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Hypnosis, as defined by the American Psychological Association Division of Psychological Hypnosis, is "a procedure during which a health professional or researcher suggests that a client, patient, or subject experience changes in sensations, perceptions, thoughts, or behavior." Any definition is necessarily vague, as the underlying mechanism is little understood. Some theories view hypnosis as an altered state of consciousness, others as a type of focused attention. Psychologists have recently researched hypnosis and found a strong correlation between the ease of putting someone in a state of 'hypnosis' and their level of suggestibility.

Many religious and cultural rituals contain many similarities with techniques used for hypnotic induction and induce similar states in their participants. Scientists first became involved in hypnosis around 1770, when Dr. Franz Mesmer started investigating an effect he called 'animal magnetism' or 'mesmerism' (the latter name still remaining popular today.) The evolution of Mesmer's ideas and practices led James Braid (1795-1860) to coin the term and develop the procedure known as hypnosis in 1842. Sigmund Freud briefly used hypnosis for treating patients, but ended up rejecting it as a useful treatment.

Hypnosis has been used with variable success for hundreds of applications, including entertainment, analgesia and psychoanalysis. Generally, under hypnosis people become more susceptible to suggestion, causing changes in the way they feel, think, and behave, although contrary to popular belief they do still remain in control of their actions. This suggestibility has led some psychologists to believe that a state of hypnosis doesn't actually exist, but strong social expectations are being played out by the person who believes that they are in a state of hypnosis.

Hypnosis also generally stimulates a feeling of relaxation, and this has helped the development of it into a therapy - hypnotherapy - although some of the treatments practiced, such as regression, are viewed by some with scepticism. When a subject is put through the process of regression it is claimed that they may invent false memories due to the social expectation placed on them. Therefore, these memories can not be held as reliable.

Hypnosis is usually brought on by a hypnotist carrying out an induction procedure. Different people respond more or less successfuly to suggestion. Some people do seem able to display 'enhanced functioning', such as the suppression of pain, under hypnosis. However studies suggest that these qualities are not exclusive to hypnosis, and it is the drama and fantasizing that encourages the behaviour.

See also: Mind control, Research by G. Wagstaff, Dept. of Psychology, University of Liverpool

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