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Paranormal, Placebo or Psychology? The Fascinating Truth about Hypnosis

Many people don’t understand hypnosis. Even though it has been around in one form or another for thousands of years, many people don’t know what to think about it. We have lots of movies and stories about hypnosis that give people the wrong impression and lead people to question its effectiveness or authenticity. In this article, I’m going to cover a little more about hypnosis, what it is and what it isn’t, and why it might be an effective process for you or someone you care about to shift their thinking or behavior. I’ll go through three potential explanations, paranormal, placebo and psychology.

Is hypnosis paranormal?

What is paranormal? What does paranormal mean, exactly? Paranormal means “scientifically inexplicable.” Lots of things are scientifically inexplicable, until we come up with enough science or evidence to be able to explain them. Imagine meteorites. How can rocks fall from the sky? Now we understand what meteorites are, but for centuries we didn’t.

Believing in something that is not scientifically proven is hardly uncommon. According to surveys, as many as three quarters of Americans believe in the paranormal, in some form, while nearly one in five claim to have actually seen a ghost. Recent Gallup polls have shown that between 33% and 41% of Americans believed that some fraction of UFO sightings were alien spacecraft. Some examples of paranormal phenomena include UFOs, Astrology, Ghosts, and Telepathy. Is Hypnosis a form of paranormal activity?

No. While we lacked the tools to understand much about the science of hypnosis for a long time, modern tools have been shown to show a scientific basis for hypnosis, moving hypnosis out of the paranormal category. A scientific study I’ll talk more about later from 2016 showed neurobiological evidence of hypnosis. Despite this finding, hypnosis is frequently mis-categorized as paranormal. For example, a study in December 2022 included hypnosis as one form of paranormal beliefs. In that study 41% of participants said they believed hypnosis was real, despite scientific evidence of the effect of hypnosis on the brain coming out 6 years prior.

Does hypnosis belong with ghosts, UFOs and telepathy? I would say yes and no. I think hypnosis is a good example of something like meteorites. There is a science to it that we only recently observed, due largely to the invention of new technology, in this case a brain scanner, an FMRI machine. Just because we don’t have evidence for our observations does not mean they are not real. A good scientist keeps an open mind and recognizes that our knowledge base is always growing and changing.

Can hypnosis be explained by the placebo effect?

What’s a placebo? Here’s the definition of placebo, “a harmless pill, medicine, or procedure prescribed more for the psychological benefit to the patient than for any physiological effect.” It is also defined as, “ a measure designed merely to calm or please someone.”

An important element of the definition of placebo is the word MORE. The word more makes the definition of placebo include that there is an element of deception included. Like placebos, hypnosis produces therapeutic effects by changing client's expectancies. But unlike placebos, hypnosis does not require deception in order to be effective.

Clients who experience hypnotherapy know, at the level of their conscious mind, that they are using the technique of hypnosis to delve into their subconscious and to make changes in their thinking and behavior patterns. There is no deception involved.

An interesting example of this is a popular method for weight management using hypnosis. “Hypnotic Gastric Band” is a technique where a hypnotherapist guides a client through a weight loss surgery in hypnosis. The result of this surgery, in real life or in hypnosis, is that the client has or believes he or she has a smaller stomach pouch and cannot eat large amounts of food. While clients who undergo this process in hypnosis KNOW they didn’t really have physical surgery, they act like they did. At one level they know they didn’t have surgery, and yet at another they act like they did. There is no deception in this procedure where there would be for a placebo. Several studies suggest that hypnosis and placebo are separate. There is a key conceptual difference: placebo responses are based on simple expectation, while hypnosis involves learning to focus on and deliberately alter perception and physiological response.

Does that make hypnosis a psychological effect?

Yes, hypnosis affects the mind. The study I alluded to earlier shows that hypnosis is actually a physiological process, having certain impacts on the brain.

A study at Stanford in 2016 conducted by Dr. David Spiegel, one of the foremost authorities on hypnosis, imaged the brains of 57 people in an FMRI machine. After comparing the participants who were highly hypnotizable to the participants who were not hypnotizable at all, the study team found three notable differences in brain activity between the two groups.

The study showed 1) Less activity in an area of the brain associated with worry and judgment, 2) activity in parts of the brain associated with being able to separate feelings and thoughts and 3) less concern with self-consciousness. The combination of these three factors are physiological evidence for hypnosis.

It’s also worth mentioning that while meditation and hypnosis FEEL very similar, evidence from the brain scanners has shown they are different. Meditation and hypnosis work on different parts of the brain. For an individual, both might be effective, one or the other might be effective, or neither might be effective. Meditation and hypnosis are physiologically distinct.

Is there science behind hypnosis?

Yes! While media hasn’t exactly caught up with the science headlines, we have evidence that hypnosis makes changes to how one’s brain and mind operate.

Can hypnosis make a difference for you?

Let’s talk and find out! Hypnosis is an effective treatment for many issues including anxieties, phobias, and behavior problems. Set up a free consultation and let’s discuss if hypnosis could be an effective treatment modality for you or someone you know.

This blog post also appears on my podcast "Mind Power Meets Mystic" as episode 42.


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