A Closer Look at Hypnosis

I get a lot of questions about hypnosis. The most common misperception is that it’s a state of unconsciousness, like sleep. Actually, many experts define hypnosis as 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’m a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist. I help conscious and fully-awake people look rationally and objectively at their behaviors, thoughts and emotions. It’s impossible for any form of effective psychotherapy — whatever its methods — to occur while anyone’s asleep.

So, what is happening to the conscious mind while undergoing psychotherapy, especially, in this case, hypnosis? One of the famous practitioners and theorists of hypnotherapy from the 20th century is Milton Erickson. Erickson believed that “…the unconscious mind was always listening, and, whether or not the patient was in trance, suggestions could be made that 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.” [Hypnotic Realities, 1976] 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.

I have worked closely with psychotherapists trained in Ericksonian approaches, including people directly trained by therapist Jay Haley (one of Erickson’s well-known students). What I learned is that hypnosis, as a therapist understands it, is nothing as conveyed on a Vegas stage or on TV – where most people get their impressions of it. It’s not a magical way of talking or commanding someone to do something they otherwise wouldn’t do. There is no hard evidence that such a thing is even possible.

I don’t subscribe to the concept of an “unconscious” 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 it might be easily retrievable when needed, such as how to drive a car (something out of your conscious mind when you’re not driving). If you generally think with your emotions in range-of-the-moment fashion, you’re going to have a harder time retrieving or processing information than when you think in an orderly manner.

So, mental habits, built up and maintained over time, are crucially important. I would expect someone not in the habit of examining his own mental content would be much more susceptible to hypnotic suggestion than someone in command of his or her consciousness. Put simply, if you don’t keep track of what’s in your head, then you’re more subject to someone else’s suggestions. In over 35 years as a professional, I have to honestly tell you that I have never seen any hard evidence for any real impact of hypnosis. In fact, some of my psychotherapeutic mentors trained by Jay Haley (in turn trained by Erickson) have 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. I enlarge on this in my latest book, “Bad Therapy, Good Therapy: And How to Tell the Difference” (available at www.DrHurd.com).

I’ve heard people say, “I went to a hypnotist and stopped smoking — for a few weeks.” Of course, these people were already motivated to quit. How necessary is “suggestion” when you’ve already suggested to yourself that a certain change is necessary? And it’s interesting that people always say, at least in my experience, that the positive effect of the hypnosis was temporary.

Though the more realistic definition of hypnosis as psychological suggestion may have some validity, the question remains: Is the suggestion coming as much from yourself as it is from an external force? Do people hear what they want to hear, whether it’s valid or not? These questions should be further explored in psychological research, and appear to be just as relevant as biological factors such as brain chemistry.