It has been said that all hypnotism is actually self hypnotism. The New Scientist published an interesting article1 on hypnotism. It describe the treatment program that Peter Whorwell has developed for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS is a serious disorder that results in some sufferers contemplating suicide. Whorwell presents a tutorial to his patients on how the gut functions. Then he has his patients effectively hypnotize themselves to use visual and tactile sensations of warmth and to imagine the bowel working normally. The United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has recommended hypnosis as an effective treatment for IBS. Whorwell has shown that under hypnosis some IBS patients can reduce the contractions of their bowel, something that can not normally be done under conscious control2. Their bowel linings become less sensitive to pain.
The question is why this works. Irving Kirsch of the University of Kull thinks that hypnosis taps into physiological pathways that are similar to those involved in the placebo effect (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Placebo and Nocebo Effects”). The medical conditions that benefit from the placebo effect and hypnotism are similar. They both involve suggestion and expectation. The disappointing part is that there are individual differences in how well people respond to hypnosis.
For those who do respond well to hypnosis, the effects can be quite impressive. A common test used in studies of pain perception is called the cold presser test. The research participant is asked to keep her hand in ice water for as long as she can stand it. This does become quite painful. The research participant gives ratings of the pain as it increases as the time in the ice water increases. Eventually, the pain becomes unbearable and the participant removes the hand. People who are effectively hypnotized can keep their hand in the bucket for a long period of time. They are told when to remove their hand to prevent organic damage. They also give accurate ratings of the pain, so although they remain aware of the painful stimulus, the pain remains bearable.
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