Hypnotism: Entertainment or Science?

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Biology 202
2004 Second Web Paper
On Serendip

Hypnotism: Entertainment or Science?

Allison Galea

Hypnosis has been referred to and observed as a mode of entertainment. Stage hypnotists make appearances at many college campuses and on television. Good Morning America featured Tom Deluca, a hypnotist who hypnotized a portion of the audience and had them perform his bidding: they laughed when he told them to and one man was unable to feel the affects of ice water on his hand (1). Is hypnotism only to be used for entertainment purposes? This question has influenced me to look at the issue of hypnotism and explore its history, how it is perceived in the 21st century and why it remains so controversial.

Everyone has been hypnotized at some point; becoming fully engrossed in a film or book is similar to a hypnotic trance. Have you ever been on your way home, down a familiar road and suddenly you are at your destination without being totally sure how you arrived there? This experience is also similar to a hypnotic trance. The history of hypnosis can be traced back to ancient Egypt and even has a part in Greek myths; Greek oracles and soothsayers were said to reach this place of clarity through self-hypnosis (2). Franz Mesmer, scientist during the mid-1700's, began the foray into the scientific uses of hypnotism through his belief that magnets held healing purposes. Many believed that his overwhelming presence influenced his patients to go into trances, in this way Mesmer was able to bring about the resurgence of hypnotism. A surgeon by the name of James Braid followed in the steps of Mesmer and Mesmerism when he deduced a fundamental rule of hypnotism: the success of a hypnotic state came from within the subject, not the hypnotizer. He also came up with the term hypnotism from the Greek word hypnos, which means sleep. In 1889 Albert Moll wrote the book Hypnotism in which he insisted that it was a scientific subject to be included in the growing study of Psychology. With the help of these men, the exploration of hypnotism's medical use as well as the debate of it as science or entertainment found its beginnings. Consequently, the stereotype of hypnotists as evil mind-controlling people developed and made its way into books and film. In 1894 George du Maurier's book Trilby included the character "Svengali" who controlled Trilby with hypnotism. Soon after, in the 1900's films began to be made with this same Svengali character in the guise of an evil hypnotist (3). This perception that a hypnotized person is under complete control of the hypnotist is quite a misconception. In a hypnotized state, the person is hyper-attentive and still retains their ability to act freely (4). The imagination is peaked and the subconscious is tapped into, making the person open to things that their conscious self would not normally allow them to do or say. They are extremely suggestible and open to the ideas of the hypnotizer.

Today, the perception of hypnotism appears to be moving toward one of increased acceptance to its therapeutic possibilities, but it is still not taken completely seriously. Present day films are an interesting source of information as to how the 21st century perceives this age-old practice. Two examples will be discussed: one from a comedic film, the other from a drama. In the 2001 film Shallow Hal, Jack Black plays a superficial man who does not feel the need to look beyond the surface of the women he encounters. He meets a self-help guru, Tony Robbins, who hypnotizes him to see the "inner beauty" of all women; those who were gorgeous are now repulsive, while 300 pound Rosemary played by Gwyneth Paltrow, (who, according to the film, is automatically unattractive due to her weight) is now stunning and skinny in Hal's eyes. Hypnotism in this example is used as a way to teach Hal a lesson, since he remains unaware of how his perception has been altered for a good portion of the film. This example presents hypnotism as entertainment since Hal's inability to see things "as they are" becomes funny as well as ironic. Hypnotism becomes a non-scientific enterprise, which is extremely evident by the fact that the process is prefaced by the phrase "Devils come out!" Hypnotism retains its entertainment value as well as a comparable Svengali character who runs the show.

For another look at hypnotism in the media is the 2003 film, The Butterfly Effect. Ashton Kutcher plays Evan, the film's main character, whose childhood has been filled with several traumatic experiences which he has blocked out of his memory. These experiences have shaped him and his childhood friends in different ways which he tries to remember. He discovers that he is able to revisit the past through self-hypnosis made possible when he reads his childhood journals; this endeavor backfires for Evan and his friends. While revisiting his past, he relives when his thirteen year old self is hypnotized by his psychiatrist in order to remember his hidden memories. The doctor is forced by Evan's mother to bring him out of his hypnotic state when his nose begins bleeding, presumably as a result of the trauma of the memory. In this instance, hypnosis is portrayed as something utilized in the scientific context, but not guaranteed to work. This implicates that the process of being hypnotized is not in the hands of the hypnotizer, or the hypnotized but rather an entity on its own. Although this brings about the interesting point that in hypnosis the conscious and subconscious are separated, it still does not present the practice of hypnotism as a serious and helpful scientific practice.

Hypnotism has a variety of uses: psychiatric hypnotherapy where psychiatrists help the hypnotized access memories that are the cause of phobias and mental anguish; in law enforcement referred to as forensic hypnotherapy where witnesses are hypnotized in order to access memories they have forgotten or blocked out; and medical hypnotherapy which suggests that people can be cured from illnesses directly as a result of influencing the subconscious to heal the body (5). Forensic hypnotherapy is extremely controversial because hypnotism is a union of memory and imagination which indicates that the hypnotizer can influence the witness to have false memories and/or the hypnotized can also mix reality and imagination together. These doubts create the idea that hypnotism used in this sense is highly unreliable and thus should not be used. Medical hypnotherapy is also extremely controversial since many people believe that the cure for various illnesses should not be left to something as unknown as the subconscious. Two important questions arise out of the concern of forensic and medical hypnotherapy. The first is how can it be possible to separate the conscious and the unconscious? And second: how is it possible to remain in control of your actions and thoughts if you are in an extremely imaginative and suggestible place in your consciousness? Similar to the latent desires and associations that are revealed in dreams, the subconscious area of the brain is closed off to our conscious mind. Perhaps this is so because the implication of various impulses and hidden memories that our brain buries deep in the subconscious are done so for a reason. The ability to change possibly disturbing memories makes hypnosis seem unreliable in this medical context. Hypnotism's ability to access memories that the subconscious has buried has become an issue that science cannot explain.

Throughout its history, hypnotism has long been thought of as a means for mind control or as pure entertainment. It is interesting to note that hypnotism is important in its various medical and scientific uses, although the controversies and questions over its effectiveness and actual use are understandable. This simple idea of hypnotism as merely entertaining serves to detract from its numerous other uses of which many people remain unaware.


1)ABC News, article titled "Is Hypnotism Science or a Sideshow?" about Deluca on Good Morning America

2)History of Hypnotism, a helpful website detailing the origins of hypnotism

3)History of Hypnotism

4)How Hypnotism Works, informational website on different aspects of hypnotism, how it works, its background, and what it can be used for

5)How Hypnotism Works

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