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Steve Hansen: Perception doesn't always match reality

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Posted: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 12:00 am

I discovered this axiom first-hand during my hypnotherapy training in 1983.

In those days, psychotherapists needed specialized training and a certificate by the licensing board in order to put this procedure into practice. Ironically, neither of these requirements were necessary for non-licensed people or stage performers. A few years later, the inconsistency was recognized, and the certification for therapists was discontinued.

But my training involved several hours of demonstrations and practice using hypnotherapy for relaxation, anxiety, depression, phobias, developmental trauma, substance abuse and even cessation of smoking.

However, these lessons weren’t enough for most of my classmates. They wanted more: “Do the techniques really work?” they inquired. “How do they work? Can people be hypnotized against their will? Would they commit an act against their moral conscience? What about the ‘good stuff?’” — i.e. turning people into chickens or past life regressions.

“Yes, they do work,” the middle-aged psychologist responded — sensing a mild student rebellion.

Professor Hayden continued: “My experience tells me that people cannot be hypnotized against their will. Also, people will not act against their conscience, and oh, by the way, that subliminal message stuff in advertising is a lot of bunk.”

But the students were still not satisfied.

“How about the chicken thing?” one called out.

The professor responded that such antics were not professional and that we should never engage in this type of practice. But under pressure, she agreed to do a demonstration showing us the power of suggestion.

A student named Joe was selected. He was sent out of the room with a chaperone to make sure nothing was overheard. The instructor revealed her plan to the remainder the class. She would suggest to Joe that he would be unable to find his notebook — even though it rested immediately in front of him.

When the subject returned to the room, the show began. After the described suggestion and on the count of three, Professor Hayden snapped her fingers and ordered him to return to his normal waking state.

At that point, a shocked look of surprise came over his face. The rest of the class laughed out loudly.

“What happened, Joe?” the professor asked.

The subject told the class that a very strange phenomenon had just occurred. He could not find his notebook, but soon saw it come from the ceiling and land on his desk! He could not explain the incident.

It was a perfect learning example for the rest of us that perception definitely is not always reality.

On the past life issue, another demonstration was done, but this time with results that were inconclusive. The big question still remained: Were people reliving past lives or did they simply have inventive and creative imaginations?

Speaking of imagination, during the 1980s, some hypnotherapists went off the deep end on one related issue. A few histrionic patients, while placed under regressive hypnosis, believed they had been molested by close relatives. For a while, It was akin to a modern Salem witch hunt with cases of “false memory syndrome” appearing with regularity. Most courts soon brought this situation back to reality by rejecting evidence based primarily on regressive hypnotic practices.

Overall, I found hypnotherapy to be somewhat helpful — especially in treating patients with phobias and smoking addictions. But to really be effective, it needed continual reinforcement. Patients who did their homework had the greatest chance for lasting results.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer and retired psychotherapist.

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