According to the 2014 APA Committee, hypnosis is defined as ‘a state of consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterised by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion.’
Any conscious experience, either spontaneous or induced, with these three characteristics may be called hypnosis. However, this definition does not give us any sense of what it is like to be hypnotised. How hypnosis, as experienced by a human being, could be described?
Hypnosis is a very subjective experience. No two persons have exactly the same experience of hypnosis – even in one person, the experience is different from one time to another. Hypnosis is experienced as a whole by the individual. However, we may approach this whole from different perspectives.
The experience of a hypnotised person is usually a combination of some physical and psychological changes. Some of these changes are objective. The examples are EEG patterns, fMRI findings, pulse and respiratory rate changes or behavioural and motor expressions. They can be monitored, measured and recorded.
On the other hand, the subjective changes are those that experienced only by the hypnotised person. There is no way for the observers to watch or quantify them. The only way we can know about them is by asking the subjects to explain them.
Let’s have a look at some of the most significant changes observed during hypnosis. These changes are also known as hypnotic phenomena. Not everybody shows all these changes at the same session. However varying combinations of them comprise the extraordinary experience called hypnosis.
The principal feature of hypnosis is focal attention. The process of induction and deepening is nothing but decreasing the concentration of the person on so many things in the background and directing it to one focal point. The hallmark of hypnosis is this selective focal attention to one thing and eliminating other stimuli in the environment from awareness.
What happens following this narrowed attention is a fascinating phenomenon known as dissociation. Theoretically, it seems that the enhanced focal attention causes a decrease in the sensory inputs to mind.
With the decline in the environmental perception, the executive ego, somehow, retreats and the cognitive systems under its control dissociate and get more autonomy.
With this dissociation, the most bizarre changes of hypnosis follow:
- Suggestibility – When the critical, executive ego moves back, the person becomes more open to suggestions
- Trance logic – The suggestions are not criticised even if they do not precisely follow the ordinary, daily logic
- Imagery and imagination – These powers of the mind are enhanced. The mind shows more capacities for symbolic processing. In this way, we may have better access to the unconscious contents of the mind
- Hidden observer – Although the executive ego has retreated, it is still there and works as an observer. It means that while part of the mind is responding to suggestions, part of it remains objective. For this reason, it is not possible to make people do anything against their moral values. Because of this internal observer, the hypnotised person knows what is going on during the session.
- Time and space distortion – The perception of time and space is distorted. The clients have a poor idea of how long they have been under hypnosis. This characteristic, along with those described under dissociation, make the well-known phenomena of hypnotic age regression and age progression possible.
- Changes in sensory perceptions – Parts of the body may feel lighter or heavier than usual. There may be tactile hypersensitivity. Also, because of this phenomenon, people may experience analgesia and anaesthesia during hypnosis.
- Muscular changes – Relaxation is one phenomenon which usually, but not necessarily accompanies hypnosis. Catalepsy is the inhibition of voluntary muscular movements. It is one of the most common hypnotic phenomena. The combination of these two natural assets can change hypnosis into a powerful relaxation therapy.
Hypnosis is a multifaceted experience. These phenomena are not the only changes seen during trance. However, they are the most popular and the most useful ones. A combination of these astounding occurrences creates the experience of hypnosis for each person.
They are all assets already present in most of us, although in crude and undeveloped form. Many of us are not aware of the presence of these gifts. Hypnosis elaborates on these natural qualities and utilises them for therapy. Hypnotherapy is not a panacea, but a natural phenomenon which involves utilising what we already have, to our own benefit.
Saba Hoda is a physician with a longtime experience of working as a pathologist, both teaching medical students and running a medical laboratory.