Of Cabbages and Kings and. . . .Warts?: The Dermatological Power of the Hypnotic Mind

I try to appreciate, as the famous vet wrote, “all creatures great and small,” “all things bright and beautiful.”

I find spiders entrancing.

I won’t kill a waterbug, not matter how much my (grown!) daughter carries on and calls it a roach.

I create my own mulch pile (termed “slop” by my husband in an act of utter disrespect) by mixing up my vegetative matter until it molds and ferments–and then I myself sprinkle it lovingly all over my garden.

Really, I think I deserve a hand here when it comes to appreciation.

But I never could get myself to cozy up to a wart, so to speak. I’m just not a fan.

PubMed Health, the repository and arbiter of all things medical, defines warts thus: “Warts are small, usually painless growths on the skin caused by a virus called human papillomavirus (HPV). Most, but not all, are generally harmless. [They] can be disfiguring and embarrassing.”

So they’re not just icky–they’re a virus. Fermented banana peels have it all over the wart when it comes to appealing.

However, being both a grown-up (most days) and a therapist (you can’t escape this one, you might think I could take a vacation, but I have the type of persona where random people on the plane start telling me their problems), I have had to come to terms with warts, and in doing so have come to appreciate that what the mind can accomplish is–limitless.

To be honest, I got a little help from my friends, in the form of Dr. Lewis Thomas, called by the New York Times “the poet-philosopher of medicine,”  president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and dean of the medical schools at New York University and Yale.

Dr. Lewis made me wish–well, first, that I could write like him–and then, as I read his seminal essay “On Warts” (really. If you’re looking for it just because the title alone sold you, it was originally published in The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher), that I could know and love a wart like he could.  Get a load of this:

“Warts are wonderful structures. They can appear overnight on any part of the skin, like mushrooms on a damp lawn, full grown and splendid in the complexity of their architecture. Viewed in stained sections under a microscope, they are the most specialized of cellular arrangements, constructed as though for a purpose. They sit there like turreted mounds of dense, impenetrable horn, impregnable, designed for defense against the world outside.”

Pretty great, huh? Tell me you’re not impressed.

Anyway, warts came marching into my life, literally, when a patient with plantar warts walked into my office, distressed in the extreme by the residence they had taken up on her foot, and by the complete inability of modern medicine to do a thing about them.

In fact, tinctures and ointments and antibiotics all seem about as useful as good old Tom Sawyer’s remedy. (Tom Sawyer had something to say on everything, that kid. Remember his suggestion for warts? You had two options: Rub your wart with potato or swing a dead cat over your head and bury it.) Worried that a good old potato rub would scare off my patient, I had to think of something better. And I knew just what to do.

There is one redeeming characteristic about warts, I believe–and Dr. Lewis points it out. If you want them to go badly enough, and you’re willing to try hypnosis–the projected future of your wart is very grim, indeed.

And this case, early in my practice, helped establish both that I had potential as a therapist and hypnotherapist, and also that I hadn’t completely lost my mind by paying to be trained in hypnotherapy, which, I truly believe, is what my friends and family quietly thought.

Chuckling to yourself? Think it’s quackery? It’s actually been such a known fact through the generations, that science got itself on board and found in its studies that–yup, you can hypnotize a wart away.

A Tulane University study published in 1992 entitled “Hypnotherapy for warts (verruca vulgaris): 41 consecutive cases with 33 cures” found that with direct suggestions during hypnosis, all children’s warts were healed. Finished.

That squat adult virus was more recalcitrant, with only 27% to 55% promptly vamoosing. However, when more complex hypnoanalytic techniques than simply direct suggestion were utilized, sure enough, 80% remitted. [Some people dropped out, if you’re still stuck on the arithmetic of the title here, which is perplexing.]

A similar study, “Hypnosis, placebo, and suggestion in the treatment of warts” found that subjects given hypnotic suggestion that those warts should take up residence elsewhere demonstrated significantly more wart regression than the placebo group.

But less you doubt both the role and the power of the mind in managing these “turreted mounds,” Dr. Lewis provides the piece-de-resistance. He quotes a study of 14 patients with intractable bilateral warts [that just means warts on both sides of the body that are absolutely refusing to take up residence on a different host]. This particular study had as its hypnotic suggestion that the warts on one side of the body would begin to go away, and within weeks nine patients had all or nearly all warts gone from the suggested side, while the control side had the same number of warts as before.

But wait–here’s the great part.

Apparently never having been taught that your left hand makes an “L,” as we all are in nursery, one of the subjects (and they shall remain nameless) confused the sides of her body. And–drum roll, please–the warts disappeared from the  wrong side.

And with that goof, arguments against the power of hypnosis break down. Some suggest that it’s just the natural cycle of the warts, that they disappear during the studies and would have anyway. Some claim that it must be some other mechanism at work–or at least a placebo effect. And I can’t disprove a placebo effect completely–but it seems pretty clear that if Lady L, let’s call her, the one confused about her sides, was just subject to placebo effect, the warts on the proper side would have disappeared.

Rather, there’s something powerful in the human mind, often brought into play by hypnosis, that controls the physical body–in this case the actual existence on the body of the wart.

And I, for one, appreciator as I am of “all things wise and wonderful,” am not sorry to see them go.


Ewin DM. Hypnotherapy for warts (verruca vulgaris): 41 consecutive cases with 33 cures. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis 1992; 35(1):1-10.

Goldstein RH. Successful repeated hypnotic treatment of warts in the same individual: A case report. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis 2005; 47(4):259-64.

Lewis Thomas.  The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher.

Spanos NP, Stenstrom RJ, Johnston JC. Hypnosis, placebo, and suggestion in the treatment of warts. Psychosomatic Medicine 1998; 50(3):245-60.

See also: 

Lewis Thomas, Whose Essays Clarified the Mysteries of Biology, Is Dead at 80.” A lovely tribute to the poet-scientist.



I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

Leave a Reply