On this page, I will try to answer the question: "What is hypnosis?" I will try to produce an acceptable definition, as well as looking at the potential use of trance states in hypnotherapy and self-hypnosis. I will also try to explain what (as far as we know) is happening in the brain during hypnosis, and I will also try to remove some of the myths and misconceptions about hypnotism.
As you will see, there are a number of difficulties in trying to create a definition of the hypnotic state, and in trying to understand what is being experienced by the hypnotised subject.
So, what is hypnosis? Some experts try to define hypnotism in terms of suggestion, suggestibility and trance, but this approach creates problems because it then becomes necessary to define those three concepts! Some attempts to define it begin with what it’s not: “hypnosis is not slept”. In 1993 the American Psychological Association’s hypnosis division defined it as: “… a procedure during which a health professional or researcher suggests that a client, patient, or subject experience changes in sensations, perceptions, thoughts, or behaviours.”
But even this is awkward because it restricts hypnotism to something done by a health professional, rather than something that can be done by oneself in self-hypnosis. Part of the problem is that, because nobody has yet discovered and proved exactly how hypnotism works, it’s difficult to define what it is. Additionally, every subject experiences the hypnotic trance state in his or her own way, so it may be that every person has a unique experience of trance. It’s usually easier to define the effects of being hypnotised.
Dave Elman described therapeutic hypnotism as: "the use of suggestion, whether direct or indirect, to induce a heightened state of suggestibility in which there is the bypass of the critical faculty of the mind, and selective attention to suggestions given."
Milton Erickson defined it as: "a shrinking of the focus of attention."
So, bearing all that in mind, here is my working definition of the experience of hypnosis, drawn from a number of sources, and from my personal experience as a hypnotherapist and user of self-hypnosis:
Hypnosis is a natural altered state of consciousness in which the subject experiences deep physical and mental relaxation, with heightened mental awareness and narrowed the focus of attention, during which the power of conscious criticism is suppressed, due to a disconnection between conscious and unconscious mental processes, allowing easier acceptance of suggestions by the unconscious mind.
Phew! So what does all that mean? What is actually happening in the mind and in the brain?
The nature of trance.
On another page (Unconscious and Conscious Mind – see links above and below) I examine the balance between our unconscious and conscious minds. This balance varies from moment to moment. In trance, the conscious mind is less active and the unconscious mind is more active. This means that it is possible to communicate more directly with the unconscious mind – the part of our mind that controls so much of our habit behaviour. In some ways, hypnotic trance resembles other altered states of consciousness, such as alcohol or drug intoxication, or sleep. People may have different experiences of the trance state – with some feeling that they have been very deeply ‘asleep’ while others thinking that nothing at all has happened! This phenomenon is known as ‘depth of trance’, and it varies from subject to subject (and sometimes individuals will experience different trance depths from trance to trance).
There are, however, some indications that a person is ‘in trance’. Here are some of the more common ones: slowed pulse; slowed breathing; facial features become relaxed and ‘smooth’; physical relaxation and body immobility; increased swallowing. Psychologically, the subject may also experience the following: an alteration in the experience of time (time distortion, with subjects, often believing that a trance session was significantly shorter than was actually the case!); alteration in the experience of physical sensation and pain (analgesia); amnesia after the trance session.
The brain has been studied when subjects are in trance using a number of techniques: EEG; PET (positron emission tomography) scanning; MRI scanning; and measurements of cerebral blood flow. With all these investigations, the aim has been to remove some of the ‘mystique and magic’ from hypnotism and to try to understand the scientific basis for what subjects experience. EEG studies show that the brain’s wave patterns in a hypnotic trance are quite different from those in sleep. When a subject is hypnotised there seems to be a general increase in theta waves (reduced frequency with increased length), associated with increased relaxation, but this is coupled with an increase in “40 Herz rhythm”, which is associated with increased focussed attention. In simple terms, what such research has shown is that there is an alteration in the brain’s electrical activity when a subject is in trance.
Use of hypnosis in hypnotherapy
It is the nature of trance that makes it a useful tool in hypnotherapy. So much of our behaviour (our habits of thought and action) are governed by our unconscious mind that it is very useful to have a tool for gaining access to the unconscious mind without the critical interference of the conscious mind. This is the nature of the hypnotic trance – the dissociation and ‘turning down’ of the conscious mind create the necessary relaxation to allow acceptance of beneficial suggestion.
1. Hypnosis is dangerous. As stated above, hypnosis is a quite natural state of mind in which the analytical capacity of the conscious mind is temporarily switched off and the unconscious mind is temporarily more dominant, and we all experience states of mind like hypnosis every day.
2. In a trance, you can be made to do things you don’t want to do.Contrary to things you may have seen at the movies, it’s not possible when hypnotized to be made to do something contrary to your ethical or religious beliefs, nor is it possible to be made to do something that would be harmful to you (or anybody else!), because the unconscious mind will reject suggestions that might be harmful to you. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that people in trance who are asked to do something that is against their best interests will either simply ignore the request or wake up from the trance. While hypnotised, you have not given up your will-power, nor are you being turned into an automaton! In self-hypnosis, because you are giving yourself suggestions, these issues do not even arise, because you will only be giving yourself suggestions that are beneficial to you. Your unconscious mind has an intuitive understanding of what is ‘good for you’.
3. You can get stuck in a trance. It is not possible to ‘get stuck’ in a self-induced trance. The worst thing that might happen is that you might fall asleep, and even this possibility can be limited by practising in a sitting position rather than lying down! In any event, your unconscious mind will ‘tell you’ when it’s time to return to full awareness, even if you have fallen asleep!