A while back I had the opportunity to again review the works of Milton Ericskon, MD, widely regarded to be the father of modern hypnotherapy, and without a doubt one of the most intuitive psychiatrists
of our age.
Dr. Erickson made some of the greatest advances in hypnosis and hypnotherapy, and nearly single-handedly brought it from the fringes of recognized psychology (not to mention the backrooms stage magic) and into the realm of legitimate therapeutic sciences.
Erickson, in his written works, made little effort to quantify the science he helped to create. Instead, he shares the methods he developed and their effect. Thousands upon thousands of hours of trial and error shared generously in support of healing others.
Several scientists, most notably Ernest L. Rossi. Ph.D., have worked hard to define the bounds of Erickson’s works, attempting to quantify the brilliant and intuitive efforts of a lifetime’s practice into a form the rest of us are able to use to the benefit of ourselves and the people around us.
I have long admired Dr. Erickson’s dedication to healing through guided hypnosis, and so it was to my collection of publications by and/or about him that I turned when I looked to answer a simple request for a plain language explanation of how hypnosis actually works.
Without meaning to disparage the two centuries of work used to develop them, common generic explanations that abound, such as “[Hypnosis is]..a trance state characterized by extreme suggestibility, relaxation and heightened imagination…” can be misleading (any hypnotist knows that while relaxation is helpful in a clinical setting, it is hardly necessary) and do little to explain even the basics of how hypnosis works.
Even the recently updated definition from the Society for Psychological Hypnosis, a division of the American Psychological Association, revised in 2005, is long-winded and does little to actually explain or define.
“Hypnosis typically involves an introduction to the procedure
which the subject is told that suggestions for imaginative
experiences will be presented. The hypnotic induction is an
extended initial suggestion for using one’s imagination, and
may contain further elaborations of the introduction. A
hypnotic procedure is used to encourage and evaluate responses
to suggestions. When using hypnosis, one person (the subject)
is guided by another (the hypnotist) to respond to suggestions
is changes in subjective experience, alterations in perception,
sensation, emotion, thought or behavior. Persons can also learn
self-hypnosis, which is the act of administering hypnotic proc-
edures on one’s own. If the subject responds to hypnotic sugges-
tions, it is generally inferred that hypnosis has been induced.
Many believe that hypnotic responses and experiences are char-
acteristic of a hypnotic state. While some think that it is not
necessary to use the word 'hypnosis' as a part of hypnotic
induction, others view it as essential."
'A New Definition: Hypnosis' Society of Psychological Hypnosis,
Division 30 - American Psychological
A whole lot of words, not much as a definition. Definitions should be simple, easy to understand. They should render complex issues down to their basic substance, allow as many people as possible understanding of the word or concept they define.
I am a hypnotist with a computing and engineering background. I am a tinkerer and garage scientist at heart and I simply refuse to believe that even something as complex as the workings of the human mind cannot be broken down into basic terms that anyone can understand.
For explanations of quantum physics I can follow I watch PBS, for politics I listen to talk radio and for hypnosis I return to the collected works of the Master himself.
It seems to me that, based on Erickson’s work (and finding nothing to the contrary, anywhere) that hypnosis, both simple and complex, works through the interplay of just two components: Focus and Memory.
Focus, in hypnosis, is simple: In a hypnotic trance the subject focuses his or her attention to the exclusion of all else. Environment, physical sensations, even self-awareness take a back seat to the item of the participant’s focus. Focus in a hypnotic trance is the means by which we access the
Memory, in hypnosis, is a bit more complex, but still easy to digest.
Everything we know, all of our reactions to the world, both physical and emotional, are passed through lenses colored by our life of memories.
To paraphrase, we are the sum total of our experiences.
Through the trance, the hypnotist has access to all memories, and with the consent of the subject, can change them, bringing about profound changes in the subject.
What am I talking about? Let me share a brief example:
The process of reframing is one of the most common hypnotic techniques. In reframing a hypnotist takes an undesirable reaction (say, nervousness about flying) and changes it into something more desirable (childlike excitement at trying something new).
What, though, is the process? What is the hypnotist really doing? Simple: He is changing the memories linked to thinking about flying. If he is really effective and well trained, he is deliberately linking flying to recollections of excitement, fun or comfort. The hypnotist makes new memories to do this “…now see yourself walking confidently onto the plane, storing your carry-on bag in a compartment over your seat, getting into your seat. You feel good getting familiar with the seat, figuring out how the buckle works…” .
Little things, all plays on memory and recollection, changing how the subject perceives herself and the world around her. Even the stage cliche’ “you are now a dog…a little dog, you will yip and hop
and act like a dog until I tell you otherwise…” is little more than a command to “behave in the way you remember a dog would act.”
In pain management (the area I first began practicing in) the most successful scripts and hypnotists change the way the body remembers reacting to pain. It is easy for a hypnotist to tell a person (your arm is numb, you can’t feel it) when he really means, “no longer pay attention to your arm” (an aspect of focus), but for chronic pain control it is much better to reframe the way the body reacts to pain, changing the way it remembers reacting.
It is hard to convince the subconscious mind that it is not feeling pain that it is very much feeling.
A subject can ignore it by focusing in a trance, but the pain is always there, waiting to resurface when the subject is no longer distracted.
With just a little more effort a hypnotist can change the subjects recollection of how he reacts to a particular pain, actually forming new neural pathways, turning the pain permanently into something else just a real (say tingling in their right arm or tickling down the leg).
Physical and emotional changes, behavioral and perceptual, all of the things that a hypnotist may effect, through direct or indirect suggestion, are all simply influences to remember something (or the reaction to something) differently.
So, after a somewhat lengthy digression into my influences, let me offer this simple definition:
"Hypnosis is an induced (or self-induced) state of extreme focus
in which the person’s cognitive, physical and emotional memories
become accessible and highly subject to suggestion and/or alter-
This idea has profound implications in the healing process.
Many highly effective hypnotherapists have built successful practices solely around their ability to bring about changes in their clients’ cognitive memory. I wonder, though, is it not better to change how someone reacts to their painful memories (say feeling melancholy and whimsical about a painful childhood event, as opposed to feeling suppressed rage that directs itself toward his children), than it is to fiddle with the cognitive memory of the actual event, effectively denying the reality of the event?
Considering my proposed definition of hypnosis, and in light of my experience with so many of the myriad aspects hypnotherapy, I submit that healing is always best facilitated by acknowledging the truth, helping the client understand the truth, and helping them decide how they wish to react to it.
The treatment of physical discomfort can be best handled the same way, by addressing how the body remembers the way it reacts to a particular physical sensation or pain and reinforcing the changed memory, the hypnotist can, in a lasting way, reframe that sensation or pain and better facilitate the healing process without running the extreme risks inherent in denying that the pain exists.
Agree with me or not, for those practitioners not constitutionally inclined to share my need to simplify the heretofore overly complex approaches to hypnosis that seem so characteristic of our profession, I submit that healing, in the safest, most lasting way, is the highest goal to which we can aspire as hypnotists. Something which we should all work very hard to remember.
Mr. Spillan is a the author of more than two hundred articles about hypnosis, hypnotherapy and has consulted in court cases on several subjects. He ia a regular contributor to the semi-annual anthology The Practice of Hypnosis and Hypnothery, the 2018 Edition of which will be released at the end of November, 2017. An expanded version of this article will be published therein.
He can be reached, through his assistant, at MikeSpillan@XaxisOnline.com.