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What is hypnosis?

Updated: Aug 15, 2022

The phenomenon of hypnosis is defined by two factors:

  • Absorption: A state of relaxed concentration, comparable to the state of flow, and

  • Suggestibility: The ability to accept and act on suggestions given by a hypnotherapist.

Hypnosis works because it allows us to be free from our overly-controlling “conflict monitor” (our hyperactive ACC). This puts us in an extraordinarily relaxed state of mind so we can then concentrate deeply and fully accept positive suggestions for behavioural and attitudinal change.

State and Non-state Perspectives

There are two schools of thought among hypnotherapists with regards to the definition of hypnosis. Hypnotherapists who believe in the state perspective understand hypnosis as an altered state where a person loses consciousness and the ability to control their own actions. Hypnotherapists who subscribe to the non-state perspective see hypnosis as a continuum of everyday consciousness, where the hypnotised individual remains alert and conscious, but becomes increasing relaxed, attentive, suggestible and in tuned with their subconscious.

Those who lean towards New Age philosophies tend to prefer the state explanation because of its associations with mysticism and magic, whereas more scientific-minded individuals prefer the non-state explanation of hypnosis. However, there is a fine line between these two explanations because the experience of hypnosis differs from one individual to the next, and some might feel more conscious while others might experience some level of dissassociation.

But which explanation is more accurate?

As a student of the non-state approach, I know that we neither become unconscious nor lose the ability to control our actions when hypnotised. However, it is difficult to deny that hypnosis is a trance-like experience, which can make it feel like an altered state. Though we still retain control of all our faculties, in hypnosis, the tendency to over-regulate ourselves and to over-monitor our environment is reduced. This enables us let go of our need to control our mental dialogue or environment using familiar, but possibly unhelpful internal messages.

Research has shown that in hypnosis, we get the chance to subdue our anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) – the part of our brain tasked with monitoring conflicts and threats in our environment. The ACC can be likened to our inner critic, dictator or slave driver – that little voice in our heads that bombard us with to-do lists, complaints, criticism, doomsday messages and other negative statements – that voice that’s preoccupied with circumventing real or imagined dangers. An overactive ACC makes us more anxious, self-consciousness and hyper vigilant than we really need to be. In anxious or stressed individuals, this translates to controllingness, scorekeeping, worry, increased neurotic thoughts and behaviours, and tension-relation physical pain and discomfort.

Neuroimaging studies have showed that ACC activity is significantly reduced in hypnotised individuals. This would lend some credibility to the state perspective, which proposes that hypnosis involves an altered brain state.

While numerous scientific studies support the non-state perspective, perhaps the state perspective isn't entirely incorrect either. Hypnosis works because it allows us to be free from our overly-controlling “conflict monitor” (our hyperactive ACC). This puts us in an unusually relaxed state of mind – what students of state hypnosis consider an "altered state of consciousness" – so we can then concentrate on a much deeper level that we normally do, and fully accept positive suggestions for behavioural, attitudinal and mood change.

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