Hypnosis in medicine: no chickens involved

Neuroscientist (and magician!) Amir Raz explains why he wants more medical professionals to put hypnosis in their toolkit.
Raz says that hypnosis has the potential to help ease anxiety and even pain in settings such as the dentist. (Getty Images/ Gustav Dejert)

When you think about hypnosis, it's easy to picture someone being made to look silly on stage or perhaps to draw on a cultural reference like this:

A scene from the Manchurian Candidate where Raymond Shaw strangles a comrade at the instruction of the hypnotist. Raz says that people's perceptions of hypnosis are deeply rooted in Hollywood depictions. (Corbis via Getty Images)

It's unlikely you picture this: 

Hypnosis can be a useful tool to help anxious dentistry patients. (Getty Images)

But former magician and current neuroscientist, Amir Raz wants people to start thinking of hypnosis scientifically and in medicine. 

Raz, the Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Attention at McGill University, says there is potential for hypnosis in clinical settings if the stigma around it can be overcome. 

Raz spoke to 180 host Jim Brown about why he thinks the scientific community should  embrace hypnosis.This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

For members of the general public… what don't we get about hypnosis?

I think most people don't get the most basic separation between stage hypnosis and what we call psychological hypnosis medical hypnosis. Stage hypnosis has very little to do with the kind of hypnosis that we do in a hospital setting or a dentistry type of context. Stage hypnosis is all about bringing somebody on stage who is going to perform for the entertainment of the audience. There is an unwritten agreement when  you go on stage that you're going to be ridiculed in order to entertain maybe yourself but certainly the people who are there. When you're going into a medical setting, hypnosis is used in a completely different context where by first of all there's no audience, and you're usually going in with an acute condition that needs resolution.

Amir Raz wants the medical community to start embracing the use of hypnosis. (Provided)

For people who haven't encountered it yet, can you give some specific examples of the use of hypnosis in medicine?

Hypnosis can be used in a number of ways. First of all, hypnosis is very effective with children, particularly children who are very anxious either pre surgery or post surgery, children who are about to go through a medical procedure dealing with pain. It's a very good way to counteract anxiety. It's excellent for things that have to do with certain skin conditions that are related to mental states, if it's eczema, if it's a particular kind of warts… and so on and so forth. The main idea is that what you can do is that you can bring about all kinds of very subtle and sometimes not so subtle physiological changes as a result of changing  the mind set or mental state of the person.

How should it be used?

First of all,  hypnosis is a non pharmacological intervention, it does not require drugs and as a result when it's in the hands of a trained professional, most people will experience nothing unusual other than thinking that they're going through or listening to some kind of a narrative, or engaging in some kind of conversation or being asked to daydream or relax or something like that. On top of that, when we're talking about side effects, when we're talking about potentially detrimental things that could go wrong, in the hands of a proficient professional, this is extremely unlikely. The third thing is that it's quite available and would be a good thing to use for a wide range of patients who would otherwise just take some kind of a drug. So in this particular context, it's quite clear that with hypnosis that you can often achieve things that would be difficult to achieve with other techniques that  are slightly more pharmacological or invasive.

So if hypnosis is potentially such a great tool, why isn't it being used more?

I think the resistance to hypnosis is just like the the resistance to many new things or things that sort of reek of an alternative whiff. Hypnosis has been around for a fairly long time but the scientific study of hypnosis is relatively recent.The other thing is that historically many of the studies that people performed were quite weak methodologically and as a result hypnosis suffered not just from a checkered history when it comes to folklore and parlour magic, it also suffered from some medical lacuna. There was medical lacuna in the literature where people sort of reported all kinds of case studies and things that were not fully substantiated and as a result the scientific community, justifiably so,had a knee jerk reaction to that.

To hear Amir Raz's full interview with Jim Brown, click the play button above.


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