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How Does Hypnosis Work

QUESTION: How does hypnosis work?


Hypnosis works by bringing a subject into a peculiar state of consciousness with reduced peripheral awareness accompanied by strictly focused attention. James Braid coined the word hypnosis, meaning “nervous sleep,” from the Greek word hypnos, which means sleep. In actuality, hypnosis is not sleep. Clinically speaking, hypnosis differs from sleep in the level of alpha brain waves. Alpha brain waves are measured low during sleep, but high during hypnosis. In addition, a hypnotized person can hear; the sleeping person cannot.

Modern views of hypnosis indicate that persons are born with a certain level of “hypnotizability.” This ability or ease in entering what is known as the “trance” state, cannot be enhanced or increased. A person is a “good subject,” having a higher level of hypnotizability, or a “poor subject,” having a low or no ability to enter the trance. A clinician may induce a patient to enter the “trance state;” he or she will then train the subject to be able to enter this state of consciousness on their own.

Hypnosis should not be confused with sleep, meditation or relaxation, though it may appear to mimic these other states of consciousness. Meditation emphasizes an inward focus, within oneself; hypnosis works by having the subject focus on something outside of oneself. Subjects who are hypnotizable score high in imaginative activities. And contrary to common perception, the “best subjects” are those who are highly independent, intelligent and creative, not those who are malleable and submissive.

Hypnosis is best described by what happens to the subject during this trance state, whether self-induced or other-imposed. The hypnotized individual, while existing in a particular place in time, must be able to project his or herself to “another place” in time. This does not mean entering the future or past, though common beliefs about hypnosis assert that this is possible. The “other place” is simply a focus other than the present situation; the present situation and all of the surrounding environment is exchanged for sharply directed attention in or on a particular place or thing. The subject may be “outside” of himself but is still in total control. The “self” is still monitoring the proceedings, making sure that nothing untoward is happening while he or she is in the trance state.

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