When you hear the term ‘hypnosis’, you may picture the mysterious hypnotist figure popularized in movies, comic books and television. There is an ominous, goateed man who waves a pocket watch back and forth, guiding his subject into a semi-sleep, zombie-like state. Once hypnotised, the subject is compelled to obey, no matter how strange or immoral the request is. Muttering “Yes, master,” the subject does the hypnotist’s evil bidding.
This popular representation bears little resemblance to actual hypnotism, obviously. In fact, modern understanding of hypnosis contradicts this conception on various key points. Subjects in a hypnotic trance are not slaves to their ‘masters’; they have absolute free will. They are not really in a semi-sleep state, they are actually hyper attentive.
People have been pondering and arguing over hypnosis for over 200 years, but science has yet to fully explain how it actually happens. You see what a person does under hypnosis, but it isn’t clear why he or she does it. This puzzle is really a small piece in a much bigger puzzle: how the human mind works. It’s unlikely that scientists will arrive at a definitive explanation of the mind in the foreseeable future, so it’s a good bet hypnosis will remain something of a mystery as well.
But psychiatrists do understand the general characteristics of hypnosis and they have some model of how it works. It is a trance state characterized by extreme suggestibility, relaxation and heightened imagination. It’s not really like sleep, because the subject is alert the whole time.
It is mostly compared to daydreaming or the feeling of ‘losing yourself’ in a book or movie. You are fully conscious, but you tune out most of the stimuli around you. You focus intently on the subject at hand, to the near exclusion of any other thought.
In numerous studies, researchers have compared the physical ‘body signs’ of hypnotic subjects with those of unhypnotized people. In most of these studies, the researchers found no significant physical change associated with the trance state of hypnosis. The subject’s heart rate and respiration may slow down, but this is because of the relaxation involved in the hypnotism process, not the hypnotic state itself.
There does seem to be changed activity in the brain, however. The most notable data comes from electroencephalographs (EEGs), measurements of the electrical activity of the brain. Extensive EEG research has demonstrated that brains produce different types of brain waves, rhythms of electrical voltage, depending on their mental state. For example, deep sleep has a different rhythm than dreaming and full alertness has a different rhythm than relaxation.
In some studies, EEGs from subjects under hypnosis showed a boost in the lower frequency waves associated with dreaming and sleep, and a drop in the higher frequency waves associated with full wakefulness. Brain-wave information is not a definitive indicator of how the mind is operating, but this pattern does fit the hypothesis that the conscious mind backs off during hypnosis and the subconscious mind takes a more active role.
So this was a basic explanation about what hypnosis is actually and how it works. Hope you find it informative and useful.
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