effects of mesmerism could be achieved through stages of generating belief, imagination, and suggestion. 

What appears logical on paper, is somewhat more complex to prove in evidence, in terms of mesmerism there was overwhelming evidence that the magnetised powers of the mesmerist were not altogether necessary to achieve the same outcome, or indeed even something that was real. Mesmerism faded from society and gave birth to hypnosis, what it did leave in its wake was the common language word to be mesmerised, the meaning of which is not too far off the modern-day interpretation of hypnosis.   

Is Hypnosis an Alpha, Beta, and/or Theta Brain State?

Being mindful not to drive this short history piece on my blog into a full dive into the complex depths of neuroscience, to which we are not qualified to dive deep. To guide some form of view to this complex question, I have drawn on several sources. 

We can say that many scientific studies over the years have studied controlled groups of volunteer clients in various states of hypnosis while connected to sophisticated brain-scanning equipment. The consense view can be best summarised in the work documented Brain correlates of hypnosis: A systematic review and meta-analytic exploration (Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2017 Oct;81(Pt A):75-98). 

Few reliable brain patterns emerge across studies. There is detectable evidence that a subject produces the same brain patterns to an imagined subject or situation as they do to a real-life experience of the same subject or situation. i.e. Imagine you are holding an orange vs holding an orange. 

A neat summary of some of this information can be found in the New York Times article by Sandra Blakeslee ‘This Is Your Brain Under Hypnosis., 2005

Is Hypnosis a right hemisphere-dominant phenomenon?

Leaning on science to answer this question, a test was carried out on a patient who had suffered a stroke, which had depleted the functioning of the client’s left hemisphere. Using a set of hypnotising scales of measurement provided evidence the client was able to be hypnotised with the use of only the right hemisphere of the brain. 

More can be read in the report: Hypnosis in the Right hemisphere. (Author: John F. Kihlstrom,Martha L. Glisky,Susan McGovern,Steven Z. Rapcsak,Mark S. Mennemeier, publication Volume 49, Issue 2, 2013, Pages 393-399)

What is the main control function of the right hemisphere of the brain? The right hemisphere controls creativity, imagination, and intuition. As a hypothesis, it is clear why we might be thinking of this area of our functioning as a key for a hypnotic mindset, but it also illustrates the challenges of taking what on paper appears to be a logical explanation and then applying a scientific approach to that explanation, that only looks at the evidence.  

Evidence and Science as we know it, ‘My Truth’

A lesson from history, if we go back far enough to when the earth was ‘flat’, we can see an important attribute of belief in the ‘truth’, which is a strong human phenomenon of, ‘my truth’ is the ‘truth’.

What we see is true, feel is true, belief is true, and is also logically true, is in conclusion, with all things considered not only true but also a fact. 

When there is a strong belief in something, we are often challenged to accept an alternative explanation, even when the evidence starts to pile high. Putting aside that the earth has some obvious bumps, gaps, and holes, and ignoring this thing called astrology and the study of the solar system and the movement of things around our flat earth, until the discovery of maybe we are not actually still or in the end we are not actually flat either. 

I think this concisely illustrates one of the objectives of therapy, which is to peer into this phenomenon of our thinking. 

The Placebo Effect

The definition of a placebo refers to a substance or treatment that is designed to have no therapeutic or medical value. Pharmaceutical companies use placebos to help them determine the efficacy of new drugs and treatments. A general approach is a controlled group of volunteers split into at least 2 groups, one given the drug and the second group given the placebo. The trial concludes and the efficacy of the groups is compared. 

The idea is, the efficacy of the medicine or treatment can be measured against the same group of people who thought they were receiving the same medicine but had for example a sugar or water alternative. So what has this to do with therapy and hypnosis? We need to look at the research.

Dr. Irving Kirsch has published more than 10 books and 250 scientific journals on what he calls the placebo effect. His work identified some surprising findings, in that a person’s belief can actually affect their response to drugs they are taking, especially in conditions that have a large psychological component, as opposed to more functional disorders such as diabetes.

For behaviorists, this is an important area of study, as it opens the door to employing behavioral strategies and classical conditioning in therapy. We could even consider hypnosis as one big placebo. 

To end on a story, there was a control group set up to test a new drug, this group was split into smaller groups, and given different information. At the end of the trial, some remarkable recovery stories were recorded. The groups were told that in fact everyone had been given a placebo. 

Even when no medicine was being taken, some in the group who made the most recovery requested to continue taking the placebo tablet. 

A life lesson never underestimates our ability to change and overcome in the face of adversity.

Thanks for reading my short history of hypnosis, with a bit of science and philosophy thrown in, if you looking for a therapist and something resonates on this page with you, would be great to hear from you. Please reach out to the practice

best regards



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