The term hypnosis describes an altered state of consciousness, which includes deep relaxation coupled with a trance-like state of heightened suggestibility. The hypnotist brings people into this state gradually, by using set phrases to help people relax their minds and bodies: “Relax … your eyelids are so very heavy … your muscles are becoming more and more relaxed … your breathing is becoming deeper and deeper … relax … your eyes are closing … let go … relax.”
The Hypnotic State
People who are in a hypnotic state show a number of distinct features: Highly focused attention. Increased ability to imagine whatever they are told. Heightened suggestibility, including a willingness to respond to suggested change in their perceptions. They can tune out virtually all other things around them.
In a hypnotic state, they can even taste an onion as if it were an apple, if so instructed. They can be convinced they are standing at the edge of an ocean and literally feel the waves touching their toes and smell the salt in the air.
Decreased Responsiveness to Pain
What is perhaps most intriguing is that people who are hypnotized also show a decreased responsiveness to pain. Hypnosis can be especially beneficial in helping people manage pain in cases in which patients have considerable fear and anxiety, such as during dental procedures or childbirth.
If we look at the available data, only about 10% of the population is generally categorized as ‘highly hypnotizable’, while others are less able to enter the trance-like state of hypnosis. There are, however, other deep relaxation techniques that anyone can learn to use on themselves.
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Deep Relaxation Guidance
Researchers in one study assigned patients who were undergoing a surgical procedure to one of three conditions. Some patients received standard attention from doctors and nurses. Others, in a second group, received extra attention from a dedicated nurse in the operating room. People in the third group were given specific instructions designed to induce a state of deep relaxation while they were on the operating table immediately before their procedure.
They were guided through various deep breathing exercises and told to focus on some type of pleasant experience; a place in nature or being with friends and family.
They were also told that at any time during the surgery, they could ‘float away’ to this safe place. The effects were remarkable. Patients who received the deep relaxation guidance needed less pain medication, had more stable vital signs during the surgery, and left the operating room faster.
Mind-Body Relaxation More Effective
What led to these effects? Patients who received the deep relaxation condition showed more improvements than those in the group receiving extra attention, suggesting something about the mind-body relaxation guidance was particularly effective.
This extra guidance may also have given patients a much-needed sense of control, which may be especially beneficial in what is typically a low- or no-control situation.
Benefits of Hypnosis
So, how exactly do deep relaxation and hypnosis lead to all of these benefits? Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine found that hypnosis actually leads to changes in a few specific areas of the brain.
They recruited two groups of people—some who were highly hypnotizable, meaning they found it very easy to enter the trance-like state of hypnosis—and others who were very low on this ability.
People who are easily able to be hypnotized basically seem to be very open to the power of suggestion; these are people who also become easily absorbed in movies or novels and have rich fantasy lives and active imaginations.
Three Distinct Patterns of Brain Activity
Then they examined brain activity using fMRI imaging in each of the study participants under three different conditions: while resting, while recalling a memory, and while undergoing a guided hypnosis session.
Their findings revealed three distinct patterns of brain activity in people who were highly hypnotizable, roughly 10% of the population while undergoing hypnosis: less focus on the environment around them, stronger links between the brain and body, a disconnect between their actions and their awareness of actions.
All of these findings tell us why the changes induced by hypnosis can be so beneficial for people during medical procedures. People who are hypnotized aren’t paying attention to what’s actually happening to their bodies. Instead, they are dissociating or separating their mind, which is focused on the hypnotist’s instructions, from whatever’s happening to their body.
Recovering Hidden Memories
Hence, there are many benefits of hypnosis especially to help people reach an altered state of consciousness, but it’s also important to recognize its limits. It has often been believed—wrongly—that hypnosis can also be used to help people recover hidden memories.
The theory behind this belief is that all of our experiences, or at least all our important experiences, are pristinely stored somewhere in the brain, and that an altered state of consciousness can help us gain access to these memories. But this just isn’t accurate.
In reality, because people who are in a hypnotized state are highly suggestible, attempts to help people recover memories can actually, much more likely, end up creating false memories.
Hypnosis leads to a deep state of relaxation as well as a trance-like state. But the benefits of hypnosis can be found without this heightened openness to suggestions simply through practicing meditation, another technique for reaching an altered state of consciousness.
Common Questions about Hypnosis
Hypnosis can be especially beneficial in helping people manage pain in cases in which patients have considerable fear and anxiety, such as during dental procedures or childbirth.
If we look at the available data, only about 10% of the population is generally categorized as ‘highly hypnotizable’, while others are less able to enter the trance-like state of hypnosis.
Because people who are in a hypnotized state are highly suggestible, attempts to help people recover memories can actually, much more likely, end up creating false memories.