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There are many definitions of hypnosis. Some are more satisfactory than others and most are quite unsatisfactory. The most well known seem to go in and out of vogue every few years or so, often without a great deal of change in the actual practical application of hypnosis.
The term hypnosis can be used in two main ways:
Firstly it is used to refer to an area of knowledge or expertise. In this sense it is used to denote a discipline in the same way that ‘chemistry’ or ‘physics’ is used. Hypnosis is simply an extension of this, i.e. it is an area where hypnotic techniques are used for therapeutic purposes.
Secondly, the term hypnosis is used to describe a ‘state’. It is often said that a person is ‘in hypnosis’ or ‘coming out of hypnosis’. The word ‘trance’ is also used in this sense and the term is used as if it means the same thing.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary describes Hypnosis as:
n. 1. state like deep sleep, in which the subject acts only on external suggestion; 2. artificially produced sleep.
Rarely is a dictionary inaccurate, rarer still it is completely wrong. Hypnosis is not a sleep-like condition. As a matter of fact, the subject actually becomes more alert. Many assume incorrectly that just because the subject’s eyes are closed, the person is asleep. Furthermore, the fact that the word ‘sleep’ is frequently used in an induction causes continued confusion between hypnosis and physical sleep. Notwithstanding this, the definition does, however, describe what many people believe it to be.
The main stumbling block in defining hypnosis is the interpretations of the words that we use in its definition. We all have different interpretations of the meaning of certain words, so if we cannot agree to the meaning, we have a difficult time agreeing on a definition. The reason we have so many different definitions, however, is not because practitioners do not have knowledge of the subject of hypnosis. It is primarily due to their experiences in utilising the phenomena as well as the differences in their own personalities.
Hypnosis, like all other sciences, has its origin in mystery and superstition, and time has been very slow in removing the misconceptions associated with its origin. In the past, hypnosis has gone through periods of acceptance and rejection. It must be recognised that at no time did hypnosis or its predecessor forms ever completely cease to exist. From the beginning of mankind to the present time, it has continued to be used in various forms.
Since the practice of the art of hypnosis has extended over such a long period of time, the people living in earlier periods had a different conception of hypnosis than those of more recent times. Consequently, the acceptance of hypnosis has greatly suffered because of the poor definition of hypnosis.
Mesmer described the phenomenon as a form of magnetism. Brownell described hypnotism as having its origin in mesmerism. Dr. Milton Kline described the hypnotic phenomenon as ‘being in a state of emotional readiness, or perhaps emotional responsiveness when a subject is sent into action’. Dr. Charcot described it as a ‘disease’. Dr. Albert Moll used the following to describe hypnosis: ‘If we take a pathological condition of the organism as necessary for hypnosis, we shall be obliged to conclude that nearly everyone is not quite right in the head'. Leslie M. LeCron stated that to most people the word 'hypnotism' conveys a suggestion of the supernatural. The mental image of hypnotism brings immediate visions of a sinister person with glittering and piercing eyes. Dr. Milton Erickson had devoted many chapters in his writings to definitions, yet he defined everything but hypnosis.
Most people who have attempted to define hypnosis have defined the end result of that state or that condition, as opposed to the state or condition itself. As Dr. Albert Moll said, 'Hypnotism consists of a voluntary submission of a patient to a series of carefully controlled suggestions whose purpose is to increase the suggestibility of submission so that the specific therapeutic suggestions may be accepted'. Some consider hypnosis as being a semi-aware state, such as going in and out of, or drifting many times in consciousness during the day as we do when we’re daydreaming. Some consider it a flight into fantasy; for example, we're neither here nor there. J. H. Eysenk explained hypnosis as the ability of an individual to direct the whole force of nervous energy into a small number of nervous channels, thereby reducing the synaptic resistance and facilitating the passage of nervous energy. Dr. Heinz Hammerschlaug defined hypnosis as waking suggestion and noted that hypnosis in and of itself does not characterise different states of consciousness in the subject, but only the variations in his outer behaviour.
On the other hand, it must be emphasised that a state of hypnosis exists when the subject’s state of awareness undergoes a definite change. Dr. Lewis K. Boswell considered hypnosis to be an unusual state in which the mind is so completely focused on the immediate thoughts or events that it disregards all surrounding stimuli. During this unusual state, the mind is capable of accepting helpful suggestions in a manner far exceeding its normal capacity; hence it is possible to quickly and effectively recall any significant conditions and events. Dr. William J. Bryan defined hypnosis as an altered state of consciousness, similar to, but not the same as being awake, similar to, but not the same as being asleep, produced by a presence of two conditions: (1) the central focus of attention and (2) the surrounding area of inhibition.
The definition used by most people for hypnosis is 'an altered state of consciousness'. Some will go so far as to say it is a trance state of consciousness, others say it is a state of super-awareness.
Probably the best way to approach the definition of hypnosis is by the process of elimination. So by eliminating those descriptions that we now know it isn't, it’s possible to see what's left.
First, it should be emphasised that hypnosis is not a trance, state of sleep, or unconsciousness.
Consider for the moment that a trance state is one where the individual is not in full and complete control of all of his physical and mental capacities. A hypnotised person is not in a trance, nor is he in a zombie like state (i.e. unable to formulate any thought or co-ordinated movement).
One of the most common misconceptions is that consciousness is lost when someone is hypnotised.
A person under hypnosis is always completely aware of his surrounding circumstances. At no time are they unaware. One of the greatest difficulties that the hypnotist will encounter is to convince the subject that he has been hypnotised. Over 90 per-cent of people who have been hypnotised for the first time will deny that they have been hypnotised and state that they were entirely aware of everything that was said and done during the session as the reason they were not.
The word 'sleep' is normally associated with the condition we experience in the evening when we lie in bed with our eyes closed, unaware of what is about us. Confusion is produced by the hypnotist’s suggestions about going 'deeper, and deeper, and deeper asleep'.
Hypnosis is not an altered state of consciousness or awareness. Here we must again come to grips with our endeavours to be precise with our interpretations of words. The word ‘altered’ can have several meanings. It can mean changed, modified, amended, remodelled, or made different or have any other meaning that one might feasibly desire. If we have an altered state of consciousness, then how many states do we have? Is there more than one degree of change in each state, such as mild, light, medium, and deep? Who then makes this change, the hypnotist or the subject? If we make the change - that is, to alter into a different consciousness - then what state was the subject in before the change? The definition leads to more questions than we have answers for. It may appear paradoxical that in striving to be precise about the use of our words, we become vague in attempting to define hypnosis.
Before we proceed further with the definition of hypnosis, let us review some of the characteristics and makeup of the human being that history, experiments, and investigations have taught us. We all recognise that during the daytime, when we are up and about, we utilise our senses, such as sight and hearing, and recognise those things making up our close surroundings and environment. In other words, we are conscious of our surroundings. Consciousness means awareness. What we see and hear are not momentary passing impressions. At some future time, we can recall seeing and hearing certain things. Some events we can immediately recall, some we recall after considerable deliberation, and others we are unable to recall at all. Experience has taught us that we gather information by the use of our senses: sight, hearing, smell, feel, and taste. Since these experiences or events can be recalled at some future date, they must have been stored somewhere for future use.
Each of the nerve cells (neurons) consists of a cell body containing a nucleus, a long fibre (axon), and varying numbers of smaller fibres called dendrites. These dendrites have receptors on their surface. The function of the receptors is to receive chemical messages from nearby neurons. Each receptor receives only one message, always the same message. The incoming message fits into the receptors, resembling a key into a lock – the same key and the same lock. Upon receiving the message, it is then passed onward, which, in turn, causes cells, glands, and tissues to respond in accordance with the original message. This nerve impulse is conveyed from the nerve body out along the axon, where it terminates on other varying numbers of other cell bodies or other nerves. This is the means of conveying an impulse or impression from one part of the body to another. Each of the billions of neurons in the human brain may have over a thousand synapses (points of contact between nerve cells). Some nerve cells in the cortex may have as many as 200,000 connections. Consider for a moment that as many as tens of thousands of impressions, impulses, and events are being conveyed simultaneously. Through the use of our consciousness, such things as awareness, facts, events, impulses, and impressions are gathered and stored in the cortex while others maintain that the entire brain is the recipient.
For our purposes, let’s consider the brain as the storage area or memory bank. When a person is asked a question to which the answer requires some concentration or thought, a whole new process of awareness becomes evident. A simple experiment is to ask someone a question that requires some thought. You will notice that the person will close the eyelids or look away in some direction or focus their attention on some spot while searching for the answer. When the answer is secured, then the person will focus his eyes and state the answer recalled.
Dr. Eugene Azam recognised that there was a splitting of the consciousness. Every able practitioner of hypnosis recognises that in hypnosis a person can recall events not available in the ordinary waking state. This second state of conscious awareness is usually called the sub-consciousness. Some refer to it as a super-consciousness, while others prefer pre-consciousness.
Nowhere in the entire anatomy of the body and brain is there a cell, gland, or material matter called consciousness. Consciousness is not a material thing. It occupies no space. It has no essence. We are dealing with something that cannot be seen or touched. Yet we have the conscious and the subconscious, the outer awareness and the inner awareness.
The function of the outer awareness, consciousness, is to gather information, impulses, and impressions from those elements and happenings around us, and send this information into the brain for storage and future reference. However, on the conscious level, before this information is stored in the memory bank, it is filtered, analysed, and sorted. Every experience, event, idea, need, desire, and emotion such as hate, love, pain, or joy are registered and stored in the brain cells to remain forever, unless actively removed. The greater the thought given to the emotion or event, the greater the future impact. The more credible, the greater the response. The more acceptance attached to the event or impulse, the quicker the response. It is much easier to recall important and believable events than those of little or no importance. Burn your hand once on a hot cooker and the next time that you begin to be aware of the heat, there is an instant retreat. It is much easier to recall the events of your wedding than those of a friend's wedding, which you attended.
The subconscious mind or subconscious awareness has the ability to function in conjunction with the conscious mind and yet independently. Remember there are thousands of impulses and impressions operating simultaneously that must be processed through the conscious and subconscious awareness.
Imagine a person walking along, listening to the radio he is carrying, eating a bar of chocolate, and watching a parade marching down the street. Each colour, horizontal or vertical line, curve, and distance are being processed from the eyes through the thousands of nerve cells into the brain for re-assembly to create a picture in the brain. Every sound, every pitch - high, low, and in between - are also being sent through the nerves to the brain. He is using muscles to walk and hold the radio and eat the bar of chocolate. His hearing, lungs, stomach, and other muscles and glands are functioning simultaneously without any conscious effort.
In a state of hypnosis, all the body and glandular functions can be modified and altered. With the use of hypnosis, the muscles can be made rigid or completely relaxed; pain can be produced or removed; taste can be altered; hearing and speech can be altered, modified, or removed; fear, anxiety, and other emotional problems can be altered or entirely removed; heart rate and breathing can be modified; analgesia and anaesthesia can be created; and so with any other symptomatic condition of the human body where a change is desired.
Logic suggests but one conclusion. If all the bodily functions can be altered or changed through the use of hypnosis, then those facilities responsible for the change are also responsible for their continuous functions under ordinary circumstances. The functioning organs, such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, bladder, stomach, and the body in general continue to operate without any conscious effort by the individual. These organs even function during periods of deep sleep or unconsciousness or when one is anaesthetised for surgery. The subconscious mind is the energy and impulse directed to the brain, instructing it to perform certain bodily functions by activating the various organs. With the use of proper suggestions made by the subconscious mind while in a state of hypnosis, the function of various organs can be altered or changed.
The function, then, of the subconscious mind is to control the bodily functions, based upon the information as stored in the brain.
The conscious mind is the primary gathering faculty. Whatever a person experiences through the use of his senses, such as sight and hearing, is stored in the brain. Its acceptance is of little consequence in future conduct unless the elements of believability, importance, and truth are included. The conscious mind analyses the information for believability, importance, and truth. The greater the belief, the greater the future impact on the conduct of the individual. Without the ability to separate the truth from that which is false or the good from that which is bad, chaos would be the result. Most of us have been taught that two plus two is four. However, should someone tell us that three plus three is four and that two plus two is six and those who told us otherwise were lying, we would refuse to accept those statements as being true. Later we would remember the person who made those statements, but it would make little difference because we had refused to accept them as being true.
The subconscious mind also gathers information for storage in the brain's memory bank. The difference is, however, that the subconscious mind gathers information without analysing it first. The subconscious mind cannot analyse. It either accepts or rejects in total - there is no in-between. The subconscious mind is the secondary gathering faculty.
Consider for a moment that the subconscious and conscious minds are the ends of a balancing scale with the conscious mind being the higher one and the subconscious mind being the lower one. During normal waking hours, the conscious mind is the primary and predominant one gathering information. This incoming information is analysed as to believability, importance, and truth. It is accepted or rejected and then stored in the memory bank of the brain. Each one of us on a daily basis performs this function of analysing incoming information.
Herein lies the difference. What is accepted goes into that part of the memory bank that is intended for future use. When the information is not accepted, this information is automatically rejected into the dustbin, the unimportant section of the brain, not intended for future use. When a person is under stress, anxiety, or other emotional interruption, the analytical portion of the conscious mind is directly affected to the degree that it cannot function efficiently. The greater the stress or emotion, the greater the effect. Under extreme pressure, the conscious mind is almost entirely non-functioning. At this point, the conscious mind, having lost its efficiency, begins to lower its side of the scale, causing the subconscious mind to elevate to some point in time during the emotional events and it now becomes the predominant factor. At this point, the conscious mind is in the lower position and the subconscious mind is the primary gathering faculty. Now a person no longer can apply logic to, analyse, or respond to the situation in one’s best interest.
We all have been cautioned that if we ever get into trouble, we must not panic. The greater the emotional stress, the less logical we become. It is during these periods of extreme emotional stress that the impressions, impulses, and events become deeply and indelibly imprinted on the memory bank to give rise to future unwanted behavioural responses. The subconscious mind is neither logical nor analytical. All information, suggestions, or directions that the person is exposed to is automatically accepted unless the person actively rejects the suggestions or directions.
It is thought that the primary basis of this rejection is that the suggestions are against self-preservation or against the person's morality. The secondary rejections are when the suggestions are not compatible with the needs and desires of the individual.
With the use of induction techniques, the subject’s awareness is transferred from the conscious mind to the subconscious. The directed suggestions of the hypnotist cause the subject to focus his attention in the area dominated by the subconscious mind.
By using any one of many induction techniques, the subject voluntarily enters into that state of awareness dominated by the subconscious mind. While he is under stress, the transition is done involuntarily. Whether voluntary or involuntarily, the person is always subjected to the impulses, impressions, and events comprising his surrounding circumstances. It should be remembered that the subconscious mind does not have the capacity to analyse the events taking place and to which the subject is exposed. The truth of the impulse, impressions, or event is not subject to scrutiny and must be rejected or automatically accepted in its entirety. To be rejected, there must be some concerted action taken by the subject. It must be actively rejected. Mere passive rejection is insufficient.
When a person enters the subconscious state of awareness, two things apparently are consistent:
(1) There is an increased concentration of the mind.
(2) There is an increased susceptibility to suggestion.
The increased concentration is brought about by the elimination of outside stimuli. The person is usually seated in a comfortable chair with the eyes closed. In this situation, there is little or no need for the person’s senses to be active. Having the eyes closed shuts out all stimuli, relaxing the optic nerves and all the other thousands of neurons needed for the transmission. The subject’s energy can then be concentrated in those areas where it will do the most good.
The increased susceptibility has caused many serious questions on the acceptability of hypnosis by the general public. The subconscious mind does not have the capacity to analyse the impulses, impressions, or events, and consequently many suggestions, if not rejected, are passively accepted. It is this passive acceptance that has brought about many misconceptions about the use of hypnosis. A person is susceptible to the extent that he desires.
Due to the increased need for therapy and removal of symptomatic problems, the subject will not reject suggestions that he believes are necessary in the treatment. The suggestion is further accepted due to the belief and need, and not by any increased gullibility of the person.
A hypnotised person can be de-hypnotised at any time he chooses. He can open his eyes and walk about and do anything that he chooses at any time he so elects. Any time a suggestion or posthypnotic suggestion is given that is contrary to the wishes or beliefs of the subject, it can be voluntarily rejected. If the suggestion is of such a nature that great danger or harm may result, there would be a spontaneous return to the conscious state and the rapport with the hypnotist would be broken by a feeling of mistrust.
Hypnosis can be considered, therefore, as a state of awareness dominated by the subconscious mind. All other manifestations in the change of a person's conduct or action are the result of the acceptance of suggestions made during the hypnotic session.
The response of the subject depends upon his own personal characteristics, such as his knowledge of hypnosis, fears, misconceptions, and neuroses, as well as his rapport with the hypnotist. Many of these factors vary from day to day in the same person and from subject to subject, producing a variation of responses of the subject from one session to another.