What is Hypnosis?

Hypnosis can appear mysterious, puzzling, and perhaps even esoteric to the viewer. But when you look at the true nature of this phenomenon, it becomes much less mysterious.

As everybody knows, the human brain can be very selective in its attention – how many times have you driven down the road, and suddenly become aware of the fact that for the last few minutes you have had no idea what was going on?

At times like this, your conscious awareness is reduced, but a part of your mind is still paying attention to what’s going on around you – it has to be, or you would have crashed your car!

So we can say that there is certainly some state of mind where conscious attention is reduced, yet sensory perception continues, and perhaps this is the state of mind which occurs during hypnosis.

At the same time, it’s clear from the fact that stage hypnotists can induce people to perform all kinds of strange acts that even if a subjects’ awareness is reduced, suggestibility is increased.

Perhaps that’s what makes hypnosis therapeutically valuable – the fact that the conscious mind is “turned off” from its awareness of what’s going on, while the subconscious mind is given suggestions which it readily accepts.

Video: The Phenomenon Of Trance

We actually need to try and explain what’s going on during hypnosis to understand fully, and in particular to understand why it appears to have such a profound therapeutic effect…

For, as you may know, hypnosis has been used as an anaesthetic for major operations, and it can certainly produce dramatic improvements in psychological states such as phobias and fears.

There are basically two groups of theories which try and explain what’s happening as someone goes into a trance state.

Trance and Altered States

Broadly, the first group could be defined as “altered states theories”. These theories suggest that hypnosis is something to do with awareness and attention being altered in some way from the ordinary conscious state by an induction.

The second group of theories differ markedly: these are so-called “nonstate” theories, which see hypnosis merely as a form of role enactment by the person who has been hypnotised.

Of course any theory has to explain why a person who is under the influence of a hypnotist – whatever that state actually is – can show intense focus and concentration. For example, it’s possible for an individual to focus almost exclusively on a single thought or memory, while at the same time blocking out other sources of distraction.

And it’s also necessary to explain why somebody who is “hypnotised” shows an increased response to suggestions which they are given while they are in a trance state.

To understand this better, we need to look at the mechanism of hypnotic induction, and how hypnotists can offer suggestions that cause somebody’s state to alter – even if that alteration is merely role enactment!

Cliché of hypnotic induction
Cliché of hypnotic induction – the swinging watch

A Long History Of Induction

There is in fact nothing new about hypnosis – it has a long history, going as far back as Franz Mesmer who induced a mental state which he denoted as “mesmerism”.

More scientific applications were developed in the 1840s by the Scottish surgeon James Braid – he was the first modern proponent of hypnosis as therapeutic tool.

What are the characteristics of the hypnotic state?

First and foremost it seems that somebody who has been put into a trance – a common word used for the effects of the hypnotic induction procedure – may pay attention only to what the hypnotist is saying.

His critical faculties appear to be reduced, so that he responds in some kind of undiscerning, automatic fashion, which looks rather as though he’s ignoring everything about him except the instructions of the hypnotist.

Indeed, it may even be possible for somebody to “see” objects which are not present, or to perceive feelings of touch, smells and tastes which are simply implanted by suggestion (for example when eating an onion and believing it to be an apple – which is a common stage act among stage hypnotists).

And even a person’s memory and awareness of what’s going on can be affected, so that suggestions made during a person’s trance can be enacted later, when the person has come back to a normal state of waking consciousness.

Video – post hypnotic suggestion

This all looks very mysterious – it’s certainly a peculiar state or condition of the nervous system which differs markedly to normal consciousness.

James Braid thought that the basis of this phenomenon was about shifting attention from a wide range of stimuli in the world to a focus on a very narrow or even individual source of stimulation.

But ideas that were put forward in the 1940s are not really relevant to us today, simply because science has advanced so far in the intervening years.

So we can now define hypnotic induction as a process in which one person is guided by another to respond to suggestions about how they will subjectively experience their perception, their sensations, their emotions, their thoughts, or their behavior.

And indeed, this makes a lot of sense – because many people believe that entering into a trance state is in some way determined by the suggestibility, or the willingness, of the subject to enter into that altered state.

Of course none of this denies the possibility that what we are observing is some kind of special, self-directed, altered state of mental functioning. That in turn raises the question of whether what we call self hypnosis is the same as the hypnotic induction offered by the hypnotist.

So the more we begin to think about what this process might look like, and how it might operate, we come up against more questions than answers – which is useful food for discussion and thought. But what scientific evidence is there to explain the phenomenon? Well, in another post we will deal with a modern definition of this strange process.

Another question extremely relevant to any discussion of this subject is why there are so many different ways in which people can be put into a so-called hypnotic state.

And if you broaden the definition of trance to encompass those moments where our attention is narrowed and focused, such as daydreaming, or reading a book to the exclusion of sensory input from the world around us, or being entranced by some beautiful aspect of nature, perhaps, or song or a work of art, then does it make it easier or more difficult to define and explain the phenomenon?

At a general level you could say it makes explanation easier – because there are many different ways of putting somebody into an altered state of consciousness.

Hypnotic Induction

Perhaps one clue to what’s going on in the mind can be obtained by looking at the different mechanisms of hypnotic induction.

James Braid’s original method was to take an object and hold it about 18 inches from the eyes in an elevated position above the forehead so that the eyes were strained, and to instruct the patient to maintain a steady fixed gaze on the object.

This is naturally tiring for the eyes, and they tend to close – particularly if the suggestion is offered that the eyelids are becoming heavier and heavier.

But what’s interesting is that although this is an effective technique, there are many others – such as swinging a watch on a chain in front of an individual’s eyes, or the subtle techniques described in the video above.

What they all have in common, it would appear, is that they all call for a relaxed posture, muscular relaxation, and fixation of the eyes on some object, followed by eye closure.

An essential element of any induction process is verbal suggestion, which can be either offered indirectly, by making requests or suggestions indirectly, or by using metaphors or figures of speech – or directly, which is a more authoritarian method of inducing a trance, leaving the individual little option but to comply if they are of a suggestive and susceptible nature.

Now, it’s possible that this kind of communication is directed primarily at either the subject’s conscious or unconscious mind. Perhaps the process of induction involves both of these aspects of human consciousness.

That might explain why some people are more susceptible to direct, rather authoritarian induction instructions – because they are the ones who are consciously susceptible to such instructions. It may explain why others are more susceptible to indirect suggestion, which might affect the subconscious mind more than the conscious mind.

By now you’re probably getting the idea that we don’t actually know much about hypnosis, and you wouldn’t be wrong on that score!

Individuals such as Milton Erickson, the famous psychotherapist, have helped to bring our thinking about the practical side of hypnosis more up-to-date. Ericksonian therapy relied, so it is said, on indirect suggestion, metaphor, confusion techniques and double binds – which has led to criticism of his process as being pseudo-hypnotic.

Psychologists and counselors, amongst others, have followed Braid’s lead, and the medical profession have long regarded hypnosis as a useful adjunct to certain procedures – even surgery where general anesthetics are not possible for some reason.

A few closing observations

It’s important to know that the hypnotic trance is not therapeutic of itself; it is actually the suggestions offered in the trance state which can lead to an improvement in somebody’s health or behavior. And trance states have certainly been very effective in helping with certain medical processes, including childbirth and bone marrow aspirations.

In keeping with the observation made above, you’ll see that this raises many more questions – in this case about the connection between mind and body.