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Biology 202
2001 Third Web Report
On Serendip

Hypnosis: It Isn't Just For Circus Sideshows Anymore

Melissa Hoegler

The highlight of my second day at Bryn Mawr College was going to see an exciting hypnosis show. I was one of the lucky few chosen to go up on stage and be made a fool of in front of three hundred other freshman. I stood up on the well-lit stage and listened intently to the oddly-dressed hypnotist. He told me to attempt to hold out my arms straight and look at the ceiling, without moving my head. I followed his instructions, but five minutes later, I was asked to sit down because the performer did not feel that I was as susceptible to hypnosis as the other ten women on stage. Embarrassed, I returned to my seat to watch the merriment. I giggled as I watched people I had been on stage with laugh uncontrollably, dance the hula, and quack like ducks. After the show, I could not help but ask myself why these seemingly normal people would behave so ludicrously at the suggestion of a stranger. After talking with the some of the subjects after the show, I was convinced that they were in a completely different brain state than the audience; some of my friends felt the opposite. Such is the nature of hypnosis. Some believe that while under hypnosis the brain differs from other states; others believe that this is not the case. Like the brain, hypnosis is mysterious. Therefore, it is no wonder that there is so much contention about hypnosis, it's uses and effects. But, how does hypnosis work? What does it do to the brain? Is it a legitimate way to get in touch with the unconscious?

Evidence of the existence of hypnosis is seen as early as the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. In fact, "hypnosis" comes form the Greek word, hypnos, meaning sleep. It has been used extensively throughout history and it recently recieved an increase in it's legitimacy when in 1996, the National Institutes of Health publicly recommended that hypnosis be covered by health insurance, when used in conjunction with other forms of therapy (1). Hypnosis is a versatile tool. It is used for entertainment, medical recovery, and therapy, such as behavior modification and memory recollection. Hypnosis has been documented to allieve pains, phobias, addictions, irritable bowel syndrome, and asthma. Hypnosis has also been linked to memory recall. A person can hypnotize herself or agree to be hypnotized by another (2). A hypnotic trance is typified by intense concentration, extreme relaxation and high suggestibility. The only known trance that is deeper is sleep.

Very little is actually known about hypnosis. However, what researches do know comes form the study of those people who have been hypnotized. Hypnosis is closely linked with dreaming. When a person enters into a hypnotic state the same rapid eye movement (REM) that occurs when a person is sleeping ensues. Similarly to when a person is asleep, when under a hypnotic trance, the brain creates its own type of virtual reality. During a dream, an individual is not conscious of what is real and what is not real. When a subject is hypnotized, she is experiencing an alternate realty, much like when she is dreaming (3). A professional hypnotist or hypnotherapist works on a subject by to leading him into a trance. This is done by relaxing the subject and luring him into his own unconsciousness, by using words and sensual triggers. In this relaxed state, the subject is open to receiving suggestions from the hypnotherapist.

The effects of hypnosis vary from subject to subject, but there are certain likenesses. For example, there is a correlation between what a person believes about hypnosis and the results. If a person is fantasy prone and believes in hypnosis, it is likely that hypnosis will be effective. However, if a person doubts the possibility of hypnosis, it is likely to be futile. Opponents of hypnosis as a useful medical tool, believe it is actually a learned social behavior that is built on a role-playing arrangement: the hypnotherapist suggests and the subject responds to the suggestion. Psychologist Nicholas Spans contends that a subject is not in a trance-like state and is not being controlled by a hypnotist. Rather, the subjects "motivations, expectations, and interpretations" have been changed as a result of the suggestive state reached through a reciprocal agreement between the hypnotists and subject. Such critics of hypnotism insist that it is a rudimentary form of mind control, with potential for real abuse. If, for example, investigators were to use hypnosis to solve a crime, it is possible that the hypnotist could plant false memories through suggestion. (4). This could lead to the conviction of an innocent person.

However, many scientist, researchers, and doctors do appreciate the value of hypnosis. It is obvious that most of one's brain activity occurs unconsciously. A person's brain would be exhausted if he had to consciously remember to breath every time his body needed oxygen. A person would not be able to sleep if he had to perpetually bear in mind that he must regulate his heart beat, breathe, digest food, etc. Sigmund Freud was one of the first people to raise the idea of the unconscious. He called this mind the "id". A commonplace idea in circles that believe in the power of hypnosis is that hypnosis places the unconscious mind at an otherwise unreachable level (5). It opens up the subject's subconscious mind to the suggestions of the hypnotist. These suggestion can range from anything to quitting smoking to relieving a migraine headache. There are infinite points on both sides of the argument for and against the use of hypnosis, but the fact that hypnosis has unique affects on the brain is irrefutable.

An altered state of consciousness is a brain state which significantly differs from a normal, waking brain state. While under hypnosis, brain activity resembles an altered state of consciousness (6). A study was done using electroencephalograph (EEG) to measure brain activity, in both people highly susceptible to hypnosis and people with low hypnotic susceptibility. Interestingly, the two categories of people displayed different patterns of EEG activity. During a baseline, or rest period, before undergoing hypnosis, higher theta brain wave power was recorded in the frontal brain areas in those more susceptible to hypnosis. In the period of time before and after the hypnotic induction, those with a low susceptibility to hypnosis displayed an increase in theta wave activity. Those with high susceptibility had lower theta waves. All subjects demonstrated an increase in theta waves during hypnotic induction and alpha wave activity increased as well. But what does this mean? Many scientists have spent a lot of time studying these basic brain waves of the EEG, so there is a lot of basic knowledge about them. Alpha waves are not always present in our brains. For example, in deep sleep there is no Alpha, and if someone is very highly aroused as in fear or anger, again there is virtually no Alpha. Theta waves are seen when there is drowsiness or light sleep. Alpha is seen in wakefulness where there is a relaxed and effortless alertness (7). Thus, people susceptible to hypnosis may be more relaxed. This may be why so many assert that the mellow, relaxed state of hypnosis awakens the imagination and heightens learning and creativity. A person certainly has more difficultly being imaginative under stress.

Scientists Kossylan and Thompson of Harvard University also demonstrated that the brain changes while under hypnosis. They conducted an experiment on only highly hypnotizable people. These people were placed into a positron emission tomography scanner that measures cerebral blood flow in order for "pictures" of their brains to be taken while the experiment was conducted. The subjects were shown a pattern of multi-colored quadrilaterals. They were asked to mentally drain the color from these images. Later, these same people were shown gray rectangles and asked to color them with their minds. When not hypnotized, people who were asked to see color--- whether they did or not showed activity on the right side of the brain. When these people were told to see gray, activity changed on the right side of the brain only also. The experiment was repeated while the subjects were under hypnotism.

Interestingly, both the left and right side of the brains were active in the subject when the experiment was duplicated under the hypnotic condition. The researchers hypothesized that the left side of the brain registered what the subjects were told to see when hypnotized and that the right side registered what people were told to see whether or not they were hypnotized. This is interesting because the left side of the brain is coorelated with logic and rational thought. In this experiment, the left side of the brain becomes engaged in what may be considered a creative right-brained activity, but only when it is under hypnosis. Kossylan states that this means that, "hypnosis changes the conscious experience in a way not possible when we are not under hypnosis" (8).

A similar study was conducted in 1999, into the effects of hypnosis on pain perception. A person was asked to place their hand into hot water while in a hypnotic trance and when not in a hypnotic trance. The study measured brain waves in both cases using EEG and positron emission tomography. This study, like the Harvard Study mentioned above, found that there are specific patterns present within the brain, while it is in a hypnotic state (9). This, however, does not mean that scientist understand hypnosis any more than they did before, but they do know how the brain acts under hypnosis.

In the grand scheme of things, so little is known about both the brain and hypnosis that it is impossible to deduce exactly what the relationship between changed brain activity and hypnosis is. Is the person under hypnosis the same? Logic would say yes, but when I saw my friend on stage, after I had been asked to sit down, and she was dancing around the stage, quacking like a duck, I could honestly say that I did not know that person. My friend would never act in such a manner. I do not doubt that it was physically my friend on stage, but I do not think that she was acting like her true self.

By using suggestion and retaining control over the mind, the hypnotherapist has an enormous amount of control. This control was being exercised over my friend on stage. If used dubiously, hypnosis can be and dangerous thing. But, it can also be used to push human beings to their limits and expand the powers of the mind. For instance, if you give a person a brick and ask them to hold it out at arm's length this person can do so for about 5 minutes. Ask this individual to do this with the same brick, while hypnotized, and she can do it for 15-20 minutes (8).

Learning about hypnosis has lead me to believe that there are limits imposed by the conscious mind that do not necessarily need to exist. Why can I only steadily hold a brick out for only five minutes when I can truly hold it for about twenty minutes? What is this gap between what I am consciously capable of doing and what I am actually able to do while in a hypnotic state? My hypothesis is that there really is no gap, just boundaries my brain has created. I am convinced that I am limited by my mind's own fabricated boundaries. My capabilities are almost limitless, but I convince myself otherwise.

It was interesting to read about a study conducted at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in association with Harvard Medical School, that used a large randomized sample of 241 people under going minimally invasive surgeries. The results show that people who utilized self-hypnosis techniques during surgery reduced surgery recovery time and pain. Those patients who practice self-hypnosis before undergoing surgery are more likely to be relaxed (9). Hypnosis gives patients a choice: to let their mind wander and agonize about worse case scenarios, or to relax and concentrate on a pleasing situation. Perhaps, in life, we all have a choice, we can go on confined by the boundaries of our conscious minds or we can find a way to free ourselves and live without boundaries.

In fact, people hypnotize themselves all the time. For example, on a long car ride the mind goes into trance and a sort of hypnosis incurs. Perhaps, one time while driving you recalled a fond memory, this is a different state of mind, like hypnosis. Hypnosis is the ability to control levels of consciousness, if we can bridle that control, our potentials are surely limitless.

WWW Sources

1)Hypnosis In the UK , A comprehensive page about hypnosis

2)An article on hypnosis by David Spiegel found in the Harvard Mental Letter. September 1998 v 15 n3 p5 , An informative article about the controversy surrounding and many uses of hypnosis

3)Hypnosis and Dreaming , Interesting facts about hypnosis and how it correlates to dreaming.

4)Hypnosis: The Skeptics Dictionary , A critical look at hypnosis

5)IndianGyan , A Large Database of all things you want to know about hypnosis

6)Altered States of Consciousness , A quick look at ASCs

7)EEG Concomitants of Hypnosis and Hypnotic Susceptibility , an article in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology v. 104 (Feb '95) p 123-131

8)Hypnosis Found to alter Brain , A look at the effects of hypnosis on the brain

9)Beth Israel Deaconess in the News, How hypnosis helps surgical patients

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