Is Hypnotism Science or a Sideshow?

ByABC News via logo

May 6, 2002 -- So much for 15 minutes of fame. After hypnotist Tom DeLuca hypnotized them into a deep sleep, about a dozen volunteers snoozed right through their appearances on Good Morning America.

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But when he told them to laugh, they woke up, and all started cracking up.

"I told them that when I said sleep, they would go back deep asleep," DeLuca told Good Morning America's Charlie Gibson. "And I could plant a suggestion right now for you."

DeLuca, who demonstrated his hypnosis live on GMA, seemed to have his subjects in the palm of his hand. He plunged one man's arm into a large bucket of icy water, but the subject claimed he felt no pain, just wet — the sensation that DeLuca had told him he would feel under hypnosis. The same man was unable to tell Diane Sawyer his own name, because when he was under hypnosis, DeLuca told him he would be unable to say it.

Another female volunteer, who was hypnotized to block the number six from her mind, kept responding seven when she was asked the sum of five plus one.

In shows all over the world, stage hypnotists including DeLuca, have found that under hypnosis, people will do strange things.

Such shows, along with films that depict hypnotists as evildoers vying for control over their subjects, have given hypnosis a reputation as a hyped-up sideshow. But the reality of hypnotism is much less dramatic. Advocates of clinical hypnosis say that it is simply a different state of mind, and one that can be used as a medical tool.

Hypnosis on the Highway

Under hypnosis, the subject temporarily suspends his normal way of looking at the world. Instead of being sent into a trancelike sleep, hypnosis experts say that the person who is hypnotized shifts into a state of extreme concentration.

Researchers say we enter states similar to hypnosis all the time, though most people just think of it as zoning out. For instance, many of us have had the experience of driving down the road, then suddenly snapping into awareness, unable to remember the last few miles. What happened was that for a few moments your unconscious mind took over, and you were in a state of concentration similar to hypnosis.

Though some in the medical community have accepted hypnosis, it has also been a feared, misunderstood practice that is often associated with witchcraft.

"Modern research has shown that people who have this ability go into hypnotic-like states all the time," said Dr. David Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, who co-wrote Trance and Treatment. "They get caught up in a good novel or are watching a movie or just looking at a sunset."

A Mesmerizing Presence

There's evidence of hypnotism in almost every culture, from ancient Egypt to aboriginal Australia. It appeared once again in 18th century Europe, when patients were "mesmerized" by German-born doctor Franz Mesmer, who believed magnets would relieve his patients' hysteria. A commission that looked into his claims decided it was Mesmer's overwhelming presence that lulled patients into their apparent trances, and a hypnosis rebirth began.

Some surgeons have used hypnosis to reduce pain. In 1794, before anesthesia, a report tells of a 9-year-old boy undergoing a pain-free tumor operation. The patient was Jacob Grimm who, years later, wrote about another trance in his children's classic, Snow White.

"Serious" hypnotists say that stage shows like the ones that McKenna has performed have harmed the credibility of hypnosis. But today, its use throughout the medical mainstream is common for addiction treatment, dentistry, surgery and psychotherapy.

Who makes the best hypnosis subjects? Experts say it is those who have good imaginations and tend to get wrapped up in their own daydreams. On the other hand, scientific, analytical types do not make such good subjects.

For more information on Tom Deluca, go to his Web site,

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