My dictionary describes hypnosis as "A state like sleep in which the subject acts only on external suggestion; an artificially produced sleep".
In a 'real' sense this is not entirely accurate, in fact it isn't even close. It does describe what the average person perceives the state to be, however. This definition describes exactly what hypnosis is not. Hypnosis is not sleep and apart from the fact that, generally speaking, most people close their eyes in the state and the fact that I and every other hypnotist uses the word on stage, there is no similarity to sleep in anyway what-so-ever. Unfortunately it is we stage performers who tend to perpetuate this myth. Saying, "sleep" is easier and far more dramatic than saying, "Please return to the altered mental state where your imagination is expanded and your inhibitions are lowered". It's a darn sight quicker, and the audience expects it... and they do pay the wages.
During a hypnotic state your brain produces mostly the same waveforms as when you are wide awake. There is a slight rise in the levels of activity produced by the right side of the brain, which is generally recognised to be the imaginative centre otherwise everything is normal. In fact you can experience hypnosis with your eyes open whilst walking and talking quite freely, ask any stage hypnotist's subject.
Also, hypnosis is not unconsciousness. Unconscious people are the world's worst conversationalists, tending to lie about and not do a lot! As the hypnotist will at least need to talk to his friends on stage and they to the hypnotist on most occasions, being unconscious would present a few small problems to the hypnotist. In all cases of hypnosis the subjects are perfectly aware of what is being said and done. It's just that the level and quality of their awareness is focused in a different way from the norm.
So if we can be fairly definite about what hypnosis is not, can we be so sure of what it is? In a word - no.
A few 'experts' would argue against this point but then 'experts' have been arguing the toss about everything from the existence of God to the nutritional value of a Big-Mac, for thousands of years. Hypnosis has been argued about for as long - and probably always will be. You see hypnosis is a function of Mind. You cannot touch, smell, taste or feel Mind, only its tool, the brain. This being the case we can only make assumptions based on our own findings, experiments and observations. In other words an 'educated guess'...here's mine:
It appears that Hypnosis is a narrowing down of all mental processes to the point where the mind is concentrating on one idea and one idea alone, to the exclusion of all else. More importantly it is the concentration of the creative part of the mind on a single idea or thought. Many people have the impression that this is an 'idiot' state similar to some drug induced conditions. A state where your capacity to be human is reduced and you become machine-like. Then like a machine, if someone presses the right button you will spew out all the information your computer of a brain holds, or accept any old rubbish put in there, as irrevocable truth. Fortunately this doesn't hold out in practice. Whether hypnotised or not, you are, and remain, completely human. While hypnotised you can be secretive or open. You can lie or simply be mistaken. You can choose to ignore, accept or reject outside suggestions, and be as obstinate or co-operative as you wish. You remain completely human.
What appears to happen is that while in a hypnotic state the conscious ego part of the mind becomes less critical, if you like, it becomes 'relaxed', although the level of this 'relaxation' varies hugely from person to person. As unique human beings we experience the thing in as many differing ways as there are stars in the sky. By less critical I mean that the part of our mind that we recognise as 'me' - our conscious - is by-passed so that thoughts and impressions reach the rest of our mind without being filtered by our critical and logical facilities. We become rather like a small child who still believes that there really are fairies at the bottom of the garden, and if mummy kisses it better, then it gets better. This is a perfectly normal state of mind which we call 'trance' because no one has come up with a better label. It occurs to an extent when we daydream and even when we watch TV, (especially soaps - that's why billions are spent every year on television advertising at the times these shows are on), or do anything which requires little or no logical or conscious thought.
Have you ever driven the same route for the thousandth time and then realised that you don't consciously remember anything of the journey?
Hypnosis then is a way of communicating with our creative mind, which appears to be the largest, most powerful and most misunderstood part of 'us'. The part which not only regulates all of our bodily processes such as breathing, blood flow and oxygen distribution, and all the other millions of bits and pieces that take place unnoticed inside us every second. It is also the part of our mind, which holds our memories, instincts, drives and passions. It is the seat of our dreams and sometimes our nightmares, the guide and guardian of our future, our past, and the store of all-mental energy and purpose. More importantly, for our purpose, it is the seat of our emotions and creativity.
Hypnosis is just a word that labels a process that helps us to contact this wonderfully creative beast inside us directly, and once we've achieved that we can make changes. And when we direct the largest part of our mental potential to do what we want it to, boy can we change!
A little history is important here to allow an insight into this phenomenon. The man many consider to be the father of hypnosis as we know it, (although in one form or another its been around as long as man), an Austrian named Anton Messmer, told people that he could cure their ills by 'Human magnetism'. Later to be called 'Mesmerism' by someone with little or no imagination (but Satchi and Satchi weren't around at the time). All he did was to literally stick two bits of metal in a bucket of water and get the patient to hold on to the ends. Sound unbelievable? The thousands of people he cured, of everything from Gout to Hysteria, must have thought differently! The damn thing worked. So much so that towards the end of his career he had to 'magnetise' trees and get his patients to hold hands around them, there were so many customers. Then some bright sparks from the 'Real' scientific world came along and discovered that there was in actual fact no such thing as 'Human magnetism'. Which made Messmer a fraud and a pauper, and meant it was possible to walk through the two white pillars in stores and airports without setting all the alarms off.
However, not everyone was a sceptic and in 1842 a Scottish surgeon named James Braid used the self-same method of suggestion in his practice to operate on a few thousand people, with a mortality rate far below those of his fellow Doctors. Not wanting to be branded as yet another charlatan, he dropped 'mesmerism' and coined the word we use today, HYPNOSIS, from the Greek 'Hypnos' meaning to sleep.
Braid was of course a man blessed with the skills of being able to get people to believe in the process and in him. Unfortunately, or if we take the case of Hitler perhaps fortunately, not everyone has such charisma. So when a chemical form of anaesthesia was discovered - and when it was proved that anyone and everyone could use it - Doctor Braid's methods were put aside for the easy alternative.
True to say the mortality rate during surgery shot up, often caused by the new drugs. Those that did survive took longer to heal, were generally more uncomfortable and not quite so happy about things. But such minor faults can be overlooked, can't they? And anyway opiates and analgesics, which again could be administered by just about everyone and their aunt, could handle the pain.
As for Doctor Braid, taking his nationality into account, he must have been really put out; drugs cost money and hypnosis was free! Unless of course you wanted to see what it was all about and the only way to do that was to pay for a ticket to see an operation. Which rather neatly leads me back to the subject
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Hypnosis is a capital instrument for relaxation and alleviating stress. It helps calm down both the brain and body, giving a useful rest. All the same it can be rather costly to hire a clinical hypnotherapist, and we might not always want one around when we would like to destress.