Science and Hypnosis — Part 3
by Dr. Granville Dharmawardena
Hypnosis had been in practice for thousands of years. However, the word hypnosis was coined for this technique by the English Physician, James Braid, in the 19th century. He did his own experiments on hypnosis and pointed out that hypnosis is a special state of sleep. Braid also pointed out the limitations of hypnosis and showed that hypnosis is not a cure for all as claimed by those who practiced it claiming to possess mystic powers. He found that hypnosis was unbelievably harmless for a power so remarkable and great. To date Braid’s contention has remained unshaken. Braid used hypnosis to increase the secretion of milk in the breasts of a nursing mother. Her baby was fourteen months old and the milk supply had dried up. Braid restarted the secretion of milk and she suckled her baby for further six months. Secretion of milk in her breasts started immediately after Braid’s hypnotherapy session and braid proved that hypnosis could cause physiological changes in the human body. Scottish Physician James Esdaile used hypnosis to stop the secretion of milk in the breasts of mothers who had lost their babies. .
In 1852 Esdaile showed that surgery could be performed without pain under hypnosis instead of under anaesthesia. At the end of the 19th century Hypolite Bernheim, a professor of neurology, started the first scientific school of hypnosis in Nancy, ‘The Nancy School of Hypnotherapy’. He also wrote a book, ‘De La Suggestion’, to promote hypnotherapy. Later French Neurologist Jean Martin Charcot started the second scientific school of hypnosis, ‘The Salpetriere School of Hypnotherapy’.
At the end of the 19th century Viennese Physician Joseph Breuer made an important discovery on hypnosis. Breuer found that under hypnotic trance a person could recall memories of events that he had completely forgotten. Breuer found that unlike in normal recalling of memories of past events, in recalling a past event under hypnosis the person relives and re-experiences the emotions and pain that he had experienced at the time the event happened.
In early 20th century Charcot’s pupil, Sigmund Freud, had training in hypnosis both at The Nancy School of Hypnotherapy and the Salpatriere School of Hypnotherapy and used the technique to examine the sub-conscious minds of people (Freud referred to the sub-conscious mind as the unconscious.). Freud found that when a person, who had a psychological disorder such as a phobia or anxiety resulting from a past unpleasant experience, is made to recall the experience under hypnotic trance and re-experience it, the disorder gets healed.
Recognition for hypnotherapy received a boost when, immediately after the first world war, hypnosis was used to boost the moral of soldiers who had gone into depression as a result of remaining too long periods of time in war bunkers.
In 1952 another breakthrough in hypnosis came about when hypnotist Mori Bernstein in Colorado (the USA) hypnotised a Colorado lady, Virginia Tig, and regressed her beyond her birth. To his amazement Virginia stated talking about her previous life in Ireland in the 19th century. In her past life she was Bridey Murphy who lived in Ireland. She recalled a vast amount of details of her past life and all those details were verified and found to be correct. This was the first time that someone recalled a past life under hypnotic regression.
Mori Bernstein had discovered that hypnosis is a unique technique with which one can probe a vast new world which was beyond human perception and so far had remained closed to human scientific scrutiny. Like the discoveries of the telescope and the microscope which opened up domains which were far too large and far to small for direct human perception, hypnosis has opened up another fascinating domain for human intellectual probing.
In 1953 the British Medical Council appointed a committee to examine and report on the virtues of hypnosis and the committee reported that hypnosis is an effective technique to treat psychological and psychosomatic disorders. It can also be used as a painkiller in surgery and dentistry. The committee recommended that all psychiatrists be given training in hypnosis. This made hypnosis a technique recognized in western medicine. Ralph Wynn, Professor of Psychology (College of the City of New York) said, in his book published in l956, "Hypnotism puts at the disposal of science, the greatest power yet known of influencing human minds and the best way of controlling physiological functions. It can modify human desires, attitudes and activities." These led to a wide spectrum of research work on hypnosis in the USA, Canada, the UK, Germany and Australia leading to the acceptance that the influence of the human sub-conscious mind on human behaviour, activities and health is profound and these could be modified or reprogrammed by hypnotherapy. Ailments resulting from the influence of the sub-conscious mind can be cured by hypnosis.
As systematic research work on hypnosis got aging to establish its scientific validity, the available and accepted scientific techniques had to be used to examine the changes induced in the human brain and the body by hypnosis. The standard technique available to study the functioning of the human brain until recently was Electro Encephalo Graphy (EEG). Here a series of electrodes are placed on a person’s head and the electrical pulses picked up by these electrodes are recorded. The resulting record is a pattern of waves. The electrical pulses picked up by each electrode represent the electrical activity of a group of neurons in its immediate vicinity. The EEG wave pattern represents the activity of neuronal electric pulses. When we are in normal alert state the EEG pattern consists of waves with a frequency of 13-25 and low amplitude. This state is known as the beta state. When we are relaxed the EEG produces a wave pattern with a frequency of 8-12 and higher amplitude. This state is known as the alpha state. When one is in deep meditation his EEG wave frequency goes down to 4-7 and it is known as the theta state. In deep sleep the EEG wave pattern frequency goes further down to 1/2-3. This state is the delta state. The EEG pattern of a person in hypnotic trance is in the alpha range. It is lower than that of a normal awake person and far higher than that of a person who is asleep. The theta state is known as the creative state because it is when a person reaches this state that the intuitive knowledge stream starts to unfold. These confirm that hypnotic trance is a special relaxed state. It is a state where a person is neither awake nor asleep.
During the last decade of the 20th century a number of other more powerful techniques became available for studying brain activity. The most prominent among these is a nuclear technique known as Positron Emission Tomography (PET) which measures metabolic activity. Here a very short half life proton rich positron emitting radioactive material such as Carbon-11 is tagged onto a glucose like chemical compound and injected into the person. Thereafter a dynamic pattern of the distribution of the radioactive material in the brain is recorded by measuring the positron annihilation gamma radiation using a gamma camera. By this method one can identify which neuron groups are active at any given time. The startling confirmation of the mechanism of the hypnotic process came through the work of a team of researchers at Harvard University (the USA) who used PET to examine the functioning of the brain of people who were in hypnotic trance. They suggested to a person in hypnotic trance that there was a beautiful coloured light in front of him and examined the neuron activity in the brain using PET. The neuron activity was exactly the same as that of a person who is awake and actually seeing beautiful coloured light. Thus hypnosis can reverse the normal process of perception.
For example when a person sees a red rose with green leaves the process of perception is as follows. The light rays coming from the rose and the leaves go through the lenses and fall on the retina of the eyes. The retina converts the light rays to relevant electrical signals. The electrical signals relevant to red and green colours and shapes go to the relevant areas of the brain. The brain computes these signals. The brain collects the results of the computations and presents them to consciousness. Consciousness compares these with the memory banks in the conscious and subconscious minds and recognizes it as a red rose with green leaves. Here the entire process of perception was initiated by the light rays that came from the rose to the eyes and ended at consciousness end after perceiving the rose and the leaves. If a person under hypnotic trance is told that there is a red rose with green leaves in front of him, the processes starts at the consciousness end. From the suggestion given by the hypnotherapist he perceives that there is a red rose with green leaves in front of him although in fact there is no such thing. From there the process works in the reverse order. His brain cells function as if he has actually seen a red rose with green leaves. His eyes move to look as if there is a red rose with green leaves in front of him and he sees a red rose with green leaves in front of him.
The other two techniques that became available during the last decade to examine the brain activity are Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Magneto Encephalo Graphy (MEG). MRI reveals the energy consumption within different neuron groups during any activity. MEG reveals the magnetic fields generated by the electrical activity of different neuron groups. Both these techniques have confirmed that the brain activity during hypnosis as revealed by the PET technique was true.
When a person goes into a hypnotic trance his breath rate, heart rate, blood pressure and the acid production in the stomach decrease. It increases immunity.
These investigations have established that hypnosis is a new technique acceptable in science.
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