Myths of Hypnosis and Trance
As a practicing Pagan, I found myself explaining the uses of different type of trance for magick and ritual, along with their limitations to various groups and individuals. In this article we will look at some of these myths and separate the folklore from the facts.
MYTH 1: “There are people who cannot be hypnotised”
In many books, particularly those for people in the medical and psychological fields, the figure of between 5-10% is frequently mentioned as the percentage of people “Who cannot be hypnotised”. This is true to a degree, but what the books or people saying this neglect to add is that is not the same 5-10% of the population. A person who doesn’t go into a trance with one hypnotist will go into a trance state easily with another. Entering a trance is strongly dependent on a combination of the trust the person has in the hypnotist, their motivation, and the situation at the time.
As an example of this back in the early 2000’s in addition to being a hypnotherapist I also took part in some re-enactment pageants at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. I took on the persona of a travelling mesmerist and, with the permission of the cast and director, did genuine trancework with some of them. This was in the nature of helping them remember their character’s biography, what local and world events were going on at the time, plus some minor pain management such as sore feet from walking around all day. It was extremely successful from both the cast and the visitors/audience point of view. I put this down to the fact that I explained to all the people I worked with what I was going to do, listened to any concerns they had, filled out a full patient form as I would in a therapeutic context. I also protected them from anyone pushing or otherwise touching them while they were in a trance which added to their confidence in me. In one case I even guided a person into a trance while they were sitting balanced on the edge of a large metal dustbin whilst waiting out a rain shower. This was a far cry from my usual hypnotherapy style, but it showed that the approach and trust in the hypnotist were more a factor than any particular style.
MYTH 2: “0nly the weak willed can be hypnotised”
A hold over from the early days of Mesmerism, when the explanation of people going into trances when a mesmerist was working on them. At this time society was very hierarchical and it was believed that going into a trance was the “Subjugation of a lesser will by a greater one” because Mesmerism required close - or actual – contact and someone lower in the pecking order was unlikely to do this to someone higher ranking than themselves.
This is untrue, the person undergoing hypnosis needs to be able to focus on the ideas and suggestions given to them by the person inducing the trance. The harder this is for someone to do, the less likely they are to enter into a hypnotic state.
MYTH 3 “A hypnotised person is totally under the control of the hypnotist”
Many people believe this having been at stage hypnosis shows, or seen film or TV programs which suggest this. Generally speaking this is false, if anything a person in a trance has more control over themselves than when in a ‘normal’ state of mind, which is why it is a useful therapeutic tool. In stage hypnosis the people select themselves out to come out in front of the audience and entertain them doing things that they can later claim they only did because they were hypnotised. Having seen several stage performances the way the hypnotist selects out the people who would be the most entertaining was very enlightening at to the false nature of this myth.
Having said that there have been some programs, usually involving military or security organisations that have used trance as part of their conditioning for ‘special projects’. They are just as careful in selecting the people they work on or with as stage hypnotists, but for more particular purposes. On the positive side it can help Special Forces manage stress and injury, and perform at their best. At its most sinister it has been rumoured to be used in conjunction with drugs such as scopolamine for “enhanced interrogation” or moulding people with certain psychiatric conditions for hazardous contracts (allegedly)
MYTH 4 “The deeper the trance, the more effective the treatment”
This comes from the days of medical use of mesmerism and hypnosis, especially the work of a mesmerist called James Esdaile who was a doctor in India in the mid-19th Century. He started using mesmerism as an anaesthetic tool during potentially very painful operations with great success and this, combined with basic hygiene, lead to levels of survival apparently far in excess of his European counterparts.
In using trance as a form of pain relief the more inward focus the patient has, the less pain they perceive. Before the use of mesmerism, the use of the "soporific sponge" developed in the late 12th Century by the Italian Salerno School of medicine, was the most common form of effective anaesthesia. This was a sponge soaked in wine with a mixture of henbane, opium, hemp (cannabis), mandrake, and wild lettuce sap added to it. Then it was allowed to dry out, cut into small portions and when needed two of the pieces were moistened with more wine and inserted up the nose. The fumes from damp sponge, and the active ingredients absorbed through the nasal membranes, caused unconsciousness albeit with vivid dreams*.
Modern hypnosis has shown that it is less the depth of trance, and much more about how this state of mind is managed that affects the results. A light state of trance correctly managed, either for habit modification or pain masking, can obtain better results than a less well managed “deeper” one.
*This is similar to many of the Witches “flying ointments” of the same era
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