For those who have been involved in the practice of hypnosis, it is difficult to deny that something is taking place in the “mind” of those who undergo the so called “induction process”. The operator or the person conducting the session delivers a set of verbal commands designed specifically to take control of the subject or the person being hypnotized. More often than not this interaction leads to apparent changes in behaviour on the part of the subject. As they sit and listen to the words of the operator they become more relaxed, more withdrawn into what seems like a different state of awareness, and eventually more compliant.
For centuries, since the time of Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, an Austrian physician who in the 18th century claimed to be able to render his patients suggestible to his own will through the use of magnets, weird concoctions, and ritual movements; people have reported experiencing altered states due to the conscious influence of another person. Mesmer called this phenomenon Animal Magnetism. He believed that every individual had their own magnetic flow, which when disturbed could manifest as different maladies. Furthermore, he believed himself able to perceive this flow and to be able to affect it through some of the techniques mentioned before.
Mesmerism, as it would eventually come to be known and whence the term “mesmerized” comes, has since been relegated into the obscure circles of esoteric practices and magic. However, the reports of altered state of mind induced by seemingly well-versed operators have not been limited by this relegation. Even today a Google search for “hypnosis clinics” returns hundreds of hits. It is possible to refine this search by adding the name of a particular city to it, which makes these clinics apparently ubiquitous in North America. The cost for these sessions range from as low as $50 per session to several hundred dollars with most of them guaranteeing positive results at the conclusion of the sessions. Clearly, something is happening – at least in the experience of the subject.
In the 1950s Dr. Milton H. Erikson became a very influential figure in the field of hypnosis, and perhaps personal communication is general. Erickson was allegedly able to affect miraculous changes in his subjects. Anecdotal and apocryphal stories show him curing bedwetting, depression, chronic pain and several other psychological conditions, yet, something more interesting about Dr. Erickson was his ability to read and decode nonverbal cues from his patients. His works was used by prominent communication and therapy experts like Gregory Bateson, and Margaret Meads, and eventually lead to the foundation of the American Society for Clinical hypnosis, which was in turn an affiliate of several respected organizations. His communication models were also studied and used in the development of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, initially an attempt to a pragmatic approach to psychotherapy, which unfortunately has also gone the way of Mesmerism due to its reception by the new age community.
The scientific consensus on hypnosis is that something is occurring in the brain of the subjects in terms of activity. However, this activity is not dependent on external influences like the guiding of an operator; it is very similar to the brain functions we could expect from an individual undergoing deep meditative trance or contemplative prayer. It is necessary to look at a different dimension of the individual experiencing hypnosis to better understand its occurrences – this is the psychological dimension. To what extent a person is truly in a different state of awareness remains to be determined, and thus far, is not easily quantifiable by direct observation of the physical brain. When we look at the psychology of the social being we encounter factors that vastly determine and affect behaviour. Individual and group expectations always play a role in our decision making processes; moreover, our inherent need to comply with such expectations often cause us to bypass our own critical factors and reorganize reality according to said expectations. This is to say that an individual in a deep hypnotic trance may simply be giving in to patterns that will ensure successful interactions within the context of the experience.
Personally, and though it seems to be that some people make better subjects than others, I think that most of what is called hypnotic trance is heavily dependent on context and the ability of the operator to present this context to the subject in manner that they can, through their own ability to comply, change it to suit a particular need or expectation. It seems easier to compare the hypnotic process to the craft of an actor in which their character is essential to the success of the production. It is in a sense a higher level of persuasion or the seduction of the mind. Even in cases like Dr. Erickson, it appears that his success, at least those instances that can be corroborated as actual events, may have more to do with a certain charisma, and deeper, enhanced communication.