Yes. And I’m not just trying to be cute. This unique state of consciousness is remarkable for its ability to help and heal but is also a platform for exploitative entertainment that can harm.
So, what is a hypnotic state anyway? We’re all familiar with levels of consciousness, such as wakefulness, daydreaming, drowsiness, etc. Often misconstrued as a subset of sleep, brain studies indicate hypnotic trance is a distinct form of awareness in its own right.
While hypnotized, attention focuses narrowly, and awareness of one’s surroundings diminishes. Some subjects describe it as being in a pleasant but shadowy, near soundproof room. Inputs from the external environment may be restricted to the voice of the hypnotist. Unusual physical sensations sometimes accompany trance, such as feeling as if one’s body is levitating.
The capacity to enter a trance differs widely across the population. An estimated 15% of us are highly hypnotizable and, in kind, very receptive to hypnotic suggestions. An estimated 10% are all but incapable of achieving trance, while most of us reside somewhere in between. Those who are moderately to highly hypnotizable can learn to induce a hypnotic state on their own (self-hypnosis).
The ability to enter a trance appears inherited, so you either have it or you don’t. There are no particular personality types who are more prone to hypnosis than others. However, hypnotic capacity correlates with being creative, empathic, prone to fantasy, and easily immersed in enjoyable or engaging experiences.
For those who can be hypnotized, trance states have several legitimate treatment applications, including stress management, smoking cessation, pain reduction, “seeding” the subconscious, and even anesthesia for certain surgical and dental procedures.
In fact, the pain-relieving power of hypnosis can be extraordinary. Several studies indicate the degree of analgesia while in a hypnotic trance can meet or exceed that from morphine, at least for certain conditions and procedures. Examples in this regard include childbirth, bone marrow aspirations, and burn-wound debridement, among others.
Now, contrary to popular misconception, hypnosis has nothing to do with mind control. A hypnotist cannot compel someone to override her or his values or behavioral restraints, and those who are highly hypnotizable are no more gullible or submissive than folks who can’t achieve trance.
On the downside, stage hypnotists exploit their subjects for entertainment, sometimes to amaze the audience and other times just for yucks. There are disturbing accounts of physical injuries and mental distress resulting from some stage hypnotism, so certain countries (not ours) regulate the practice.
Straddling the fence between legitimate therapy and a carnival act, hypnosis holds great promise, mainly because of its capacity to engage the largely untapped potential of human consciousness to exercise mind over matter.
We have only begun to unlock this capacity, and hypnosis may prove to be a master key.