Imagine a dimly lit room with a warm fluorescent light, the smell of incense wafting and overpowering your nostrils, and a cloaked figure with a garish turban and bejeweled fingers moving a pendulum of a chain locket in front of your eyes. It won’t take long before your eyes feel heavy and sleepy, or at least that’s how spooky hypnotists are portrayed in popular culture. In reality, hypnotists look a lot less like a fir trees decked out for Christmas than the movies would have us believe, but the whole process is still a bit strange. Isn’t the notion of having control over someone else’s actions and making them obey everything you say alluring? Of course, but that part of hypnosis is not actually true!
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines hypnosis as ‘a state of consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterized by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion’.
That sounds pretty neat, but what does it all mean?
Hypnosis is commonly likened to sleep, a state in which we are not aware or conscious of our surroundings. However, the above definition does not equate hypnosis to a sleep-like state; instead, researchers think that the hypnotic state/trance is a hyper-attentive state of mind. Imagine being engrossed in a good book or a movie, intently focusing on the content and ignoring or blocking out everything else happening around you. Hypnosis is something similar to looking at the world from a keyhole, and that narrow perspective is the voice of the hypnotist.
If it’s a hyper-attentive state, why do we readily obey the hypnotist?
Imagine that you’re watching an action thriller …. the protagonist is in a building surrounded by the enemy and could get caught any moment. You are completely engrossed in the movie, anticipating a fight between your hero and the bad guys. At that moment, if someone asked you to pass them something, like the remote or any other item, would you ignore them or pass them whatever they want? Would you remember passing them the object later on once the movie is over? Probably not, right? In other words, when you are paying excessive attention to something, you tend to ignore other things happening around you and react pre-consciously. Hypnosis is a state of heightened attention that is far more focused than watching a movie, so much so that even a slight nudge can make you obey.
But I don’t start chirping like a bird when someone asks me to while watching a movie!
Freudian psychologists believe that we have three different states of awareness; conscious, subconscious and unconscious. The conscious state is when we are awake and aware of everything that occurs in our surroundings. Subconscious awareness describes things you are currently not aware of, but if asked, you could easily recollect and bring it to the conscious state. For example, consider the spelling of ‘Australia’. Although a moment ago, you were not consciously thinking about Australia or its spelling, it was somewhere in your mind, but not actively online. It formed a part of your subconscious and as soon as you actively started thinking about it, it became conscious.
Hypnosis is believed to tap into this subconscious state of mind. In this state, thoughts and actions are uninhibited. In other words, the filters that typically make you behave in socially acceptable ways are not working. Have you ever had a bizarre dream in which you wanted something and behaved in socially or age-inappropriate ways? The dream state is also said to be an expression of our subconscious thoughts – the raw, primitive and sometimes inappropriate ways our underlying mind thinks. In such a state, an individual’s ability to analyze right or wrong, and moral or immoral is compromised.
However, the ability to analyze whether something is a threat to survival remains intact. Hypnotized people cannot be guided to do things that put them in harm’s way. Also, individuals who do not want to be hypnotized cannot be hypnotized in the same way as one cannot make you be engrossed in a book if you don’t want to be.
Can we really remember hidden parts of our past while under hypnosis?
Many therapists claim that patients carry forward unresolved issues from their past life/lives that cause them discomfort in their present life, giving rise to psychological issues. Therapists use hypnosis to help people remember these past life memories, effectively resolving and providing relief to patients. The hypnotic subconscious also contains certain memories in an unstable form. Therefore, in this state, it is also very easy to convince someone of an event that never took place, thus creating false memories in some cases.
There are, however, large groups of psychologists that strongly disbelieve the notion of remembering incidents from past lives under hypnosis due to the fact that memory is so malleable/suggestible in this state. You are, of course, free to draw your own conclusions based on empirical data.
Is Hypnosis a Biological Phenomena?
Countless research findings have shown that there is a biological aspect of hypnosis and this data also supports APAs claim that it is not a sleep-like state, but rather a state of heightened concentration. Our brain cells communicate using electrical impulses, currents that flow from one brain cell to the next. The cells don’t fire these impulses in isolation, but in groups and in synchrony. They also fire at different frequencies in different states of awareness, which are called brain wave rhythms. Think of electrical impulses as a language that your brain speaks and the brain wave rhythms as the speed at which the language is spoken …. some speak too fast, while others speak too slow.
The frequency of brain waves is very slow in the deep sleep stage (delta frequency waves), while a relatively high frequency characterizes wakefulness (beta frequency waves). Research shows that the frequency of brain waves during hypnosis is the same as that observed during deep relaxation or focused concentration, which is the theta frequency, thus lending support to the idea that hypnosis is different than an alternate sleep state and is actually related to the subconscious. Research also shows that people who are more susceptible to hypnosis show greater theta activity. Furthermore, some researchers propose that hypnotizability is inherited and closely tied to the presence of certain genes.
These changes in brain wave rhythms are observed more often in the frontal areas of the brain, which are involved in attention and control behaviors. The rhythm changes in this area explain suggestibility in a hypnotic state. Another brain area involved is the occipital lobe, which helps us process visual information. Researchers attribute this to the experience of mental imagery during hypnosis.
This probably makes it clear why people say ‘love is hypnotic’; people lose their inhibitions and often act quite foolish and love-struck, suggestible even to the idea of taking the “leap” into marriage!