Sunday, November 13, 2005

"A Rude Awakening"

"Hypnosis Can Help With Treatment of Numerous Medical Conditions. Unfortunately, Existential Dread Isn't One of Them." Simon Busch, in WAPO:
I don't know what was wrong with me: a case of ill fit with the world, I guess. I suddenly kept being confronted by the fact of my own mortality, like a glacier in my path, and seizing up with panic.

I told my doctor and, as luck would have it, he was branching into hypnotherapy and wanted to try it out on me. He was quite the evangelist for the treatment. Hypnosis was no mere stage trick, he insisted: A patient of his had recently had major dental surgery -- I imagined pile drivers and a building site -- solely anesthetized by the doctor's suggestion. As for quitting smoking, why, the cigarettes virtually extinguished themselves. My panic attacks should likewise succumb to the powers of his mind.

On my next appointment, he led me to a room where he gestured for me to lie down on a very purple, soft leather couch while he took the armchair opposite. He put a CD of New Age mood music on the stereo -- some sort of ode to aquatic life-forms, I noticed by the cover -- and told me to focus on a psychedelic spiral pattern inscribed on a small piece of paper attached to the ceiling, while simultaneously concentrating on the sound of his voice...

The hypnosis was a course of treatment and was supposed to proceed through several stages. Its goal was to get my everyday, humdrum, conscious mind off guard and sleepy, and thus penetrate to the real, traumatized meat of my unconscious to apply the salve of suggestion.

That is its proponents' explanation. An alternative, uncharitable view is that hypnotherapy, if it works at all, does so by appealing to people's deep-seated slavishness, such that they will deny -- including to themselves -- great pain or even, placebo-like, achieve some kind of recovery in order to please the authority figure of the doctor. It is supposedly this same mechanism that causes the subjects of stage hypnotism to go along with pretending to be Elvis or a teapot, or whatever -- just in order not to rock the boat. A third view has it that hypnotherapy has no place other than on the traveling huckster's hoarding, next to snake oil...
I know that I'm hypnotizable. During residency, I watched an attending psychiatrist "try out an idea" - a hypnotic suggestion - on a patient. To this day, I don't know whether he induced a trance in the patient, but he certainly induced one in me!

Later, he told me a story about a patient with hysterical paralysis. His doctor hypnotized him and said, when we're done, you'll be able to walk. Sure enough, when the patient awoke, he was no longer paralyzed...but he was blind! "Hypnosis didn't solve his basic problem, the problem of needing to be disabled," said the attending. "Remember, we have to try to figure out the problem."


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