What is Hypnosis?
Amazingly, even after hundreds of years there is no straight answer for this. What hypnosis is, is strongly debated and the definitions and concepts normally conform to those that the instructor, school or practitioner believes will most usefully serve their purpose.
In addition to this there is always, as in any human experience, the difference between objective and subjective experience, between what science likes to observe and classify in the lab and what people experience for themselves in the flux of everyday life.
Hypnosis is simply not used in the applied setting as a single process, rather, it is combined with other techniques (task motivation instructions, imagery, mental rehearsal, attitude adjustment, repetition, differing use of language, expectations of both the hypnotist and the client, physical environment, individual awareness etc.) and is therefore unable to produce scientific absolutes.
Hypnotic state provides a space where objective knowledge can be tested against one's own subjective reality. In short, personal experience is both more powerful and more educational than words. To put it in other words:
- "the manual is not the training" or
- "words are only descriptions of our reality, not reality itself" or
- "the map is not the territory".
It is my observation that hypnosis on the behalf of the hypnotist is a science, an art as well as an awareness:
Hypnosis is a science because there are many shared observable and replicable phenomena.
Hypnosis is an art because the hypnotist can and needs to use their own creative abilities to engage their clients in these phenomena.
Hypnosis is an awareness because the more understanding, knowledge, experience and awareness one has the more successful one will be in applying their artistic capabilities to the structured understandings of hypnosis.
Definitions of Hypnosis
- "Hypnosis is a social interaction in which one person, the hypnotist gives suggestions to another person, the subject, for imaginative experiences involving alterations in perception, memory, and the voluntary control of action." [Kattiyatta and Heap.]
- "A peculiar state of the nervous system, induced by a fixed and abstracted attention of the mental and visual eye, on one object, not of an exciting nature." [Monoideation.]
- "An inner state of absorption." [Milton Erickson.]
- "The fixation of consciousness on a single idea or object." [Dr James Braid.]
- "It has long been known, though it has only been established beyond all doubt during the last few decades, that it is possible, by certain gentle means, to put people into a quite peculiar mental state very similar to sleep and on that account described as `hypnosis.' [...] The hypnotic state exhibits a great variety of gradations. In its lightest degree the hypnotic subject is aware only of something like a slight insensibility, while the most extreme degree, which is marked by special peculiarities, is known as `somnambulism', on account of its resemblance to the natural phenomena of sleep-walking. But hypnosis is in no sense a sleep like our nocturnal sleep or like the sleep produced by drugs. Changes occur in it and mental functions are retained during it which are absent in normal sleep."[Freud, On Psychical Treatment, 1905]
- "Hypnotism includes hypnotism, mesmerism and any similar act or process which produces or is intended to produce in any person any form of induced sleep or trance in which the susceptibility of the mind of that person to suggestion or direction is increased or intended to be increased but does not include hypnotism, mesmerism or any similar act or process which is self-induced." [The official legal definition of "hypnotism" provided by the UK Hypnotism Act 1952]
- "A temporary condition of altered attention in the subject which may be induced by another person and in which a variety of phenomena may appear spontaneously or in response to verbal or other stimuli. These phenomena include alterations in consciousness and memory, increased susceptibility to suggestion, and the production in the subject of responses and ideas unfamiliar to him in his usual state of mind. Further, phenomena such as anesthesia, paralysis and rigidity of muscles, and vasomotor changes can be produced and removed in the hypnotic state." [BMA, Medical use of Hypnotism, 1955]
- "Hypnosis is a state of mind in which the critical faculty of the human is bypassed, and selective thinking established" [Dave Elman, Hypnotherapy, 1964: 26]
- "Hypnosis is a natural state of mind with special identifying characteristics:
- An extraordinary quality of relaxation.
- An emotionalized desire to satisfy the suggested behavior: The person feels like doing what the hypnotist suggests, provided that what is suggested does not generate conflict with his belief system.
- The organism becomes self-regulating and produces normalization of the central nervous system.
- Heightened and selective sensitivity to stimuli perceived by the five senses and four basic perceptions.
- Immediate softening of psychic defenses."
[Gil Boyne, Transforming Therapy, 1985: 380-381]
The following rather long definition/description by the UKCP has been included as it is both thorough and informative:
"Hypno-Psychotherapy originates in procedures and practices discovered and recorded over the last three hundred years. The first formal exploration and beneficial application of hypnotic phenomena began in the 1750's. Increasing awareness, over the last 100 years, of the pervasiveness and importance in human experience of what are now more appropriately described as `altered state phenomena' has led to huge shifts in theoretical understanding, convergence with discoveries emerging from modern neuroscience and much increased consistency in application. This has been accompanied by the creation of a substantial scientific literature. Hypnosis describes a range of naturally occurring states of altered awareness which may vary from momentary distractions and `absences' through much enhanced states of relaxation to very deep states of inward focus and awareness. The mental processes which can occur in any of these states, appropriately utilized, are generally far more flexible and potentially far more powerful in effecting change than those we can achieve in most everyday states of active conscious awareness. These states may be induced quite formally or quite naturalistically, in an almost unnoticeable way, depending on the requirement of the problem, the capability of the practitioner and the needs of the client. As well as alleviating a range of disadvantageous habits and many physical ailments, Hypno-Psychotherapy also deals in deep-seated problems involving themes and procedures in many ways similar to those addressed by many other branches of Psychotherapy. Hypno-Psychotherapists take a wide-ranging and eclectic view in helping clients to understand and to alleviate psychological difficulties.
Hypno-Psychotherapists base their diagnostic work and therapeutic strategies in modern information processing models whilst others have emphases in other orientations (e.g. Cognitive, Cognitive Analytic, Psychodynamic or Counseling modes). In all cases, practice differs from other forms of psychotherapy in the deliberate (direct and indirect) use of altered mental states and supporting therapeutic structures as the principal medium for effecting change.
It should be emphasized that the methods and strategies used in Hypno-Psychotherapy, though powerful and often speedy in effect, also respect and are attuned to the qualities and characteristics of the individual client involved. They seek to utilize and enhance the resources and capabilities that reside in all people, and do not by any means require the client to respond to any standardized technique or to fit into any standardized pattern.
While flexibility is paramount, the working relationship in Hypno--Psychotherapy strives for equality between client and therapist, in providing a safe and supportive environment, where the client can explore and clarify relevant personal matters. In encouraging agreed modification of the client's beliefs, emotional responses and behavior, the problem may require the therapist to assume a more active or directive role. In shorter term engagements, it can be used to inculcate skills and overcome limiting habits or personal and social inhibitions. During longer-term therapy, the working relationship may present a dynamic context for the client to examine and work through important self-protection issues, including the reframing and resolution of challenging early experiences and liberation from previous blocks to personal development. Hypno-Psychotherapy may be valuable to anyone seeking to resolve specific problems, or for personal development." [UKCP, 2004]
Hypnosis has also been defined as:
- A state of relaxed and focused concentration
- A single pointed fixation of attention
- Communication with the unconscious mind
- The move from beta to alpha brain wave states
- All communication
- The use of suggestions to effect change
Hypnosis is a state of awareness in and of itself as experienced by the individual and is quite different from waking consciousness just as waking conscious experience differs from one individual to another. Although it is possible to replicate hypnotic phenomena whilst not in hypnosis, this does not discount the existence of the hypnotic state, merely the human's ability to achieve similar experiences in different ways.
Hypnosis can be accessed in numerous ways, as can different levels of hypnosis. In many NLP / "Ericksonian" Hypnosis trainings for example hypnosis is claimed to have occurred if the individual goes 'inside' and accesses their internal experience whilst referring to an instruction, story or question, however brief.
Erickson's 'inner state of absorption' very open ended definition of hypnosis allows through its presupposition, for 'trance' to always be occurring. This makes it easy for each of us as it is framed as an everyday phenomena and something that is safe, natural and easy to access. There is certainly truth in this, however this understanding differs from the traditional hypnosis concept and that in the minds of the general public.
Generally the expectation is that the hypnotic state has a clear and defined expression that is self-evident upon viewing by any lay person which is more aligned to what people observe in stage hypnosis. Clarity is made when we realize that there is perhaps confusion between content - what is happening, and context - the parameters in which it is happening, and agreed definition. What one person labels as hypnosis might be relaxation to another. As such some put forward that only the deeper levels of hypnosis such as somnambulism are the true hypnotic experiences, while others have the belief that any internal referencing not directly related to conscious awareness is enough to claim that hypnosis has occurred. Both approaches are irrelevant as change can be effected at any level.
What Hypnosis Is Not
The art or technique of people going into trances to heal themselves or to retrieve information is as old as time itself, but the recorded technique of hypnosis dates back to the 1700's, as mentioned previously. The art or technique, depending on your perspective, had not been highly regulated during that time. Therefore, many misconceptions and misunderstandings have developed regarding hypnosis throughout the years. Some of these misconceptions have been fostered by poorly trained or even unscrupulous practitioners. Some have been foisted on society by other health practitioners who were either jealous of the popularity of hypnotherapy or fearful of the technique due to a lack of knowledge of its therapeutic advantages. However the majority of these misconceptions have been emphasized by stage hypnotists who need the psychological advantage over their audience of authority, mystery, superstition etc.
Basic misconceptions about hypnosis
Due to a lack of knowledge on the subject of hypnosis, some of the readers of this article will benefit in understanding the following points:
- Hypnosis is not mind control. No one can make you do anything while in hypnosis that goes against your fundamental value system. If they could, hypnotists would rule the world!
- Hypnosis does not weaken willpower, in fact it can and does strengthen ones inner resolve.
- Hypnosis does not require sleep or a loss of consciousness to be effective even though hypnosis can be achieved with a sleeping person.
- No one can be permanently kept in the hypnotic state, although very prolonged periods are possible by certain subjects. When hypnotic suggestions are no longer being administered, the client will come out of hypnosis easily.
- There are said to be people who cannot access the hypnotic state. I have never seen or experienced this so it is my conclusion at this time that some hypnotherapists are unable to get some clients into hypnosis. I do believe that everyone given the right conditions is capable of entering hypnosis.
- Some people believe that the more intelligent you are, the less likely you are to go into hypnosis. On the contrary, the more intelligent you are, the better subject you will make as a result of understanding concepts, lack of irrational fears towards it and ability to follow instructions.
A common statement that you might come across in regard to hypnosis is that “all hypnosis is self-hypnosis”. It makes hypnosis very permissible and comfortable as a concept. It has a degree of truth to it in as much as the client will be unable to go into hypnosis unless there is some form of agreement and participation on their behalf. “All hypnosis is self-hypnosis” might be true as a statement, but given certain contexts and situations the definition becomes very blurred as a large part of hypnosis is the set up to the hypnotic experience itself, the context or frame in which hypnosis is undertaken. The reality is that the hypnotherapist is a very active and influential part of the clients experience and will greatly influence the level of success the client will have. The statement is the same as saying all plastic surgery is 'self-plastic surgery', the client agreed to it and had a level of participation, but could they do it alone? Even if they could, surely the result would be different!
Summary of Part 1 - What Is Hypnosis? What Hypnosis Is Not?
What is hypnosis? One of the primary hindrances to achieving a unified definition is that the subject matter by its very nature is a subjective experience. Thus, while it can be replicated individual difference must occur between individuals. Even if testing a single individual more than once, simply by the passage of even a small amount of time and particularly by virtue of previous hypnosis, the individuals emotional state, knowledge and experience prior to hypnosis cannot be the same as in previous trials and therefore cannot be scientifically tested.
Due to a lack of regulation, a certain degree of mysticism around hypnosis and the fact that for many, the only exposure to hypnosis has been stage shows, there are some widely held misconceptions around hypnosis. The most important points to take from this part is that hypnosis is not mind control and does not weaken will power. While the hypnotist is an integral part of the experience, there must be agreement from the client to enter the state and to act on suggestions. Anyone in the right context can enter the state of hypnosis if they chose to allow themselves to and it is impossible to get 'stuck' in the state.
Interested in trying hypnosis for yourself? Contact us here for a free 30 minute session and let’s discuss it.
The Part 2 of the series about Hypnosis focuses on the history and uses of hypnosis. Continue with Part 2 here.