Although hypnosis is being used more and more as a therapeutic treatment, the general public remains skeptical.
In high status places like Mayo Clinic and New York-Presbyterian hospital, clinical hypnosis has gained therapeutic use, but I personally am still caught, like a man without a country, between the art and the science of hypnosis.
Detractors, in particular the mainstream medical community, raise questions about the science behind the practice of this 160-year-old unorthodox treatment.
First, a little history lesson is in order:
It probably doesn’t help that hypnosis was conceived in a curious new world that was just waking up to modern science. Stretching like a waking prophet trying to find his place in a New World of the Enlightenment, the art of hypnosis first came on the scene disguised as its “evil twin,” known as Mesmerism.
Franz Mesmer, an Austrian physician, practicing medicine in France in the late 18th century, was challenged by a royal commission to prove that his method of treatment was real. Although he had good academic credentials, and had rescued folk healing practices from years of occult obscurity, his use of what he called “animal magnetism” freaked out the eminent scientists of the time. Our own Benjamin Franklin was invited to be part of the team of scientific observers, and in 1784 the French royal commission declared Mesmerism to be unscientific, if not fake.
Not until 1850, when James Esdaile changed the label of Mesmerism to “hypnosis” did this healing practice gain a bit of respectability among physicians.
Subsequently, hypnosis, as a respectable practice, fought its way into the 20th century. With a proper label of “clinical hypnosis,” many patients began to discover its value for a variety of ailments, which were usually rooted in anxiety.
For me, and in my career as a hypnotherapist, I remained on the fence, unable to show 100 percent support for the practice of hypnosis as a science. Should I be indebted to Ben Franklin for objectifying my favorite means of treatment? Should I be content to call hypnosis an art form? Is it an art or a science? I decided to see what a local scientist would have to say.
I contacted Dr. Howard Harrison, an orthopedic surgeon, who has been retired to Cape Coral for about ten years. I say, “retired,” although he is anything but. He is the past president of the Scientists’ Society of Southwest Florida, as well as the past president of the (national) American Medical Association’s Senior Physicians. Currently, he is busy using his skills in a variety of volunteer activities. He was no less the cautious scientist when I presented him with my dilemma.
It turns out that Harrison was already impressed, during the height of his surgery work, by Herbert Benson’s research at Harvard. Benson, a rigorous medical scientist himself, demonstrated to Harrison how the involuntary nervous system (breathing, etc.) could be made voluntary by way of his famous “relaxation response.” Patients could be trained in a meditative process, which could help to control pain. Was the method mere words?
While Harrison wants to keep in place the constraints of science, he believes the mind-bending practices of meditation and hypnosis “somehow work.” The scientist in him wants to know “how and why” they work, and, additionally, are there results that can be observed and recorded? “If the results are valid, they can and must be reproducible,” he says.
For me, the art part of hypnosis is in helping the patient to form healing images, through verbally and artistically suggesting visual changes to the mind’s eye. The therapist, in effect, aids communication with the patient’s unconscious, without disturbing the conscious mind. Imagery is the special language that the unconscious mind understands.
Art or science? I would settle for some informed use of healing words, while holding onto a sharpened knowledge of the involuntary nervous system.