How does hypnosis work?
Ericksonian Hypnosis utilises naturally occurring trance states to help client’s overcome problems. Born largely out of fear and misrepresentation, there has traditionally been widespread skepticism about hypnosis and how it can help with all kinds of physical and psychological problems. However thanks to recent discoveries in neuroscience, we are now understanding more about how and why hypnosis works. Ericksonian Hypnosis Training has always looked to science for explanations about hypnosis and the mechanism behind its effectiveness. Where we originally only had our assumptions and observed experience, scientific evidence is now proving that hypnosis can affect the brain and thought process. Science is now underpinning our training in Ericksonian Hypnosis.
To understand how hypnosis works we need to look at how the brain processes information about the world around us. Our awareness of what is happening in the world at any given time occurs within our senses, and our sensory experience is based on past memories, future expectations and what we believe to be our present experience. These sensory experiences are evolving and changing all the time through synaptic connectivity (LeDoux 2002, Synaptic Self and Doidge 2007, The Brain That Changes Itself). In effect, the brain continually updates and changes what we think and believe.
Memories and future expectations are thoughts and not based on actual present experiences. This means that it is possible to use the intervention of hypnosis to change those thoughts. We have all had the experience of believing that a memory was accurate when in fact it has become distorted over time and is no longer an accurate representation of a past event. Likewise when we imagine the future, we can see it in many different ways. So we can easily understand how, with hypnotic suggestion, we can change either our memories or our expectations of the future (Hull 2002 – Hypnosis and Suggestibility, An Experimental Approach). Changing our experience of the present appears to be another matter however and it has been difficult for people to understand how hypnosis can actually change one’s experience of what is happening in the here and now. But it is really very simple and we apply these principles in Ericksonian Hypnosis.
Our experience of the present moment is actually not an experience of the present moment at all. What we feel to be our present experience is actually a representation of something that occurred a fraction of a second before. Basic physics tells us that sound and light waves travel at different speeds. As a result light waves reach our eyes faster than sound waves reach our ears. Over time we have got used to this difference and so pay no attention to this discrepancy. But then there is another delay, because once the information reaches our eyes and ears it then has to travel to our brain before we can experience it with our senses. Of course, this happens very quickly, so quickly in fact that we have come to believe that what we are experiencing right now is occurring in the present, but we are continually living in the very recent past; a fraction of a second behind the present. This is how Ericksonian Hypnosis can change our perception of our present experience – we are never actually living in the present.
Ericksonian Hypnosis doesn’t actually change the present – it can’t as the present moment has already passed. Instead, it changes our perception of what we believe is the present. We then act upon the suggestions given to us in the session and so behave differently. As we act upon the suggestions, we believe that our new behaviour too is happening in the present. In fact, we are actually observing our new behaviour a fraction of a second after it has happened.
This brings us to the next question, how can we decide to do anything if we are always living in the past, and what about the question of free will, are we actually in control of our destiny? Recent scientific research from the field of neuroscience now suggests that all of our everyday decisions are made unconsciously and that the belief that we are consciously making logical calculated decisions is an illusion (Wegner 2002 – The Illusion of Conscious Will and Hood 2012 – The Self Illusion). This supports Stephen Brooks’ theory of why and how Ericksonian Hypnosis works, in that it confirms that suggestions given in sessions appeals directly to the unconscious mind and bypasses conscious critical thinking. In other words, Ericksonian Hypnosis helps us communicate directly with the part of the brain that controls all of our behaviour. To do this effectively it needs to bypass our conscious critical thinking, and this is why Ericksonian Hypnosis utilises indirect hypnosis techniques as it is more effective than traditional hypnosis – because hypnotic suggestions are given covertly using the language of the unconscious mind. Neuroscience can now confirm where unconscious processes occur in the brain – they occur in the right brain in an area just above the right ear. The right and left parts of the brain function differently and brain activity within each part can now be monitored and recorded. This has helped enormously in explaining what happens when people respond to Ericksonian Hypnosis.
When questions are given to the left brain (the conscious mind) the left part of the brain has limited ability for creative thinking and so provides answers that are governed by the person’s limited frames of reference (the context in which the person seeks answers). When questions are given to the right side of the brain (the unconscious mind), the right side of the brain is able to access significantly more data and options for making decisions. This leads to a considerably higher level of creative thinking because the unconscious mind is not limited by the same conscious frames of reference as the left brain.
Through research we now know so much more about hypnosis and how to induce it indirectly and teach it effectively than we did when Stephen Brooks established Training in Indirect Hypnosis 34 years ago. The advances have been significant and Stephen is continually investigating new ways of integrating this research into our training. As a result, today’s graduates qualify with a much deeper understanding of how to help their patients and clients, and as Ericksonian Hypnosis utilises hypnosis indirectly practitioners can work more easily in non-hypnotic contexts as it isn’t hypnotherapy, it is a future orientated psychotherapy that utilises some of the principles and techniques from indirect hypnosis.