Defining the Trance

For the last two centuries, scientists have struggled to define hypnosis. Now, it seems that at long last, they may have succeeded.

arti3Why is it that some people can be hypnotised while others seem able to resist? Why do hypnotised subjects appear to be asleep when in fact they are wide awake? And why do hypnotists themselves disagree so strongly about what hypnosis is in the first place?

These questions, and more, have muddied the waters as far as hypnosis is concerned, not just for decades, but for centuries.

On a sunny afternoon in 1999 at Harvard University, Psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris showed a film of a basketball game to their students and asked them to count how many times the team in the white shirts passed the ball. At the end, most of the students got the score correct, at least within a couple of points. “What about the gorilla?” the professors asked. Gorilla..? What Gorilla? The students had been concentrating so hard on the task in hand that they had failed to notice a man in a gorilla suit stroll casually across the court.

Somewhere in our brain there is a mechanism which decides what we should take notice of and what we shouldn’t – which information should reach our consciousness and which should be filtered out.

Attention is selective; concentration on certain stimuli confers greater importance on those stimuli. Some stimuli are self-selective, for instance sudden loud noises or the sight of a beautiful woman, in fact anything that stands out from the normal background which captures our attention is significant information for the brain. By the same token, we can actively decide to focus our attention on things, for instance listening to someone else’s conversation in the pub whilst pretending to do the crossword. New research is beginning to prove that when neurons start to fire when we give attention, they fire in groups and synchronise their activity. This activity can then establish importance.

Exactly the same thing happens when a hypnotised subject’s attention is focussed using the age-old art of suggestion. This is something that nearly all psychologists and hypnotherapists agree on. The ability to focus one’s attention, to the exclusion of almost everything else is fundamental to the success of the hypnotic session.

But there is more to it that just being able to focus your attention. Relaxation plays a key role too.

There is an area of the human mind which is naturally open to suggestion; in other words, it’s naturally open to new ideas. Psychologists agree that this ability to absorb ideas, even unconsciously, is part of the human survival strategy. Soaking up new ideas and new ways of thinking about things is all part and parcel of the way we learn. But with extreme relaxation, the kind that can make a person look as if they are asleep when in fact they are still awake, adds an extra dimension to what is known as suggestibility. When body and mind are deeply relaxed (that is, by the way, the process we call hypnosis) that area that is naturally open to suggestion becomes far more open to suggestion. That is why we are sometimes amazed when we see subjects under hypnosis comply with bizarre suggestions, and why we ourselves comply.

Most people, when undergoing hypnosis, report that they were fully awake and conscious of what was going on all the time, but when asked to carry out a series of simple suggestions, they simply can’t help themselves, even though they were aware of what was being suggested all along! Translate this into the therapeutic situation, and the transformation from smoker to non-smoker can appear dramatic!

Another reason hypnosis is so effective as a therapy is that hypnosis itself represents a ‘peak experience.’ Our lives are full of peak experiences; our first date; the first time we fell in love; the time we were attacked by a vicious dog; the day we graduated from high school; all these events were our own very personal peak experiences and we remember them well, not only because they were important events, but because we were focussed at the time. The entire hypnotic experience is also memorable, and when combined with the increased focus of attention and relaxation that is part of hypnosis, the words imparted by the therapist take on a powerful meaning.

And it’s not just habits like smoking or nail-biting that can be changed, attitudes can be changed too! More importantly, when a person’s attitude is changed, their behaviour can be modified in ways that often seem remarkable.

So how does that work? The answer is closely linked to memory. Habits, as well as a host of fears, phobias and other beliefs had to be learned in the first place, and to be learned, they had to be remembered. Smoking a cigarette for instance is always associated at an unconscious level with another pleasurable activity. The hypnotherapist works on the smoker’s desire to smoke by introducing new memories, like how much better not smoking is going to feel in the future, or that cigarettes actually taste unpleasant. The therapist then moves on to change the smoker’s attitude by raising very pertinent issues – for example giving up the one thing in life that you don’t really want in the first place is not a sacrifice. The next step is to instil in the subject new feelings of confidence and self-assuredness. The object of the exercise is that the subject’s behaviour will change.

This sort of therapy is remarkably powerful and has been proven over and over again. Psychologist Stephen Kosslyn, at Harvard University, has a good deal of evidence that shows that the same areas of the brain are activated when we see an object and when we close our eyes and imagine that object. All this supports the power and effectiveness of guided imagining during hypnosis.

Also at Harvard, psychologist Richard McNally suggests that the malleability of memories is merely a by-product of human imagination, inference and prediction. Hypnosis taps into the imagination very effectively. But then, hypnotists have known this for many years, it’s just taken the academics a while to catch up and provide the proof.

In a series of experiments at the University of Hull, Dr. Irving Kirsch attempted to find out if it were possible to make everyone suggestible enough to be hypnotised. He already knew that some people could resist being hypnotised, that is until he played a trick. After going through the entire hypnotic induction, Kirsch told his volunteers that they would begin to hear some very strange music. Unbeknown to the volunteers, Kirsch’s assistant activated a tape recorder and gradually turned up the volume so that the music became audible. Kirsch then suggested that when they opened their eyes, they would see that the room would start to turn red. This second trick was accomplished simply by fading up an ordinary red light bulb.

Astonishingly, in every case, even the subjects who had been resistant to hypnosis fell under Kirsch’s spell and turned out to be just as susceptible to suggestion as the rest of the volunteers. Even more astounding was the fact that even after the trick had been explained to them, they still remained extremely suggestible, and Kirsch was able to go on to administer real suggestions.

So, is hypnosis nothing more than psychological trickery? On this point, psychologists and hypnotherapists have rarely been in agreement. And yet there is increasing evidence to show that hypnosis is a series of well understood psychological processes which are well understood by scientists. The question is, does the healing come from the hypnotist, or from within the patient?

To find out, we recruited sixty volunteers of all ages and both sexes who all believed in the power of faith-healing and who all agreed to take part in an experiment. Each of the volunteers was asked to attend a healing session where they would lie down for an hour and undergo treatment by one of the world’s leading faith-healers. The healer himself would be hidden in a sound-proofed box in one corner of the room.

At the end of two weeks, most of the volunteers reported a significant improvement in the way they felt. But there was a catch… the healer was present, performing the Full Monty faith-healing ritual, in only half the sessions. For the rest, the box was empty. Yet both groups were convinced that they had been effectively healed.

Hypnotists know this trick well… it is called the placebo effect and more and more alternative therapies rely on its effectiveness. This knowledge is an important tool in the hypnotist’s trade.

By using suggestion and relaxation, together with the ability to focus the subject’s attention, hypnotherapists have become today’s modern miracle workers – ordinary human beings influencing other ordinary human beings – effecting dramatic changes not just in behaviour, but also in the way we perceive our own thoughts and emotions, and all to the good, helping others lead more healthy and happy lives.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2006. All rights reserved.