What is hypnosis?

Perhaps the greatest mystery about hypnosis is that it’s seen as something mysterious. It’s a fundamental human trait, shared by every living person on the planet. Everybody reading this article will experience a hypnotic state at some point today, if they haven’t done so already. Hypnosis is so hardwired into us, in fact, that you can’t get through the day without experiencing it, any more than you can get through the day without experiencing some form of emotion.

That said, there has certainly been a great deal of debate about the details. This debate has usually revolved around the psychobiological aspects of hypnosis, ie, what’s actually going on in the brain when we’re in a hypnotic state. Some commentators believe that hypnosis produces an altered state of consciousness, others believe that nothing happens at all. Still others believe that hypnotic subjects just act to please the hypnotist!

Leaving aside the question about what a “normal” state of consciousness is anyway, advances in neuroscience, and the ability to monitor brain activity as it happens, have shown that hypnosis does indeed have a demonstrable effect on the brain. In a famous experiment at Stanford University, students were connected to a brain imaging machine whilst looking at a black and white picture. Under hypnosis, the students were told that the picture was in fact in colour – and the brain scans showed that the areas of the brain which process colour became active when that suggestion was made.

More recently, psychologists Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell have explicitly linked hypnosis to the Rapid Eye Movement or REM state, which is more commonly associated with dreaming sleep. It’s also something that all mammals, not just humans, experience before they’re even born. Babies in the womb experience enormous amounts of REM, Griffin and Tyrrell arguing that this is nature’s way of installing and maintaining instinctive behaviour.

Fascinating as these studies are, concentrating on the psychobiological aspects of hypnosis is a bit of a specialist pastime – like analyzing the particular pigments an artist uses to make a painting. If we step back and look at the painting in its entirety, we can see that hypnosis really is a perfectly natural state of mind. Perhaps the mystery comes from applying an unusual label to something which is essentially normal. It’s an inexact label too, meaning both the state of mind itself and the techniques used to create it.

Hypnosis is generally taken mean to the induction of a trance state. Although trance has connotations of glassy-eyed automatism, it simply means a focused state of attention. Attention can be focused externally, or it can be focused internally. You’ve been in a trance if you’ve ever been absorbed in a great film, lost in a good book, or swept up in a symphony. You’ve been in a trance if you’ve ever stared in fascination at a sunset or a passing cloud. You’ve also been in a trance if you’ve ever stared out of the window, daydreaming about something which happened twenty years ago.

Clearly you don’t vanish at these times. If something requires your attention, you’re aware of it – so if you’re enraptured by a great orchestral work and the idiot next to you starts talking loudly into his mobile, you’ll probably know all about it, unfortunately. All that happens, for the duration of the trance state, is that your attention locks onto a particular source, and everything else just fades into the background for a while.

Even if nothing happened in our lives to fix our attention, we would still experience a hypnotic trance state, because our brains are naturally designed to go into trance every 90 minutes or so. You may have noticed this yourself – there are times during the day when you feel energetic and able to concentrate, interspersed with periods of feeling a bit fuzzy and daydreamy. This is known as the ultradian rhythm.

What’s literally happening is that every ninety minutes, brain activity switches from the left to the right hemisphere. As a result, our focus shifts internally, as the more metaphorical and pattern matching areas of the brain process everything that’s been absorbed in the previous hour and a half. This seems to act as a housekeeping mechanism, like a computer backing up its files, or as a form of stress control. This lasts for about fifteen minutes.

Despite all the mystery, then, hypnosis is simply a method for focusing the attention and turning it inwards. It is nothing more – and nothing less – than a way of working with and taking control of something which is happening already.

How does hypnosis work?

There are many theories about the actual mechanics of hypnosis, and making sense of them can be a bit like playing Snakes and Ladders – you tend to end up back where you started a lot of the time. But before considering how hypnosis works, perhaps the first question should be does hypnosis work?

Decades of research and clinical trials have shown that hypnosis can be remarkably effective for a wide variety of conditions. To take a clinical example, a study published in the June 2007 Journal of Paediatrics showed that hypnosis produced a significant drop in the severity and duration of headaches in children, and even a drop in the frequency of the headaches themselves – something like 75%. In the non-clinical field, a University of Iowa meta-analysis by Frank Schmidt showed that hypnosis was three times more effective than nicotine replacement when it came to giving up smoking.

Theories as to how these results are achieved range from the idea that hypnosis produces changes in brain activity, to the idea that the subject is “method acting” the role of a hypnotized person, to the skeptical point of view that it’s all down to the placebo effect (which, of course, raises the awkward question “how does the placebo effect work?”). All of these theories, however, are essentially saying the same thing – hypnosis works by communicating with the unconscious mind.

Conscious and unconscious are really just shorthand terms to describe the general characteristics of the human mind. The “conscious mind” is the bit where we tend to “live” – the bit you might think of as “you”. If there’s a little voice reading these words out loud in your head, that’s the conscious mind talking. The unconscious mind is everything else!

The unconscious controls all of the autonomic processes that you don’t have to think about – the heart rate, the blood pressure, tissue growth, cell regeneration, the immune system and so on. It’s where our thoughts, memories and accumulated experience reside. It controls our emotions, our habits and our responses to the world.

In many ways, it creates that world for us. The unconscious mind handles about two million bits of sensory information every single second. The conscious mind deals with about seven. That means that the reality you’re actually aware of from moment to moment has been brought to your conscious attention by the unconscious, in a sort of Readers’ Digest version, choosing seven bits which it thinks are important from the two million it’s just processed.

The conscious mind is more logical, critical and analytical – it’s constantly making value judgments. If somebody was to say to you “you really should give up smoking, you know, it’s terribly bad for you”, you’re highly unlikely to become a non-smoker on the spot. You’re more likely to come up with a dozen, rational sounding reasons as to why you should carry on smoking, or you might tell them to shove off and mind their own business. Even if you do consciously accept that you should give up smoking, it’s not the conscious part of the mind that’s keeping the habit in place.

The unconscious part of the mind, on the other hand, is much more accepting. It’s also quite literal and tends to take things personally, relating any information it receives to you as an individual. Hypnosis works by bypassing the critical conscious mind (usually through relaxation or linguistic techniques), and speaking directly to the unconscious in a language which it understands – pattern, association and metaphor.

As mentioned earlier, the unconscious mind is basically in charge. The vast majority of things that we do are unconscious, which we can be grateful for – if you had to consciously think about every single thing you did, you wouldn’t do anything. However, it can lead us astray. Most problems are things that we’ve learned how to do at an unconscious level – we’ve just learned how to them in an unhelpful way.

Problems are often an attempt at a solution. This is true even for such apparently self-destructive habits as smoking. Many smokers start in their teens, when smoking is seen as a quick way to fit in, acquire adult status or generally appear cool. Through sheer repetition, the unconscious mind becomes convinced that smoking is serving a vital purpose – that it’s “good ” for you in some way.

Hypnosis works by updating the unconscious mind with new and more helpful information, like reprogramming a computer. It can be used to change associations, so that cigarettes, for instance, are no longer seen as “little friends”, and are more realistically regarded as “toxic killers”. It can also be used to mentally rehearse better ways of going about things, such as being able to deal with stressful situations without having to light up.

Since the unconscious mind controls our autonomic bodily processes, physical change can also be achieved through hypnosis. Pain control is a very good example. The mind alters our awareness of pain all the time – professional chefs, for instance, get burnt on a regular basis, but rarely notice it unless it’s particularly severe. You’ll have experienced this yourself if you’ve ever discovered a cut or a bruise and wondered how it got there. Physical events are still occurring, but the unconscious has relegated them to the 1,999,993 bits of sensory information you’re not aware of every single second. Hypnosis can therefore be used to amplify that same response and apply it to a specific situation, such as the control of headaches.

Hypnosis works, then, by shaping our perception of reality by dealing directly with the unconscious mind, the seat of most of our problems, and most of our solutions too.

Does hypnotherapy work? Science says “YES!”

WASHINGTON- April 28, 2013- “Hypnosis seems helpful in treating addictions and the depression and anxiety associated with them”- Psychology Today

Hypnosis and hypnotherapy has been rooted in science with evidence based results reported for many years. Although the American Medical Association (AMA) currently has no clear position on the effectiveness of hypnosis and hypnotherapy, in 1958, the AMA reported hypnotherapy has a recognized place in the medical armamentarium and is a useful technique in the treatment of certain illnesses.

Hypnotherapy is considered an effective adjunct in psychotherapy for many issues, and more are being studied. On its own, hypnotherapy is reported to be beneficial: In 2001, the British Psychological Society commissioned a group of expert psychologists and published a report that declared hypnosis a proven therapeutic medium and valid for study.

The report went on to say hypnotherapy is beneficial for a wide range of issues encountered in medicine, psychology and psychiatry with regard to stress, anxiety, pain, and psychosomatic illnesses. Some illnesses described are insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches and migraines, asthma and a variety of skin maladies. Weight reduction was also cited as benefiting from hypnotherapy.

A comparison study reported in 2007 by American Health Magazine indicates some psychological issues benefit more from hypnotherapy than psychoanalysis and behavior therapy.  A German university meta-analysis of 444 studies supported this claim, concluding a 64 percent success rate with hypnotherapy for stress, anxiety and chronic pain.

According to Sanjay Paul, A psychology instructor at several universities, hypnosis is a heightened sense of suggestibility for accessing the subconscious mind which is responsible for up to 90 to 95 percent of our thoughts and actions. No one can be made to do anything they do not wish to under hypnosis. That old, inaccurate reputation stems from night club acts.

Paul goes on to say hypnosis can provide lasting change by “cleaning the bottom of the mental fish tank” and it is the sub-conscious that helps to maintain ones self-image and record all memory via sensor input as a 24 hour mental tape recorder.

Ohio based certified hypnotherapist Janet Berg describes hypnosis as the state one must achieve in order to be receptive to hypnotherapy. She describes hypnosis as a state where the sub-conscious can readily accept and act on new information and suggestions for healing, change, growth and attainment of individual goals.

The experience, according to Paul, is the phase one enters directly before falling asleep or upon awakening and Berg claims those under hypnosis can leave this state voluntarily at any time and those who receive hypnotherapy describe the experience as relaxing and refreshing. More information can be obtained through her website www.janetberg.com. where she identifies a host  of issues she can help with.

The American Psychology Association (APA) website has declared most clinicians now agree hypnotherapy can be a powerful, effective therapeutic technique for a wide variety of conditions.

Apparently, hypnotherapy is gaining ground fast as a respected form of therapy within the corridors of the scientific community.