August 09, 2018

(+++) SELF-CARE AND PSEUDO-SCIENCE


Close Your Eyes, Get Free: Use Self-Hypnosis to Reduce Stress, Quit Bad Habits, and Achieve Greater Relaxation and Focus. By Grace Smith. Da Capo. $15.99.

     Self-help books are, by definition and to a greater or lesser extent, paeans of praise to their authors. Like books about “the one investment secret you need to know,” self-help and other personal-growth books point to their authors as having knowledge and abilities that they have discovered through their own remarkable acumen and that they are now, out of the goodness of their hearts, sharing with the world. The fact that not a single self-help book (or, for that matter, a single investment book) actually works for all people is what keeps the field going – and the fact that many books work for some people to at least some degree guarantees an endless supply of eager writers hoping to cash in on their particular expertise.

     So there is nothing particularly surprising in the extent to which hypnotherapist Grace Smith engages in social-media self-promotion and refers readers to the audios, videos and other “bonus content” that she makes available online at a site associated with the hypnosis practice that she founded. Nor are her chatty style and her clever way of giving a scientific veneer to her suggestions unusual or likely to be off-putting to people who have tried many other forms of self-help for their psychological concerns, have found them wanting, but who still think someone, somewhere, has the answer.

     A lot of the “science” here is once-over-lightly and not particularly accurate, but it does not have to be: it creates a framework within which readers who so choose can believe in Smith’s approach. That is in fact an important component of hypnotism: agreeing to be hypnotized means you are pre-selecting yourself as someone predisposed to be hypnotized. Agreeing to learn self-hypnosis to deal with life issues means you are pre-selecting yourself as someone predisposed to believe that self-hypnosis can help you solve life’s problems. This is precisely how stage hypnotists arrange their acts – and it is also how medical hypnotherapists incorporate hypnosis into psychotherapy.

     That is not quite what Smith does, however. To the extent that Close Your Eyes, Get Free is science, it is very much popular science, with the emphasis on “popular.” Smith, for example, offers a three-part brain model (reptilian, limbic, neocortex) and suggests readers associate each unsatisfactory area of their lives with one of the three parts and work on issues based on that association.

     In reality, though, a good deal of what Smith presents is not science at all – it is closer to astrology than astronomy. Smith, for instance, discusses “past life regressions” and how she tends “to lean toward the idea that they are real” because she has gone through many of them with clients. That is about as unscientific a way of declaring something “real” as it is possible to find, but dedicated readers of Close Your Eyes, Get Free are unlikely to mind. Instead, they will revel in the sort of encouragement that Smith provides again and again: “I can only imagine the wonderful benefits you’re already experiencing from having given your time and energy to learning how to close your eyes and get free.” Smith certainly does have a vivid, and carefully directed, imagination.

     Imagination and the willingness to go where it leads you are a must for Smith’s readers, too. Hypnotism is essentially a guided form of meditation that allows increased focus on specific matters to the exclusion or diminution of others. Therapists know that the word “guided” is important and that hypnosis is a method of, in effect, allowing yourself to take actions that you would like to take, at some level, but feel you cannot take, at others. For instance, you would like to stop smoking, but cannot break what everyone agrees is a powerfully addictive habit. Hypnosis can help with a situation like that, but not if you truly enjoy smoking and have no desire to do what those killjoy scientists and doctors tell you to do. Hypnosis cannot take you where you are not already predisposed to go.

     As for the “guided” element, Smith attempts in Close Your Eyes, Get Free to be the guide that all her readers need, showing them how to take themselves into a hypnotic state – which, in the context of this book, is essentially a meditative one in which you tell yourself to accept personal responsibility for whatever issues you have and then guide yourself to dealing with them. Smith mixes (or mixes up) matters of hypnosis with various New Age-style recommendations for life: be kind to everybody; do only what brings you joy; spend a day loving yourself as much as you love your pet. These life prescriptions, while well-meaning, are so na├»ve that they trivialize the underlying seriousness of a book intended to help readers cope with and overcome some serious personal issues.

     Like many other self-help books, Close Your Eyes, Get Free will be useful to some readers and useless to others (who will go on to seek out other self-help books, thus perpetuating the self-help-book cycle). To get what benefits Smith can provide, it can be helpful to regard self-hypnosis (and hypnosis in general) as a way to help your mind turn its attention more strongly toward issues that compromise your quality of life – and thus help your body (and your mind itself) deal with those matters. On that basis, Smith’s book is really about harnessing the placebo effect – a very real form of mind-body connection – and using it to improve everyday existence. That is a perfectly worthy goal: the placebo effect is the reason that 20% to 30% of the control group in medical trials generally improves even when not given any sort of medication or other genuine intervention. But just as the placebo effect does not work for everybody, even the sort of guided or self-guided placebo effect that underlies Close Your Eyes, Get Free will not help all readers. Smith’s ideas are certainly worth a try, but no one should be disappointed to find them far less useful than she makes them out to be.

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