PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (The Catholic Standard and Times)- “I want you to relax,” the hypnotist says in a soft, undemanding voice. “Just look at the bright spot on the wall. Focus. Focus. You’re starting to relax. You’re feeling sleepy. Your eyelids are getting heavy … so heavy … you just want to sleep ….”
Millions of Americans have gone through the experience of being hypnotized to help them overcome a bad habit such as smoking or eating too much. An officially endorsed therapeutic method used in various medical, psychiatric, and dental fields, hypnosis is used for everything, including preparing people for anesthesia, pain management and smoking cessation programs.
The Catholic Church does not have an official position on hypnosis. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Church warns Catholics to be on their guard against the abuses of “magnetism and hypnotism” but “leaves the way free for scientific research.”
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the practice of hypnotism was begun in the latter part of the 18th century by a German physician named Franz Mesmer, who used hypnosis to treat patients. Mesmer believed that hypnotism made use of an occult force, which he termed “animal magnetism,” that flowed through the hypnotist and into the subject. Although he was eventually discredited, his method — named “mesmerism” after its creator — continued to interest the medical profession.
In the middle of the 19th century, an English physician named James Braid began to study the phenomenon, and it was he who coined the name “hypnosis,” after the Greek god of sleep, Hynos.
Hypnosis began to attract more widespread scientific interest by the end of the century, eventually attracting the attention of an Austrian physician named Sigmund Freud who began using it to help his patients recall whatever disturbing events were causing their neurosis.
Although Freud eventually abandoned the practice, it was used to treat soldiers who had experienced combat neuroses during World War I and II, and eventually went on to provide other limited uses in medicine.
Meanwhile, even though various researchers have posited different theories on what it is, and how it works, there is still no generally accepted explanation of hypnosis.
How it works
Techniques used to induce hypnosis are common: A subject is encouraged to relax, then is coached into falling into a state of profound relaxation or trance. The degree of the trance is different for everyone, ranging from light to profound trance states.
“The central phenomenon of hypnosis is suggestibility, a state of greatly enhanced receptiveness and responsiveness to suggestions and stimuli presented by the hypnotist,” the Britannica states. “Appropriate suggestions by the hypnotist can induce a remarkably wide range of psychological, sensory and motor responses from persons who are deeply hypnotized ….
“The subject can be induced to behave as if deaf, blind, paralyzed, hallucinated, delusional, amnesic, or impervious to pain or to uncomfortable body postures,” it goes on. “One fascinating manifestation that can be elicited from a subject who has been in a hypnotic trance is that of post-hypnotic suggestion and behavior; that is, the subject’s execution, at some later time, of instructions and suggestions that were given to him while he was in a trance.”
The process of hypnotizing someone is not difficult to learn and requires no particular skill, which means that it can be — and is — used by people who are not medically licensed or who use it for the purposes of entertainment.
The Britannica warns: “Hypnosis has been repeatedly condemned by various medical associations when it is used purely for purposes of public entertainment, owing to the dangers of adverse posthypnotic reactions to the procedure.
“Indeed, in this regard several nations have banned or limited commercial or public displays of hypnosis,” the encyclopedia continues. “In addition, many courts of law refuse to accept testimony from people who have been hypnotized for purposes of ‘recovering’ memories, because such techniques can lead to confusion between imaginations and memories.”
Past life regression
The greatest controversy surrounding hypnosis is its use for the recovery of memories. Most professional medical associations take a stand similar to that of the American Medical Association, which stated in 1993 that recovered memories are “of uncertain authenticity which should be subject to external verification. The use of recovered memories is fraught with problems of potential misapplication.”
Despite that lack of scientific support, a popular form of hypnotherapy, known as “past life regression” is prevalent in New Age circles.
It consists of hypnotizing a subject, then guiding the individual through alleged past lives. The practice requires belief in the non-Christian doctrine of reincarnation — and it enjoys even less scientific acceptance that repressed memory therapies.
In fact, a new study, conducted at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, found that patients who had undergone hypnosis in order to remember “past lives” were more likely than other patients to have bad memories.
According to study, published March 30 in Scientific American, “Subjects who claimed to have memories of previous lives were more likely than those without such recollections to misidentify more of the previously recited names as belonging to famous people. They were unable to correctly recall.”
A long history of fraud is also associated with various types of “past life” experiences, beginning with the famous Bridey Murphy case in 1952, which many believe was the start of the “past life regression therapy” craze.
That case involved a Colorado housewife named Virginia Tighe, who began speaking in an Irish brogue after being hypnotized. Tighe claimed she once lived in Cork, Ireland, where she was known as Bridey Murphy. The story turned into a best selling book, “The Search for Bridey Murphy,” and journalists combed Ireland looking for details that might confirm what appeared to be real proof of the woman’s reincarnation.
Nothing ever turned up, however, and Tighe was eventually exposed as a fraud, according to an article titled “Twelve Claims Every Catholic Should Be Able to Answer,” by Deal Hudson.
“Virginia’s childhood friends recalled her active imagination and ability to concoct complex stories (often centered around the imitation brogue she had perfected). Not only that, but she had a great fondness for Ireland, due in part to a friendship with an Irish woman whose maiden name was — you guessed it -—Bridey,” Hudson wrote.
In spite of revelations of fraud and the scorn of professionals, the list of New Age practitioners dedicated to guiding people through past life experiences grows longer every day.
“While this may be convincing to some, it certainly isn’t to anyone familiar with the mechanics of hypnosis,” Hudson writes. “Almost since the beginning, researchers have noted that patients in deep hypnosis frequently weave elaborate stories and memories, which later turn out to be utterly untrue.”
Moira Noonan, a professional speaker and the author of “Ransomed from Darkness,” was once a certified hypnotherapist with a special interest in past-life regression.
“Regression therapies are, of course, only meaningful if one believes in reincarnation, a belief that is fundamental to New Age thinking,” Noonan writes. “I know that the past-life experiences I once induced were either imaginary or were drawn from experiences earlier in a client’s present life. Some may have involved dark forces, but most likely they didn’t.
“Not all forms of hypnotherapy are dangerous …,” Noonan continues. “What makes it risky is that a person under hypnosis has surrendered his will and is utterly open to suggestion. So you must know the background and belief system and training of anyone who provides you with hypnosis therapies.”
This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Catholic Standard and Times (www.cst-phl.com), official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Pa.