Is there any scientific explanation for hypnosis? © Getty Images

Is there any scientific explanation for hypnosis?

Pseudoscience or a therapeutic practice? We look deep into, not around, but into the science of hypnosis.

Asked by: Richard O’Neill, Glasgow

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Not really – at least, not one that scientists can agree on. Hypnosis has been performed since at least the eighteenth century when ‘Mesmerism’ was said to involve a ‘magnetic fluid’ or special force called ‘animal magnetism’. This supposedly ‘scientific’ theory was abandoned when no evidence was forthcoming.

In modern psychology two main theories have long competed to explain the extraordinary effects hypnosis can have. State theorists claim that hypnotic suggestions induce an altered state of consciousness or hypnotic trance in which highly suggestible people are willing to obey the hypnotist and behave in uncharacteristic ways, such as remembering forgotten events, forgetting what they have just done and obeying post-hypnotic suggestions to perform some embarrassing action when given a cue.

Non-state theorists claim that all these effects are better explained by role playing and suggestibility. So there is plenty of scientific research but no agreement as to the best explanation.


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