We tend to think of hypnotism as a fairly modern technique (its first major protagonist was Franz Mesmer [1734-1815]), and with reference to sleep or trance-like states rather than to relaxation. Such a concept is only partly true. Aesculapius, the god of physicians, often relieved the suffering of his patients by gentle stroking, and I showed in the 10-day plan how stroking techniques can, if practised together with breathing control, effectively produce a profound relaxation. Aesculapius’ patients often passed into a trance-like state or sleep after his ministrations. And so even in the earliest days of medicine a bridge was built between relaxation and hypnosis.
Surprisingly perhaps, even the hypnotists – medical or lay – have difficulty in defining hypnosis. Many point out that hypnosis is an altered state of awareness, an altered consciousness. Most differentiate it from the state of altered consciousness that we call sleep. Some say that the hypnotic state appears to occur in creatures other than Man. Dr Stephen Black, who has examined the subject in some depth, stresses that it occurs as a ‘result of constructive or rhythmic stimuli usually imparted by another. The italics are mine and indicate the possibility of self hypnosis.
A suggestion that a link may exist between the powerful personal magnetism of the persuasive and impressive Billy Graham-type orator and hypnotism has been made, and this ties in well with the other characteristic of hypnotism that we have not as yet mentioned – the important phenomenon known as hypnotic suggestion.
Post hypnotic suggestion has never been explained scientifically. Within its compass probably lies an explanation for every spell and incantation of the sorcerer and witch-doctor too. And if we believe this then maybe every miracle and faith cure as well! The fact that we cannot explain it, however, does not mean we should be frightened of it or turn away from it. In all probability hypnosis is a means of gaining mastery over attention. Becoming oblivious to the outside world, by sitting quietly and attending only to a single stimulus – the hypnotist’s voice, an image, an idol or an ikon even – produces the state. The exact method of trance-induction does not matter very much. We would do well to remember that Dr James Braid, who seems to have come from a particularly down-to-earth Scottish medical background, reintroduced hypnosis to a 19th-century audience by inviting a friend to stare at the top of a wine bottle. After three minutes the ‘subject’ fell into a deep ‘sleep’ identical to the mesmeric trance.
Traditionally it has been held that not everyone can be hypnotized, and by inference that those who are suitable subjects are somehow weak and easily controlled by others – especially by the hypnotist. Nothing could be further from the truth. To some extent such an image of the powerful controlling figure of the hypnotist has been fostered by the theatre and by the magician who has often added hypnotism as a sub-speciality to his professional conjuring expertise.
Perhaps the truth lies in a concept that those individuals who have the greatest facility to concentrate their attention on a single matter and resist the mind’s normal and constant wanderings are the most likely to be able to appreciate the various altered states of awareness and consciousness which include hypnosis and to some extent the therapy we appreciate and know as the relaxation response.