What is hypnosis?

But what actually is ‘hypnosis’?
What were all these people trying to achieve by using it and does it work?

The British Society of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis describes it as follows:

“In therapy, hypnosis usually involves the person experiencing a sense of deep relaxation with their attention narrowed down, and focused on appropriate suggestions made by the therapist”

Hypnosis has been around for a long time. It has been used to develop creativity and to improve public performance; athletes and sports professionals have used it to improve their sporting abilities; sales people, trainers and managers use it to increase business success and there have been great advances with it in the field of medicine, psychology and pain management. There are over 11,000 research studies on hypnosis and hypnotherapy cited on PubMed – the world’s largest database on scientific research. Despite this, the General Public, tend to have very specific views on what they think hypnosis is or isn’t. There are those who have used it for therapeutic reasons such as dealing with phobias or anxieties, who will swear it is the best thing since sliced bread. There are those who have also used it for therapeutic reasons such as giving up smoking who have found it useless. There are those who see it as a form of entertainment!

However, thanks to scientific advancement, we do have an advantage over the earlier practitioners of hypnosis in we now have the ability to measure the electrical activity of the brain to identify what is happening in the brain whilst in different states. This has identified four main types of brain waves.

Beta Waves (15-40 cycles per second)
These are characteristic of an engaged and focused mind. A person taking part in active conversation would be in Beta rhythm as would someone teaching or debating.

Alpha Waves (9-14 cycles per second)
These are slower than the above and represent a less aroused state. For example, if we had been busy doing something complicated, we might sit down afterwards to have a rest and at this point we would go into Alpha rhythm, a more relaxed state of mind. Alpha waves are not present when we’re in a deep sleep, highly aroused or experiencing fear or anger, they are present at times of creativity or productive problem-solving and during lighter hypnosis and guided meditation.

Theta Waves (4-8 cycles per second)
These are present when we’re feeling very calm; in medium to deep hypnosis; dreaming and in some meditative states. Theta rhythm is associated with our subconscious mind where we hold all our past experiences, thought and behaviour patterns. You’ll have experienced this depth of brain wave activity on many occasions, daydreaming for example, or brushing your teeth as part of your daily routine. Ever experienced driving the car from A to B, arrived at B and not remembered doing the journey? That’s Theta rhythm. But if someone had jumped out in front of the car or you suddenly realised you had no idea where you were going, your brain would have automatically switched to Beta rhythm to drive safely. We often have good ideas on long or repetitive journeys or whilst doing some other familiar activity, because we’re not having to think about anything else, therefore we can mentally switch off and indulge in creativity.

Delta Waves (1-4 cycles per second)
These are produced in our subconscious mind and when we are in our slowest, deepest state of rest. This is a state of detached awareness, sleep and possibly representative of very deep hypnosis. Dreamless sleep will take you down to the lowest frequency of 2 or 3 cycles per second but never to zero as this is the state of being brain-dead! If brain scans of clients were taken during a hypnosis session, Alpha and Theta waves would be seen since these are the ones which enable access to the subconscious mind.

Accessing the subconscious mind is the basis of the success of hypnosis.
What Hypnosis is NOT is Mind control.

A lot of people are suspicious and concerned about being ‘placed’ in a trance state. For the majority of people, their experiences of hypnosis are centred around entertainment, films or fiction. If this is their only frame of reference then it would seem hypnosis is all about somebody else controlling them – telling them what to do and say – with them having very little choice about it. Understandably, this is a frightening concept as no-one likes the thought of letting somebody else control their mind. But the slowing down of our brain waves is, in fact, a very natural, normal occurrence and happens several times a day without us even realising it.
It is not something you can get trapped in – that is the stuff of fiction. If we’re in a naturally ‘hypnotic’ state, such as driving down that familiar stretch of road, and somebody in front of us suddenly stopped, we would snap out of that state and react accordingly. If we were daydreaming whilst brushing our teeth and our child called to us for help, we would naturally ‘come to’ and be able to respond. Nor is it a case of somebody else being able to control us, even in the case of a stage hypnotist. If the chosen member of the audience felt uncomfortable, with the hypnotist’s suggestions, for whatever reason, it wouldn’t work. The key to any hypnosis session is the subject is open to being hypnotised, whether that’s them wanting their 15 minutes of fame (despite knowing they are likely to be told to do something silly) or wanting results therapeutically. The perfect example of this is the person who saw a hypnotherapist to give up smoking and it didn’t work. The most likely reason it didn’t work is because the subject only went, because friends and family were begging him to. Unless he categorically wanted to give up himself, he wouldn’t have been open to the hypnosis.

Being in a hypnotic state quietens the conscious, analytical, rational, thinking part of the mind (the Neo-cortex) in order to gain direct communication with the subconscious, emotional part. It sounds odd, but we naturally dip in and out of these two parts of our mind hundreds of times a day, within a split second. Think about the differences between how you feel when you’re actively having to think about something and when you’re doing something which requires no thinking at all, such as scrolling through Facebook or Instagram?

There is constant communication between the two parts of our brains, but we’re not consciously aware or ‘in control’ of that communication. So much so that entering into a hypnotic state is a very natural normal part of everyday life – if we lived in a calm, non-pressurised society, we would naturally be in this state for roughly twenty minutes every hour and a half, as discovered in a study by American psychologist, Ernest Rossi in 2002 (Mednick et al). It is difficult to be specific about what it feels like to be in a hypnotic state because everybody experiences it differently, but when it happens, people generally feel:

  • Deeply relaxed
  • Very focused on one thing
  • Their mind wanders
  • A bit distanced from their actual surroundings
  • That time passes in an illogical way
  • Very open to positive suggestions

We know natural hypnosis is:

  • Something that happens all the time when we’re awake, several times a day
  • A communication between the two parts of our mind we’re not usually aware of  that varies considerably depending on the depth and quality of the trance