No Hocus-Pocus

No Hocus-Pocus

"The Truth and the Hype of Hypnosis" by Michael R. Nash, in Scientific American (July 2001), 415 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017–1111.

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"The Truth and the Hype of Hypnosis" by Michael R. Nash, in Scientific American (July 2001), 415 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017–1111.

It is a scene familiar from countless movies. A pocket watch swings back and forth on a chain while a voice soothingly intones, "You are getting sleepy, very sleepy." But hypnosis is more than Hollywood fantasy. It has important, widely recognized medical uses, reports Nash, a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

A National Institutes of Health panel found in 1996 that hypnosis alleviated pain in patients with cancer and other chronic conditions. It also has reduced pain in burn victims and women in labor. A recent review of various studies found that hypnosis relieved the pain of 75 percent of 933 subjects taking part in 27 different experiments. In a few cases, says Nash, the relief was greater than that provided by morphine.

Another "meta-analysis," of 18 different studies, found that hypnosis, in conjunction with psychotherapy, helped treat anxiety, insomnia, hypertension, and obesity. But certain other conditions such as drug addiction and alcoholism "do not respond well" to hypnosis, says Nash.

Psychologists in the late 1950s developed a series of 12 tests to measure the depth of a subject’s hypnotic state. In one test, for instance, the subject is told that he is holding a very heavy ball. If his arm sags under the imaginary weight, he scores a point. The more tests the individual passes, the more responsive to hypnosis he is. On a scale of zero to 12, most people score between five and seven.

Contrary to what one might suppose, readily hypnotized persons aren’t necessarily prone to "gullibility, hysteria, psychopathology, trust, aggressiveness, imagination, or social compliance," says Nash. Instead, they tend to be people who lose themselves in reading, daydreaming, or listening to music.

Studies show that a person’s capacity to be hypnotized, like an IQ score, remains stable throughout adulthood. Identical twins are more likely to have similar hypnosis scores than same-sex fraternal twins, a finding that indicates a possible hereditary factor.

"Under hypnosis, subjects do not behave as passive automatons," Nash observes. Rather, they actively respond to the hypnotist’s suggestions. Yet they typically perceive the sometimes dramatic changes in thought and behavior that they experience—including hallucinations, delusions, and memory loss—as "something that just happens" to them, without any effort on their part. "My hand became heavy and moved down by itself," a subject might say.

The clinical use of hypnosis, Nash believes, may become a matter of course for some patients with certain conditions. Hypnosis is not yet a part of standard medicine, but it has "come a long way from the swinging pocket watch."


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