what is hypnosis?
Perhaps the greatest mystery about hypnosis is that it's seen as something mysterious. It's a fundamental human trait, shared by every living person on the planet. Everybody reading this article will experience a hypnotic state at some point today, if they haven't done so already. Hypnosis is so hardwired into us, in fact, that you can't get through the day without experiencing it, any more than you can get through the day without experiencing some form of emotion.
That said, there has certainly been a great deal of debate about the details. This debate has usually revolved around the psychobiological aspects of hypnosis, ie, what's actually going on in the brain when we're in a hypnotic state. Some commentators believe that hypnosis produces an altered state of consciousness, others believe that nothing happens at all. Still others believe that hypnotic subjects just act to please the hypnotist!
Leaving aside the question about what a "normal" state of consciousness is anyway, advances in neuroscience, and the ability to monitor brain activity as it happens, have shown that hypnosis does indeed have a demonstrable effect on the brain. In a famous experiment at Stanford University, students were connected to a brain imaging machine whilst looking at a black and white picture. Under hypnosis, the students were told that the picture was in fact in colour - and the brain scans showed that the areas of the brain which process colour became active when that suggestion was made.
More recently, psychologists Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell have explicitly linked hypnosis to the Rapid Eye Movement or REM state, which is more commonly associated with dreaming sleep. It's also something that all mammals, not just humans, experience before they're even born. Babies in the womb experience enormous amounts of REM, Griffin and Tyrrell arguing that this is nature's way of installing and maintaining instinctive behaviour.
Fascinating as these studies are, concentrating on the psychobiological aspects of hypnosis is a bit of a specialist pastime - like analyzing the particular pigments an artist uses to make a painting. If we step back and look at the painting in its entirety, we can see that hypnosis really is a perfectly natural state of mind. Perhaps the mystery comes from applying an unusual label to something which is essentially normal. It's an inexact label too, meaning both the state of mind itself and the techniques used to create it.
Hypnosis is generally taken mean to the induction of a trance state. Although trance has connotations of glassy-eyed automatism, it simply means a focused state of attention. Attention can be focused externally, or it can be focused internally. You've been in a trance if you've ever been absorbed in a great film, lost in a good book, or swept up in a symphony. You've been in a trance if you've ever stared in fascination at a sunset or a passing cloud. You've also been in a trance if you've ever stared out of the window, daydreaming about something which happened twenty years ago.
Clearly you don't vanish at these times. If something requires your attention, you're aware of it - so if you're enraptured by a great orchestral work and the idiot next to you starts talking loudly into his mobile, you'll probably know all about it, unfortunately. All that happens, for the duration of the trance state, is that your attention locks onto a particular source, and everything else just fades into the background for a while.
Even if nothing happened in our lives to fix our attention, we would still experience a hypnotic trance state, because our brains are naturally designed to go into trance every 90 minutes or so. You may have noticed this yourself - there are times during the day when you feel energetic and able to concentrate, interspersed with periods of feeling a bit fuzzy and daydreamy. This is known as the ultradian rhythm.
What's literally happening is that every ninety minutes, brain activity switches from the left to the right hemisphere. As a result, our focus shifts internally, as the more metaphorical and pattern matching areas of the brain process everything that's been absorbed in the previous hour and a half. This seems to act as a housekeeping mechanism, like a computer backing up its files, or as a form of stress control. This lasts for about fifteen minutes.
Despite all the mystery, then, hypnosis is simply a method for focusing the attention and turning it inwards. It is nothing more - and nothing less - than a way of working with and taking control of something which is happening already.
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