Hypnotism, TM, yoga… in these and other disciplines the power of the brain is brought to bear on the stresses and strains of the body. But at what potential cost?
Heal thyself? – The popular image of hypnosis is of the pince-nez and pendulums of the 19th century, of Trilby and the evil Svengali. But its history goes back much further. Forms of suggestion were known to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, and witchcraft and folk medicine attached great importance to the hypnotic state.
Its medical potential was first recognized by an Austrian physician, A.F. Mesmer (1734-1815). His clinical practice, in which patients were lulled into a trance-like state, led to the coining of the word mesmerize.
Mesmer also explored such areas as faith healing and the vital energies, and was interested in mystical and metaphysical experience. Trained as a doctor, his showmanship infuriated the medical establishment.
Some doctors valued his work, however. In the days before general anaesthetics, James Braid, a Manchester surgeon, used hypnotism on patients in the operating theater.
Since the turn of the century, the medical use of hypnosis has gone in and out of fashion. During both World Wars it was used for the treatment of war neurosis, and as an analgesic on the battlefield. In the 1950s it was used in what was called “painless childbirth”, and almost became accepted by the medical establishment.
Today, hypnosis is chiefly used in psychotherapy. But John Butler, of the British Society of Hypnotherapists, stresses that it should be seen as one of the tools available, not as a treatment for all mental illness.
“It is simply a state of relaxation which enables the person to experience a change of consciousness,” he says. “It produces a different level of brain activity, the so-called `alpha’ waves found in people who meditate and in those who are falling asleep.”
In this state, the mind becomes more accessible to verbal suggestions. The conscious mind is more relaxed, putting up less resistance to ideas introduced by the therapist.
In a MORI poll of the nation’s attitude to unorthodox treatments, conducted for The Times, 19 percent of the sample of 1,826 people said they would consider putting themselves in the hands of a hypnotist, while 3 percent had actually done so. Of these, 56 people (40 percent) said they were “very” satisfied, while 35 percent reported being “fairly” satisfied. However, 7 percent said they were “very” dissatisfied with the results, while 6 percent were “fairly” dissatisfied.
In 85 percent of cases, hypnosis is used to treat what are called “classical neuroses”. Depression, anxiety, worry, lack of confidence and feelings of inferiority are said to respond well. Nail-biting, bed-wetting, smoking and over-eating can also be alleviated.
Although broader claims have been made for it within the medical profession, Butler says that hypnosis should not be used for organic conditions. “It isn’t an appropriate treatment for cancer or other serious illness,” he says.
Dr Christopher Pattinson, of the British Society for Medical and Dental Hypnosis, disagrees. He says some colleagues, all qualified doctors, insist that positive visualization under hypnosis can help combat chronic disease. “One image they have used with some success is that of the white blood cells gobbling up cancer cells,” he says.
In dentistry, the technique is used for analgesia, particularly in cases where patients are allergic to anaesthetics. Those who suffer acute anxiety in the dentist’s chair can be helped to relax through hypnosis.
Hypnotherapists are not required by law to obtain any specific qualifications. “Anyone can claim to be a hypnotherapist,” Butler says. “They learn a few techniques, then go out and treat the public. This is unacceptable. There are some things in the individual’s mind which are best left to trained psychiatrists.”
For this reason, hypnotherapists are keen to establish a national standard. When the Institute for Complementary Medicine suggested a British register for complementary therapists, hypnotherapists were the first to become involved.
A good way to find a reputable practitioner is to contact the National College of Hypnosis and Psychotherapy, which keeps a register of qualified hypnotherapists. The British Society of Hypnotherapists (founded in 1950) keeps a list of its members.
Growing numbers of GPs are trained in hypnotherapy, as are dentists. Some use the technique within their NHS practices, but most refer patients to reputable psychotherapists. In most cases, patients specifically wanting hypnotherapy have to pay for private treatment. Fees vary in Harley Street, a one-hour session averages Pounds 30-Pounds 40, while in the suburbs, similar treatments should cost Pounds 15-Pounds 25. There are usually one to 12 sessions, each lasting an hour.
As with other psychological disciplines, the success rate for treatment is hard to measure. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some hypnotherapists achieve an 80 per cent success rate with neurosis. Others claim similar results with patients wishing to give up smoking.
“I find that hard to believe,” says Dr Pattinson, who runs a busy practice in Epsom, Surrey. “Frankly, between 20 and 30 percent is a more realistic figure.”
Such disputes are unlikely to arise among those practicing Transcendental Meditation. TM teachers invariably have a good grasp of figures, and those learning to meditate are bombarded with statistics about its claimed health benefits.
According to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation Movement, there are 3.5 million meditators throughout the world, and 160,000 in Britain.
Although TM springs from an eastern mystical tradition, the movement is keen to promote it as a way of combating stress. It is claimed that, by sitting with eyes closed for 20 minutes twice a day, meditators enjoy a level of rest more refreshing than deep sleep. Oxygen consumption is said to decrease, allowing the body to repair itself and recover its natural balance.
The secret of TM lies in the silent repetition of a mantra, or meaningless sound, which alters brainwave activity. Similar changes can be seen in breast-feeding infants, which may be why meditators refer to this quiet state as “bliss”.
Sceptics would argue that 20 minutes of uninterrupted silence is bound to make people feel better, but various health benefits have been demonstrated. In one survey, carried out by an American insurance company, meditators were found to be 87 percent less likely than others to contract heart disease. Diseases of the nervous system were also reduced by 87 percent, and the incidence of tumors dropped by 55 percent.
In Britain 700 GPs practice TM themselves and recommend it to their patients. It is used in some NHS clinics, particularly in the field of pain management.
Advanced meditators also practice hatha yoga, purifying mind and body through postures and physical movement. There are seven other classical yogas (jnana, raja, bhakti, mantra, karma, kundalini and laya) and a ninth, maha yoga, which incorporates all the others.
Maha yoga is better known as siddha yoga because it can only be achieved through a siddha (or guru), who is said to activate the disciple’s latent spiritual force through energy transmission. Once this awakening has occurred, the eight classical yogas arise spontaneously from within. When practiced regularly, yoga is said to alter brain activity and promote general health and fitness.
Alpha wave activity and deep relaxation are also said to be promoted by flotation tanks, in which people lie in a saline bath. At some centers, music is played through underwater speakers to create a more relaxing ambience.
Research carried out at the Monroe Institute in Faber, Virginia, suggests that sounds played through headphones at suitable frequencies can have a beneficial effect. In its simplest form, Hemi-Sync technology, as it is known, produces tonal patterns which trigger electrical and chemical activity in the brain. The resulting “whole brain synchronization” is said to leads to a state of altered consciousness in which creativity and intuition increase.