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What is Hypnosis?

The word “hypnosis,” coined by Scottish surgeon Dr. James Braid around 1841, covers a number of phenomena. The word comes from the Greek term for “sleep,” though hypnosis does not involve physical sleep. At the most basic level hypnosis is the art of suggestion. Training in hypnosis involves learning to use language in emotionally suggestive ways as a catalyst for profound personal change

Levels of Relaxation

One way to look at classic clinical hypnosis is as a relaxation phenomena. When you are completely awake, alert, and conscious your brain wave cycles can be up to 20 cycles per second (Hertz or Hz). This is the electric cycle of the brain as measured by an electroencephalograph or EEG machine. Wide awake consciousness occurs in a range from 14 to 20 Hz and is called Beta level awareness.

On the other end of the spectrum, true sleep, where you can dream, occurs at 4 Hz or less (down to about 1.5 Hz), and is termed deep Delta sleep.

Most of us have had the experience of doing something we really enjoy and losing track of time. We’ve also had the experience of being stuck trying to solve a problem, make a decision, or do something creative – only to have a Eureka! moment the next morning in the shower. As John Steinbeck said, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.” This relaxed, creative state is Alpha level relaxation, at a cycle of 9 to 14 Hz. The hallmarks of Alpha are creativity and losing track of time. Think about it – creativity is not a rational process. Creativity occurs when an unconscious part of you sees connections and solutions which you did not see before and you have an “a-ha” experience.

Between Alpha and Delta is Theta level relaxation, 4 to 9 Hz. Most of us have had the experience of dozing off while watching TV or reading late at night. Anyone seeing you would think you were asleep, but you know you are really not asleep. Think of a husband snoring on the sofa while “watching” a ball game. Theta is the dreamy state of falling asleep (or the luxurious time waking up on a non-rushed morning). In this state cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone, decreases. Feel-good happy neurotransmitters like beta-endorphins and serotonin, increase, providing a wonderful experience. Theta also involves being more emotionally open. Classic clinical hypnosis involves relaxation to this level.

It is important to note that hypnotic language can be used to promote emotional change at any of the levels of consciousness. The great hypnotist and physician Milton Erickson describes hypnotic work in the “ordinary waking state” many times in his writings (cf. Erickson & Rossi, 1975). It is also interesting to note that the word “trance” is used to describe both a relaxed Theta state and an ecstatic and energized upper Beta state (both of which provide experiences outside the normal range of emotional familiarity, and thus create greater suggestibility).

Deep Relaxation

The voice in your head which you think of as you is called your executive function. The executive function is a function of the prefrontal areas of the frontal lobe (a portion of the brain located just behind the forehead). During sleep the frontal lobe naturally goes off line – the best way to visualize this may be to think of a light bulb on a dimmer switch slowly dimming down.

Classic relaxed hypnotic suggestibility is associated with frontal inhibition (Gruzelier, Gray, & Horn, 2002; Jamieson, & Sheehan, 2004; Gruzelier, 2006). There is a deactivation of the executive function in the prefrontal during hypnotic relaxation (Schjoedt, Stødkilde-Jørgensen, Geertz, Lund, & Roepstorff, 2009).

While the frontal lobe naturally relaxes into sleep, other parts of your brain continue to be engaged, of course. This relaxation of the rational or cognitive process of the brain allows hypnotic work to be done at a more emotional level, by engaging more emotional parts of the brain. Since emotions, not information, drive behavior this relaxation process creates a process of change which is more rapid and operating on a deeper level than cognitive changes.

Of course the more emotional or non-rational parts of you are still you! You are always active in framing and creating changes. Hypnosis is a process for greater self-control. Even a skilled hypnotherapist cannot take you anywhere you do not want to go, but he or she can help you create profound changes which seemed out of reach at a conscious level.

What about Stage or Entertainment Hypnosis?

Stage work is different from clinical hypnosis, but can involve the same relaxation phenomena. Other processes are also involved in stage work, such as creating compliance, using trivial commitments or yes sets to move people into a hypnotic state, and even performance pressure from the audience. Stage hypnotists are also typically interested in finding participants who are very directly suggestible (they relax into hypnosis easily with direct suggestions) and highly physically suggestible (they actually do what is suggested while in the hypnotic state, rather than simply engaging it as a mental process). None of these factors are significant for clinical hypnosis.

It is important to remember that all hypnotic phenomena rely on a relationship of mutual rapport and trust between the hypnotist and the participant. When someone goes up on a stage, she or he is giving the hypnotist a tremendous amount of psychological permission – that is, the person knows the nature of the show and wants to participate. If your reaction to a stage show is that it is not for you, it is unlikely that you would make a good participant!

In a clinical setting, rapport between the hypnotherapist and the client is critical. Stephens, Silbert, & Hasson (2010) found spatiotemporal brain activity coupling between individuals during effective communication – that is, the brain wave patterns of two people having a “great conversation” tend to become the same (popular articles even describe this as a “mind meld,” cf. Verango, 2010; Coghlan, 2010). The same sort of link is an important catalyst for significant change. An effective therapeutic relationship is the key factor for facilitating personal change (Sullivan, Skovholt, & Jennings, 2005; Jennings, & Skovholt, 1999).