Hypnotism does not exist, say the experts

GRAHAM WAGSTAFF is a psychologist at Liverpool University who has been studying hypnosis for 20 years. Ask him whether stage hypnotists should be banned and he answers with a clear "No".

It is not that he is a fan. He just doesn't believe that there is any such thing as hypnotism.

Neither does The Amazing Kreskin. He began a stage career as a magician and hypnotist when he was 11. Now 59, he still treads the boards in the US, but insists: "Nobody on stage has ever been hypnotised in the history of the world."

So certain is he of this he has offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who can prove that hypnosis exists.

Last week, after a series of complaints that people have suffered psychological damage as a result of taking part in stage performances, the Government decided to act. After revelations that one 24-year-old woman had died within five hours of undergoing hypnosis and a young man was said to have regressed to a mental age of eight, the Government agreed to review the 1952 law on public hypnotism.

When the Home Office review team gets down to work, it will have to reckon with the views of Dr Wagstaff, Mr Kreskin and other sceptics, who insist that stage hypnosis is not a question of meddling in people's subconscious but is more a question of audience credulity.

It was a similar series of cases and allegations about mind control that first prompted an attempt to regulate the controversial world of hypnotism: the 1952 Act requires stage performances to be licensed by local authorities.

But the debate began back in the 1770s, when a Viennese physician, Anton Mesmer, evolved a system of medical treatment based on "animal magnetism'', a theory that the human mind and body respond to magnetic forces.

Not long afterwards a French aristocrat, the Marquis of Puysegur, identified the phenomenon he called "magnetic sleep", or the hypnotic trance, and began using it in therapy.

Establishment physicians dismissed this as mountebank science, and it has gained acceptance only in the past 100 years with the evolution of psychology and psychiatry. Today it is widely used in psychotherapy, but even those experts who believe in it accept that most of what goes on during performances of stage hypnotism is a form of exhibitionism.

According to Michael Heap, lecturer in clinical hypnotism at Sheffield University, sceptics such as Dr Wagstaff have a problem in explaining the experiences of those undergoing true hypnotism. People who have been told under hypnosis that they will not feel pain insist that they do not.

Dr Heap also cited research by Karen Olness at the University of Minnesota, in which children had successfully increased the concentration of a particular antibody, immunoglobulin A, in their saliva following hypnotic suggestion.

There were other studies, he said, showing that if hypnotised subjects were told that their hand was getting hot, the measured temperature of the hand would indeed rise.

Dr Wagstaff, however, insists: "The whole concept is a fantasy, a cultural invention." He says that people want to believe that some simple route exists to the troubled, hidden corners of their mind.

That, and the desire to show off, according to Dr Wagstaff, is what drives people to take part in stage hypnosis, and from the moment they reach the stage they are led on by the pressure of the situation and the power of suggestion.

He also disputes the veracity of hypnosis used for pain control, arguing that endurance of suffering is due to a high pain threshold of an individual patient rather than hypnosis.

Dr Wagstaff, like scientists in the US and Canada, has conducted studies comparing the behaviour of people who have been hypnotised with that of people who have not. If both groups were given similar instructions, he found no significant difference in their responses.

People under hypnosis, he argues, behave oddly because they want to believe in it and because they are willing to comply with suggestions made to them. But why are they prepared to make themselves look ridiculous?

"They don't have to be hypnotised to do that. Look at what they are prepared to do on television for Bruce Forsyth or Noel Edmonds," says Dr Wagstaff.

Mr Kreskin lost his belief in hypnosis about 20 years ago, when he was called in to help a psychologist treat his patients. They found that patients for whom hypnotic techniques clearly did not work were just as likely to recover as those for whom they did.

Mr Kreskin now devotes his act to debunking hypnotism.

"I have shown that everything that we associate with hypnotism can be done without any voodoo-like induction," he says.

"If people are persuaded and motivated they will do any of these things."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past