Manyexperienced hypnotists and even people with little or no experience of hypnosis all ponder this question from time to time. This has been going on for around 200 years. How does hypnosis work? Does hypnosis even work for that matter? What is hypnosis? The various theories and myths continue, with skeptics and fanatics alike. Despite all this attention, no one has even so far managed to come up with an accepted definition of exactly what hypnosis is. I see countless discussions and philosophical debates on hypnosis forums about what a trance is, and what hypnosis is. Despite these discussions being amongst some very experienced hypnotherapists, no general consensus ever seems to be met.
So we don't really know what it is and we don't know how it works. Not a great start. This may be why there is so much misinformation about the subject. There is room to maneuver the facts about what hypnosis is, because there aren't any. This can lead to greater distortions and sensationalism. Although there is no formal definition of hypnosis, some of what I see about the subject, particularly in the media, is way of the mark.
To understand exactly what hypnosis is and how it works, we need to ultimately discover how the human mind works. What exactly happens in the mind when a hypnotherapist guides a subject into trance, and what exactly happens when suggestions are given. Due to the immense power and complexity of the human mind, this is practically impossible right now, leaving many of the workings of hypnosis a mystery.
Psychiatrists understand the general characteristics of hypnosis, and they have some model of how it works. It is commonly accepted that it is a trance state that is characterised by greater suggestibility, relaxation and increased imagination. It is a natural state of mind rather like daydreaming. You are fully conscious, but you become consciously unaware of most of the stimuli around you. This is rather like when you are deeply absorbed in a book or film, and cannot hear someone trying to talk to you. Often the media will try and have you believe that a trance state is some weird magical and mystical state of mind where you are under someone else's control. This simply is not true.
The problems of explaining how hypnosis works are compounded by the fact that everyone's experience of hypnosis is unique, and the readiness and ability of patients to be hypnotised varies considerably. Hypnosis is the very opposite of a trip down to McDonald's - no two experiences are exactly the same. However modern technology is beginning to allow us to take a deeper look, and almost peer inside the mind at what is actually happening to the brain whilst in hypnosis.
The University of Geneva published a study in the journal "Neuron' using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) for a series of hypnotic studies. They noted that there were differences in the activity of the brain when a subject was placed in a hypnotic trance. The researchers used fMRI to scan brains of 12 people who were tested on hand movement before and after being hypnotised for left hand paralysis.
Despite the paralysis, neurons in the motor cortex region were still firing in preparation for the task. However the cortex appeared to be ignoring parts of the brain that it normally communicates with for controlling movement.
These results suggest that hypnosis does not inhibit the motor cortex and directly stop the hand from moving. It seems like the hypnotic suggestions allow the individual to choose to have left arm paralysis.
This makes sense from my observations of being a clinical hypnotherapist for many years. It is commonly accepted in hypnosis that a hypnotherapist cannot actually make a subject change. They can only facilitate it. For example a clinical hypnotherapist could do a very good and professional job with a quit smoking session. However the subject can choose to ignore this and immediately light up after you have left them. They can (and sometimes do) take the attitude "I'll show them that I can still smoke"puff"see it doesn't work".
This runs counter to some popular myths of hypnosis that are sometimes portrayed in the media. For example the classic clucking like a chicken when the doorbell sounds. In reality the person has a choice, and if they don't want to, then they can easily resist any poultry related urges. If an emergency should break out whilst a subject is in hypnosis, then they can easily snap out and deal with it in an appropriate way. You simply cannot be "stuck' in a hypnotic trance, despite what the media sometimes try to suggest.
This can be demonstrated in what is commonly termed "highway hypnosis'. This is where a person can drive a distance of many miles without remembering the journey. Does this sound familiar? It is usually on journeys that you regularly drive, such as the route to work. Your conscious mind literally tunes down, taking a back seat to your subconscious mind. You are literally in a natural hypnotic trance whilst driving. If during that journey something happens where the driver needs to react, then this is no problem. The driver will immediately snap out of the trance and respond accordingly.
There are still many questions regarding hypnotherapy and how it actually works. It would seem that hypnosis can help us make changes, but ultimately it is up to you to choose whether to accept these changes. Modern technology is beginning to help us to uncover more of the answers, but there is still a long way to go. A stronger scientific foundation for hypnotherapy can only help people realise what a powerful and effective form of therapy it really is, and dispel some of the myths that are plainly untrue.
Jon Rhodes is a clinical hypnotherapist, musician and author from the UK. Please click here for information on is book that is packed with many tried and tested hypnosis scripts. Please click here for details of his powerful therapeutic hypnosis mp3 s.