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The Truth About Hypnosis and Its Effects: an Interview with Marco Mozzoni

The psychologist Marco Mozzoni wrote the book "Ipnosi in pillole"

by Francesco Margoni

Marco Mozzoni.

"Unfortunately, it is still common to believe that hypnosis is a form of manipulation [...]". "Indeed, the opposite happens: thanks to the hypnosis practiced by medical doctors and psychologists, people are often able to regain full control of themselves", Mozzoni explains

I must say, it is admirable how clear and concise Marco Mozzoni is in his new book Ipnosi in pillole” (Armando Editore, Rome 2018). He chose a very complex subject and put it into a volume that is really easy to read.  The exercise of these qualities is all the more appreciable the more the topic is the object of the strangest beliefs and the victim of cyclical prejudices. The book scientific rigor is a welcome element for those who have long been asking the “experts” for a precise and updated picture of a phenomenon that so far has seldom been properly addressed. Of course, his activity as a journalist and scientific communicator along with his activity as a neuropsychologist and psychotherapist specialized in clinical hypnosis, as well as his teaching activity in both disciplines, help him to provide the reader with a rigorous, informed, detailed yet simple presentation of the topic.

Even today there are false beliefs about what hypnosis is, what it is used for and what the hypnotic state consists of. According to your experience, which false beliefs are most widespread?
“Unfortunately, it is still common to believe that hypnosis is a form of manipulation, a mentalist technique that induces people to lose consciousness while someone else takes control of and manipulates it at his will. Nonsense. Indeed, the opposite happens: thanks to the hypnosis practiced by medical doctors and psychologists, people are often able to regain full control of themselves and become the main agent in their own cure and daily improvement. People are thus freed from problems that have thwarted them for years, finally regaining control over their lives. This comes to the annoyance of those whose professions are based on the chronicity of ills. Recently, we conducted a survey, the first of its kind in Italy, precisely on people’s knowledge about hypnosis. Results showed that Italians do not know about the uses of hypnosis in the medical field (over 80% of participants), in pain therapy (70%), in prevention (80%), nor in the treatment of specific diseases (84%). Moreover, more than half of the participants seem to be completely unaware of what self-hypnosis is. My book “Ipnosi in pillole” may help fill these gaps and give readers a useful heads up about this extremely effective and promising technique”.

Where do these misconceptions come from? How can we eradicate them?
“It is not hard to see where these misconceptions come from. Just look at what has been presented as hypnosis for the last thirty years in television broadcasts. And the excellent volumes written by authoritative experts, even those in Italy, are lost on bookshelves, buried under a plethora of publications by self-styled “hypnologists” who often lack the minimum requirements to practice any profession. Against this misinformation, I believe that battles in court are of little use. It is much more useful to promote a rigorous scientific information, accessible to everyone, using communication methods capable of involving people in initiatives and hypnotic practice. Books, articles, radio interviews and TV services are fine, but let’s not stop there. For example, we, at the Clinical Hypnosis Center in Rome have been engaged for years in organizing free meetings and open seminars, where we illustrate the neuroscientific bases of hypnosis, the evidence of its effectiveness and how lifestyles that are problematic can be changed. We provide solid, tactical experiential learning so that people can truly know what the hypnotic state is and what it can do for them. In a way, the book is the result of these initiatives, which have met with success way beyond expectations”.

What, then, is clinical hypnosis?
“In the context of the so-called “mind-body medicine”, clinical hypnosis is the most effective natural modality of human capacity expansion to facilitate the restoration and self-regulation of the neuro-psycho-physiological functions of the organism. Compared to other methods, it works preferentially with the unconscious, as an enzyme to accelerate internal processes of self-healing and improvement. It works well because it exploits and empowers, in the first instance, the natural processes of self-repair of the body. Indeed, our wounds often heal by themselves. Our brain is plastic, that is, it continuously modifies itself based on the experiences we have, even the unconscious ones, reinforcing the most used brain networks, which become more and more efficient. Together with brain plasticity, neurogenesis is another important, universally recognized element. New nerve cells can also be born in adulthood, forming a strategic reserve that hypnosis knows how to tap into. Finally, the human being is a deeply psychosomatic entity. No need to explain this. It is something we feel every day simply by living. And hypnosis is the most successful way to work on the psychosomatic”.

What are its main applications?
“In its reparative function hypnosis serves the function of helping, sometimes fundamentally, in the treatment process of medical and psychological problems such as anxiety, panic attacks (more and more frequent among young people), depression, phobias, immune system disorders, chronic pain and other disorders that are nowadays widespread, such as substance addictions, weight problems and obesity. In its generative function it can enhance human performance at all ages in sport, work, study, and even personal relationships. Creativity, decision-making processes, attention, are all faculties that can benefit from hypnosis. At a regulatory level, it can help people to stay healthy. This is because it enables them, at a certain point, to self-regulate physiological functions such as emotions, hormones, nervous system activity, sleep-wake cycles, especially if self-hypnosis is learned immediately and used as a daily practice that reinforces the effect of therapy. It really takes just five minutes a day to keep the psychotherapist away”.

What happens to the brain during hypnosis? How does the subject enter in a different state than the ordinary one?
“In hypnosis, we witness a shift of the encephalic activity prevalent from the frontal regions of the left hemisphere to the posterior regions of the right hemisphere, detectable with functional magnetic resonance and other devices. In essence, the inhibition of the various areas of the brain by the frontal cortices characteristic of the ordinary state is temporarily reduced. It is as if we were initially playing in a classical orchestra, with a conductor, and a jazz ensemble suddenly started, one in which the melody is created gradually, with the individual contribution of each element blended in, in an expressive bottom-up process, enabling us to explore unimaginable creative alternatives, in the ordinary state filtered by rigid patterns of consciousness. We can also record with electroencephalography the passage from a prevalence of beta waves to alpha waves, typical of relaxation, and theta, typical of REM sleep and of dream activity. Finally, the internal clock slows down and time seems to flow faster, as happens in love and pleasant experiences, which run out in a moment. The temporal distortion is in fact one of the most reliable indicators of the “trance”, as Americans put it. In general, the physiological rhythms, from breathing to the pulsations of the heart beating and the release of hormones, are regularized, with a recovery of energy that almost seems to say “recharge the batteries when needed”. It is also important to know that in a state of hypnosis the body releases endogenous opioids, endorphins, enkephalins, anandamide and other molecules with pain-relieving, anxiolytic and antidepressant powers, which are our natural “drugs””.

Reading your book, I noticed some degree of polemic towards the other approaches that exist today to address psychological problems…
“The criticisms come from years of clinical experience that has led me to the conclusion that hypnosis is still seen as the last resort. People get tired of inconclusive peregrinations, often lasting years. They lose a piece of their lives, hoping to get better. Then, they may say “I’ve tried everything, I have nothing left but hypnosis”. How many times have I heard this sentence! People that, after countless failed attempts to solve their problems with the help of an overly long series of “specialists” or fashionable therapies, before finally giving up and throwing in the towel, feel they should give it one last chance. And, “miraculously”, with hypnosis they finally find an answer, without a lot of reasoning, without the need to re-examine the past in search of the usual faults to be attributed to someone or something else: simply by becoming familiar with a regenerative functioning mode which today is just too out of the ordinary. Too bad, I think, because they could have started from hypnosis, and saved lots of time and money. There is no polemic here, it is just a fact. Hypnosis works where other therapies have not or have made the situation worse. And maybe the reason why it works so well is precisely because we know that hypnosis does not only deal with the mental aspect, but with the body as a whole, including the mind. After all, this is just what we are. We are not a sum of a lot of different pieces. We are one whole. Disciplinary fragmentation is useful for scientific enterprises but not in solving life problems. Personally, I think that the problem of finding the connection between the mind and the body, that has perplexed us for centuries without reaching a consensus, is a false problem, an illusory game, a doubling (perhaps only due to inventing two different terms to represent the same thing from two different points of view) of something absolutely “one”. Although we are complex entities immersed in a world in relation with other beings, although we are composed of innumerable systems, billions of neurons, cells, infinite thoughts and dispositions of mind, we are still “concentrated in one point”, as Hegel said of Napoleon in Jena”.

How is hypnosis considered today in the clinical context?
“In other countries, such as France, Germany, Belgium and the United States, hypnosis is now a widespread practice in hospitals, but not only. It has the advantage of not having side effects, reducing drug use and hospitalization time, improving the quality of patients’ lives and allowing significant savings to the coffers of national health services. At the World Economic Forum this year in Davos, psychiatrist David Spiegel, professor at Stanford University, talked about how hypnosis could reduce the abuse of opioid pain medications, that has become a social scourge everywhere. In a recent study, the American professor showed that cancer patients treated with hypnosis and self-hypnosis perceived half the pain and lived longer than those treated conventionally. Also, in the USA, Guy Montgomery, working at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, thanks to a grant obtained from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is training the health staff of numerous medical centres across the country, as he believes that hypnosis represents a polyvalent method, much like a Swiss army knife, useful in every context. In France, thanks to hypnosis, giving general anesthesia to patients can be avoided, and the mastectomy has become an outpatient practice in the main institutions: enter at 9 am and go out at 1 pm on your legs, lucid and ready for recovery. There is a growing body of research that supports hypnotic interventions in health care, both in the medical context and in psychotherapy. Today we have considerable scientific evidence on the effectiveness of the so-called “mind-body” interventions, in which hypnosis has a rather marginal place, that can be of great benefit in the treatment of various disorders, from chronic pain to anxiety, from stress for medical procedures to symptoms of menopause, from sleep disorders to intestinal disorders, just to give some examples. Italy unfortunately remains behind, as always, but there are examples of excellence. The pioneering medical research of Professor Enrico Facco of the University of Padua recently led to the use of hypnosis in a surgical procedure for removing a tumor from a young woman allergic to any type of medication”.

One of the key messages that emerges in your book is that the unconscious defines us as individuals much more than our conscious part does. The idea is that we need to stop thinking of the unconscious as something outside ourselves, that does not belong to ourselves.
“Fathers of contemporary neuroscience such as Eric Kandel and colleagues at Columbia University in New York claim that “the control of our actions is predominantly unconscious”. Some estimate that about 90% of brain activity happens almost without the knowledge of our conscience. To stand firm in the blessed illusion that Man’s most distinctive factor is precisely the part that has the least importance in all that we are is like insisting on living in an abstract reality. This is very clear: just look at what happens when we want to make a rational decision, put it into practice and keep doing it; or when we fall in love or have some feeling for or about a particular person or situation. On several occasions in the book, I describe how the unconscious, rather than being just a dustbin as once believed, represents a storehouse of resources useful for our survival. One of the most interesting features of our unconscious is the protective one: it protects us, for example, when it makes us feel the emotion of fear even before the conscience can identify the danger, putting us in the operational readiness to react, giving up on or facing down a situation. It is really a pity that we insist on wanting to stay on the tip of the iceberg. Certainly it is a convenient position if we pretend not to be completely responsible for our actions…”.

This moved you to say that people should be considered “wholly and fully” responsible for their own unconsciousness, clashing with those who believe that less and less responsibility should be attributed to the individual, inside and outside the courts.
“In my view, we are responsible for our unconscious, since it is our own unconscious and not someone else’s. In the same way, my brain is my own one, not someone else’s: and I am fully responsible for it. Of course, if we thought we were only our conscious part… Here is the point. Who are we? Who do we want to be? These are not trivial questions, even though they may appear so. Is it enough to be just a piece of us? And the rest, do we cast it into the sea? Do we free ourselves from it?  In what way? Rather, we should find a way to extend awareness also to unconscious regions, in a form other than the conscious one, still to be experimented, to look for, to find. Without having to reinvent the wheel, because a road already exists and is that of hypnosis”.

What, more than anything, did you get from the writing of your book and what do you think the reader can acquire by reading it?
“Well, writing a book is always a process of growth, because it helps to systematize information, which we have today in industrial quantities but extremely fragmented. It helps to investigate concepts fully, identify the keys to the whole, make it all one organic work, and not the usual collage, as happens for example in books written by several different authors. Compared to other colleagues, I think I have another advantage, apart from the ones mentioned at the start of the interview:  At a certain moment of my professional life I moved onwards by myself, like a dog let off the leash, in order to not have to answer anyone except my patients and readers. This freed me from mediations and opened me to continuous exploration with the scientific method to the unknown, that in this field is still the majority of the research work left to do. In this way you can preserve intellectual honesty and affirm, as a clinician, scholar and independent researcher, what you think is valid and useful for people who are in need and ask you for help. Hypnosis is a powerful method to find the “strength within”, to free oneself from any manipulation, rediscovering one’s own vital autonomy. It can bring us to leave forever that chronic and needy existence that has backed us into a corner which is harder and harder to get out of with each passing day. Hypnosis, as I intend and use it, is therefore a practice of freedom and an ethical choice. And, as is done with poetry, I finally leave to each one the pleasure of drawing from the book the most suitable and useful message for themselves”.

The book:

Marco Mozzoni, “Ipnosi in pillole”, Armando Editore, Rome 2018

Cover illustration by Raffaella Cocchi

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