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When you hear the word hypnosis, you may picture the mysterious hypnotist figure popularized in movies, comic books and television. This ominous, goateed man waves a pocket watch back and forth, guiding his subject into a semi-sleep, zombie-like state. Once hypnotized, the subject is compelled to obey, no matter how strange or immoral the request. Muttering "Yes, master," the subject does the hypnotist's evil bidding.
This popular representation bears little resemblance to actual hypnotism, of course. In fact, modern understanding of hypnosis contradicts this conception on several key points. Subjects in a hypnotic trance are not slaves to their "masters" -- they have absolute free will. And they're not really ain a semi-sleep state -- they're actually hyperattentive.
Our understanding of hypnosis has advanced a great deal in the past century, but the phenomenon is still a mystery of sorts. In this article, we'll look at some popular theories of hypnosis and explore the various ways hypnotists put their art to work.
What is Hypnosis?
People have been pondering and arguing over hypnosis for more than 200 years, but science has yet to fully explain how it actually happens. We see what a person does under hypnosis, but it isn't clear why he or she does it. This puzzle is really a small piece in a much bigger puzzle: how the human mind works. It's unlikely that scientists will arrive at a definitive explanation of the mind in the foreseeable future, so it's a good bet hypnosis will remain something of a mystery as well.
But psychiatrists do understand the general characteristics of hypnosis, and they have some model of how it works. It is a trance state characterized by extreme suggestibility, relaxation and heightened imagination. It's not really like sleep, because the subject is alert the whole time. It is most often compared to daydreaming, or the feeling of "losing yourself" in a book or movie. You are fully conscious, but you tune out most of the stimuli around you. You focus intently on the subject at hand, to the near exclusion of any other thought.
In the everyday trance of a daydream or movie, an imaginary world seems somewhat real to you, in the sense that it fully engages your emotions. Imaginary events can cause real fear, sadness or happiness, and you may even jolt in your seat if you are surprised by something (a monster leaping from the shadows, for example). Some researchers categorize all such trances as forms of self-hypnosis. Milton Erickson, the premier hypnotism expert of the 20th century, contended that people hypnotize themselves on a daily basis. But most psychiatrists focus on the trance state brought on by intentional relaxation and focusing exercises. This deep hypnosis is often compared to the relaxed mental state between wakefulness and sleep.
People have been entering hypnotic-type trances for thousands and thousands of years; various forms of meditation play an important role in many cultures' religions. But the scientific conception of hypnotism wasn't born until the late 1700s.
The father of modern hypnotism is Franz Mesmer, an Austrian physician. Mesmer believed hypnosis to be a mystical force flowing from the hypnotist into the subject (he called it "animal magnetism"). Although critics quickly dismissed the magical element of his theory, Mesmer's assumption, that the power behind hypnosis came from the hypnotist and was in some way inflicted upon the subject, took hold for some time. Hypnosis was originally known as mesmerism, after Mesmer, and we still use its derivative, "mesmerize," today.