Scientific American recently ran an article online entitled, “Is Hypnosis a Distinct Form of Consciousness?” that surveyed the last 50 or so years of research on whether hypnosis is truly an altered state of consciousness, or something else. The ‘something else’ possibility is, according to the authors of this article, the one we’re left with.
Despite best efforts, researchers have not been able to pinpoint any specific “markers”–indicators–of hypnosis that distinguish it from other states of consciousness. The typical terms associated with hypnosis (trance state, sleep state, posthypnotic amnesia) each fail, under research scrutiny, to describe anything substantial.
For example, contrary to widespread belief, hypnosis does not involve inducing a “waking sleep” or really anything related to a true sleep state. Electroencephalographic (EEG) studies confirm that someone under hypnosis is entirely awake (although some people report feeling a little drowsy). Posthypnotic amnesia (failing to remember what happened during hypnosis) has also been largely contradicted by research, which shows that this reaction only occurs when the subject is told to expect it to occur.
The “trance state” phenomena has also had the wind taken out of its sails by studies that show the same physiological markers of this alleged state in subjects experiencing quiet states of concentration. One of these markers, heightened Theta activity in the brain, can be easily achieved in subjects without hypnotic induction.
So if this is all true, then what exactly is hypnosis? Anyone who has watched a stage hypnosis show, or a street side hypnotist having fun with passers by, I think would agree that something is going on – not to mention hypnosis’ acceptance by many in the psychiatric community as a useful therapeutic tool.
The general conclusion of the SciAm article is that hypnosis works on a fulcrum of suggestibility. This is not, as might be guessed, “hypnotic suggestibility” – because this dynamic has also been undercut by research that has determined only a 10% or less increase in suggestibility following hypnotic induction. Rather, the suggestibility we’re talking about is the old fashioned kind, the same kind that leads people to buy lottery tickets and get into pyramid schemes. The more suggestible we are in this way, then the more open to being hypnotized–and pliable under hypnosis–we’ll be, however you choose to define the term.
An example of this not discussed in the article, but one we can witness on television every day, is the mass suggestibility evident in things like faith healing. If you ever get the chance, it’s worth watching one of these closely – the suggestibility manipulation is palpable, and it produces definite results (though not the sort promised by the ‘healer’). If you spend any time in a Pentecostal church you can watch a similar dynamic play out in ‘speaking in tongues’ (here’s a taste if you need it).
But, while the explanatory value of suggestibility can probably take us quite far, I’m still not sure it gives us everything. Maybe I’ve read too much of psychiatrist and hypnosis maven Milton Erickson for my own good (and perhaps a victim of my own suggestibility) but I’m inclined to think more is going on, even if it is largely (as Erickson himself admitted) an attention-confusion technique.
Below is an example of an Erickson-inspired instant hypnotic induction.