Though hypnotic dissociation should be considered an invention of Western culture, it is not entirely part of its mainstream. Except for a small number of people who attempt to draw on its supposed usefulness, hypnosis falls well outside the usual cultural context of dissociative trance induction. Most often, these contexts are religious. But there is hardly anything “religious” about it, or at least not as we generally perceive religion. As a mode for amplifying one’s dissociative capabilities, hypnosis can be traced to the thinking of certain people in the late eighteenth century when it was called artificial somnambulism, or magnetic sleep. In 1843, James Braid introduced the term to the world. Among the many other influential figures influential in shaping our understanding of the principle were; Jacques Puységur, the physician Franz Mesmer, Louis Charpignon, J. P. Deleuze, psychologist Pierre Janet, Hipolyte Bernheim, and neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot.
Early workers in this area were intrigued by the way in which some people were prone to spontaneous somnambulism, which was typically followed in the waking state by amnesia. From the outset, therefore, it was apparent that hypnosis is a very natural and easily entered state, especially in certain individuals who seemed highly predisposed. It was also observable that memory inhibition was somehow involved in the phenomenon under investigation.
Some of the first observers of the occurrence also noticed that it could be of a natural or artificial type. People who spontaneously entered a somnambulistic state were often unaware of its purpose. As a result the state lacked the content or the structure generally associated with hypnosis. It was, as if the subject were waiting for something. Researchers also recognized another dimension, which concerned the relationship between the subject and the operator, and in particular, the methods by which suggestions were delivered to the readied subject. This then, reinforces what was stated earlier, namely that, without suggestion, all that one has as a result of the induction process is a content-less state of dissociation. As Hilgard aptly notes, hypnosis is a state of dissociation characterized by a readiness to respond.
The person, once dissociated, must be steered or guided by suggestions from the operator following successful induction. In religious settings, the suggestions that follow on the heels of dissociative trance are proffered by “operators” known as priests, shamans, ministers, etc. Again, suggestions should be viewed as essential, and complementary, to the dissociation process. After the subject has been induced, they must be assisted in order to know what to do or experience during the state. Even though we tend to speak of the “state” of dissociation, it is basically a non-state, in the sense of being vacuous and content-less. In this regard, it is not yet an altered state until suggestions are provided, this giving the person the material needed to alter reality in one direction or another.
The previous definition of hypnosis described it as a social interaction between two people. It is true that an “authority” known as the operator usually actively directs induction procedures. On the surface, the role of the subject or subjects appears to be passive and mindless, one characterized by obedience to the dictates of this operator. The subject follows not only the instructions used to promote dissociative trance, but also the suggestions that follow. Yet we know that people can enter a dissociated state without the aid of an external agent…
NOTE: It is important to know that dissociation is a common defense mechanism employed by the human mind to avoid or lessen the effect of severe trauma on its own structures and mechanisms.
…This is the case even if the individual has no prior experience with heterohypnosis, or being induced by someone else. From an understanding of self-hypnosis, Ernest Hilgard wisely concludes that heterohypnosis amounts to aided self-induction. On this, he explains, “The person accepts the hypnotist as an aid to hypnotizing himself.” Consistent with this claim, he asserts that the subject plays a very active role, regardless of the mode of induction.
Even though all trance should be viewed as essentially self-induced, the distinction between assisted and unassisted methods of induction will be crucial as we enter into a discussion of religion and psychopathology. While remembering that the potential for trance evolved in order to facilitate reality distortion, we will see that assisted types have more desirable effects than unassisted types. This is especially so when a group provides the assistance in which case the reality distortion is deemed to be religion, and therefore not considered (erroneously) to be a violation of reality. On the other hand, self-induced trance and subsequent self-suggestion entered into in isolation usually yield inferior patterns of reality distortion that are deemed pathological because of their idiosyncratic nature.
Hypnosis is a peculiar invention that falls somewhere between the intended group-assisted and the unassisted methods of trance induction and utilization. Even so, modern hypnotic induction techniques do overlap with those that have been used over the ages by most societies of the world, as well as those of lone trance seekers. They are therefore, worthy of closer examination, especially since they helps us better understand dissociative trance as it is employed in more naturalistic (i.e., religion) settings and private alternatives to religion (i.e., psychopathology and spirituality)