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A: That’s a difficult question to answer quickly and precisely. Some people think that it is an ‘altered state of consciousness’, but since there is currently no agreed definition of consciousness this argument can go around in circles. When we talk about hypnosis we often tend to be either talking about the relaxed, focussed, absorbed feelings associated with a ‘trance state’ (although some people don’t like the term trance), or we tend to be talking about the interesting things people can do when hypnotised – these are the products of ‘suggestion’.
A: Yes, everybody is hypnotizable to some extent – some more than others. Susceptibility to hypnosis can be measured with a hypnotic susceptibility scale (see ‘measurement of hypnosis’. Researchers tend to classify people as ‘highs’, ‘mediums’, or ‘lows’. About 80% of people are in the ‘medium’ band – meaning that they can experience many of the effects of hypnotic suggestion, and are likely to benefit from its clinical use if necessary. Approximately 10% of the population are considered highly hypnotizable – meaning that they can readily experience quite dramatic changes in sensation and perception with hypnosis. Roughly 10% are classified as ‘low’ – meaning that they have not responded strongly to hypnosis (although there are some skills programmes which aim to increase susceptibility to hypnosis).
Some clinicians, notably Milton Erickson, have felt that everybody can be hypnotised but that the hypnotist must modify the style or content of what they do. However, since the only way we have of measuring suggestibility is to look at how people respond to suggestions, and since suggestibility is not often measured in clinical settings, it is difficult to bring any evidence to bear upon this argument.
A: The simple answer is no, you can’t be made to do anything you don’t want to do in hypnosis. In hypnosis you retain power over your ability to act upon suggestions, although if you do allow yourself to act upon a suggestion you may feel as though the effects are happening by themselves.
Orne & Evans conducted a study to find out if they could make hypnotised subjects perform antisocial acts, such as throwing a jar of acid in the face of a research assistant (for safety the jar didn’t actuallly contain acid, but the subjects in the experiment didn’t know this). They found that 5 out of 6 high hypnotizable participants did throw the ‘acid’, but that 6 out of 6 low hypnotizable participants who were asked to simulate being in hypnosis threw the ‘acid’ too. This experiment shows that it’s not something special about being in hypnosis which could make people perform antisocial acts, but rather something about the social situation the experiment was conducted in. The logic of the experiment is that if you can get people to commit antisocial acts without hypnosis (the low hypnotizables who were being asked to pretend) then there is no need to use hypnosis to explain what people are doing (for more information on experiments involving authority read about Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment here).
A: The answer is that hypnosis probably feels different for everybody. Many hypnotists (researchers & clinicians) use elements of relaxation procedures, so people commonly associate a feeling of relaxation with hypnosis. Different people have all sorts of bodily responses to relaxation instructions – some feel as though their body is very heavy, whereas some can feel very light, almost as if they were floating. Mentally, again people have all sorts of responses. People typically report feeling very focussed or absorbed, often effortlessly so. Since instructions for imagery are often used people can have very vivid imaginative experiences – many report feeling ‘as if they were there’. Erika Fromm wrote a great book on self-hypnosis, based up the results of extensive research, which contains a lot of interesting descriptions from participants in her studies.
A: Science is a method of discovering knowledge: it’s really a process of subjecting your ideas to an empirical test to see whether they are supported by evidence (see the Wikipedia entry for a much more detailed description). Many researchers take a scientific approach to studying hypnosis: they generate research questions (hypotheses), then they systematically test them to see whether they are supported. Our knowledge of hypnosis advances because of this: people used to believe that the effects of hypnosis were due to a mysterious magnetic fluid; we now believe that the effects are the result of a communication between hypnotist and subject which can affect the way the brain processes information. Research psychologists are interested in what hypnosis is, and doctors and clinical psychologists are interested in what effects hypnosis can have upon medical and psychological conditions. Their research is published in journals, and you can search the knowledge base using online tools like PubMed or Google Scholar. So there are certainly scientists interested in hypnosis, and you could say that there is a science of hypnosis.
Hypnotherapy is the name we give to using hypnosis to treat psychological and medical conditions, and there is relevant research about using hypnosis to treat illness.