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What is hypnosis?

The earliest known description of hypnosis dates back more than 6000 years ago to rites performed in Egyptian sleep temples. The Indus Vedas knowledge sacred book written around 1500 BC, mentions the use of hypnotic techniques and procedures in detail yet in 2012 we still find it difficult to answer the question “what is hypnosis?”. ‘All sciences alike have descended from magic and superstition, but none have been so slow as hypnosis in shaking off the association of its origin’.

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(Clark Hull, Hypnosis and suggestibility, 1984).

The grandfather of hypnosism is regarded to be Franz Anton Mesmer who achieved some very amazing cures. He was, however, prone to be a bit theatrical wearing long flowing robes and brandishing a wand to complete his wizard image. Treatments and cures were conducted in large arenas with many onlookers.

The film Svengali, although pure fiction did a lot to discredit hypnosis for many years by portraying hypnotists as evil predators and also inspired the emerging stage hypnotists. Even today stage hypnotists continue to discredit hypnotism making it hard to be taken seriously as an emerging science. It is my view that the use of hypnotism for entertainment should be completely banned.

Abuse allegations where hypnotism has been said to be a contributing factor still regularly appear in our newspapers fueling the public perception that the only safe hypnosis is that which is performed in a public arena in front of millions of people for entertainment.

My introduction would not be complete without mentioning the impact of the church. As a practicing Christian I find it difficult to understand how people practicing the same faith as me could believe that hypnotism could be believed to be evil. What i find more astounding is the fact that some people, educated people still think that today. ‘Whilst hypnosis and its use in hypnotherapy seem merely to be the input by the hypnotist of ideas into the subconscious of a subject in a heightened state of suggestibility, I would contend that this art of psychic manipulation is in fact of demonic origin. Though these roots of hypnosis are now obscured by an undergrowth of scientific jargon, it remains a dangerous activity to anyone involved.’ (Dr A. D. Bambridge, Nucleus, 1987)

There is no exact definition of what hypnosis is, mainly because no such definition can be agreed upon by all the experts. It has been described as ‘the deliberate inducement or facilitation by one person in another person or a number of people of a trance state. A trance state is one in which a person’s usual means of orientating himself in reality have faded, so that the boundaries between the external world and the inner world of thoughts, feelings, memories and imagination begin to dissolve.’ (Robin Waterfield, Hidden Depths, 2004).

It has also been described as ‘a state of mental relaxation and restricted awareness in which the subjects are usually engrossed in their inner experiences such as feelings and imagery, are less analytical and logical in their thinking, and have an enhanced capacity to respond to suggestions in an automatic and dissociated manner.’ (Windy Dryden, Hypnotherapy, a handbook, 1991). The clearest description being ‘a state of mind brought about by the use of a set of techniques. It enhances an individual’s concentration and increases their responsiveness to suggestion in order to make the beneficial changes that the individual may wish to make in their thought patterns, their behaviour or their physiological state.’ (Chrysalis, 2010)

‘It is probably more useful to describe hypnosis than attempt to define it. Features of the hypnotic state include the following:

Acceptance of imaginary phenomena in place of sensory experience, and detachment from the sensorium;

Suspension of reality testing, suspension of everyday cognitive logic and secondary-process thinking;

Narrowing of attention (a sort of mental tunnel vision) to the content of the focus of the hypnotic exercise: suggested by the therapist or created by the subject’s own imagination or memory;

‘splitting’ of consciousness into separate channels that communicate in only one direction (i.e. The subject’s normal consciousness, attitudes, reality testing and so on continue and are aware of the content of the hypnotised self, but the latter is unaware of the former);

A rather regressed or developmentally immature frame of mind (closely akin to some transference phenomena in analysis or analytic therapy);

Commitment to a substitute reality described by the therapist or the patient’s own imagination and memory.’ (Hellmut Karle and Jennifer Boys, Hypnotherapy a practical handbook, 1987)

The mind still remains unmeasurable and unquantifiable and therefore a definition of any science or therapy based on the mind will always remain something open to debate and discussion. The fact that the hypnotic experience is personal and each individual will experience something different simply complicates things further. ‘There are a number of people, academics above all, who simply do not believe in the existence of mind. They think that this a naive belief held by the rest of us, and that the phenomena attributed to our minds are best explained otherwise.’ (Robin Waterfield, Hidden Depths, 2004). It seems the best that the experts can do is fairly agree as to the psychological and physiological phenomena experienced during hypnosis.

Psychological phenomena often experienced during hypnosis could include hyper suggestibility (so important that it is often considered definitional of hypnosis), time distortion (when an hour may appear to pass in a minute), super learning and creativity, spontaneous age regression, hypermnesia and amnesia. (Robin Waterfield, Hidden Depths, 2004)

Since the invention of the electroencephalogram in 1929 we have been able to measure the electrical activity of the brain. Scientists have determined that there are four main brain waves which vary in frequency.

1. Beta waves (15 to 40 cycles per second). These are typical of a focused and engaged mind. These are found in abundance in our modern, busy life style.

2. Alpha waves (9 to 14 cycles per second). These are typical of taking a rest after an activity. They are present during times of creativity and problem solving but not during times of fear, anger, in a deep sleep or highly aroused.

3. Theta waves (4 to 8 cycles per second). These are present during sleeping and some meditative states.. These are associated with (amongst other things) medium to deep hypnosis. These waves are associated with our subconscious mind. You may be in the theta range when daydreaming or driving a car. It is where we engage with our intuition learning and creativity. It is where we have our best ideas. You may recall having moments such as these on a car journey or in the bath.

4. Delta waves (1 to 4 cycles per second). These waves are produced at our slowest, deepest state of rest. There are never any other waves active. They are present during the deepest hypnosis and sleepless sleep. You can never reach 0 cycles per second as that is brain dead.

These waves will dip and flow and at any one moment one will be predominant and the others will just be present as a trace and moving from one to another depending on the state of the individual. From what we know about the frequencies we can see that hypnosis occurs during alpha and theta waves and that these waves are associated with relaxation which we will discuss later.

Although philosophers and mystics may have been reflecting on a subconscious mind for centuries our understanding of it only dates back to the time of Sigmund Freud. We know that it is responsible for the non-voluntary bodily functions that keep our bodies working from one day to the next freeing our mind up to concentrate on the things of the day. Think about all those skills we learned within the first year or two of our lives – moving limbs, making a noise, swallowing food, standing, walking etc etc. Imagine for one moment that all those skills had to be thought about each and every time we wanted to use them. Our day would be completely filled with just those things. We learn those skills and then pass them to the subconscious mind to action them, leaving our conscious mind free to learn more and develop.

So hypnosis is simply about assisting someone to reach the state where the predominant brain waves are the alpha and theta waves and so access their subconscious mind. As mentioned previously these waves are associated with relaxation which has, as our life styles have become more and more busy over time, become more and more difficult to achieve on ones own.

Hypnosis and relaxation are not the same. Hypnosis uses relaxation techniques to relax the body and relaxation is an indication that a person has achieved a hypnotic state. The difference is that hypnosis aims to reach a special state of consciousness where selective attention and increased suggestibility are present. Hypnosis will then use this state to effect changes in a person through beneficial suggestions

A brief look at the physiology of muscles shows us that muscle units work on an all or nothing principle, meaning they are either contracting or relaxed and there are no other states. The problem is that due to the constant stress that modern living brings with it some muscles, in particular the shoulders and neck, are constantly in contraction.

In 1929 Dr Edmond Jacobson discovered that most of his patients, all with unrelated problems, had tense muscles and that by relaxing these muscles he could reduce the severity of their symptoms. He also noticed that most patients were not aware of the tension they carried with them. He developed a technique called Progressive Muscle Relaxation (or PMR) which enabled the patients to relax their muscles and keep them relaxed and thereby improve their physical, mental and emotional state. Hypnosis uses an updated form of PMR to achieve the same results.

We know that relaxation does not mean laying on a bed and it does not mean being asleep. We will all have experienced times when we have driven somewhere and cannot remember getting there. We certainly would not say we were asleep. Long distance runners will also experience the same phenomena and often cannot remember huge amounts of the run. As a long distance runner myself I am aware of the importance of relaxing whilst running and can bring my pulse rate back to normal within a mile or two of the start of a run. I having been practicing PMR techniques for years whilst running without knowing that it existed

In conclusion then it is still difficult to answer then question of what is hypnosis with a simple definition because in the past it has been so closely associated with theatrical entertainment or rejected by the church or wrapped in superstition, falsely portrayed as evil on film and used by some to abuse people that the scientific community never took it seriously as a science until recently. The fact that a number of academics deny the existence of the mind does not help matters either.

We can begin to describe it in terms of the psychological and physiological phenomena experienced during hypnosis but not much more. We know that there is nothing mystical or magical about the hypnotic state. Put simply it is assisting someone to reach the state where the predominant brain waves are the alpha and theta waves and so access their subconscious mind where selective attention and increased suggestibility are present and then use this state to effect changes in the person through beneficial suggestions. We know that to achieve this state we can make use of PMR

Albert Einstein said that we only use 10% of our brain. Maybe with hypnosis we are just beginning to push at a door that will lead us into the remaining 90%.

History has given us glimpses of an amazing power that we don’t yet understand. People undergoing major surgery with anaesthesia, curing debilitating physical conditions, amazing accounts of healing. What is hypnosis today? What could hypnosis be tomorrow?