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Exploring the True Nature of Hypnosis

by Tim Brunson, PhD

Few concepts garner as much misunderstanding, confusion, and fear as the word hypnosis. Novelists and screenwriters perpetuate these myths as they continually portray hypnotic acts as those done by sinister men who suddenly override the common sense and moral trepidations of unwitting victims. Even respectable professional book publishers regularly contract clinical authors who spice up their work by off-handedly referring to hypnosis or otherwise reinforcing the popular – and scientifically unfounded – clichés that are so popular among psychologists and medical professionals. All the while, they serve more to mislead their colleagues than to enlighten them. Additionally, well-established trade and professional organizations regularly certify their members despite the fact that little – if any – of their educational curriculum reflects the relevant impact of recent scientific revelations.

Part of the problem is a general lack of clarity and agreement concerning the definition of hypnosis. For instance, in McGill's Hypnotherapy Encyclopedia Ormand McGill, PhD, (with the able assistance of his contributing editor, Shelley Stockwell-Nichols, PhD) offers twenty-four popular definitions. The problem is that while providing some level of descriptive truth, all of them fail to provide operational clarification that adequately reveals the true essence of hypnosis. They merely refer to attributes that appear to be coincidental.

For instance, the desired results – such as a change in behavior or a change in the perception of suffering – do not require an altered or trance-like state. If the intended transformation occurs without a trance, then some lexographers would argue that hypnosis was not involved. I have problem with that narrow-mindedness as they seem to focus on incidental events and characteristics rather than the result of purpose.

This would like describing a hammer as an item made of wood and metal rather than as one that is used to drive a nail into a solid object. Hammers made of other materials and traditional wood and metal hammers that are temporarily used for other purposes – such as a paperweight – would defy the original definition. Conversely, if one focuses on its primary benefit, any item that can be used to drive the nail should qualify as a hammer. My approach to defining hypnosis is very similar.

Defining hypnosis by focusing on the essence of the intended benefit seems to be much more utilitarian than the more traditional approaches, which tend to inaccurately focus on ancillary factors. Thus, hypnosis can be said to be a phenomena that facilitates change in the mind and body of a living being (with the realization that I am focusing on human – not animal – transformation at the moment). This change then appears to be affected by a thought or thought process, which can also be called anticipation, simulation, suggestion, or imagination. Even though these thoughts are very often shaped by environmental influences (and hence providing cogent arguments for behaviorists), when a hypnotist seeks to influence the content of a subject's thoughts or autosuggestion is employed by an individual, the implication here is that there is an element of choice. By selecting the thoughts that are to have an influence on the mind and body, the goal of the operator then is to make them more effective and efficient.

Therefore, the essential characteristics of hypnosis are two-fold. First, it is something that is done to another or to oneself. Thus it is a process. Second, it uses selective thought, which should be made considerably more effective and efficient by such process. The resulting definition is quite simple. Hypnosis is a process that involves the effective and efficient use of selective thought. The implication here is that choice is increasingly empowered. This definition is the only explanation, which is common to each and every one of the twenty-four definitions documented by McGill. Also, during my exploration into the Neurology of Suggestion, it has become increasingly clear that my definition is also the most scientifically relevant and valid.

Heretofore, many of those who have attempted to define hypnosis had become stuck on the manifestation of an operator's efforts to make suggestions more effective. The human brain's stability function, which makes it possible to walk and clearly discern one's place in space and time, creates a resistance to change, which is often regardless of implicit or explicit wisdom to the contrary. Elman called this the Critical Faculty. In my writings I often refer to this as Pattern Resistance, which fits the ANNHTMPattern Theory. Neurologically it can be said that this stability function is empowered by specific substrates, which must be deactivated should the hypnotic process occur.

Normally when this neurological phenomenon transpires, there is a significant shift in cerebral blood flow. The immediate benefit is that blood shifts from the areas supporting resistance to areas that are more closely related to empowering selective thinking. However, the techniques of most hypnotists and psychotherapists who employ the weaker version, which is known as guided imagery, use successive suggestions that induce a shift in cerebral blood flow to those areas that increase mindfulness. If some of their suggestions involve relaxation, there is an additional entraining effect that tends to support a shift into parasympathetic activation. This increases the subject's general felling of well-being. Meanwhile, the increasing focus tends to slow down hyperactivity within the solution-seeking parts of the brain. This creates a situation where the activation of previously inactive substrates occurs. Generally, this causes a hyper-sensitive condition – which is often referred to as enhanced awareness – that may or may not be simultaneous with the subject's brainwaves shifting into what can be considered as Synchronous Alpha.

What I have just described is a condition that is normally referred to as an altered or trance state. Regardless, as the only enduring requirement is the shift of neuro-energy to the selective thinking substrates, the process of a trance state is merely a coincidence and not a requirement for empowering transformation.

To understand this further, consider the rapid and instant hypnosis techniques used by stage operators. In these cases the subject suddenly displays the results of very effective selective thinking. Even though the suggestion may be for the subject to experience an immediate trance, as in the case of David Elman's Waking Hypnosis concept, selective thinking occurs absolutely without any suggestion of a trance occurring. In the latter situation, the subject's selective thinking-related substrates are effectively activated and the resistance-related substrates suddenly deactivated without the suggestion or occurrence of a trance. Incidentally, Elman explained that the difference between Waking Hypnosis and Waking Suggestion is the fact that the Critical Facility is sufficiently bypassed – which is a condition that I refer to as the deactivation of the resistance-related substrates. Unfortunately, many of the skills taught by certification programs include parochial techniques, which limit the capabilities of their students. A study of the work of stage hypnotists and Elman's Waking Hypnosis techniques should lead any rational investigator to expand their thinking.

If hypnosis is merely a process that increases the effectiveness of selective thinking, then it stands to reason that a fully-trained hypnotic operator should be knowledgeable of a wide variety of techniques. Although the two major hypnotic traditions – which can be represented by Elman's direct or more authoritative approaches and the permissive linguistic techniques promoted by Erickson – at first seem be somewhat at odds, both of these innovators taught the concept of utilization of any and all means to pursue hypnosis – in addition to their more rigidly parochial approaches. Again, the only commonality to this universe of hypnotic methods is their ability to produce efficient selective thought. The presence of trance state is absolutely not a requirement. And lastly, while bypassing neurological resistance is a vital part of the process, it is still a secondary or supportive concept when compared to the value of efficient selective thought.

Once an operator understands that the true nature of hypnosis revolves solely around the concept of increasingly efficient selective thought, there is an opportunity to design superior clinical interventions. For instance, when a psychotherapist understands the dysfunctional mental processes involved in trauma-related dissociation, or a medical practitioner considers the mental state regarding someone facing a debilitating disease such as cancer, there is an opportunity to design a protocol, which involves the use of efficient selective thought. Many current efforts, such as the off-handed use of suggestion and/or guided imagery that do not consider the efficiency of selective thinking, fall short of their potential. However, when the value of hypnosis is truly understood, the power of choice can be more effectively employed as a tool to alter one's constantly unfolding biography.

Posted: 09/30/2011

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