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Concerning Hypnosis,
From the best selling author and distinguished professor of
Clinical Medicine at New York Hospital/Cornell Medical Center,
Isadore Rosenfeld, M.D.

What do you know about hypnotism?  For example, which, if any, of the following scenarios do you consider plausible?


• You see someone at a cocktail party whom you knew many years ago. You remember her as a serious, no-nonsense, successful executive. As you extend your hand in greeting and say, "Hi, there," she stares at you for a moment and then begins to cluck like a chicken! You laugh, sharing the humor with her, but she continues to cluck, even as you try to talk to her. Embarrassed, you excuse yourself. She moves on to speak with someone else, to whom she does not cluck at all. A few minutes later, she seeks you out and explains that some time ago, she was hypnotized at a party and told that after she "awakened," she would cluck like a chicken whenever anyone said "Hi, there" to her. This, she explains, is "posthypnotic suggestion." Is such a scenario possible?


You will find the answers to all these questions further along in this chapter.

The first demonstration of hypnosis I ever saw was at a high school party, long before I became a doctor. The sub­ject, a friend of mine, was a quiet, intelligent, serious young man; the hypnotist was an extroverted accountant. After my friend entered the hypnotic trance, he lost many of his social inhibitions. For example, although he was normally painfully shy, he now sang lustily, danced with abandon, and recited poetry with gusto, all on command by the hypnotist. When he was told that the room was very hot (it was not), he began to perspire; when informed, moments later, that the temperature had dropped suddenly (it had not), he shivered. I was impressed and amused by this display, but it never occurred to me then that hypnotism was anything more than a highly entertaining theatrical stunt.

My second encounter with hypnotism took place at a vaudeville theater a few months later. A frail, elderly woman, randomly selected from the audience, was given two thirty-pound weights to lift. She could barely do so. But after she was hypnotized and told that she was very strong, she began tossing the weights around as if they were made of paper-mâché.

When I entered medical school several years later, the only reference to hypnosis I ever came across throughout the four-year curriculum was a brief historical review in a psychiatry course. There was not a word about how, when, or why I might use hypnosis as a physician. Medical education in those days focused on "straightforward" subjects-how to listen to a heart, remove an appendix, or interpret an electrocardiogram. There was no time to dabble in the "occult." Fortunately, my profession now seems more recep­tive to investigating and sometimes even applying some con­cepts formerly labeled fads. That includes a renewed interest in the therapeutic potential of hypnosis.


Hypnotism was formally introduced in the late 1700’s by a German doctor, Franz Mesmer (that's where the word "mes­merize" comes from), who claimed that he could cure several kinds of nervous disorders with it. He believed that he could transfer magnetism from his own body to his patients by using iron rods and magnets to enhance the flow. This resulted in a redistribution of the body fluids, accompanied by a "hypnotic trance."

This all sounded a bit weird to Mesmer's contemporaries, who, for the most part, considered him either a charlatan or just plain crazy. Although it did capture the imagination of many novelists who had a field day describing how evil Sven­galis would hypnotize an innocent virgin in order to "have their way" with her (an inaccurate connotation that persists to this day), hypnosis was not used medically for years. Then, just before the advent of anesthesia, some observant doctors noted that they could control their patients' pain during surgery by means of hypnosis, instead of restraining them or making them drunk. Hypnosis was used for this purpose for several years until the introduction of ether anesthesia. After that, hypnosis was for the most part abandoned, except by a smattering of psychiatrists, psychologists and extro­verted accountants.

But hypnotism has now come into its own, despite persis­tent stigmatization because of its identification with Sven­gali, black magic, and theatrical entertainment. Trained health care professionals, both "conventional" and "uncon­ventional," are using hypnotherapy to treat a variety of physical and emotional disorders. Although the subject is still not formally taught in most medical schools (neither was nutrition, until quite recently), a section on hypnosis has been established at the College of Physicians and Sur­geons of Columbia University. It is directed, not by a psy­chologist or psychiatrist, but by a surgeon who teaches doctors how to hypnotize patients who cannot safely toler­ate general anesthesia because of severe lung disease or other conditions.


         No one knows for sure how hypnosis works. Many scientists believe that, like the placebo response or acupuncture, hypnosis activates nerve path­ways in the brain that cause the release of natural mor­phine-like substances called enkephalins and endorphins. These "opioids" modify behavior, the perception of pain, and a variety of subjective symptoms, perhaps through the immune system.

Although hypnotized subjects appear to be asleep or unconscious, they're really not. On an electroencephalo­gram (a recording of brain activity), their brain waves reveal a pattern of profound relaxation completely different from those seen during sleep. Even in this relaxed state, subjects are intensely focused and able to concentrate on what they are told to do. Although hypnosis renders subjects highly suggestible, they are by no means "at the mercy" of the hyp­notist. Believe it or not, in a legitimate treatment setting, they are actually very much in charge and are using the therapist to help themselves control their pain, stress, pho­bias, troublesome habits, headaches, allergies, asthma, skin disorders, and other ailments.

Ninety percent of us can be hypnotized if we want to be and if we trust and have confidence in the therapist. Being intelligent and imaginative helps too. The idea that only the weak-willed can be hypnotized is a myth. In fact, the more motivated you are to take charge of your health problems, the easier it is for you to be hypnotized. A drink or a tran­quilizer just before the session may increase the chances of success, at least the first couple of times, but it's not neces­sary in most cases.

Herbert Spiegel, a doctor in New York City who is a well-known hypnotist, claims that he can predict whether or not someone can be easily hypnotized. Here is how he pretests his subjects: he has them roll their eyes back as far as they can and lower their eyelids at the same time. The more white there is when the eyes are half-closed, the greater the ability to be hypnotized. So if you're considering hypnosis but aren't sure whether you're a suitable candidate, ask a friend to tell you what your eyes look like after you've rolled them up and half-closed them.

Hypnosis was approved by the AMA as a therapeutic tool more than thirty years ago, but its use isn't restricted to doc­tors, psychiatrists, or psychologists. Anyone who has a mind to do so is legally permitted to hypnotize a willing subject; neither special training nor a license is required. So don't worry if you're caught putting someone into a trance. You will not be charged with practicing medicine unlawfully.

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Hypnosis can be performed in several different ways, all of which are quite simple. In the most widely used method, the subject is asked to track a moving object (such as the famed pocket watch) back and forth, back and forth, while the ther­apist monotonously but authoritatively drones on that the eyes are getting heavier and heavier, and that soon they will be unable to remain open. Despite your closed eyes, and all the trappings of sleep, you will actually be focusing very intently on the therapist's instructions. Instead of having you stare at a moving object, some therapists ask you to con­centrate on their voice; others may tell you to count back­ward slowly from twenty or thirty to zero. Whatever the technique, most subjects "go under" within fifteen minutes. After several sessions with the same hypnotist, you can often by hypnotized almost instantly by a key word or a snap of the fingers.

There are various stages or depths of hypnosis. When you are under "lightly," you won't feel any discomfort when pinched or pricked with a needle. But it takes a "deeper" hypnotic state to control severe pain, such as that due to cancer, surgery, and some dental procedures.


Whatever its depth, hypnosis does affect your judgment and perception; for example, you can be more easily con- that is quite illogical. But a profes­sional hypnotherapist would not want, and indeed would not be able, to make you do something that was contrary to your deep-seated values or religious principles. That's the answer to the first question I posed at the beginning of this chapter about the man who was caught robbing a bank. Even during a trance, he would be most unlikely to follow an order to steal-unless, deep down, he really wanted to.

If you're wondering how long you'd remain in a trance if anything happened to your hypnotist, I can assure you that in such an unlikely circumstance, left to your own devices, you'd simply lapse into a deep sleep, awaken refreshed, and probably not even remember that you'd been hypnotized.

Though seemingly in a "trance," a hypnotized subject walks and talks normally and can recall long-forgotten events. Every time you are engrossed in a book, movie, or play, you are, in a sense, self-hypnotized. I've never been "under" myself, but the other day I realized what "height­ened suggestibility" must be like. My wife and I went to see the opera La Boheme. In the last act, Mimi lies dying, with her distraught lover sobbing uncontrollably at her side. We've sat through this scene many times; we know how it's going to end; we also know it's only make-believe. But every time we see this opera, the lights are dim, the music is beau­tiful, and we're so totally immersed in what's going on now that we cry along with the grieving Rodolfo. We are, in a sense, "hypnotized."

The most important aspect of hypnosis, as far as I am con­cerned, is that it permits you to manipulate body functions over which you normally have no control. For example, on command, you can increase or slow your heart rate, raise your temperature, alter your blood pressure, perspire, or develop gooseflesh. These responses are all regulated by the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. The potential for treating high blood pressure, cardiac rhythm disorders, and stress by means of hypnosis is obvious. Under hypnosis, you can also be made to hallucinate see and hear things that aren't there. You can also relive past, painful experiences buried deep in the subconscious and perhaps now view them from a different perspective one you can live with more easily.

To end a session, the hypnotist orders you to awaken and tells you how well you will feel. Most subjects feel alert right away, but some are a little drowsy for a few hours.

Then there is the phenomenon of posthypnotic sugges­tion, in which you are told what to remember, what to forget, and what specific acts to perform on a given signal after you "awaken." Such instructions, if repeated and reinforced often enough, can lead to long-term behavioral changes a revulsion against tobacco or certain foods, amnesia for an unpleasant emotion or experience, and even the ability to ignore pain.

The results of posthypnotic suggestion can be quite dra­matic. Some thirty years ago, I referred a patient, then in her fifties, for hypnosis because she had been smoking two packs of cigarettes a day since her teens. She quit after just one session and never smoked again and she is now eighty-two years old! That's the answer to the second ques­tion I asked at the start of this chapter. But in all fairness, even though a dramatic result such as this can occur after just one session of hypnosis, it's really quite unusual. I recounted this story only because I witnessed it firsthand in one of my own patients. Posthypnotic suggestion of the trivial sort, such as being told that after you "awake" you'll cluck like a chicken every time someone happens to utter a particular word or phrase, will not last beyond the duration of the party, and you may not even do it if you really hate the idea. In any event, it's not the kind of instruction a ther­apist (as opposed to an entertainer) is apt to give you. That's the answer to the third question I asked at the beginning of this chapter.


When it is done for the right reasons by a trained therapist, hypnotism can be effective, doesn't hurt, isn't invasive, and doesn't require expensive equipment or drugs. Perhaps most important, you can do it yourself. Although there are books, videos, and audiotapes that teach self-hypnosis, you're bet­ter off learning it from a qualified health professional. I suggest that you ask your own doctor to recommend one. If he or she can't, contact the American Society of Clinical Hyp­nosis (2250 East Devon Avenue, Suite 336, Des Plaines, IL 60018) for the name of a practitioner with good credentials in your area.

If you decide that you'd like to try self-hypnosis, there are several techniques. To do it effectively, allow between thirty minutes to an hour. The first step is to relax completely. Sit in your favorite chair, make yourself as comfortable as pos­sible, and let every muscle in your body go limp. Pick an object high in your line of vision--a design on a curtain just below the curtain rod, a volume on the top shelf of your bookcase, or an unlit light bulb. Concentrate on it, and breathe slowly and deeply as you do. Keep telling yourself how relaxed you are, and after a few minutes convince your­self that your eyes are heavy and that you want to close them. Repeat over and over again a word or phrase, such as "deep, deep" or "very calm"---anything that comes to mind. Now, fantasize a peaceful scene: the seaside, a meadow, a tree, or a flower. Try to generate sensations of numbness, tingling, warmth, coolness, or heaviness in your arms, neck, back, legs, or face. As you continue this imagery, you will gradually slip into a hypnotic state. Once there, tell your­self, just as a hypnotist would, that some part of your body is totally without sensation. Prick it with a needle, or pinch hard. Chances are you won't feel it!

To end a self-induced hypnotic state, count slowly from ten to zero. At the same time, tell yourself that you're becoming more and more alert, and that you will "awaken" feeling refreshed and well. That's all there is to it. But don't expect to become an expert overnight. It takes months of practice and training, but it's well worth the effort. The next time you're in the dentist's chair, or you're in panic about tomor­row's final exam, or you have a sinking feeling when called upon to "say a few words" in public, hypnotize yourself beforehand. No one will know, and you'll be able to tolerate the worst your dentist can do to you; you'll pass your test with flying colors, and you'll probably give the best public speech ever.


Here are some problems that hypnosis has been documented to help:


Hypnosis can either prevent asthmatic attacks or reduce their severity, especially in people who are anxious and can be easily hypnotized. Objective tests of the flow of air in and out of the lungs in such cases reveal as much as 75 percent reduction in the irritability and spasm of the air passages.


Deep hypnosis is more effective against pain than placebos, simple relaxation, or distraction, and it is used by some can­cer doctors and physical rehabilitation specialists (physiatrists) for that purpose. It can also reduce anxiety, fear, and muscle spasm, and result in increased mobility of injured limbs and joints. In Parkinson's disease, it can lessen tremor and rigidity. Symptoms of multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, rheumatoid arthritis, and paralysis due to strokes or injury to the brain and head can also respond to hypnosis.

Irritable bowel syndrome

About 15 percent of the population, and about half of the patients who consult gastroenterologists, suffer from irri­table bowel syndrome (IBS). They have abdominal pain, cramps, diarrhea, or constipation, regardless of what they eat or drink. IBS is notoriously difficult to treat, and people with IBS are often labeled neurotic. Several studies have reported successful treatment of IBS with hypnosis after all other intervention failed. That's not surprising, because the motility of the gut is under the control of the autonomic nervous system, which can be influenced by hypnosis.

Nausea and vomiting

Hypnosis can reduce nausea and vomiting, especially when caused by anticancer drugs. Patients who require chemo­therapy over a period of weeks or months may become "con­ditioned" to feeling sick and nauseated by it. They often awaken nauseated on the day they are due for the therapy, or they become nauseated even before leaving home for the clinic. Such "anticipatory" illness can often be prevented by hypnosis.

Morning sickness

Morning sickness does not generally require treatment. However, there is an uncommon condition called hypereme­sis gravidarum (it occurs in fewer than 1 percent of preg­nancies), in which severe nausea and vomiting occurs as often as fifteen times a day. The resulting dehydration and malnutrition can lead to hospitalization and threaten the pregnancy. Hypnosis can be extremely helpful in such cases. Ask your doctor about it.


Pregnant women who are hypnotized or hypnotize them­selves have a shorter labor, less pain, and easier deliveries.  Some cesarean sections are being performed under hypnosis without anesthesia.

Phobias and compulsions

Hypnosis can help you deal with your phobias and bad habits---fear of flying, grinding your teeth while asleep, compulsive hair pulling and nail biting, chewing the lips, smoking cigarettes, drinking, taking drugs, or overeating. However, the outcome in these areas is not very impressive. If you want to try hypnosis to stop smoking, for example, you should know that the success rate is no higher with hypno­sis than with any of the other techniques used none of which is anything to write home about. That's because ciga­rette smoking is more than a dangerous habit; it's an addic­tion. Still, hypnosis is worth a try.

Conversion hysteria

Hypnosis is especially effective in a psychiatric disorder called "conversion hysteria" not as therapy but as a diag­nostic tool. Patients with conversion hysteria believe, for instance, that they are unable to move an arm or a leg, and this "paralysis" is sometimes difficult to distinguish from that caused by a stroke or a physical injury. The difference between the two is that "hysterical" paralysis disappears during the hypnotic trance; true paralysis remains.


Permanent weight loss is one of the most difficult objectives for countless people, however well motivated. I have several patients who have been able to take the pounds off and keep them off. But this demands a lifelong commitment to diet and exercise, which not everyone can maintain. That's why weight control is such a frustrating experience for the great majority of us. Statistically, hypnosis is as effective in weight reduc­tion as most other forms of treatment-but that's not saying much. In most cases, subjects regain the lost weight after six months. Every weight-reduction technique with which I am familiar, including hypnosis, is ineffective over the long term because there are metabolic and chemical mechanisms within the body designed (and determined) to keep us fat. After you start losing weight, no matter how you do it, your body metabolism slows, you burn less energy, and eventually you stop losing and start to gain again.


Most doctors believe that "stress," depression, and chronic anxiety lower resistance to disease whether it's infection, cancer, hardening of the arteries, or high blood pressure. Reducing stress by any technique, including hypnosis, should theoretically have a favorable effect on the course of these conditions. However, I have never been convinced of this. Most of the examples of success are anecdotal. There is, however, one study now being conducted in which weekly hypnosis sessions do appear to prolong survival in women with breast cancer. Further studies are warranted.


Bed-wetting is not necessarily abnormal before the age of four. However, if it persists beyond that age, the child should be carefully examined to make sure there is no underlying physical reason for it, such as a urological problem. Emo­tional support, tolerance, motivational counseling, and bladder-stretching exercises-and, above all, patience are usually the only treatments necessary. But if these mea­sures don't work, try hypnosis. Karen Olness, a doctor at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., reports that 75 percent of the children, ranging in age from four and a half to sixteen, to whom she has taught self-hypnosis have been able to cure their bed-wetting.

Allergic reactions

Allergic symptoms are caused by the over stimulation of the immune system when you touch, eat, or inhale something to which you are allergic. Exposure to this foreign material (allergy) results in the increased production of antibodies that, in turn, causes your body to turn out large numbers of "mast" cells. These release a chemical called histamine, which is responsible for the itching, sneezing, wheezing, and tearing eyes typical of an allergic attack. (That's why anti­histamines are so effective in treating allergic symptoms.) When exposure to an allergen is overwhelming, the result­ing symptoms can cause shock (anaphylaxis) and sometimes even death. Since the severity of an allergic response can be modified by mental processes, hypnosis can often reduce these symptoms. This has repeatedly been shown in con­trolled scientific experiments. I was especially fascinated by one study in which after subjects were injected in both arms with an allergenic substance, the reaction could be aborted in one arm by hypnotic command, leaving the other one red and swollen.


Warts can become smaller and even disappear in as many as 55 percent of hypnotized children. (Adults, in whom warts are much less common, do not respond as well.) In these cases, hypnotism is assumed to act on the immune system, which contains various blood cells that go by such names as "helper" cells, "killer" cells, "suppresser" cells, and several others. In a series of experiments at the Minneapolis Chil­dren's Medical Center, subjects shown a video of these dif­ferent cells and how they work were able to shrink their warts by increasing the number of some of the cells, and reducing the concentration of others, under hypnosis.


v Here's the bottom line:




Text provided by Guided Excellence Hypnotherapy with thanks to Random House Publishing and Doctor Isadore Rosenfeld for their allowing this excerpt from Dr Rosenfeld’s book Alternative Medicine.   © 1996



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Concerning Hypnosis,
From the best selling author and distinguished professor of
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Isadore Rosenfeld, M.D.
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