The Secret of Hypnosis
An Article about how techniques for inducing hypnosis have changed over the years – from the Independent Newspaper, England by John McCrone.
Hypnosis can be explained as a form of self-induced sensory deprivation…well perhaps.
Hypnotists with swinging fob watches are out. Far more effective ways of putting people into a trance have been discovered which, with their employment of confusion and word twisting, are not too far removed from brainwashing techniques. Yet while the practice of hypnosis has made considerable strides of late, science is still uncertain whether the phenomenon even exists.
Hypnotism has been studied for over 200 years. For a long time, the only way known of putting subjects into a trance was to get them to focus on a spot on the ceiling or a monotonous pendulum while the hypnotist commanded them to fall asleep. However, this “authoritarian” method has since widely been replaced among hypnotherapists by an indirect technique pioneered by the US therapist, Milton Erickson. Today, a hypnotist uses a careful manipulation of the conversation they have with their clients to “lead” them into a trance state.
As Stephen Brooks, director of the training group, British Hypnosis Research, explains it, there is none of the traditional mumbo-jumbo that used to be the hypnotist’s stock in trade. Instead, the aim of modern techniques is to drop hypnotic suggestions casually into the conversation. The patient’s attention is first directed inwards by asking them out of the blue if their hands feel heavy or if they can remember some pleasant holiday. This relaxes the subject and the hypnotist can then drop hints into the conversation about the sort of experiences the patient should expect to feel under hypnosis; sensations such as weightlessness and involuntary behaviour.
Finally, when the patient has been led into a deeply relaxed state – one so relaxed that the critical faculties have been dulled to a small point of consciousness – the hypnotist starts confusing the patient with non sequiturs and apparently pointless remarks. Confused, but too relaxed to struggle for understanding, the patient’s tendency is to seize hold of almost anything the hypnotist then suggests as their new hypnotic reality.
The technique is much like brain washing in relying on confusion followed by the planting of a new belief system. However Brooks stresses that brain washing relies on much more brutal confusion techniques such as terror and isolation, and is carried out with quite different aims in mind than those of a therapist! That at least is the modern practice of hypnosis – and a method highly successful at overcoming resistance as most patients never realise that the therapist has switched from ordinary conversation to the hypnotic induction. However, what about the science behind hypnosis?
There is a strong body of scientific opinion that would say the many people experiencing Ericksonian hypnosis – or its more highly packaged derivative, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) – are merely feigning a trance state to please the hypnotist. A combination of social pressure to perform and everyday knowledge about the way hypnotised people are suppose to behave, are enough for cooperative patients to fake the experience. Like being drunk, even people who have never touched a drop usually can do a good job of acting tipsy.
This hypothesis that hypnotic trance states are merely feigned was taken up enthusiastically by researchers in the 1980s, particularly in Canada. Their methodology was to take two groups of subjects, one whom believed themselves hypnotised and one whom had been told to fake a trance, and then test them for how similarly they behaved. Astonishingly, the fakers could even match the hypnotised in demonstrations where they had to ignore pain – although it is true the fakers were never tested with something like the tooth root canal extractions which some hypnotised patients can withstand.
The non-state theorists – researchers such as Nicholas Spanos of Ottawa and Graham Wagstaff of Liverpool University – did much to dispel many of the old myths about hypnosis. It was found that apparently vivid memories recalled under hypnosis were as liable to be imagined as real. Proof of this led to a Home Office warning in 1988 against the use of evidence gained under hypnosis. Other evidence, such as experiments showing that subjects with induced deafness or amnesia could still respond normally in carefully designed experimental tests, seemed to prove the non-state theorists’ case that no special trance state exists. But a few years ago, neurologists using brain scans and other monitoring devices started coming up with support for the belief that hypnosis is a genuinely altered state of awareness.
A key feature of the trance state is the ability of subjects to experience intense hallucinations at the suggestion of the hypnotist. These visions have none of the paleness of ordinary imaginings and are as vivid as dreams. David Spiegel of Stanford University in California placed hypnotised subjects in front of a screen of flashing lights. The lights were known to trigger a characteristic pattern of activity in the visual cortex, the patch of wrinkled brain on which visual sensations are mapped out. When the hypnotised subjects were asked to imagine a cardboard box blocking their view of the screen, the electrical activity disappeared. The hallucinations seemed so intense that they “took over” the visual cortex, the inner reality erasing the evidence of the senses.
Other neurologists have found similar evidence for brain changes. Dr John Gruzelier of Charing Cross Hospital in London has discovered a dampening down of neural activity in the left and frontal regions of the brain – areas responsible for language-driven abilities such as thought and planning. Dr Gruzelier is due to report his latest work at an Italian Hypnosis Society conference in Venice this month; a meeting at which several other papers on the neurology of trance states will be presented.
Dr Gruzelier says it is still early days for a full explanation of hypnosis but one line of speculation is that hypnotised subjects may be “switching off” their critical faculties in a similar way that everyone has to shut down their conscious minds as they fall asleep at night. Insomniacs will know how difficult it can be to stop the nagging flow of thoughts that stem from their inner voices, the part of the brain wired for producing sentences. Sleep research has shown that when we fall asleep, the lower brain pumps out natural tranquillisers to block the normal traffic coming from the senses. Gradually, we are cut off from our eyes, ears and body.
The lower brain’s blocking of sensory traffic produces a state of mental isolation similar to the sensory deprivation of a floatation tank. In this state, any internally generated images tend to take on a hallucinogenic reality. Cut off from real sensations but not quite asleep, the visual cortex will seize on stray thoughts and images, expanding them to fill the mind. This gives us what are known as hypnagogic sensations; the swirling lights and strange visions we often have at the point of sleep. It also gives us dreams during the periods of the night when we become aroused enough to skirt the boundaries of wakefulness. In dreaming, the brain is awake enough to produce images but too relaxed to think coherently and we drift for a while in a jumble of imagery.
Under hypnosis, a similar state is achieved. A hypnotic trance is not like sleep because the lower brain is not pumping out the chemicals that bring true oblivion. But the hypnotised person has put him or her self into a sort of waking dream by deliberately cutting off almost all outside sensations and putting their language centres on hold. It is notable how the hypnotised person’s voice becomes very faint and responses monosyllabic. Both the old-fashioned authoritarian induction and modern confusion techniques work by making the subject focus inwardly and so causing them to shut out sensations of the outer world. The subjects are also prompted to still their inner voice and to drift in a state of uncritical imagination. The hypnotist can then “reach in” with his own voice and control the experiences the subject is having by triggering the desired images with words. Asking subjects if their hands feel light literally plants such an idea in their heads. Yet because the subject’s own speech centre has been by-passed, there is no feeling of a command being issued and an action willed. The subject has handed over all responsibility for the guidance of thought to the hypnotist.
The evidence may not be all in, but the signs are that hypnotic trances are genuine altered states in so far as they are accompanied by real changes in blood flow and electrical activity in the brain. However the surprise is perhaps that the state is largely self-produced and not all that different from day-dreaming, meditation or falling asleep. What gives hypnosis its unique power is there is a second wide-awake voice standing by to take control just at that point when we relinquish our own.
(This is a version of an article that appeared in The Independent (Copyright, John McCrone, March 1991).