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Hypnotism, Pain and Powers of the Mind

Maria Vasiliadis

Until recently, hypnosis has been viewed as a technique applied only in mysterious surroundings, by people with strange skills and special powers. Hypnosis itself is stereotyped with a number of images and associations: a gold pocket watch swinging from a chain, an ominously soothing voice saying "Look deep into my eyes," sleepiness, dwindling willpower, faulty self-control, amnesia, a flood of vivid memories, and mindless obedience. Contrary to popular opinion, the real event of hypnosis is not dramatic, nor is it remarkably different from other, more familiar states of mind. The magical, mysterious, or somewhat frightening images that the word hypnosis can conjure up are best dispelled by learning something about the scientific, medically recognized elements of trance and its treatment possibilities.

First, I will investigate the background of hypnosis, explore all the facets of the induction, and examine the various aspects of hypnotic communication. This will provide a solid foundation to understanding the origins of hypnosis, and its past and present uses, such as treatment in specific problem areas-such as smoking, weight loss, stress, or pain. I am interetsed in certain psychosomatic effects observable on hypnotic subjects, effects that demonstrate the power of suggestion to modify bodily functions usually considered involuntary and beyond the reach of consciousness. In particular I will examine how hypnosis has played a role in pain and pain management. Finally, I would like to explore new investigations of brain studies and recent studies done on pain management with hypnosis.

Some scholars have thought that hypnosis was related to religious ecstasy and the hallucinations people experienced during religious activities. Ancient people seem to have practiced a form of hypnosis as a part of religious rituals. Persons in a hypnotic trance were believed to have extraordinary powers that came form their gods. Investigations by scientists did not begin until the 1700's. But even so only until the late 1800's have people begun o understand the hypnotic state(1).

During the periods before the late 1700's some scholars believed that the sun and the stars gave off a magnetic fluid that bathed all individuals on the earth. When anything interfered with this magnetic fluid so that it was cut off or improperly disrupted, disease developed. Franz Mesmer, an Austrian physician, capitalized on this belief, which he called animal magnetism. He claimed that, with the use of magnetic wands, the fluid could be directed at will and the sick could be made healthy. Basically, his technique was a hypnotic one. He captured the imagination of the people. Although Mesmer shrouded most of his work in mysticism, modern scientific studies of hypnosis can be said to date from his effort(2).

Between 1840 and 1850, James Braid, and English medical writer, conducted organized investigations in hypnotism. He proved that Mesmer's magnetic fluid did not exist. He pointed out that the trance state differed from natural sleep, and suggested the possible existence of a double consciousness in individuals. This would explain the hypnotized person's remarkable memory of long-past events. Perhaps the most valuable contribution made by Braid was his attempt to define hypnosis as a psychological phenomenon(1).

Nobody can explain hypnotism completely. Scientists believe it is a natural part of human behavior. There is no magic formula or process connected with hypnotism. The hypnotist has no special power. Under hypnosis, a person's consciousness narrows, much as it does during a dream or trance. But hypnotized persons are different from sleeping persons because they can be active. They can walk about, talk, or write. Hypnotized persons may remain quiet, but usually they will do what the hypnotist suggests.

Hypnotic encounters vary widely from one another in accordance with differences in hypnotist's' styles and subjects' personalities. Each experience is unique, never reoccurring in exactly the same way twice. What all do have in common, however, is an induction(1). An induction is the process of focussing and enhancing concentration and imagination in such a way that the net result is the state of consciousness call hypnosis. The subject must become so involved in this process that they direct their attention from the usual sources of orienting information, giving heed instead to the voice of the hypnotist.

Hypnosis is one state of consciousness-the particular state of consciousness in which perception is distorted by means of concentration and vivid imagination. Spontaneous hypnotic-like experiences occur naturally and regularly, manifesting themselves in a number of ways. Some people have the capacity to alter their perception of pain control, stress and habits(3). Hypnotherapy is the contemporary name for hypnosis. Hypnotherapists do not put you into a trance. They just arrange circumstances to increase the likelihood of your shifting into a trance state, which is part of the normal repertory of human consciousness. About 20 percent of the population have a high capacity for trance; these people may go very deep under hypnosis and not remember the experience afterward. Another 20 percent have a very slight capacity for trance and may not respond to hypnotherapy at all(4). The rest of us fall somewhere in between these extremes. The slight hypnotic state can also be referred to as the alpha state, while the deep hypnotic state can be referred to as the theta state(5). The chemicals in the brain which are known as neuropeptides act as neurotransmitters. When old thought patterns are freed and new thought patterns are formed in relation to the hypnotic command, the neruopeptides are stimulated and create new networks in the brain. Then chemicals are set forth into the body and the instructions of the hypnotist can be done. The capacity and effects of hypnosis demonstrate and contribute to health and disease treatments, which also explain the power of belief to determine the outcome of various treatments and utilize the rewards in our everyday lives(2).

One particular treatment is pain management. The experience of pain is a strange and complicated phenomenon. Sometimes an injury is very painful until you see that the damage is not great, at which point the pain seems almost to evaporate. Sometimes you might not be aware of anything hurting until you see that you have been injured. Once you notice the injury, you can't stop thinking about how much it hurts. Something might be very painful if another person did it to you, but not at all bad if you did it to yourself.

At its most basic level, pain is a signal to the brain that something is hurting the body. The function of pain is one of warning or a danger signal. A huge amount about the experience of pain has been learned relatively recently, and such knowledge is useful in controlling unnecessary discomfort. Pain is produced in a two-part manner, one being that the body sends a sensation to the brain, and the other being that the brain interprets and reacts to it. Chemicals can block sensations, although they are not the only ones. Also not all sensations experienced by you body necessarily make it to you brain. At various points along your nervous system, what might be thought of as mini decision making centers, called gates, choose what to pass along and what to block. What does not get through these filter stations never make it to the brain. There are a number of these gates where sensations are either stopped or allowed through. Learning to control these gates and not let painful stimuli through is the basis of one set of hypnotic strategies(6).

The other part of the experience of pain takes place in the brain. When a sensation from the nervous system does reach the brain, it goes to a sensory area where it is recorded in a rather factual manner. The sensation may, however, also be sent to an emotional center of the brain, where the added element of fear transforms it from feeling into pain. For example, we can think of how it feels to pull out a splinter ourselves rather than having someone else do it. The difference is even more extreme when you think that this someone else in intentionally trying to hurt you. In both cases the physical sensation may start out the same, but fear can transform it into pain. Removing the emotional element attached to a sensation is the basis of the second kind of pain control strategy. Many painkillers work this way, such as morphine. Typically, patient on morphine will report an awareness of the sensation that causes pain, but somehow it does not really seem to matter very munch. Patients become distant and detached from there own bodies and so are not bothered or are not frightened by bodily sensations. A number of hypnotic strategies can produce a similar sort of effect. This similarity has led to much speculation that one way hypnosis controls pain is by inducing the brain to release large amounts of endorphins, the naturally occurring, morphine-like chemicals in the brain(2).

Pain control is one of the oldest and possibly one of the most important uses of hypnosis. Hypnotic pain control has the added benefit of being selective, unlike other nerve blocks. Tension speeds up nerve conduction and so increases pain. Relaxation, integral to hypnosis, slows down the speed with which nerves deliver messages to discomfort, lessening the intensity of the pain. New evidence supporting the effect of hypnosis on pain management is seen through brain imaging studies, which have been done to show the effects of hypnosis on brain activity and brain waves. In healthy humans the effects of hypnosis are studied by examining the effects by "evoked potentials(7)." These "evoked potentials(7)" are short brain waves fluctuations cause d by external stimuli. The results found indicate that changes are occurring in "evoked potentials(7)" which show that the action of hypnotic activity influences the perception on visual stimuli. These results indicate that changes by hypnosis change the brain waves response to touch which shows that hypnosis has the potential to actually lower the activity of pain signaling nerves(7).

Other work done by Hajek, et al (1990) shows that hypnosis can reduce pain sensitivity. A study done by Hajek, et al (1990) shows that eczemic patients under hypnosis reported a higher amount of applied pressure before pain was experienced that non-hypnotized patients. Another study done by Evans (1990) showed that the effectiveness of hypnosis changes in response to different types and degrees of pain. Evans concluded that the degree and style of hypnosis plays an important role in reducing pain. The hypnotic work done needs to focus on anxiety reduction and emphasize the importance of minimizing pain in the mind as well as dealing with the patient's pain in physical and psychological terms(8).

In conclusion, I have realized that one can learn to use hypnosis to change ones behavior and to change the way one lives. We see that hypnosis can be amazingly effective and often is directly responsible for major changes in an individual's life pattern. But it must be stressed that it is not a guaranteed method of chasing away private demons and problems. It is not the answer for all pain management nor does it always offer long lasting effects. But, research is continuing and growing, and the further an understanding of hypnosis and its effects are understood the closer we are to more concrete answers.

WWW Sources

1)Mental Health, Offered background information on the origins of hypnosis. Also gave explanations as to how hypnosis works and what role induction plays in hypnosis.

2)The Reality of Hypnosis, More background information about hypnosis. Also explained benefits of hypnosis for various habits and problems.

3)The Hypnosis Controversy, Explained traditional uses for hypnosis and offered explanations as to why hypnosis works for therapeutic change.

4)Using Hypnosis to Control Pain, Explained various degrees of hypnosis and who is effected.

5)Hypnosis Background, Explanation of hypnosis as an altered state, as well as various states of hypnosis.

6)Underprotective and overprotective pain perception: Its problems and possible solutions, Describes the effects of pain and what is occurring in the brain.

7)Living Beyond Limits, Described hypnosis brain imaging studies.

8)The Use of Hypnosis in Pain Management, Offered further evidence as to how hypnosis helps in pain management.

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