Understanding Hypnosis and Harnessing its Potential in Hypnotherapy
Hypnosis, as portrayed by stage hypnotists, creates the illusion of control, leading people to believe the hypnotherapist takes over their mind. Therefore, hypnotherapy holds the illusion that the therapist can rewire their brain and transform their thought patterns at the click of their fingers.
Is this true? If not, what is hypnosis, really? How does it work in real life and therapeutically?
There is no official definition of hypnosis, but well known contributors to the field define hypnosis in their own ways;
“a state of consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterized by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion.” (Elkins et al., 2015)
“It is characterized by four main components: absorption (in an imaginative experience), dissociation (from the environment), suggestibility (to the suggestions made by the therapist; Spiegel, 1991), and automaticity (non-voluntary response relevant to the content of a communication intended to be a suggestion.” Weitzenhoffer, 2002)
“At a neurophysiological level, it is associated with increased power in the theta band and changes in gamma activity (direction inconsistent among studies), which play a critical role in the emotional limbic circuits.” (Vanhaudenhuyse et al., 2020)
Consolidated, these individual explanations combine to create a definition like this;
Hypnosis is a state of consciousness characterised by focused attention. It involves absorption in an imaginative experience, dissociation from the environment, suggestibility to the therapist’s suggestions, and non-voluntary responses to communicated suggestions. Hypnosis regulates self-awareness and decreases environmental awareness. Hypnosis increases the power of theta brainwaves and changes gamma activity, influencing emotional limbic circuits.
Neuroscientific Research in Hypnosis
There is little research in hypnosis, but in 2017 Cerebral Cortex published a study with the title Brain Activity and Functional Connectivity Associated with Hypnosis. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow, to investigate the brain in hypnosis.
They included the part of the brain system that activates during restful, self-reflective, and internally focused states, playing a role in tasks such as daydreaming, introspection, and memory consolidation, rather than on the external environment – the default mode network (DMN).
The part of the brain engaged during cognitive tasks which require externally directed attention – the executive control network (ECN).
And the part of the brain that plays a role in communication, social behaviour, and self-awareness – the salience network. The salience network includes the amygdala, considered the alarm system of your brain.
The researchers began the study with 545 people who took the Harvard Group Scale for Hypnotic Susceptibility Form A test. This is a standard test that estimates an individual’s susceptibility to hypnosis. The test has a written acknowledgement that susceptibility to hypnosis may change over time and with different circumstances. They found 67 of the 545 people hypnotisable according to the susceptibility test.
Using The Hypnotic Induction Profile, a formal assessment developed to determine a person’s level of trait hypnotisability and their potential to experience a hypnotic state, the researchers found 43 of the 67 hypnotisable participants were highly hypnotisable and 24 low hypnotisable. The researchers excluded ten people from the study for reasons irrelevant to us right now.
To see the results of the study, scroll down to the italics at the end of the article or click here.
How does Hypnosis Work?
The results show interesting stuff, but it’s scientific jargon that tells us, few people are hypnotisable, and there’s a small change in brain state when those few people are in the state of mind that the researchers call hypnosis. In addition, the hypnosis tests themselves include a disclaimer that there isn’t consistency to hypnotisability, and different circumstances may produce different results. Therefore, it’s difficult to determine whether hypnosis will “work” on you, and if so, what the brain state will help you achieve.
Hypnosis, like meditation, and many medications (specifically those prescribed for anxiety and depression) work in ways that we cannot always explain. Also without formal definition, meditation is an umbrella term for many practices. Meditation is sometimes described as a mental training technique or an altered state of consciousness achieved from a specific technique. Many people agree that meditation and hypnosis achieve a similar state of mind, although generally the intention of meditation is to clear the mind, strengthening mind control. While hypnosis tends to have a defined purpose and focus. So rather than a clear mind without thought, the user focuses on something specific to achieve a desired goal. Meditation is mostly an independent practice, whereas hypnosis is usually with a hypnotist as the guide – or therapist in most cases.
Susceptibility to Hypnosis
Whether you believe you are susceptible to suggestion or not, corporations spend millions of pounds on advertising because it works. I suspect many of us unknowingly submit to suggestions, despite not wanting to acknowledge it.
With this knowledge, sometimes hypnotists use suggestions if they believe their subject is susceptible and the setting is right. In addition to showman skills and the ability to determine susceptibility, a stage hypnotist will use this trick. However, when a hypnotherapist uses hypnosis, they do so to enhance the therapy they could legitimately use without hypnosis.
Although the researchers of the above study consider few people hypnotisable, there is a lot of benefit generated from the practice of hypnosis, regardless of what brain imagery shows. All hypnotherapists will give anecdotal evidence of a change when they use hypnosis with their clients. Most people report a feeling of deep relaxation, although this isn’t a requirement. There is deeper focus, less swirling of the mind, and a sense of safety with feeling.
In this comfortable state, the therapist will help you improve your interoceptive and introspective knowledge, which helps enhance self-awareness, improve emotional regulation, and improve your understanding of your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. This leads to more effective decision-making and well-being.
You’ll feel less distracted by external stimuli, so it’s easier to focus internally on what you want and need. This will help you set positive intentions and create realistic plans.
If necessary, the improved concentration combined with an effective therapeutic relationship will produce an ideal environment for you to feel comfortable accessing and processing suppressed emotions to start or continue a healing journey.
When you understand the hypnotic process, you can use it independently, every day, to reap the benefits of meditation – of which there are many.
When the researchers looked at the brain imagery of the highly hypnotisable participants in hypnosis, they found
- Reduced activity in the part of the brain that deals with cognition and motion control (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex).
- Significantly enhanced connectivity between the parts of the brain (the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the left insular cortex and the right supramarginal gyrus) which,
- Maintain control processes that help you plan, organise, pay attention, make decisions, and manage your behaviour to achieve goals (executive functions).
- House the sense that allows you to perceive and understand your internal bodily sensations and states, such as hunger, thirst, pain, and emotions (interoception).
- Deal with sensory processing.
- Manage perceptual self awareness.
- Emotionally guide your social behaviour.
- Execute language perception and processing respectively.
- Reduced activity in the part of the brain responsible for attentional control, specifically evaluating context, such as anxiety about what you should attend to and what you can ignore (dorsal anterior cingulate cortex).
- Increased connectivity between the two parts of your brain involved in the processing of body control and experience, emotion, empathy, self reflection, self monitoring, self regulation and pain processing. The researchers suggest this increased connectivity may reflect the increased ability to engage in tasks with reduced anxiety (bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the ipsilateral insula).
- The final finding for the highly hypnotisable participants was an unexpected decoupling of the default mode network and the executive control network during hypnosis. The researchers believe this dissociation between the ECN and DMN in response to hypnotic induction likely reflects engagement in the hypnotic state and associated detachment from internal mental processes, such as mind wandering and self-reflection, and is a positive sign, as it reinforces the idea of hypnosis as a different state of consciousness, rather than a reduced level of arousal – i.e. relaxation.
What is Hypnosis Put Simply?
Simply, the highly hypnotisable participants show increased functional connectivity between the executive control network and the salience network, and reduced connectivity between the executive control network and the default mode network. These changes underlie the focused attention, enhanced somatic and emotional control, and lack of self-consciousness that characterises hypnosis.
In the low hypnotisable participants, there was a decoupling of the default mode network and the executive control network.