Hypnosis is a mental state characterized by sense of relaxation and extreme suggestibility. This phenomenon has been known for more than 200 years, but cognitive science has yet to fully explain how it actually happens. Even though the term hypnosis literally means sleep it's not really like sleep, because the subject is alert the whole time. It is most often compared to daydreaming, or getting absorbed in a book or movie. You are fully conscious, but you avoid most of the stimuli around you. You focus intently on the subject at hand, to the near exclusion of any other thought.
In a daydream an imaginary world seems somewhat real to you, in the sense that it fully engages your emotions. Imaginary events can cause real fear, sadness or happiness. American psychiatrist Milton Erickson pointed out that people hypnotize themselves on a daily basis. But most psychiatrists focus on the trance state brought on by intentional relaxation and focusing exercises. This deep hypnosis is often compared to the relaxed mental state between wakefulness and sleep. In conventional hypnosis, you approach the suggestions of the hypnotist, or your own ideas, as if they were reality. If the hypnotist suggests that your left arm is paralyzed you’ll not be able to move your left arm. If the hypnotist suggests that you are afraid, you may feel panicky or start to sweat. But the entire time, you are aware that it's all imaginary.
In this special mental state, people feel uninhibited and relaxed. Presumably, this is because they tune out the worries and doubts that normally keep their actions in check. You might experience the same feeling while watching a movie: As you get engrossed in the plot, worries about your job, family, etc. fade away, until all you're thinking about is what's up on the screen.
In this state, you are also highly suggestible. That is, when the hypnotist tells you do something, you'll probably accept the idea completely. Fear of embarrassment seems to fly out the mind. But a hypnotist can't get you to do anything you don't want to do.
The father of modern hypnotism is Franz Mesmer, an Austrian physician. Mesmer believed hypnosis to be a mystical force flowing from the hypnotist into the subject. He called it "animal magnetism". Critics quickly dismissed the magical element of his theory. But Mesmer's assumption, that the power behind hypnosis came from the hypnotist and was in some way inflicted upon the subject, took hold for some time. Hypnosis was originally known as mesmerism, after Mesmer, and we still use its derivative, "mesmerize," today.
James Braid, a 19th-century Scottish surgeon, originated the terms "hypnotism" and "hypnosis" based on the word hypnos, which is Greek for "to sleep." Braid and other scientists of the era, such as Ambroise-Auguste Liebeault, Hippolyte Bernheim and Charcot, theorized that hypnosis is not a force inflicted by the hypnotist, but a combination of psychologically mediated responses to suggestions. In the modern nomenclature, hypnosis refers to the trance state itself, and hypnotism refers to the act of inducing this state and to the study of this state. A hypnotist is someone who induces the state of hypnosis, and a hypnotherapist is a person who induces hypnosis to treat physical or mental illnesses.
Role of the subconscious mind
Some researchers on hypnosis think that it is a way to access a person's subconscious mind. Normally, you are only aware of the thought processes in your conscious mind. You think over the problems right in front of you, consciously chooses words as you speak. But in doing this, your conscious mind is working hand-in-hand with your subconscious mind, the part of your mind that does your background thinking. Your subconscious mind accesses the vast reservoir of information that lets you solve problems, construct sentences or locate the forgotten keys. It puts together plans and ideas and runs them by your conscious mind. When a new idea comes to you out of the blue, it's because you already thought through the process subconsciously.
Your subconscious also takes care of all the stuff you do automatically. You don't actively work through the steps of breathing minute to minute -- your subconscious mind does that. You don't think through every little thing you do while driving a car -- a lot of the small stuff is thought out in your subconscious mind. Your subconscious also processes the physical information your body receives.
Researchers on hypnotism theorize that the deep relaxation and focusing exercises of hypnotism work to calm and subdue the conscious mind so that it takes a less active role in your thinking process. In this state, you're still aware of what's going on, but your conscious mind takes a backseat to your subconscious mind. Effectively, this allows you and the hypnotist to work directly with the subconscious.
This concept explains all the major characteristics of the hypnotic state. It provides an especially convincing explanation for the behaviour of hypnotized subjects. The conscious mind is the main inhibitive component in your makeup -- it's in charge of putting on the brakes -- while the subconscious mind is the seat of imagination and impulse. When your subconscious mind is in control, you feel much freer and may be more creative. Your conscious mind doesn't have to filter through everything.
Hypnotized people do such bizarre things so willingly because the conscious mind is not filtering and relaying the information they take in. It seems like the hypnotist's suggestions are coming directly from the subconscious, rather than from another person. You act automatically to these suggestions, just as you would to your own thoughts. Of course, your subconscious mind does have a conscience, a survival instinct and its own ideas, so there are a lot of things it won't agree to.
The subconscious is the storehouse for all your memories. While under hypnosis, subjects may be able to access past events that they have completely forgotten. Psychiatrists may use hypnotism to bring up these memories so that a related personal problem can finally be resolved. Since the subject's mind is in such a suggestible state, it is also possible to create false memories. This theory of hypnosis is based mostly on logical reasoning, but there is some physiological evidence that supports it.
Physiology of hypnosis
In numerous studies, researchers have compared the physiology of hypnotized subjects with those of fully conscious people. In most of these studies, the researchers found no significant physical change associated with the trance state of hypnosis. The subject's heart rate and respiration may slow down, but this is due to the relaxation involved in the hypnotism process, not the hypnotic state itself. There does seem to be changed activity in the brain, however. The most notable data comes from electroencephalographs (EEGs), measurements of the electrical activity of the brain. Extensive EEG research has demonstrated that brains produce different electrical waves, rhythms of electrical voltage, depending on their mental state. Deep sleep has a different rhythm than dreaming, for example, and full alertness has a different rhythm than relaxation.
In some studies, EEGs from subjects under hypnosis showed a increase in the lower frequency waves associated with dreaming and sleep, and a drop in the higher frequency waves associated with full wakefulness. Brain-wave information is not a definitive indicator of how the mind is operating, but this pattern does fit the hypothesis that the conscious mind backs off during hypnosis and the subconscious mind takes a more active role.
How to hypnotize a person?
Hypnotists' methods vary, but they all depend on a few basic prerequisites:
- The subject must want to be hypnotized.
- The subject must believe he or she can be hypnotized.
- The subject must eventually feel comfortable and relaxed.
If these criteria are met, the hypnotist can guide the subject into a hypnotic trance using a variety of methods. The most common hypnotic techniques are:
- Fixed-gaze induction or eye fixation - The hypnotist waves a pocket watch in front of the subject. The basic idea is to get the subject to focus on an object so intently that he or she avoids any other stimuli. As the subject focuses, the hypnotist talks to him or her in a low tone, lulling the subject into relaxation. This method was very popular in the early days of hypnotism, but it isn't used much today because it doesn't work on a large proportion of the population.
- Rapid induction - The idea of this method is to overload the mind with sudden, firm commands.
- If the commands are forceful, and the hypnotist is convincing enough, the subject will surrender his or her conscious control over the situation. This method works well for a stage hypnotist because the novel circumstance of being up in front of an audience puts subjects on edge, making them more susceptible to the hypnotist's commands.
- Progressive relaxation and imagery - This is the hypnosis method most commonly employed by psychiatrists. By speaking to the subject in a slow, soothing voice, the hypnotist gradually brings on complete relaxation and focus, easing the subject into full hypnosis.
- Rocking method - This method creates a loss of equilibrium using slow, rhythmic rocking. Parents have been putting babies to sleep with this method for thousands of years.
Before hypnotists bring a subject into a full trance, they generally test his or her willingness and capacity to be hypnotized. The typical testing method is to make several simple suggestions, such as "Relax your arms completely," and work up to suggestions that ask the subject to suspend disbelief or distort normal thoughts, such as "Pretend you are weightless."
Depending on the person's mental state and personality, the entire hypnotism process can take anywhere from a few minutes to more than a half hour. Hypnotists and hypnotism proponents see the peculiar mental state as a powerful tool with a wide range of applications.