The facts and the fiction of one of the most intriguing psychological phenomena.
By Brian Dunning – October 02, 2012 – via skeptoid
Today we’re going to point the skeptical eye at a topic that’s intrigued nearly everyone who’s thought about it: hypnosis. The hypnotist appears to have the ultimate superpower, the ability to persuade anyone to do or feel whatever he wants them to. For the subject, hypnosis appears to be the miracle cure to just about anything: lose weight, stop smoking, feel happier. We’ve all heard the basic plot points — that it can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do, that different people are susceptible to varying degrees — limitations that seem to negate the potential benefits. So what can it actually do, and might it be of any value to any of us?
Forms of hypnosis go back through history nearly as far as history itself. Even the earliest reported forms of deep meditation from India and Persia are considered to have been analogous to what we now refer to as self-hypnosis. Even the ancient Greeks are believed to have had practices comparable to Hindu sleep temples, where people would go to essentially become hypnotized to be put into a relaxed state as a presumed medical cure. But the history of hypnotism is associated with one name more than with any other: the 18th century German physician Franz Mesmer.
Many of us wonder about the common usages we hear about in psychotherapy, like stopping smoking, weight loss, or recovering lost memories. These are generally overblown. We like to think that we can go to a hypnotherapist who will make us no longer desire cigarettes or food, and snap like magic, the problem is solved. This is completely fictitious, as are most magically easy solutions in life. Whether hypnotherapy is effective at all in long-term behavior modification is something of an open question. Weight loss has shown good promise, but studies of using hypnosis to stop addictive behavior such as smoking or drug abuse have been much less successful. The difference is probably that weight loss is a matter of willpower alone, whereas addictions such as nicotine have additional physiological factors. Regardless, virtually all authorities agree that hypnosis should only be used to supplement conventional psychotherapy, and should not be the only tool relied upon.
The idea of recovering lost memories is highly controversial, and is no longer accepted as reliable. Hypnotherapists would lead the patient through age regression, to have them relive and re-experience a traumatic event. It is true that the focused, relaxed state does enable very strong and realistic recollections, but what we’ve learned is that these recalled experiences, though vivid, are no more accurate than any other memories. Similarly a dream can be extremely realistic, but as we know, dreams don’t necessarily reflect reality in the slightest. It’s essentially the same imaginative mechanism in your brain that creates dramatic and lucid dreams that creates the perception of a relived moment in age regression hypnosis. The prevailing view is that the subject is not actually reliving what happened, but rather is realistically imagining what it was probably like way back when, based in part on whatever recollections remain. Today, in many jurisdictions, hypnotically recovered memories are no longer admissible in court as evidence, since they’ve been proven to be too unreliable.
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