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ss nucleus - autumn 1996,  Hypnosis


Andrew Fergusson tackles hypnosis from a Christian perspective.

Hypnos was the Greek god of sleep and his name gives us the words 'hypnosis' (a particular mental state) 'hypnotism' and 'hypnotherapy' (related processes). It also gives us the familiar pharmacological term 'hypnotic' for a drug used to induce sleep.

We understand surprisingly little medically about hypnosis, and it has always been somewhat controversial - the British Medical Association first expressed concern at a special meeting in 1890. In addition, most Christians recognise there may be specifically spiritual issues involved. This article attempts a Christian assessment of hypnosis in the medical context and deals briefly with the use of hypnosis for entertainment.


Activities we would probably call hypnotism have been described for at least 3,000 years. The Ebers Papyrus describes Egyptian soothsayers using hypnosis, and 'the Hindu fakirs, the Persian magi, the Indian yogi and the Greek oracles also used similar methods under different names'.[1]

However, it was the Viennese physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) who drew most attention to the phenomenon, and this led to another name for hypnotism - 'mesmerism'. As psychology was studied more at the turn of this century, interest increased, and some psychological casualties from the First World War were treated with hypnosis.

From the early 1980s onwards there has been more interest still, associated with the rise of alternative medicine.

Use in medical practice

Many who practise hypnotism in the UK are doctors or dentists, or hold proper psychological qualifications, and are members of respected bodies like the British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis or the British Society of Experimental and Clinical Hypnosis. However, there are other practitioners with no formal qualifications or accountability.

Medically speaking, hypnotism has been used in investigation and in treatment:

Repressions and regressions

Twentieth century psychology has learnt more and more about the subconscious or unconscious mind (and hypnosis appears to have played a significant part in that understanding). Much psychopathology has been put down to repressions - the 'burying' of memories too painful to contemplate consciously. Hypnosis has been used to uncover such repressions so that the information can be used therapeutically.

Sometimes, and more controversially, patients have been 'regressed' to earlier points in their histories - including to birth and before. By the time this process becomes 'past life therapy' (regressing patients back to the personalities they were in previous reincarnations) Christians will have detected the lie. The Bible rules out reincarnation when we are told 'man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment'.[2]

This illustration makes it clear that while hypnosis may be a useful 'investigative' tool, some practitioners are clearly being dangerous liars and must be avoided.

Pain, strain and gain

Therapeutically, hypnosis has been used for medical and dental analgesia. 'Pain' is a combination of an organic response to a painful stimulus and the psychological perception of the feeling we call pain - and of course there are many everyday examples illustrating this interaction; eg the footballer with a serious injury who feels no pain until half-time when his mind is no longer 'taken off' it, or the mother who eliminates the pain in her toddler's knee: 'Mummy's going to kiss it better'.

Hypnosis also claims to have been used in relaxation therapy, to help with the stresses and strains of life, and there is a huge market for aids such as relaxation tapes in our 'therapy culture'. Some non-professional fringe therapists also make much use of suggestion and the 'power of positive thinking' to offer various gains to their clients - eg to help people become more assertive, or to give up smoking. Amazingly enough, there are even punters around willing to pay large sums of money for regular hypnotic suggestion so that they will live longer!

So, what is hypnosis?

To get anywhere near understanding hypnosis, we need to take the broadest possible look at the subject, recognising that the prevailing culture will significantly colour our perceptions. Even the language we use is a source of bias - for example, what do I actually mean by the word 'trance'? What do you mean by it?

Mesmer believed he was a potent user of 'animal magnetism', and while science may have led us beyond this crude concept, similar ideas of 'vital forces' have come back with the New Age movement. In the heyday of psychoanalytic theories, hypnosis was explained according to the flavour of the month. Neurobiological theories have not been popular - the EEG of a hypnotised patient shows no change from that of someone who is in a normal state of consciousness, and does not resemble the EEG of someone who is asleep.[3]

The language of 'altered state of consciousness' or 'altered state of awareness' has been used, and has come to the fore again very recently in discussion of the so-called 'Toronto phenomena'.[4]

Others have ignored physical or psychological explanations and concentrated on the group-pressure concept of 'social compliance'. This links the effect of the expectations of others with the expectations of the person undergoing hypnotism.[5]

I am currently most inclined to see hypnosis as being at one extreme of a spectrum of the phenomenon of suggestibility. Modern life abounds with suggestions - the whole enormously effective advertising industry is built on them, and politicians (and preachers?) rely on them. Many aspects of the doctor-patient relationship have a non-specific 'placebo' effect, and the most powerful therapeutic agent any doctor in any specialty will ever have is herself. We legitimately use the power of suggestion in every interaction with every patient, whether we realise it or not, and of course we could use that great power unethically too. Possessing it gives us a powerful responsibility.

How have Christians viewed hypnosis?

Having attempted briefly to get a balanced overview of the physical, psychological and social aspects of hypnosis, what (if any) are the spiritual aspects? How have Christians reacted?

We know surprisingly little for certain about hypnosis, and should in all humility recognise this ignorance. Christians tend to react to uncertainties in one of two equal and opposite ways - to credit God with all the gaps in our knowledge or to blame the Devil for the very same gaps!

Thus, in 1987, Nucleus carried two sharply contrasting articles from Christians about hypnosis. Norman Vaughton, who at the time lectured and practised privately in hypnotherapy and psychotherapy, wrote[6]:

'As a Christian... I use my mind with all its strange and wonderful potential, in all its different states of consciousness, and with all its different functions, hopefully for good - and that includes the whole fascinating, mysterious and wonderful area of hypnotic effects. They are as much God created and open to use and abuse as any other function of creation. I also know that frequently during hypnotic sessions I will suddenly be filled with an awareness that what I am doing is something of therapy, something of hypnosis, and something of prayer, and they are all so much entwined and the same that I do not really believe any separation would be possible; and of the presence of God I am utterly certain.'

By contrast, A. D. Bambridge, a qualified male nurse with a BSc, was concerned that when psychological defences were lowered during hypnosis, there was a considerable risk of demons entering the psyche. He believed the roots of hypnosis were occult and ruled it out absolutely for Christians, concluding[7]:

'Whilst hypnosis and its use in hypnotherapy seem merely to be the input by the hypnotist of ideas into the subconscious of a subject in a heightened state of suggestibility, I would contend that this art of psychic manipulation is in fact of demonic origin. Though these roots of hypnosis are now obscured by an undergrowth of scientific jargon, it remains a dangerous activity to anyone involved.'

A personal assessment

Though much could be said for and against both these quotes and the viewpoints they typify, I am forced by constraints of space to conclude with my personal opinion. I believe that the phenomenon we call 'hypnotism' is just an extreme expression of suggestibility, and whilst we could have a fascinating theological debate as to whether God or the Devil is the author of suggestion and suggestibility,[8] we must accept suggestibility as a phenomenon that is here to stay.

I believe there is a limited place for the appropriate use of this phenomenon in medicine, although I never employed hypnosis myself in my clinical years. I suggest below some tests to assess any particular interaction between a hypnotherapist and a patient, and draw attention there to a number of dangers which I think should be taken very seriously indeed.

'Means' tests

These use the word 'means' in three different ways:

1. What does the hypnotist MEAN to do?
What is his intention? What is his motive? These questions focus on possibly the most important issue in the assessment - the character of the hypnotist.

However we might explain the process of hypnosis, it is very clear that there is a significant amount of power involved, just as there always is in any therapeutic relationship. Patients say things like 'I'm under the doctor for my back' and that use of the expression 'under the doctor' is telling us a lot about these power relationships. That power must not be abused, and the therapist must intend the best for the total well-being of his patient, using the safest possible methods, tested as far as possible.

Sadly, there have been occasions, for example, when patients have been sexually abused during hypnosis. Another more recent problem is the so-called 'false memory syndrome' where patients have 'remembered' things which are not objectively true after the inappropriate use of suggestion during hypnotherapy. As another example, I believe that the use of hypnosis for entertainment is always an abuse (see box below).

It is perhaps not just the nature of the therapy on offer we need to consider, but the nature of the therapist. This concept of the character of the healer is a real challenge to the Christian integrity of us all, whatever kinds of therapies we are going to use.

2. What MEANS does the hypnotist use?
I am not necessarily concerned here about the use of particular techniques for inducing hypnosis, such as the particular words or dangled watches which may form part of that hypnotist's personal 'magic', but rather with the inappropriate use of suggestion.

Several examples have already been given. It is just not possible to take a patient back into a previous life - reincarnation is a lie, so perhaps there is something demonic about that particular deception? Hypnotists must be very careful that in uncovering repressions they do not, deliberately or inadvertently, abuse the power of suggestion and implant 'false memories'. With power comes responsibility.

3. What does it all MEAN to the patient?
Given the ignorance we all must have about the nature of hypnotism, it is nevertheless important that the patient knows what she's letting herself in for - ie that she is giving informed consent. She should receive a clear explanation of what is proposed, and be confident that the therapist will not go beyond that.

The patient's conscience is very important and the Bible's discussion of 'food offered to idols'[9] may be relevant here.


If the concepts implicit and explicit in these three rather artificial tests are safeguarded, I currently would cautiously accept the limited use of hypnosis in medical practice for specific indications, but I urge great caution. 'If in doubt, leave it out'.

Hypnosis as entertainment

Many people find the unusual and the scary entertaining, so some claiming to be hypnotists have used their talents to make people do silly things on stage whilst (allegedly) hypnotised. Most UK readers will have seen the massively popular TV shows of Paul McKenna, one-time Radio One disc jockey and now a wealthy media star. Live hypnotism acts have replaced karaoke and quizzes as the most popular entertainment in many pubs and clubs and the ethics and the safety of all this are being questioned.

Such entertainers make the defence that they only perform with the volunteer's consent, but how informed is that consent? And can individuals within a society that should be characterised by responsibility in relationships allow themselves to be humiliated and degraded without devaluing the dignity of us all?

I believe hypnosis as entertainment is always an abuse, but leaving these ethical questions aside, are there more tangible risks? In 1952 the UK Hypnotism Act limited stage displays of hypnotism because two young women needed extensive psychiatric treatment as a result of attending such a display.

More recently, other risks have been identified. In September 1993:

'Sharon Tabarn, 24, a mother of two, died after being hypnotised at a show in Leyland, Lancashire. She was ordered to kiss a stranger in the audience before being told she would wake up when 10,000 volts was shot through her chair. Mrs Tabarn, of Clayton Brook, was frightened of electricity. She died five hours later, after complaining of dizziness. Although an inquest found it was an accidental death, the Home Office pathologist said it was hard not to believe there was a link.'

The same report mentions other cases:

'One Blackpool man's arm was paralysed for a week after a session. Another man attempted suicide and one volunteer became a compulsive eater of onions after being told to eat them instead of apples.'

After a debate in the House of Commons on 13th December 1994 a Home Office enquiry was established, to review the workings of the Hypnotism Act 1952. Reporting in November 1995 the panel concluded:

'There is not enough evidence of serious risk to the public to warrant banning stage hypnotism' but recommended a review of existing legislation and guidance and specifically that 'audiences in general, and participants in particular, are more informed about the potential risks of participation in stage hypnosis'.

In assessing 25 cases of physical harm reported over 25 years, they identified two participants who fell from the stage under hypnosis and two others who fractured bones in their hands while acting out hypnotic suggestions. Assessment of the other cases was difficult, but they also found evidence of psychological and social harm: 'Their personal accounts tell us that there is a risk of humiliation, embarrassment or irritation, and that this risk may for some people have psychological sequelae.'

As Christians we must be concerned by this, and whether there may also be spiritual sequelae.

  1. Shreeve. The Healing Power of Hypnotism. Thorsons. p13. Cited by Bambridge AD in Hypnotherapy - a reply. Nucleus, April 1987, p20
  2. Heb 9:27
  3. Ambrose G and Newbold G. A Handbook of Medical Hypnosis. Baillere Tindall 1980, p23
  4. Dixon P. Signs of Revival. Kingsway 1994. pp 46, 115, 246, 259-266, 268, 269, 271-275, 277
  5. Hearne K. Article in Pulse,May 24,1986, pp 77-78
  6. Vaughton N. On Hypnosis. Nucleus, January 1987, p18
  7. Bambridge AD. Hypnotherapy - a reply. Nucleus, April 1987, p25
  8. Gen 1-3
  9. 1 Cor 8,10
  10. Taylor M. Hypnosis: Are There Side-Effects? Diasozo 1984, p7
  11. Macdonald M. Ministers to review hypnotic stage acts. Article in The Independent, December 14, 1994
  12. Report of the Expert Panel Appointed to Consider the Effects of Participation in Performances of Stage Hypnotism. Home Office Communication Directorate. November 1995
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