Hypnosis as a Special (or Not so Special) State of Mind

I am asked if I do hypnosis with my clients, often in the context of eating or smoking or some other kind of habit pattern.  Many people think that hypnosis is really only used for breaking or inducing new habits, but the hypnotic phenomenon is actually more complex and interesting than that.

One story that I tell to explain hypnosis goes like this:

A psychologist named Ernest Rossi had been in biology graduate school prior to shifting to psychology.  He also got training as a Jungian analyst and had a special interest in how the mind and body interact with each other.  He was reading a report on how some biologists were contracted to see if they could find out how air traffic controllers made mistakes, in an effort to decrease errors which could, at times, be fatal to hundreds of people.

After considerable study, the biologists found that the error rate rose every 90 to 120 minutes, dropping once again to a baseline level.  While they examined all sorts of biological markers, the ones that they found were based mostly on observation of the air traffic controllers.  They listed such things as:

  • slowed blink rate
  • slowed movements of the body, even stopping completely
  • swallow rate slowing
  • staring in one place
  • slow breath rate

Rossi looked at this list and found it to be the same as what was given him years before by the world’s greatest hypnotherapist, Milton Erickson, M.D. except he called it “signs of the common everyday trance“.

Rossi went on to study this phenomenon and write extensively on it.  From this, he developed the idea of a new “state” theory of hypnosis: that we slip into trance every 90-120 minutes a day, but utilize it mostly to rest. If we DON’T get the chance to take these breaks, then we end up with all those classic problems that come from modern life in the form of stress reactions, along with the chronic health problems connected to them.

This state of hypnosis then is not anything unfamiliar to anyone who daydreams.  While certain religious and spiritual groups have doctrines against hypnosis (most notably Christian Scientists and Theosophists), these arguments are based on a concept of trance that is over 100 years old and talks about control of one mind that is weaker by a stronger mind.  While that idea was useful in its time, usually to bring fame to the hypnotist and instill confidence in his techniques (almost always it was a male hypnotist and more frequently a female subject), it really has no place in the modern theories of altered states.

What does this state allow you to do?  One important component of trance is the ability to connect to states of mind in which memories are more vivid.  Scientists have found that the state of the mind and body in which memories form can be important to remembering them.  If something happens to you when you are drunk, the ability to remember it will be much easier if you are again tipsy.  They have even shown the effect when students take a test in a different room than that in which the lectures took place!

Remembering events and, in a sense, “re-coding” them is one important part to hypnotic psychotherapy.  The trance state can also be used to work with the mind’s natural connection to the body and influence it.  It’s been known for over a hundred years that a hypnotic subject can respond to an imagined lit cigarette pressed against the arm with a blister.  The range of responses in this mind/body interface are still being investigated, but there seems to be evidence of hypnosis being used for breast enlargement, skin disorders and even increasing height in an adult male by several inches.

What happens between the hypnotist and the subject in a session?  That will be the subject of my next blog entry.

And finally, a classical and completely  inaccurate depiction of hypnosis:


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