How Hypnosis Works

We usually associate hypnosis with a zombie-like state, in which the person is highly susceptible to the will of the hypnotizer. In reality that is actually not the case. The process must be voluntary to begin with. To be hypnotized you must be focused and relaxed. While being in this state, maybe you’ll seem sleepy (hypnos means sleep in Ancient Greek) but your mind is actually in a state of focused attention.

The magician Byrne Perkins, left, using hypnosis on Herbert Easley in 1952

There are two main theories that try to explain what being hypnotized means psychologically:

  1. Altered state – this theory suggests that being hypnotized puts a person in altered state of consciousness, where the mental processes work differently (similar to the state between being awake and asleep)
  2. Non state – this theory explains hypnosis as a result of intense focus and expectations you have about it, something like intense childlike role-play

A bit of history

Meditation and inducing the state of trance have been part of many cultures during history. The term and modern hypnotism emerged during the 18th century. The rise was partially attributed to the German doctor named Franz Mesmer. Mesmer had great interest in astronomy. His studies led him to propose a theory that there was an energetic transference that occurs between all living and non-lining things. He called it animal magnetism, later referred as mesmerism – thus the term mesmerizing.

V0011094EB A Mesmerist using Animal Magnetism on a female patient
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Mesmer believed that he could heal all kinds of ills by adjusting that flow of energy. He used relaxing music, dim lights, magnets and hand gestures (probably his pocket watch also), to induce trance-like states in his patients and to balance their “fluids”. Some of them actually got better after his treatments and of course, scientific community was all over the subject. But when they put it to the test, results were pretty clear that magnetic fluid was not actually a thing. Mesmer’s research was discredited, but the interest for the subject didn’t fade.

James Braid began to study the subject in the 1850’s and its therapeutic appliances. At first he was skeptical, but keeping an open mind, like all good scientists do, he decided to dabble more into it a try it a few times. Braid noticed that he could affect his patients’ sensory functions by just concentrating their attention to a small bright object. He coined the term hypnosis to describe the trance-like state. Braid had a rational outlook with a scientific approach to Mesmer’s works. He successfully treated patients with different mental issues, but as he liked to highlight, not all disorders could be fixed using a single technique. That doesn’t reduce the impact of his work, as many psychologists and clinical therapists were inspired by it and carried on his legacy.

Science of hypnosis

Clinical hypnosis looks nothing like flashy gimmicks usually seen on TV. It’s pretty simple actually. Focus is required, so the process usually takes place in a dimly lit, quiet place. The therapist encourages the patient to focus on something and leads him through relaxation exercises. The point of all this is for patient to reach a state of focused relaxation, allowing him to be more open to suggestion. Therapist then guides the person through certain instructions or visualizations, depending on the end goal of hypnotherapy.

Certain people are more susceptible to hypnosis while others are not. These differences occur because of the variations in brain anatomy. MRI scans have shown that people who are easily hypnotized have a bigger rostrum.
Our brains depend on electrochemical energy to function, because well, that’s how neurons communicate. Using an electroencephalogram or EEG, scientists have managed to measure the activity of the brain during hypnosis and changes in brainwaves. They found that hypnosis leads to an increase of theta waves. These waves are linked to focus and visualization and their activity can be observed during daydreaming, while being extremely focused and during REM sleep.

by Ben Raynal

Okay, so that’s what hypnosis does, but how do therapists use it as a tool to help their patients? How do suggestions have such an effect on them? It has to do with something called top-down processing. Our brains receive big amounts of sensory information about the world around us every moment we’re awake. It takes a lot of processing and interpretation to actually know what’s going on. What you expect to happen based on your memories, previous experiences and assumptions has an effect on what you perceive with your senses. It’s kinda like an automated response of the brain to certain inputs. For example, if you drive more than 5 years, you probably won’t think about every action your body makes whilst controlling the vehicle. You can drive and think about you can do tomorrow or about that piece of cake waiting in the fridge. Brain expects that vehicle will behave in the way it behaved thousands of times before, automating the physical part of driving, thus leaving more resources for other activities.
These automated responses can tell the therapist a lot about his patient and where certain problems stem from, and with visualizations and suggestions they can guide their patient through their mind to actualize certain underlying issues and solve them.

This “automatic” property of the brain gets quite interesting when you see it work in other life circumstances. For instance, an experiment was performed where the researchers gave the participants to try two wines, one labeled cheap and other labeled expensive. The trick was that both the cheap and the expensive wine were actually the same. Majority of participants said that they enjoyed expensive one more – their expectations changed their perception of reality. As you can probably assume, this behavior of the brain is the base of placebo effect.

by Jesse Orrico

Hypnosis and its principles are used in various psychological and medical treatments. Some surgeons use it to reduce pain and anxiety in their patients, even during childbirth. Various behavioral therapies include elements of hypnotherapy and are used in treatments for different conditions (PTSD, depression, certain addictions, etc.). Hypnosis is not a miracle cure, its efficiency differs among people and it cannot treat all illnesses, but it is a powerful tool. It can help certain people to overcome their mental obstacles, diminish bad habits, relieve from pain and anxiety. Aside from the practical applications, the effects of hypnosis can tell us more about how that curious jelly thing in our skulls works too.