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When using hypnosis, one person (the subject) is guided by another (the hypnotist) to respond to suggestions for changes in subjective experience, alterations in perception, sensation, emotion, thought or behavior. There is considerable debate as to whether the induction of hypnosis constitutes an 'altered state of consciousness'. Hypnosis is a well-validated treatment for pain, and it can be adjunctively be used to increase the effectiveness of other types of treatments. As well as being interesting in its own right hypnosis is increasingly being used a research tool in psychology.
The kinds of definitions that are offered for hypnosis tend to depend heavily on the author's theoretical perspective. Within the field there has been a robust debate about whether hypnosis constitutes an 'altered state of consciousness', that is, whether an individual's consciousness is altered by becoming hypnotised. Regardless of whether hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness, many of the interesting effects of hypnosis are brought about by suggestion - a hypnotised person is typically given suggestions to experience changes in sensation or perception. So we can usefully split hypnosis and hypnotic procedures into two basic elements - Trance and Suggestion.
Without taking sides in the theoretical debate, the term 'trance' can still be helpful when thinking about hypnosis if we use it in its 'weaker' version. That is, if we use the term in the way we might in everyday language to denote a 'state of mind', such as being happy or sad, interested or bored, attentive or disinterested. To be useful though, we need an operational definition of the term 'trance' and one we find helpful is as follows:
Trance is a particular frame of mind characterised by: i) Focused attention ii) Disattention to extraneous stimuli iii) Absorption in some activity, image, thought or feeling
Some people, high hypnotisables, are able to enter the desired state quickly, either spontaneously or through a hypnotic procedure. Hypnotic procedures are generally facilitated by: i) encouraging the subject to be non-analytical in their thinking ii) increasing the subjects motivation and willingness to actively involve themselves with the procedures iii) raising subjects expectancies of a positive outcome
Here we will consider only hypnotic suggestibility, as measured by hypnotisability scales, and the types of suggestions which typically appear on these scales. One definition of suggestion is:
The verbal communications that the hypnotist uses to achieve these effects are termed "suggestions". Suggestion differ from everyday kinds of instructions in that a "successful" response is experienced by the subject as having a quality of involuntariness or effortlessness.
One widely held belief is that achieving this 'hypnotic state' facilitates responsiveness to suggestion. It is important to remember though that while this might be the case people do respond to suggestions of the sort given in hypnosis without being taken through a hypnotic procedure first. It is also important to note that the well-known phenomena of hypnosis are not "spontaneous". They are produced by suggestion and are experienced as being involuntary.
The 'trance state' as defined above is produced through instructions - which the subject follows voluntarily. The induction of a hypnotic state without the introduction of suggestions (except possibly relaxation) is sometimes called 'neutral hypnosis'.
Suggestions are often accompanied by appropriate imagery but the following effects can be produced by direct suggestion without imagery: • Relaxation • Arm levitation • Analgesia • Amnesia • Post hypnotic suggestion
Hypnosis as a tool in research
Clinical uses of hypnosis