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Tuesday 12 April 2016 4:47pm

Hypnotism may seem like a magic trick, but if you look closely you'll find that it's a normal part of life. Karen Hughes, Dunedin's resident hypnotherapist, says it is simply an aspect of human attention. Focus too much on one stimulus, like a tv show or book, and you will find your ability to pay attention to the world around you fades away. She calls this the hypnotic state, but you could also think of it as a kind of selective attention. This kind of fixation leaves people open to suggestion which hypnotherapists, like Karen, use to treat patients.

Karen selects a 'random' participant from the crowd in order to demonstrate the kind of hyperbolic hypnotic act you might see at a casino show or a carnival. Karen is wearing a shirt with a large spiral on it, and tells the woman to sleep. Magically this stranger is 'hypnotised' into a deep sleep, and will snore whenever the word 'sleep' is uttered.

We hear about the history of hypnotherapy. Karen explains its past use in the sleep temples, which earns us a snore from the 'hypnotised' woman, of ancient Egypt and its popularization as a magic trick throughout the 19th century. She understands that many people think of hypnotism as a trick, but Karen Hughes isn't a magician: she is a psychology graduate, a former social worker, a therapist.

It is acts like the one she had mimicked, with the 'hypnotised' woman snoring near the lectern, which distort how we see hypnotism. It is presented to us as a consuming act which dramatically alters our conscious perception. But the truth is much more subtle. Hypnotism, we're told, is easy to get out of. Someone cannot hypnotise you unless you let them, and at every point you can escape from it by simply choosing to be more attentive of your surroundings. It feels like daydreaming, she tells us, or like nothing at all.

A large number of people come out of hypnosis with no memory of the event, a phenomenon called post-hypnotic amnesia. For hypnotherapists like Karen this phenomenon is hugely beneficial, it takes away any of the remaining resistance that a person may feel toward following their instructions. “If you tell someone to stop smoking,” Karen remarks, “a part of them will want to keep doing it just to spite you.” Without that barrier she has been able to treat issues from phobias to weight loss successfully.

But what is the science behind hypnotism? It's not entirely clear.

Professor David Bilkey, Brain Health Research Centre director and psychology lecturer, suggests that we may all enter into a state like hypnosis each day as a part of sleep. The phenomenon is called 'hypnagogia' and is the transition from wakefulness to sleep. When people are woken during this stage their responses vary from 'I was thinking about [doing X]' to 'I was [doing X]'. The latter is the result of dissociation from reality, which is the basis for hypnosis.

This dissociation has been shown to impact not only how people respond to their environment, but how their brain responds as well. In a recent study a group of people were given room temperature probes to hold and then hypnotised into believing that the probes were painfully hot. As you would expect these individuals found it difficult to hold onto the probes and complained about the pain they were feeling, but the shocking part is how their brains responded. When scanned using fMRI it was revealed that each person's brain was responding to the probe as though it were hot and causing pain. Not only had the hypnotism tricked these people into consciously believing that they were feeling pain, but subconsciously the rest of the brain and body believed it.

Hypnotism isn't well understood, and its role in performance acts has left it poorly viewed by the public, but there is something powerful beneath the surface. Karen Hughes, and hypnotherapist like her, have found a way to get under peoples skin. While we may not fully understand it yet, the hard evidence for hypnotism exists. There seems no nicer way to help someone than to teach them to help themselves.

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