Hypnosis: An Altered State of Consciousness


When we hear the word hypnosis, we may picture a mysterious hypnotist figure swinging a pocket watch back and forth and the subject is compelled to obey, no matter how strange or immoral the request. Hypnotized subjects are not slaves to their "masters" - they have absolute free will. They are not really in a semi-sleep state- they are actually hyperattentive. People have been arguing over hypnosis for more than 200 years, but science has yet to answer how it actually happens. Recently it has been showing promise in the treatment of many disorders.

What is Hypnosis?

The term “hypnosis” is derived from the Ancient Greek word for “sleep” (“hypnos”). Hypnosis is a psychological state characterized by increased receptiveness and responsiveness, relaxation and heightened imagination. It is not precisely like sleep because the subject remains conscious during the process. The person focuses intently on the subject at hand. In conventional hypnosis, we follow the suggestions of the hypnotist, or our own ideas, as if they were real. Hypnosis has the power to alter both body and mind and people experience an altered state of consciousness during this phenomenon. In patients who can be easily hypnotized, hypnosis sessions have been shown to be effective in lessening chronic pain, the pain of childbirth and other medical procedures, treating smoking addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder, and easing anxiety or phobias.

The neuropsychological basis of hypnosis involves two main elements: induction and suggestions. The hypnotic induction is the phase when a person is guided into the hypnotic state, though what it should consist of is still a matter of debate. Hypnotic suggestions are typically expressed as implications that elicit seemingly involuntary responses from the participants, who do not believe they have much, or any, control over the situation. Researchers have found that hypnosis is one of the trusted non-drug treatments for weight loss, depression, and many other conditions, compared to cognitive behavioural therapy. Those who undergo cognitive behavioural therapy coupled with hypnosis, tend to lose significantly more weight. Hypnosis can create a highly relaxed state of inner concentration and focused attention for patients and the technique can be used in cognitive behavioural therapy. Patients also can practice by learning to hypnotize themselves at home to reduce chronic pain, improve sleep or alleviate some symptoms of depression or anxiety.

What Does Science Say About Hypnosis?

So, what is the scientific explanation behind the actual mechanism happening in the brain when we fall into a state of hypnosis? The anterior cingulate cortex, the area of the brain involved in resolving conflict and competing demands and the visual cortex become less active. According to the researchers, the activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate decreases, which is a region involved in cognition and motor control. Second, there is an increase in connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula, which constitutes a brain-body connection that helps the brain process and regulates essential bodily systems. The insula controls autonomic functions, whereas the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is involved in cognition, memory and decision-making. The connectivity between the default mode network and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is minimized, leading to a disconnection between an individual’s actions and awareness of those actions. Less connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network appears to be a reason behind hypnosis.

Applications of Hypnosis

The benefit of hypnotherapy over straight therapy is that the hypnotherapist bypasses the critical mind and directly targets habits, behaviours and ways of thinking and doing things that are embedded in the subconscious. Hypnotherapy is used to treat substance abuse, phobias, anxiety disorders. It is also used for pain management. Hypnosis has often been used in attempts to stop smoking and it is highly regarded in the management of otherwise intractable pain, including that of terminal cancer. It is considered as a therapeutic method among medical and psychological communities.

An in-depth understanding of hypnosis research has been advanced in the past century, but the phenomenon is still a mystery. It has become clear that hypnosis reveals unique insights into how the human mind works. This includes fundamental aspects of human nature, such as how our beliefs affect our perception of the world and how we come to experience control over our actions. A deeper understanding of this technique can pave the way for groundbreaking research into the use of hypnosis for medicinal purposes.