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hypnosis - theory then and now

Altered states of awareness, in one guise or another, can be found historically in virtually every culture. In around 1841, it was however James Braid who first coined the actual words hypnosis and hypnotism. This Scottish surgeon based his ideas on those developed earlier by the likes of Franz Mesmer, who worked with such concepts as "Mesmerism" (or "animal magnetism"). At the time, Braid differed from his predecessors in his theory as to how the procedure worked. However, in the mid-nineteenth century, hypnosis was still largely considered to be a passive or permissive state of mind.

Even today, stage hypnotists like to give the impression that they have some sort of magical power over their subjects. But that’s not really how it works. In reality, there is a more equal relationship between a hypnotist and a client. Indeed, current thinking suggests that hypnosis is something people will do for themselves, rather than something that can be imposed on them. Certainly, if a hypnotist offers unacceptable suggestions to a subject, he or she will almost certainly simply reject them or just ignore what has been said.

Also, it was traditionally understood that a ‘hypnotic trance’ was a bit like an altered state that was similar to that of sleep, concussion or intoxication. This idea too has been progressively diluted. Trance is now more often understood as being an everyday phenomenon - more like daydreaming, meditation or absorption in a book, a television programme or music. Heap and Aravind define it as "… a waking state in which the person’s attention is focused away from his surroundings and absorbed by inner experiences such as feelings, cognitions and imagery." 

Ernest Hilgard’s description of hypnosis (in the context of hypnotherapy) goes even further. It suggests that functions are divided between the hypnotherapist and the client. The client retains a considerable portion from his normal state – the ability to answer questions about his past and future plans, as well as to accept or refuse invitations to participate in specific kinds of activities. At the same time the client turns some other functions over to the hypnotherapist, so that the client will do and experience what is suggested - provided that it is acceptable to him.

As may be expected, a number of other models of hypnosis have also been put forward. Still, for purposes of hypnotherapy, it is helpful to view the phenomenon as a natural, safe way to effect real personal change. It can be seen as a means to bypass the conscious mind and directly address the unconscious.


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c h r i s

We do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already. We have the power to imagine better.

J. K. Rowling, Harvard Commencement Address, 2008

British fantasy author