Monday, 12 November 2012

What is hypnosis?

A stage hypnotist transfixes his audience by making a previously sober man act embarrassingly drunk on stage. A surgeon operates on a hypnotized patient without using any other form of anaesthetic. A highly anxious client is induced into a deeply relaxed state by a trained psychotherapist to calmly rehearse an important presentation she has to give. We can quickly see that all of these situations are trance phenomena, but how does it work?

Current definitions for 'hypnosis' are meaningless

The American Psychological Association describes hypnosis as “a cooperative interaction in which the participant responds to the suggestions of the hypnotist”. This definition is meaningless because it avoids explaining the mechanism behind hypnosis by simply describing a trance induction.

In fact hypnosis is still considered a mystery in most scientific and psychological circles. Academics argue endlessly about it. Often, hypnotherapists themselves do not know how the technique they are using works, they just know that somehow, it often does.

All that confusion should change in the coming years since, thanks to the insights derived from the expectation fulfilment theory of dreaming, we now have a scientifically convincing explanation for what hypnosis really is. The explanation is found in the common denominator between dreaming and hypnotic phenomena — the REM state. This is the link that makes sense of it all:

Hypnosis is the artificial activation of the REM state 

All the many methods for inducing hypnosis are paralleled by aspects of how the REM state is naturally induced and maintained. Shock inductions, when hypnosis is instantaneously induced through an unexpected occurrence, such as the hypnotist suddenly thumping a table or ringing a bell, fires the orientation response into action, focusing attention, just as happens at the start of REM sleep. And inducing deep relaxation creates the same electrical patterns in the brain as occurs in REM sleep. Guided imagery switches people into their right hemisphere and mimics daydreaming, a state associated with problem solving and learning in which new patterns of knowledge can be pattern-matched metaphorically and integrated. (See Godhead: the brain’s big bang, for how this evolved and what it means for unravelling the mystery of consciousness, how we learn and the possibilities for human evolution.)

Locking attention

The traditional swinging of the fob watch for people to follow with their eyes mimics the rapid eye movements that are triggered by the orientation response in REM sleep. Indeed anything that focuses and locks attention (e.g. “I want you to stare at that spot on the ceiling”) fires the orientation response. In fact, even an unexpected event, idea or trauma induces at least a mini-trance, just through firing the orientation response and momentarily focusing attention.

Making sense of the 'strange' phenomena associated with hypnosis

All the strange phenomena associated with hypnosis are explainable and make sense once it is understood that they are the phenomena that occur naturally in the REM state. Take wild ‘dervish’ dancing, for example: anthropologists have witnessed and filmed participants piercing their flesh with knives and nails without any apparent pain or bleeding. This practice, a staple topic of popular anthropology books, is not mysterious when we realise that the dervishes have induced deep trances in themselves by means of rhythmic repetitive activity, usually involving drumming, chanting or dancing. The real mechanism behind trance and hypnosis can be stately very simply, however there are some very profound implications behind the explanation when you start to unpack the idea.

You might be surprised to learn the following common 'facts' about hypnosis are all myths and misconceptions:
  • Hypnosis is a natural state of relaxation and concentration with a heightened awareness induced by suggestion
  • Hypnotherapy is safe with no unpleasant side effects
  • You will hear everything that is being said.
  • Hypnosis shas nothing to do with sleep, it is just an extremely relaxed state.
  • A hypnotist cannot influence you to do anything against your own will.
  • Your own 'moral code' will protect you from doing anything against your best interests.
Ivan Tyrrell explains why in this short clip:

Trance is simply a skill to be used 

Using trance and hypnosis safely in therapy is an important skill. Throughout the ages, remarkable individuals, from witch doctors to modern surgeons, stone-age shamans to present-day psychiatrists, counsellors and psychotherapists have, by chance and circumstances, found out how to access the REM state and use the hypnotic trance thus induced for benign educational, psychological and medical purposes. (Conmen, swindlers, entertainers and cult leaders have used it too but it’s the field of medicine and psychotherapy that we are interested.)

Over the last 150 years it has been well attested by scientific method that hypnosis can be used to accelerate recovery from severe burns and that, whilst in a hypnotic state, people can have dental work, and even major surgery carried out without feeling any pain. Irritable bowel, shingles, asthma, phantom limb pain, male and female sexual dysfunctions and all sorts of psychological and psychosomatic disturbances can, when careful use of trance is incorporated into treatment, be relieved in a fraction of the time that conventional therapies take.

Hypnosis is, therefore, a demonstrably powerful therapeutic tool and thousands of scientific papers document an incredible range of medical results obtained when using it.

Hypnosis for anesthesia

For example, Dr Jack Gibson, an Irish surgeon, performed during his career more than 4,000 operations, using hypnosis as the only form of anaesthesia. He also used it to help alcoholics and asthmatics, and to charm away warts and verrucas. Hypnotic techniques are frequently used with patients, to eliminate lifelong phobias and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in as little as 40 minutes.

Hypnosis can also play an important part in speeding up treatment for clinical depression, anxiety and anger disorders, and the treatment of addictions. And yet, despite the scientific evidence as to its power, and despite the fact that all mainstream churches have withdrawn opposition to it and all major orthodox medical and psychological associations around the world have legitimised its use, this proven psychological procedure has yet to find widespread acceptance among the practitioners of the medical and psychological professions.

For more in depth look at the role of the REM state, please visit our 'why we dream' website.

For training in how to use hypnosis safely please see our course Guided imagery and visualisation for therapeutic change.

The Therapeutic Power of Guided Imagery: How to use your mind to heal past hurts, motivate people and raise your intelligence, is a valuable CD that explains the process and has an example track that you can learn the skills from.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Excellent work. I have been reading an online copy of Hippolyte Bernheim's Suggestive Therapeutics: A Treatise on the Nature and Uses of Hypnotism, and I was fascinated by his theory that sleep is basically self-hypnosis. Indeed, he used to refer to the deepest hypnotic states as somnambulism. A quick online research led me here and I'm glad. Thank you for sharing your insight.