In the hypnotism shows of Las Vegas, as well as the traveling hypnotism demonstrations on the college circuit, hypnotism is used primarily for entertainment purposes. It's an amazing experience watching somebody turn ordinary people, perhaps your friends or family, into outrageous performers. The power of suggestion and imagination, and the lowering of inhibition, does make for a fantastic show.
In ads for hypnotism weight-loss treatments, you often see the words "Certified Hypnotist!" in big, bold letters. What does this actually mean?
As it turns out, there is no single, official certification process and no regulating body for hypnotists. If you take a two-day course on hypnotism, that's enough to claim you are a certified hypnotist. Some certification programs, the one run by the National Guild of Hypnotists for example, hold their students to strict standards, but many do not.
Doctors and psychiatrists who are members of professional organizations are well regulated, however. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the American Medical Association (AMA) both have strict standards for the professional practice of hypnotherapy.
But these demonstrations only scratch the surface of what hypnotism can do -- all the suggestions are intentionally frivolous, to ensure that nobody gets hurt. The hypnotist uses his or her access to the unconscious mind only to play with the subject. More involved hypnotism uses this access to affect long-term changes in the subject.
The most widespread example of this hypnotic behavioral modification is habit-control hypnotic treatment. In this application, a hypnotist focuses on one particular habit that is embedded in your unconscious (smoking or overeating, for example). With the "control panel" to your mind open, the hypnotist may be able to reprogram your subconscious to reverse the behavior. Some hypnotists do this by connecting a negative response with the bad habit. For example, the hypnotist might suggest to your subconscious that smoking will cause nausea. If this association is programmed effectively, you will feel sick every time you think about smoking a cigarette. Alternatively, the hypnotist may build up your willpower, suggesting to your subconscious that you don't need cigarettes, and you don't want them.
Habit-control hypnotism is commonly practiced on a mass scale, in day-long seminars held in hotel suites, or through audio tapes or CDs. Since the treatment is not specifically tailored to each subject, and the treatment is rapid, these programs are often ineffective. Even if the treatment does yield positive results in the short term, there's a good chance that the subject will relapse eventually.
Directed, one-on-one hypnotism sessions tend to yield better results. In the next section, we'll explore this therapeutic form of hypnotism.