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Science: You Are Getting Sleepy

Or are you? SPM finds out if hypnotism really works

 by Stephanie Berger
 published on Thursday, October 20, 2005

<em>Photo courtesy of KRT wire</em>/issues/arts/694484
Photo courtesy of KRT wire
 

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Hypnotherapist Irene Conlan operates out of her Scottsdale condominium, and while her office has plenty of family pictures, there's a conspicuous absence of scary spirals and ticking timepieces.

Conlan laughs when asked about mind control.

"People will not do anything in hypnosis that they won't do out of it," she says.

Conlan says that hypnosis stage shows put participants into relaxed states. But they act silly because they want to, not because the hypnotic state is controlling them.

"I have a hard time with stage hypnosis, she says "I can't do it, because the mind to me is so amazing. I don't want to mess with it for entertainment."

Conlan helps people work through problems using hypnotherapy. She works with an average of six clients per week on issues such as smoking cessation, weight/food control, stress management and self-esteem.

Conlan, a registered nurse, became interested in hypnosis after trying it personally for weight loss. She started working in a hypnotherapist's office, where she learned hypnosis techniques and began seeing patients. Eventually, she opted for her own practice.

Hypnosis is nothing like what popular culture portrays, Conlan says.

"It's like when you're so intent on what's on TV that you don't hear your roommate calling your name," she says.

Conlan compares the brain to a computer. She says that the brain and the nervous system are the hardware, and the mind is the software.

Within the mind, or software, are three parts: the conscious, subconscious and superconscious.

The concious mind is like the RAM memory of a computer that puts daily living information into logical order. The subconscious mind is the unlimited hard drive that works with habits, emotions and the autonomic nervous system. The superconscious is the soul.

Conlan says that hypnosis works with the subconscious mind, which stores all memories and the attached emotions. The subconscious mind stores positive and negative "programs" that shape the way we think about ourselves.

"That program will drive every decision that you make and everything that you do," Conlan says.

She says that the purpose of hypnosis is to replace negative programs with positive ones, although she reiterates that hypnotists can't change anything that a person doesn't want to change.

"What the mind can conceive and believe, you can achieve," Conlan says.

Of course, SPM couldn't settle for all this talk about hypnosis without trying it out for ourselves, so I put myself in Conlan's very comfortable chair to see what being hypnotized is really like.

She started by playing soothing music, and asked me to close my eyes while speaking to me in a low, calm voice. She had me take deep breaths and relax the muscles in my eyes until they closed. She then counted down from 10 to one, telling me with each number that I was becoming more relaxed.

Although I did feel myself physically and mentally calming down, I couldn't quiet the voice in my head that kept making mundane observations such as how itchy my right foot was and how I was probably going to fail my exam in three hours.

When Conlan tried to show me that I was hypnotized by "putting anesthesia" into my left hand and telling me I would be unable to lift it, I was still able to move it off the chair. It did, however, feel unusually heavy to me.

She then went on to talk to me, as I sat with my eyes closed, about different images that would help me let go of negative feelings in my life and embrace positive ones. She took me through an exercise in which I imagined myself walking down a stairway to a golden door. Behind the door was a green meadow. I pictured myself walking through the meadow to a mountain path, which I began to climb. I had the option of carrying a heavy backpack filled with all the negative aspects of my life, or leaving it at the bottom of the hill. I chose to leave it.

Throughout the imagery, Conlan inserted ideas about positive self-image, telling me about how independent, successful, focused and driven I am.

"You no longer worry about things you cannot change, because you are confident, secure and mentally at peace. Deadlines now become a challenge. Exams are something you look forward to," she told my inner student.

Although the session lasted for only 25 minutes, I felt relaxed and energized for about an hour after I left Conlan's office.

And although I'm still not completely sure if I believe in hypnotherapy's healing powers, it seems like a possibility for treatment that deserves the scientific community's research and attention.

Reach the reporter at stephanie.m.berger@asu.edu.



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