Let's do the hokey pokey

By Val Lewis


Want to give up smoking? Work on your sports motivation? Maybe explore your memories for clues to a forgotten password? People all over the globe will turn to hypnosis and hypnotherapists for help with just such problems as these, and many more. But despite over 50 years of research and study, not to mention at least a hundred years of practice, do we really understand what it is all about?

Is it regularly taught at university? What are the accepted understandings? Looking first to any standard dictionary to reveal one version, a typical definition would read (this one from the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary):

"a state in which a person appears to be fully conscious but can be influenced to perform certain actions or say certain things."

But, we now might ask, is it a state? How do we define "conscious"? Or influenced? As usual, the dictionary definition tells us something about current popular and accepted understanding of (in this instance) hypnosis, but little more.

The word "hypnosis" refers, in our western contemporary world, to a field of study, a system of practice, and also for many as reflected in the dictionary, a "state". The field is divided into a number of camps. In the first there are the stage hypnotists and the fanciful creatures of film and novel depicting hypnotists as Svengalian figures who place subjects under their almost magical control. Next, are the lay hypnotist practitioners who after some accredited training (accredited by themselves) in "how to do it", provide hypnotic therapy for such things as bad habits and confidence building. Then there are the "qualified" hypnotist practitioners, e.g. doctors and psychologists and dentists who study hypnosis at accredited courses (accredited by themselves) and also use hypnosis as a therapeutic tool but for a wider range of problems, because the qualifications allegedly make them more knowledgeable about how to do this. And finally, there are the researchers, who are split, like the early Christians, into ideological belief systems as to the fundamental nature of the "object" of study.

So what are the researchers arguing about? In essence, they are debating the "truth" of hypnotic phenomena: Do hypnotic phenomena reflect or result from a dissociative state or process, or is hypnosis more of a context-linked, expectancy-influenced construction? The evidence from the controlled atmospheres of university laboratories mounts up on either side, neither side talks about "trance" any more, and the only agreement is that some people appear to be very good at being "hypnotised". Some researchers believe they have demonstrated that "hypnotised" people are indistinguishable from people who "fake" it, and that many of the hypnotic phenomena (such as amnesia) are context-cued. Others believe these studies are too simplistic in interpretation.

So what of this notion of trance which researchers now appear to largely discard as a construct? People who are captured by the romantic aspects of the idea of trance, as well as practitioners, both of the lay and the qualified variety, who are convinced they witness it in their therapy rooms, will point to historical evidence for this notion. Think, they will say, of dervishes, of oracles, of voodoo, of speaking in tongues, of the magnetism demonstrations of Mesmer. Surely all this shows that such a phenomenon exists and always has?

But what we are truly speaking of here is the history of a discourse. This 200 year old discourse infers the existence of some unitary state of mind to explain behaviours and subjective verbal reports that are displayed in certain contexts (most frequently ritual in its infinite variety), as if that inferred state were a reality, and further, that such a state can be induced by an expert.

So, looking for some physiological data, researchers have sought but have not found any firm neurological evidence for such a state, only for a variety of neurological differences between people who are seen to be highly "susceptible/suggestible" and those that are not. People who are highly hypnotisable, more recent neurological data suggests, do appear to have a different brain state when they are considered to be hypnotised than when they are not, although the definition of being hypnotised varies amongst researchers in the different camps and the jury is really still out. But one might wonder why this should be so important? Should we be surprised if people with excellent skills of any sort show themselves to look a little different neurologically when practicing these skills?

But practitioners will assure you that people who have experienced what is called deep hypnosis will report an involuntary experience of some sort. So, does this have to mean that they have entered a special, altered state of mind that somehow creates this experience? Looking at the discourse of hypnosis induction, one encounters volumes of terminology as "deeper and deeper", "sleepy", "unconscious", "going under", etc. all of which would tend to propose that the hypnotic experience is happening to the subject and is uncontrolled rather than purposive or goal-directed on the part of the client. People report feeling that they were not in control of what was happening and it felt involuntary. But, if one asked movie-goers to report on the subjective experience of being lost in a film or in reverie, they would no doubt also report that it felt involuntary.

It is a daily experience that many of our cognitive processes are out of our awareness.When a person suddenly and out of the blue, while doing something else entirely, recalls a word or name for which they'd been searching, they would report no sense of voluntariness about this process. Further, it is unlikely that anyone would attribute this to some altered state of mind. Should the same person, however, be placed in an hypnotic context, with a hypnotist and an "induction" and all the expectations and social demands that go with it, then experiences much like this involuntary sudden remembering of a word, or of being lost in a film or in a reverie would now be attributed to the ritual that preceded it - the hypnotic "induction" - and of course the skill of the hypnotist who does the induction.

In short, hypnosis might be seen as a ritualized context in which people are expected and are encouraged, through the mediation of language and gesture, to utilize their varying abilities with attentiveness, imaginative focussing, and to suspend belief systems regarding the importance of logical thinking, perceived voluntarism and the separation of mind from body. Some people are virtuosos in this respect, and are called "high hypnotizables" in the experimental literature. Most of us are reasonably good at it, and a few are dreadful, much as is the case with musicianship and other creative abilities. This natural human skill does not have to be explained by "trance" or "induction" or special states other than when we artificially set this up as a context, and bring into that context our 200 year old discourse of hypnosis.

Mind over matter, psychosomatics, placebo effects, faith healing and hypnotic phenomena might all be seen as providing metaphors of the amazing human ability to utilise our complex socio-biological systems in the construction of our perceived realities. The hypnosis experience is a distinct example of a language game (in the Wittgensteinian sense of this idea, not a word game or game like tennis) in which both participants have understandings and expectations that derive from and are associated with the context. Hypnotherapists are as much influenced by inherent assumptions, expectations, and culturally embedded understandings as are their clients. Together they participate in an elaborate discourse of ritual and between them they create the experience.

It is a sad observation that in our apparently enlightened times, our various versions of "truth" are destined to be turned into systems of control and power. Hence we see that schools of thought lead on to the development of regulatory bodies with vested interest in maintaining, protecting and promoting a particular understanding, whether this be in the form of political governments, or as regulators of human therapies. As a consequence, courses and programmes involving many years of training in how to become an "expert", such as an accredited hypnotist, have been established. These are useful for various levels of professional leverage and may be understood in terms of current socio-political discourses (as discussed and critiqued in the contemporary writings of poststructural and postmodern thinkers.)

In other cultures, the traditional healer, the shaman and other personages of perceived power who are seen to have much training in and special knowledge of "truth", might also trade on the amazing skills that their human clients/subjects/patients bring to the ritual to create "involuntary" performances in the physiological and/or cognitive domains.

Such skills have assisted human beings,with or without the added attractions of rituals or hypnotists or shamans, to create many wonders, from magnificant daydreams to stigmata, to multiple personalities, from great paintings to cosmologies. But only when we are placed in a ritual context are such skills then attributed to special states of mind that are "induced" by an expert. If we can manage to shake ourselves loose from the illusory necessity of such expertise, and from the notions of some unitary mind-state, the "hypnotherapist" may have a new role: that of a skilled collaborator who steps into the language world of his clients to assist (in an agreed partnership without the trappings of power and control) in this wonderful process in which the clients and therapists move away from "voluntariness" and "logic" into a world of poetics, healing and creation (anyone who has witnessed films of the late Milton Erickson"s work may have seen the pioneering of this type of creative collaboration and a freeing-up of traditional notions of "trance").

These "mind over matter" creative skills are shared across all cultures and are most readily demonstrated by young children. While these are accepted and sit comfortably in the belief systems of other cultures where they may be practiced and encouraged, our western versions of truth, with its language games of science and reductionism, tend to suppress or minimize their importance or even their existence. Except, of course, when they are allowed to see the light of day in ritual contexts and under the "control" of well paid "experts", or in religious and spiritual performances.

So we may say that the endless debates and decades of research into the "nature" of the "truth" of such intriguing human capabilities as hypnotic phenomena have left us with just about as many questions as we started with. To try to pin down the "truth" of what we share in the hypnosis experience places us into an age old attribution dichotomy between what is "really there" from what is constructed, and one might well question the usefulness of this line of thinking. But it is also the curiosity that lies behind such questions that assists us as therapists to work creatively with our clients and for researchers and theorists to be incredulous about current conceptualisations. And so we may hope that this primate characteristic of curiosity will move us past the age-old dichotomies and discourses and into less rigid ways of relating to and talking about all psychological phenomena that interest.


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