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Frank Mesmer was an Austrian physicist who believed in magnetism and was one of the first hypnotists. He claimed that illnesses were caused by an imbalance in the body’s own magnetic field. A process known as mesmerism came about. Patients would hold on to an iron bar in a dark room and sit around wooden barrels filled with water, ground glass and iron filings. Mesmer would play soft music, wearing a lilac robe and would tap the patients with his bar.

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They would often suffer convulsions and enter a trance-like-state. Mesmer claimed to be able to cure minor ailments with this method. This may have been true magnetism or the patients could just believe they are feeling the effect but it is due to their own imagination which is known as the placebo. A British physician amputated a man’s leg using nothing more than hypnosis. This can be used nowadays to help people quit smoking, lose weight and go through painful dental treatment.

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Hypnosis is usually carried by asking the patient to stare upwards and focus on a target, and are then made suggestions about relaxation, tiredness and sleepiness. The patient’s eyes should naturally close and if not then they are told to close them after 10 minutes. The individuals will sit quietly and show little or no activity unless it is suggested. Post-hypnotic amnesia is when the individual ‘awakes’ and doesn’t remember the session at all but when hypnotised again they will usually recall the previous session. Post-hypnotic suggestion is when a trigger word can be used and the individual will perform the suggestion.

Everyone cannot be hypnotised. Hilgard estimates that 5-10% are highly resistant and 15% are highly susceptible. Everyone else falls somewhere in between. Some people believe that hypnosis is linked to personality traits such as being ‘fantasy-prone’. There are two theories regarding whether or not hypnosis is an altered state of awareness. State theories claim that it is a special state whereas non-state theories claim that it is not an altered state of consciousness.

Ernest Hilgard was the main researcher in state hypnosis which is known as the neo-dissociation theory. He believed that there were multiple systems of control or streams of consciousness, each of which is aware at different stages. Hilgard believes what we do and say is when we are in a conscious state, yet when in a hypnotic state, this part of consciousness dissociates from the body. For example, when in a hypnotic state, somebody has the ability to place their hand in freezing cold water for a long time and when they return to consciousness they report feeling little or no pain. Hilgard used the hidden observer technique which is an effect in which the experiences of part of the hypnotised persons mind differs from the rest of their mind.

He found that the ‘dissociated’ part faced more pain than the rest of the body which suggests that consciousness is divided into two or more points which supports the neo-dissociation theory. Spanos argued that those under hypnosis report what they think they should report therefore demand characteristics play a part. Hilgard’s neo-dissociation theory accounts for many hypnotic phenomena and the notion that hypnosis involves and altered state has received support. The existence of the hidden observer seems to provide good support for the theory but many can explain the hidden observer theory on the basis of that hypnotised individuals report what they think to be what they report.

Graham Wagstaff was the main researcher in non-state theories. He rejects the idea of hypnotic trance and interprets the effects of hypnotism as due to a combination of multiple task-specific factors derived from normal cognitive, behavioural and social psychology. Non-state theorists believe that more mundane psychological processes such as focused attention and expectation are sufficient to explain hypnotic phenomena. Dr Wagstaff conducted studies comparing the behaviour of those who were hypnotised and those who were not. If both were given similar instructions, he found no significant differences in their responses.

People under hypnosis behave oddly because they want to believe in it and because they are willing to comply with suggestions made to them. This is because they believe that hypnosis is the idea of conformity. People are aware of how those who are hypnotised behave and therefore deliberately or not they conform when expected. Research has argued against the non-state theory and has found that by assessing the levels of deception and lying by measuring skin conductance. There was more deception in the stimulators from those in consciousness than from the hypnotised participants. The hypnotised participants did not seem to be lying.

The research suggests that hypnosis is a topic which is always open to debate as to whether or not it is an altered state of mind. Wagstaff claims that ‘If we have not been able to find the explanation for hypnotic phenomena, it is not because we lack technology; it is because there is no single explanation for all hypnotic phenomena.’ There is evidence for and against both the state theory and the non-state theory and therefore a certain conclusion cannot be drawn.

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Kylie Garcia

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