There used be a belief amongst hypnotists that hypnosis can only be adequately induced by putting the nervous system to sleep - after all that is why hypnosis is called hypnosis - its named after Hypnos the Greek god of sleep!
Putting the nervous system to sleep is to use a hypnotic induction that is dull and monotonous.
You might say that hypnotists used to bore people into hypnosis!
But then came a new wave of hypnotic explorers. They soon realized that you could create the hypnotic state just as easily - in fact sometimes more easily - using richer tonalities and intriguing ideas.
So why the conflict? Which is the ultimate hypnotic induction: monotony or stimulation?
To answer this question we need to step beyond the framework that we usually understand hypnosis in.
Let’s look at hypnosis as an altered state of consciousness.
Any state of consciousness that is different from your everyday sense of awareness is an altered state: sleep, intense focus, hysteria etc.
Now when we look at Neurobiology, which studies how our minds and bodies are made up and interact, an intriguing fact emerges. Our biology is designed to be aware of our environment in a particular way.
This “ordinary” awareness is not fixed internally, but actually is a result of external stimulation. To maintain our optimal “survival” state we need external stimulation to affect us.
Believe it or not, there is a relatively narrow band of external stimulation that fixes our neurology into the “ordinary” state of awareness.
This is important, because herein lies the secret of the ultimate hypnosis induction.
When you change the levels of external stimulation outside of this limited range, you will alter someone’s state. Alter someone’s state in a specific way will lead to hypnosis.
The trances you find in older cultures have much in common with hypnosis.
Many are forms of autohypnosis (self-hypnosis) which was induced by a hypnotic situation.
Let’s look at some of the “traditional” ways that people have induced such auto-hypnotic trances in themselves.
On the one side of the practices we have the quiet meditation of a monastery, no outside noises, vows of silence, plain and darkened rooms. For thousands of years these techniques have been used to “quiet the mind” to enter states of self hypnosis.
In the past these practices were called meditation, contemplation, prayer or mysticism.
Clearly these are examples of under-stimulation causing consciousness to drop out of that narrow range called “ordinary consciousness”.
Other techniques, such as chanting, have surprising commonalities with “old school” hypnosis and hypnotic inductions based on monotony. Both western Gregorian chanting and Eastern Mantras have the effect of reducing the amount of external stimulation on a person.
Over the few thousands of years that humans have existed, we have discovered other ways of altering our reality and entering states similar or related to self hypnosis. Many of these other methods are based on the opposite tactic to the “under-stimulation” of chanting, meditation or prayer.
Whirling dervishes will spin round and round - much as we did as children - until they fall to the ground in a religious ecstasy. The spinning clearly has the effect of over-stimulating the senses. The same is true of the tribal dances of shamanic cultures: Native Americans spiritual dances, Balinese rituals like the Calonarang.
Even in the west we have many rituals and festivals designed to bring us to a state of heightened joy through stimulation: the carnival of Venice, dancing at a live rock concert. A rousing speech can have the same impact on us.
For a sinister example look at the speeches of Hitler before World War II - they make little logical sense, but they are great examples of mass hypnosis being induced.
People have been using these techniques for entering trance states like hypnosis or self hypnosis for thousands of years with great success.
So now the question of over-stimulation or under-stimulation becomes less cut and dried. You can no longer say it is better to be monotonous or vice versa.
Now the questions has to be: which tactic is more useful?
Remember that all monotony or stimulation do is pop our awareness outside of the band in which it usually operates. As we will see this can be the first step towards hypnosis.
So a hypnotist has to ask herself one of two questions:
- Which tactic will alter their state most easily?
- What kind of hypnotic state do I need to generate?
In answer to the first question: if the person is already relaxed, then monotony, a soothing voice etc will continue the pattern the person is already running to the point where they change state - and open the door for hypnosis.
On the other hand, if the person is already agitated or stressed, they may have to struggle to calm down their neurology. Whilst this can be done, it might be a lot easier and quicker to over-stimulate their awareness until it pops through the ordinary threshold. Again a doorway into hypnosis has been opened.
These two approaches show the success of hypnotists like Milton Erickson who had a tremendous range. At times he would literally bore people into trance by telling them boring stories. Other times he would confuse, shock, overload them until a trance spontaneously emerged.
With our new insight into neurobiology we can see exactly why these approaches that seem so contradictory are actually the same idea expressed in different ways!
To look briefly at the second question raised, another reason for choosing one approach over another can sometimes be dictated by the nature of the hypnotic task that you want the hypnotic subject to perform.
If you are running an experiment or need the hypnotic subject to do certain complex tasks in hypnosis, you may choose to use the over-stimulation tactic as it prepares the nervous system to be more responsive. This is one of the reasons why Erickson recommends the use of confusion in order to develop deep trances for hypnotic work with people.
On the other hand if you require a more passive/accepting frame of mind in which you offer the hypnotic subject experiences that should impact on him in trance, then you may choose to use monotony as your approach.
After all it quitens the mind!
Where does this leave us in terms of the “Ultimate Hypnotic Induction”?
I guess it leaves us in a place I rather enjoy: with more choice.
With a little understanding you can now choose the right hypnosis approach to fit the needs of the situation.