Hypnosis: Fact or Fantasy?

A new study reported in the General Archives of Psychiatry suggests that differences in people’s brains make some people susceptible to hypnosis, and others not. The authors of the study maintain that there are no personality differences explaining the different levels of susceptibility to hypnosis.

Interesting. But let’s back up a minute. What is hypnosis?

Hypnosis originally comes from the Greek word ‘sleep.’ A common misperception exists that hypnosis is a state of unconsciousness, like sleep.

Actually, a definition closer to what most experts define as hypnosis is as follows:

‘A special psychological state with certain physiological attributes, resembling sleep only superficially and marked by a functioning of the individual at a level of awareness other than the ordinary conscious state.’ [Encyclopedia Britannica, 2004.]

I am a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist by profession. I help people in conscious states attempt to look rationally, consciously and objectively at their own behaviors and thoughts or emotions. I listen to them as they either think aloud or express their emotions. All of this is done while I am totally conscious, and the client in counseling is totally conscious.

It’s impossible for any form of psychotherapy—whatever its methods, whatever its intellectual foundations—to occur while anyone is asleep. This by itself undercuts the common misconception about hypnosis as being unconscious.

The question is: What is happening to the conscious mind while undergoing any process of psychotherapy—especially, in this case, hypnosis?

One of the more famous practitioners and theorists of hypnotherapy from the 20th century is Milton Erickson. Erickson’s history is summarized as follows:

‘Erickson believed that the unconscious mind was always listening, and that, whether or not the patient was in trance, suggestions could be made which would have a hypnotic influence, as long as those suggestions found some resonance at the unconscious level. The patient can be aware of this, or can be completely oblivious that something is happening. Erickson would see if the patient would respond to one or another kind of indirect suggestion, and allow the unconscious mind to actively participate in the therapeutic process. In this way, what seemed like a normal conversation might induce a hypnotic trance, or a therapeutic change in the subject.’ [From ‘Hypnotic Realities’ published in 1976.]

I have worked with psychotherapists trained in Ericksonian approaches in the past, including people directly trained by therapist Jay Haley (one of Erickson’s most well-known students in the field). What I learned from them is that ‘hypnosis’ as a therapist understands it is nothing as conveyed in the entertainment medium, where most people form their impressions of it.

Most people understand hypnosis as a quasi-magical way of talking to someone—actually, ‘commanding’ someone—to go into a trance and do something they otherwise would not willingly do (often something silly, such as clucking like a chicken or what have you).

Clearly, this isn’t what someone approaching the subject seriously would even consider doing. Nor is there any evidence that such a thing is possible.

Unlike Erickson (or Freud), I don’t subscribe to the concept of an ‘unconscious’ as completely disassociated from the conscious. Instead, I think of two parts: the conscious and the subconscious. The subconscious refers to anything not present in our conscious state. It might be forgotten, or difficult to retrieve (e.g., something that happened a long time ago, or in childhood). Or, it might be easily retrievable once necessary, such as how to drive a car (something out of your conscious mind when you’re not driving, but immediately called up again when time to go behind the wheel.)

Some things in our subconscious are in a certain sense ‘buried’ there, but only because we haven’t needed—or perhaps wanted—to have thought about them for a period of time.

Some people have very organized and articulate minds. I suspect this has less to do with brain chemistry than it does with what kind of a thinker—or how much of a thinker—a person is in daily life.

If you generally ‘think’ with your emotions, or in haphazard or range of the moment fashion, for example, then you’re going to have a harder time retrieving or processing information than you would if you tend to think in a more orderly, concise and precise matter.

Habits of the mind, built up and maintained over time—for better or worse—are crucially important, I would argue, in determining just how susceptible one is to hypnosis, as Erickson defines hypnosis.

For example, I would expect someone not in the habit of thinking and introspecting about his own mental content would be much more susceptible to hypnotic suggestion than someone generally and largely in command of his or her consciousness. Put simply, if you don’t generally keep track of what’s in your head, then you’re more subject to someone saying or suggesting, ‘Aha! That’s what’s in your head. Isn’t it?’ than if you’re quite aware of what’s in your head, and usually know why.

I have to honestly tell you that I haven’t seen much evidence for any real impact of hypnosis, not from anyone I have ever talked to who has done it (either as therapist or client). In fact, and this includes some of my psychotherapeutic mentors trained by Jay Haley (in turn trained by Erickson) who in essence concluded, along with me, that ‘In Jay Haley’s problem-solving therapy we’re basically inviting people to challenge and change their underlying assumptions and beliefs.’ Gee, that sounds like cognitive-behavioral therapy to me! (For a full explanation of what I mean by cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, in layperson’s terms, see my book ‘Bad Therapy, Good Therapy: And How to Tell the Difference.’)

The most I have ever found in support of hypnotherapy are people who say, ‘I went to a hypnotist and stopped smoking—for a few weeks.’ Of course, these are people who were already motivated to quit smoking and in some sense fed up about or anxious about it. How relevant or necessary is ‘suggestion’ when you’ve already suggested to yourself that a certain behavioral change is necessary? And it’s interesting that people usually say (always say, in my experience) that the positive effect from the hypnosis was only temporary.

The popular definition of hypnosis as force is a myth, even according to more serious hypnotherapists such as Milton Erickson. The more realistic definition of hypnosis as psychological suggestion may have some validity.

But the question remains: Is the suggestion coming as much (or more) from the self as from an external force? Do people hear what they want to hear, whether it’s valid or not? These are questions I’d love to see explored in psychological research. It seems to me that these variables can be just as relevant, or even more relevant, than brain chemistry or genetics alone.


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