What is hypnotic trance? Does it provide unusual physical or mental capacities?
From the FAQ regarding the scientific study of hypnosis by Todd I. Stark
Most of the classical notions of hypnosis have long held that
hypnosis was special in some way from other types of interpersonal
communication and that an induction (preparatory
process considered by some to be neccessary in the production
of hypnotic phenomena) would lead to a state in which the subject's
awareness and behavioral responding was some how altered from the
The name historically most commonly associated with this altered
state of functioning is 'trance,' a term shared by the description
of the activities of certain spiritualist mediums and other phenomena
that some psychologists might refer to as 'dissociative,' because
something about the individual's personality appears split off
from the usual response patterns to the environment.
Trance, for reasons we shall examine here, can be a very misleading
term for what is going on in hypnosis, since it is not neccessarily
a sleep or stupor as some of traditional connotations of the term
But 'trance' is so ubiquitous in literature that it might serve
us to be familiar with its uses and the issues underlying it,
and to use it as a starting point.
There were a great many experimental and clinical studies done
to try to determine what might be unique about hypnosis, as opposed
to other kinds of situations (e.g. people simply being motivated
to comply with the hypnotist; i.e. hypnotic simulators). Outward
behavioral signs and virtually every physiological measurement
reported in hypnosis differ seemingly not at all from the usual
waking state of consciousness, as the non-state theorists contend.
Years of careful analysis by a number of researchers were mostly
fruitless in turning up any reliable physiological correlates
of hypnosis that were not (1) related to the relaxation associated
with the induction (most inductions, but not all, involve physical
relaxation); or (2) an obvious result of a suggestion rather than
the mechanism responsible for the observed suggestibility
assumed to some degree unique to hypnotic trance.
At least one theory of hypnosis considers it equivalent to a form
of relaxation. Comparison of various relaxation methods with regard
to both objective measurements and subjective reports indicate
deep relaxation accompanying some hypnosis but not all hypnosis.
Hypnotic suggestibility is apparently not limited to relaxed states.
In Morse, Martin, Furst, & Dubin, "A physiological and
subjective evaluation of meditation, hypnosis, and relaxation,"
from Journal Psychosomatic Medicine. 39(5):304-24, 1977 Sep-Oct,
a representative study of relaxation was done.
Subjects were monitored for respiratory rate, pulse rate, blood
pressure, skin resistance, EEG activity, and muscle activity.
They were monitored during the alert state, meditation (TM or
simple word type), hypnosis (relaxation and task types), and relaxation.
Ss gave a verbal comparative evaluation of each state. The results
showed significantly better relaxation responses for the relaxation
states (relaxation, relaxation- hypnosis, meditation) than for
the alert state. There were no significant differences between
the relaxation states except for the measure "muscle activity"
in which meditation was significantly better than the other relaxation
states. Overall, there were significant differences between task-hypnosis
and relaxation-hypnosis. No significant differences were found
between TM and simple word meditation. For the subjective measures,
relaxation-hypnosis and meditation were significantly better than
relaxation, but no significant differences were found between
meditation and relaxation-hypnosis.
There are a few more recent attempts to find physiological correlates
of hypnotic suggestibility. One of these was EEG research by David
Spiegel of Stanford, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology,
94:249-255, by Spiegel, Cutcomb, Ren, and Pribram, (1985) "Hypnotic
Hallucination Alters Evoked Potentials." Spiegel seemed to
find an evoked response pattern that appeared during hypnotically
suggested hallucination yet not during simulation of hypnotic
hallucination. Nicholas Spanos and others have argued that this
EEG data has been misinterpreted given the nature of the control
subjects used. (Author's response to commentary by Spiegel, of
Spanos, N. (1986) "Hypnotic Behavior: A Social-Psychological
Interpretation of Amnesia, Analgesia, and 'Trance Logic'."
Behavioral and Brain Sciences 9:449-502).
In another similar attempt, from 1976, but measuring certain frequencies
of EEG activity rather than evoked potentials, a Russian journal
reports some tentative success at finding a physiological correlate
to hypnotic induction. See Aladzhalova, Rozhnov, & Kamenetskii,
"Human hypnosis and super-slow electrical activity of the
brain." [RUSSIAN] Zhurnal Nevropatologii I Psikhiatrii Imeni
S - S - Korsakova. 76(5):704- 9, 1976.
In the above article, the authors studied the transformation of
infraslow oscillations of brain potentials in 15 patients with
neuroses during 50 sessions of hypnosis. The results of such studies
permitted to distinguish some important traits in the changes
of infraslow oscillations of brain potentials in different stages
of hypnosis. It is concluded that a study of these changes during
hypnosis may establish some correlations between the physiological
state of the brain and the unconscious mental processes.
One particular researcher, psychiatrist M.T. Orne of the University
of Pennsylvania, finally concluded that objective correlates were
not to be found in the available physiological measurements of
the time, and that they were apparently of no value in determining
whether a hypnotized subject was 'truly hypnotized' or 'simulating
Orne, who did recognize from both highly consistent verbal reports
of hypnotized subjects and from various clinical and empirical
studies that there was indeed something unique about hypnosis
in at least some subjects, concluded that that he would
have to use verbal reports of subjective experience rather than
rely on measurements. He carried out a series of clever experiments
which seemed to establish a reliable way of distinguishing simulators
from hypnotized subjects by their verbal reports. The resulting
alteration of mental function was found to be present in nearly
all deeply hypnotized subjects, and almost never found to the
same degree in people who were not hypnotized but were motivated
to simulate hypnotic phenomena.
The most obvious aspects of this alteration of function were dubbed
'trance logic,' and appeared to correlate well with the anecdotal
reports of the clinicians like Milton Erickson who had long considered
verbal reports of hypnotized subjects to be valuable in distinguishing
what was going on in hypnosis.
Trance logic refers to a set of characteristics of mental functioning
that are specifically found in 'deep trance' phenomena of hypnosis,
as opposed to 'light trance,' which has not even reliable subjective
correlates and cannot really be distinguished from simulation
experimentally. These characteristics involve particularly an
alteration in language processing. Words, in trance logic, are
interpreted much more literally, communication being conveyed
by focusing on words themselves rather than ideas. There is also
an associated decrease in critical judgement of language being
processed, and an increased tolerance for incongruity.
It is in some ways as if the subject were like a small child with
very limited experience to use in interpreting ideas conveyed
by the hypnotist. There also is a shift toward what psychoanalysts
call 'primary process' thinking, or thinking in terms of images
and symbols more than words; an increased availability of affect;
and other characteristics that simulators do not consistently
This consistent set of characteristics of deep trance has been
one of the influences leading to several kinds of theories of
what trance actually involves:
- Partly because language skills are 'child-like,' and meaningful
long forgotten childhood memories can apparently sometimes be
vividly re-experienced (see the later section on the reliability
of recall in hypnosis) the theory that trance generally represents
some kind of psychological regression to an earlier developmental
stage has long been popular in some circles.
- Partly because the individual appears to become disconnected
somehow with the usual context they use to evaluate ideas, a cognitive
dissociation theory arose. (Also partly because of anomalies involving
apparent multiple simultaneous 'intentions.')
- Partly because the cues prompting the subject's behavior become
more internal and progressively more obscure to an outside observer,
trance has been viewed as 'contact with the unconscious mind.'
- Largely because some of the characteristics of trance logic
correlate well with some of those discovered to be specialized
in many people in the non-dominant cerebral hemisphere, there
is also a popular theory that deep trance involves a somehow selective
use of one hemisphere of the brain, or in the most simplified
version of this theory, a 'putting to sleep' somehow of the dominant
(language specialized) hemisphere. Some brain scientists strongly
disagree with this view, emphasizing the complex interdependence
of the brain hemispheres even in typical hypnotic-type situations.
The notion of trance logic, rooted as it is in subjective reports,
has been questioned by some of the non-state theorists, such as
Nicholas Spanos, who do not believe that trance logic represents
any sort of defining characteristic of hypnotic responding.
Examples of critiques of this concept can be found in Nicholas
Spanos, "Hypnotic behavior: A social-psychological interpretation
of amnesia, analgesia, and 'trance logic,'" Behavioral
and Brain Sciences 9(1986):449-502, and a paper cited by Spanos
in the above; Nicholas P. Spanos, H.P. de Groot, D.K. Tiller,
J.R. Weekes, and L.D. Bertrand, "'Trance logic' duality and
hidden observer responding in hypnotic, imagination control, and
simulating subjects," Journal of Abnormal Psychology
I think we can fairly conclude from the research on hypnosis done
so far that 'trance' may in fact have useful meaning for describing
the subjective experience of subjects in hypnotic situations,
but is not explained, or even described, by any one simple theory
yet proposed, either neurological or psychological. All of the
current theories seem to leave aspects unexplained.
Clearly, selective cerebral inhibition and activation of some
kind is involved at various stages of a hypnotic induction,
but not yet in any way we can uniquely distinguish from other
forms of waking response to changing stimulii in other situations.
And certainly hypnotic response does not rely upon the generallized
inhibition found in the action of depressant drugs or in the normal
sleep state. It is a much more highly specific effect, if indeed
it truly is distinct in some way, as subjective data appear to
The most common neurological theories of hypnosis over the years
as a form of partial sleep have mostly been based on (1) the superficial
resemblance of a classically induced subject to a near-sleeping
person, (2) on the ease with which a deeply hypnotized subject
will fall off to sleep on suggestion or if hypnosis is not explicitly
ended, and (3) because various drugs that induce sleep-like or
stuporous states can produce some of the same characteristics
as hypnotic trance.
It has been very consistently determined that trance itself has
nothing at all to do with sleep, and is much more easily distinguished
from a sleeping state physiologically than from a waking state.
Measurements attempted included a number of famous early experimental
studies in the 1930's, on such variables as EEG measurements,
cerebral circulation, heart rate, respiration, basal metabolism,
and various behavioral parameters. Representative of these experiments
comparing hypnosis and sleep was: M.J. Bass, "Differentiation
of the hypnotic trance from normal sleep," Journal of
Experimental Psychology, 1931, 14:382-399.
Though the mentation in hypnosis often resembles dreaming, it
appears much closer to daydreaming in character than to
normal night time dreaming.
Clark Hull, in his 1936 classic Hypnosis and Sugestibility
describes a number of experimental setups for distinguishing the
mental characteristics of sleep from those of hypnotic
One thing suggested by this is that if sleep can be viewed as
largely a generallized cortical inhibition, and trance is not
in any determinable way identified with sleep, that trance is
not a form of sleep or a stupor. This is also easily determined
by observing the range of activities possible in hypnotized subjects
(compared to waking subjects and those under the influence of
So the question remains, if trance is not sleep or stupor, then
why do hypnotized subjects commonly appear so passive?
The consensus on this subject, from studies of 'waking hypnosis,'
('trance' in which the subject acts normally and does not show
any evidence of the classical relaxed deep trance state), and
from many years of clinical observations, is that the apparent
lethargy and catalepsy are more a result of suggestions used to
deepen hypnosis than a neccessary correlate of suggestibility
or trance itself in general. In a way, a side-effect of trance
rather than a quality or cause of trance. There is also seemingly
a temporary but distinct immobilizing reflex following certain
kinds of stimuli used in some hypnotic inductions. This may help
provide a temporary or initial facilitation of hypnotic suggestibility
in some people, according to some theories.
Monotonous visual stimuli, surprise, fear, physical restraint,
and a number of other factors have long been observed to produce
'trance' with fixation (followed by defocusing) of gaze, narrowing
or attenuation of externally focused attention, general immobility,
and various physiological changes which resemble the correlates
of relaxation and internally directed (visual) attention
Perhaps the most routine observance of this is with people gazing
into television sets or in the familiar case of 'highway hypnosis.'
It appears that this type of 'trance' induction often precedes
the production of hypnotic suggestion phenomena, and can occur
prior to any verbal suggestions, from proprioceptive or visual
stimuli alone. It is probably closest to the traditional view
of the hypnotist swinging a watch to put their subjects 'to sleep.'
One means of searching for the basis for this seemingly reflexive
trance response is from phylogenetic data, using animals. A similar
response occurs in monkeys and other animals under both laboratory
and natural conditions, as an apparent passive defensive response
(resembling death) under certain extreme conditions.
Various Russian researchers investigating animal hypnosis seem
to have discovered electroencephalographic correlates of this
animal 'death trance' which resembles the initial trance/inhibition
effect that sometimes precedes human hypnotic suggestibility.
They report an interhemispheric asymmetry of the brain, which
a recent Russian email journal article, (Petrova E.V., Shlyk G.G.,
Kuznetsova G.D., Shirvinska M.A., Pirozhenko A.V., HYPNOSIS IN
MACACA RHESUS IS CHARACTERIZED BY DIFFERENT PHASES AND INTERHEMISPHERIC
EEG ASYMMETRY), summarizes as being
"created as the result of the activation of the right hemisphere."
- Simonov P.V. The Motivation Brain, Gordon a. Breach Pub.,
- Kuznetsova G.D., Nezlina N. I., Petrova E.V. Dokl. Akad. Nauk,
- Petrova E.V., Luchkova T.I.,Kuznetsova G.D. Zh. Vyssh. Nerv.
Deyat. 1992, 42: 129.
As evidence of a correlation between right hemisphere cortical
activity and human hypnosis, they cite:
- Gruzeiler J., Brow T., Perry A. et al. Int. J. Psychophysiol.,
- Meszaros J., Growford H.J., Nady-Kovacs A, Szabo Cs., Neuroscience,
1987, Suppl. 22:472.
One investigation into the relationship of primate behavior and
electrical activity of the brain (EEG) involved 45 male Macaca
Rhesus monkeys seated in a primatologic chair and observing the
oscillation of a shining ball, 4 cm in diameter, placed 15 cm
in front the animal's eyes for 15-20 minutes.
In this experiment, six of the monkeys immediately stopped motor
activity. At first their eyes were fixed on the ball, then muscle
tonus weakened, eyes became unfocused, and respiration slowed.
These same symptoms appeared in the remaining animals, although
they developed slower. During the first 2-3 minutes of the stimulation,
the slower responding monkeys showed a negative reaction to the
ball (a monkey abruptly turned away or tried to push it away).
Then the negativism ceased and the first signs of inhibition appeared:
yawning, scratching, and obtrusive hand motions.
Finally, what the experimenters call the 'hypnotic state' ensued;
eyes fixed on the ball, the animal became calm, and closed its
eyes. This state continued from several seconds to several minutes
and could be observed several times during an experimental session.
In 12 monkeys that displayed orienting or aggressive response
to the ball, visual signs of inhibition were not observed under
these conditions. Further physical restraint (fixation of hands
and trunk) resulted in the 'hypnotized' behavior. This is in contrast
to the more usual behavior of monkeys, what the authors of the
article call the 'freedom reflex' which results when they are
taken from their home cages and placed in the primatologic chair.
As they describe the EEG observations:
"The electrical activity of monkey brain cortex before hypnosis
was characterized by a robust polyrhythmia and presence of theta-
and beta-rhythms. In one monkey the alpha-rhythm was dominate.
During hypnosis, slow activity (delta and theta) with increased
amplitude appeared, periodically alternating with low-amplitude
activity. Power spectrum maps showed that in the low-amplitude
phase the decrease in the power of all rhythms was paralleled
in three monkeys with robust beta-1 rhythm with a predominance
in the left hemisphere. In the high-amplitude phase, delta and
theta-rhythms dominated in the right hemisphere."
"The analysis of the coherence and correlation functions
showed the decreased relationship between hemispheres (especially
in the frontal cortical areas) under hypnosis and its increase
during relaxation (as compared to the background)."
"The analysis of the EEG showed that in the brain of hypnotized
monkeys interhemispheric asymmetry appears: the domination of
the theta- and delta-rhythms in the right hemisphere or beta-rhythm
in the left hemisphere - depending upon the phase of hypnosis."
Factors shown to facilitate this "animal hypnosis" include
vestibular (pose in the chair) and somatosensory (fixation) stimuli
and emotional stress (fear), novelty to the experimental conditions,
and additional proprioceptive (restriction of the motor freedom)
and visual influences. Various sources seem to indicate similar
factors which operate on the corresponding 'trance response' in
In addition to the 'trance reflex' which is seen to sometimes
accompany or precede hypnotic induction, the factor of 'trance
logic' which surfaces under deep trance also adds to the catatonic
appearance, as the primitive language capacity in trance logic
could easily contribute to the appearance of stupor. But the individual
is actually, in general, wide awake and thinking, and in control
of themself, but extraordinarily focused on their internal experience,
and on the voice of the hypnotist.
"... the general tendency of the hypnotic subject to be passive
and receptive is simply expressive of the suggestibility of the
hypnotic subject and hence a direct result of the suggestions
employed to induce hypnosis and not a function of the hypnotic
Milton Erickson, circa 1944.
The most obvious reason to make this distinction is to dispell
the popular myth that a hypnotized person is unconscious or unable
to respond to emergencies, or to oppose the will of the hypnotist
if they should wish to do so. In fact, Erickson did a famous detailed
study of attempts by the hypnotist to force their will on hypnotized
subjects, and observed that not only did the subjects discriminate
what suggestions they would and would not respond to, and refused
to respond to some, but then often came up with ways to hurt or
humiliate the hypnotist in retaliation for the attempt. And that
they were even more selective about what suggestions they would
not respond to under hypnosis than they were normally!
Another reason this distinction is made is because of extraordinary
skills of some hypnotists to 'induce trance' (gain a unique kind
of compliance or communication) with people who had not been prepared
or relaxed by a classical induction, and who in fact steadfastly
and effectively resisted all attempts at classical induction of
A third reason is that we observe in some hypnotic phenomena that
an individual can be hypnotized, with the help of a traditional
progressive relaxation procedure for example, and then "remain
hypnotized" (equally responsive to suggestion) long after
leaving the state of physiological relaxation and classic apparent
catatonia. So, the 'trance,' though it may in fact start with
a process similar to that which commonly leads to sleep, or may
start with the 'trance reflex,' it is not dependent upon stupor,
nor even neccessarily relaxation.
Some of the 'unusual capacities' often claimed of hypnosis are
actually legitimate, but found to be quite normal capacities seen
in various non-hypnotic situations as well, though the hypnotic
'deep trance' context does apparently give a unique kind of access
to those normal capacities. Seemingly a product of the unique
sort of attention control found in hypnotic responding.
"Trance permits the operator to evoke in a controlled manner
the same mental mechanisms that are operative spontaneously in
T.X. Barber, a highly respected researcher into human functioning
under hypnosis has long promoted the view that people can bring
out their own inner capabilities by direct requests to think,
feel, and experience in a suggested way, without any need for
hypnotic induction. He says that the secret of hypnosis involves
the ability to fantasize in a hallucinatory way and provide the
drama and excitement. Also important, according to Barber, is
the way in which suggestions are given, language which gives firm
but metaphorical suggestions.
Keith Harary, in his March/April 1992 Psychology Today
article, "The trouble with HYPNOSIS. Whose power is it, anyway?"
reviews a number of critical studies of hypnosis and concludes
a a similar view:
"Packaging them [the true claims made about hypnosis] under
the label 'hypnosis' conceals what is really going on. It doesn't
even begin to suggest that they are our very own powers and there
might be ways to get at them directly and entirely on our own."
We see that there is little of any consistency that can be said
about light trance objectively, and possibly only 'trance logic'
(if that) as a common characteristic of deep trance. Yet the subjective
experience of the individual is sometimes very profoundly altered.
And some phenomena can be reliably reproduced in good subjects
which are medically considered very unusual and hard to explain
(though not neccessarily limited to hypnosis situations). The
working medical framework that had traditionally cleanly separated
psychogenic from physiological effects has been revised in parts
to allow for some of the mechanisms related to effects found in
good hypnotic subjects; such as influences between neural and
immunological systems, dermatological (skin) responses that were
previously believed not to be able to be influenced by the brain
and nervous system, and the difficult but demonstrable 'biofeedback'
ability to indirectly control very small neural units previously
considered completely autonomic.
In terms of the prevailing medical paradigm, numerous functional
interconnections within the brain and between the nervous system
and other body systems have been found that may gradually help
to explain such remarkable effects as we see in hypnosis and under
various other seemingly special psychological conditions. Among
other key discoveries, the study of neuropeptides and their distribution
throughout the body as well as the brain provides some potential
answers for some of the more perplexing questions arising from
effects due to suggestion.
Richard Benson's "relaxation response" research pioneered
in this area, and a great many studies since then have validated
his ideas about psychological and physiological functions greatly
influencing each other. Two recent article that are fairly typical
are in the June 1989 issue of the mainstream medical specialty
journal Gastroenterology, "Hypnosis and the relaxation
response" and "Modulation of gastric acid secretion
An excellent review of the research into the exact physiological
effects found to result from hypnotic suggestions in particular
may be found in these two of T.X. Barber's articles ...
- "Physiological effects of 'hypnosis,' Psychological
Bulletin, 58: 390-419, 1961.
- "Physiological effects of 'hypnotic suggestions': a critical
review of recent research (1960-1964)," Psychological
Bulletin, 63: 201-222, 1965.
In addition to these general references, the following sections
may help to followup on any interest into various specific apparent
unusual effects of suggestion.
Hypermnesia is perceived enhanced recall of memories. See also
the later section on the reliability of hypnotic recall.
An excellent overview of experimental and clinical studies of
hypermnesia, perceptual distortions, and hallucinations under
hypnosis may be found in the hypnosis section of the Annual
Review of Psychology, especially these issues spanning 20
years of research into hypnotic phenomena:
- Vol 16, 1965, E. Hilgard, p. 157-180
- Vol 26, 1975, E. Hilgard, p. 19-44
- Vol 36, 1985, J.R. Kihlstrom, p. 385-418
Another related area is the remarkable phenomena of eidetic imagery,
or 'photographic memory.' In recent years, this formerly controversial
phenomenon has been demonstrated by means of computer generated
random pixel patterns which stereoscopically encode a visual image.
There would be two images which, one seen by each eye at the same
time, produce a three dimensional visual image. It is considered
virtually impossible to detect the encoded image by looking at
the separate encoded patterns at different times. People with
eidetic imagery can memorize one pattern, and then mentally project
it with one eye while looking at the other pattern with the other
eye. The result is that they can see the three dimensional image,
while apparently no amount of motivation will permit someone without
eidetic imagery to see the final image.
It is now known that many five year old children can experience
eidetic imagery, and that it is very rare in adults. A study published
in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 1975 (and a followup
three years later) demonstrated that the rate of eidetic imagery
in adults hypnotically regressed to age five was comparable to
that in actual five year olds.
This could be interpreted as evidence of true temporal regression
in hypnosis in some sense, although that interpretation seems
unlikely in the face of evidence in other areas. It is more likely
to provide unique evidence of state-specific abilities accessible
through hypnotic suggestion.
The following are the studies quoted above:
- Walker, Garrett, & Wallace, 1976, "Restoration of
Eidetic Imagery via Hypnotic Age Regression: A Preliminary Report,"
Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 85, 335-337.
- Wallace, 1978, "Restoration of Eidetic Imagery via Hypnotic
Age Regression: More Evidence," Journal of Abnormal Psychology,
In addition, Michael Nash in his chapter "Hypnosis as Psychological
Regression," in Lynn and Rhue's 1991 Theories of Hypnosis
discusses the evidence around different kinds of psychological
regrression and also refers to an unpublished manuscript by Crawford,
Wallace, Katsuhiko, and Slater, from 1985, which is said to also
discuss positive evidence for the faciitation of eidetic imagery
phenomenon with hypnotic techniques: "Eidetic Images in Hypnosis,
Rare but There."
Amnesia (basically selective forgetting in this case) sometimes
occurs spontaneously in hypnosis, and sometimes happens as the
result of a direct or indirect suggestion to forget something.
The amnesia effect may last a variable time, possibly months or
longer, depending on the psychological significance of the amnesia
and the forgotten material and on the intensity of attempts to
recall and availability of recall cues in the environment.
A posthypnotic suggestion in general is a response to hypnotic
suggestion that extends beyond the boundary of the actual trance
period. Posthypnotic suggestions are often performed without any
knowledge that they were previously suggested (thus the neccessary
link to hypnotic amnesia of this phenomena). The individual responding
to a posthypnotic suggestion and with amnesia for the source of
the suggestion will generally incorporate the response into their
ongoing activities without disruption, in a similar manner to
rituallized actions that we pay little attention to such as brushing
our teeth in the morning or making the right sequence of turns
in our well established route to work each morning. If the response
involves some bizarre action, the individual will either be confused
or typically will come up with a creative rationalization for
the behavior. Very rarely will there be any awareness of the action
resulting from a previous suggestion.
It is the contention of many experts in hypnotic work that individuals
can and do resist posthypnotic suggestions that they do not wish
to perform, except that implicit trust of the hypnotist may promote
a behavior out of the ordinary. This is sometimes (especially
per Orne) considered more a factor of the relationship between
the hypnotist and subject than a matter of any capacity to use
hypnosis to coerce a person without their knowledge. The later
section on hypnosis and volition will cover this in grater detail.
See the following sources of information on post-hypnotic research,
in addition to the Hilgard article in Vol. 16 of Annual Reviews
(1965), cited above:
- W. Wells, 1940, "The extent and duration of post-hypnotic
amnesia," Journal of Psychology, 9:137-151.
- Edwards, 1963, "Duration of post-hypnotic effect,"
British Journal of Psychiatry, 109: 259-266.
- Dixon, 1981, "Preconscious Processing" (book)
Various studies have also been done to try to determine what kinds
of psychological pressure will cause hypnotic amnesia to be breached,
and under what conditions.
Schuyler & Coe, "A physiological investigation of volitional
and nonvolitional experience during posthypnotic amnesia,"
Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 40(6):1160-9,
1981 Jun was a good example.
Highly responsive hypnotic subjects, who were classified as having
control over remembering (voluntaries) or not having control over
remembering (involuntaries) during posthypnotic amnesia, were
compared with each other on four physiological measures (heart
rate, electrodermal response, respiration rate, muscle tension)
during posthypnotic recall. Two contextual conditions were employed:
One was meant to create pressure to breach posthypnotic amnesia
(lie detector instructions); the other, a relax condition, served
as a control. The recall data confirmed earlier findings of Howard
and Coe and showed that voluntary subjects under the lie detector
condition recalled more than the other three samples that did
not differ from each other. However, using another measure of
voluntariness showed that both voluntary and involuntary subjects
breached under lie detector conditions. Electrodermal response
supported the subjects' reports of control in this case. Physiological
measures were otherwise insignificant. The results are discussed
as they relate to (a) studies attempting to breach posthypnotic
amnesia, (b) the voluntary/involuntary classification of subjects,
and (c) theories of hypnosis.
Hypnosis was at one time frequently and sucessfully used for surgical
anesthesia. It is still sometimes used effectively for dental
work, childbirth, and chronic pain of various types. Pain control
is one of the most reliable and most studied of the hypnotic phenomena.
In addition to Hilgard's article in Vol 26 of Annual Reviews
- Hilgard, Hilgard, Macdonald, Morgan, and Johnson, 1978, "The
reality of hypnotic analgesia: a comparison of highly hypnotizables
with simulators." The authors find that motivated simulation
of hypnotic analgesia is easily distinguished from hypnotic analgesia.
- Hilgard and Hilgard, 1983, "Hypnosis in the relief of
- In 'Evaluation of the efficacy and neural mechanism of a hypnotic
analgesia procedure in experimental and clinical dental pain,'
4,41-48, Pain, 1977, J. Barber and D. Mayer reported that
effective analgesia was produced by a refinement of hypnotic technique,
and was not reduced by naloxone. J. Barber, neuropsychiatry at
UCLA, seems to have somewhat specialized in this area.
- Another 1977 study, Stern, Brown, Ulett, and Sletten, 'A comparison
of hypnosis, acupuncture, morphine, Valium, aspirin, and placebo
in the management of experimentally induced pain,' Annals of
the New York Academy of Sciences, 296, 175-193, found that
acupuncture, morphine, and hypnotic analgesia all produced significantly
reduced pain ratings for cold pressor and ischemic pain.
- Van Gorp, Meyer, and Dunbar, 'The efficacy of direct versus
indirect hypnotic induction techniques on reduction of experimental
pain,' International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis,
33, 319-328, 1985 (with cold pressor pain).
- Tripp and Marks, 1986, compared hypnosis and relaxation with
regard to analgesia for cold pressor pain in 'Hypnosis, relaxation,
and analgesia suggestions for the reduction of reported pain in
high- and low-suggestible subjects,' Austrailian Journal of
Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 33, 319-328.
- H.B. Crasilneck et al., 1955, "Use of hypnosis in the
management of patients with burns," Journal of the American
Medical Association, 158: 103-106.
- D. Turk, D.H. Meichenbaum, and M. Genest, (1983), Pain
and behavioral medicine: a cognitive-behavioral perspective,
New York: Guilford Press has a review of cognitive-behavioral
strategies for pain control in general, not limited to hypnosis.
- In Larbig W. Elbert T. Lutzenberger W. Rockstroh B. Schnerr
G. Birbaumer N. EEG and slow brain potentials during anticipation
and control of painful stimulation. Electroencephalography &
Clinical Neurophysiology. 53(3):298 -309, 1982 Mar., EEG corrrelates
of pain control were studied.
Cerebral responses in anticipation of painful stimulation and
while coping with it were investigated in a "fakir"
and 12 male volunteers. Experiment 1 consisted of 3 periods of
40 trials each. During period 1, subjects heart one of two acoustic
warning stimuli of 6 sec duration signalling that either an aversive
noise or a neutral tone would be presented at S1 offset. During
period 2, subjects were asked to use any technique for coping
with pain that they had ever found to be successful. During period
3, the neutral S2 was presented simultaneously with a weak electric
shock and the aversive noise was presented simultaneously with
a strong, painful shock. EEG activity within the theta band increased
in anticipation of aversive events. Theta peak was most prominent
in the fakir's EEG. A negative slow potential shift during the
S1-82 interval was generally more pronounced in anticipation of
the aversive events that the neutral ones, even though no overt
motor response was required. Negativity tended to increase across
the three periods, opposite to the usually observed diminution.
In Experiment 2, all subjects self- administered 21 strong shock-noise
presentations. The fakir again showed more theta power and more
pronounced EEG negativity after stimulus delivery compared with
control subjects. Contrary to the controls, self-administration
of shocks evoked a larger skin conductance response in the fakir
than warned external application.
Some of the most interesting hypnotic phenomena involve the apparent
precision production of subtle skin responses by suggestion. Allergic
reactions, pseudo-sunburns, blisters, and weals have been produced
by suggestion. In addition, it has long been known that certain
highly troublesome skin conditions have been influenced or healed
in some people by suggestion (with or without hypnotic induction).
See the following for further information on studies of this:
- Ullman & Dudek, 1960, "On the psyche and warts: II.
Hypnotic suggestion and warts," Psychosomatic Medicine,
- Rulison, 1942, "Warts, A statistical study of nine hundred
and twenty one cases," Archives of Dermatology and Syphilology,
- Asher, 1956, "Respectable Hypnosis," British
Medical Journal, 1: 309-312.
- R.F.Q. Johnson and T.X. Barber, 1976, "Hypnotic suggestions
for blister formation: Subjective and physiological effects,"
American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 18: 172-181.
- Mason, 1955, "Icthyosis and hypnosis," British
Medical Journal, 2: 57-58.
- M. Ullman, 1947, "Herpes Simplex and second degree burn
induced under hypnosis, American Journal of Psychiatry,
Experiments with hypnosis during surgery have found that suggestion
during and after surgery can reduce bleeding significantly, as
well as help with the management of pain.
See Clawson and Swade, 1975, "The hypnotic control of blood
flow and pain: The cure of warts and the potential for the use
of hypnosis in the treatment of cancer," American Journal
of Clinical Hypnosis, 17: 160-169.
This is a broad area covering a number of factors that are difficult
to separate. In addition to the critical review by Barber in 1965
cited above in (1), see G.S. Blum, 1968. "Effects of hypnotically
controlled strength of registration vs. rehearsal," Psychonomic
Science, 10: 351-352, which discusses hypnosis as a possible
way of reducing rehearsal needed to learn something new.
In some of his publications, researcher Charles Tart discusses
the concept of state-specific abilities, including the possibility
that some might apply to hypnotic phenomena. See his States
of Consciousness, and other related works for more on this.
The effect of hypnotic suggestion in apparently enhancing physical
performance under certain conditions seems to relate to the unusual
control over focus of attention available in hypnosis, which permits
improved concentration and increased motivation in some athletes,
and can be used to modify or lessen the influence of inhibiting
beliefs or attitudes. Similar effects are seen when athletes are
motivated in other ways, outside of hypnosis.
See T.X. Barber's 1966 paper, "The effects of 'hypnosis'
and motivational suggestion on strength and endurance: a critical
review of research studies," British Journal of Social
and Clinical Psychology, 5:42-50.
It has long been supposed (and in recent years demonstrated experimentally)
that emotions and psychological state somehow have an effect on
human immune response, but even though detailed mechanisms and
the limits of this effect have not been well understood in modern
medical science. A recent article in Science News, Sept. 4,1993,
pp. 153, describes 'the first solid evidence that hypnosis can
modify the immune system far more than relaxation alone."
The report concerns the research of Patricia Ruzyla-Smith of Washington
State University in Pullman and her co-workers, who conclude that
"hypnosis strengthens the disease-fighting capacity of two
types of immune cells, particularly among people who enter a hypnotic
This appears to correspond well with and bolster the previous
findings related to enhanced 'placebo' (psychosomatic) effects
in good hypnotic subjects, in the hypnotic induction situation.
However, it does not appear to address the persistent question
of whether highly hypnotizable subjects have a unique capacity
for psychosomatic regulation, or whether they simply exhibit this
capacity common to all of us in a uniquely accessible and convenient
way by responding to hypnotic suggestion.
In this research, the psychologists recruited 33 college students
who achieved a hypnotic trance easily and 32 students who had
great difficulty doing so. Volunteers viewed a brief video describing
the immune system and then were assigned to one of three groups:
hypnosis, in which they listened to a hypnotic induction asking
them to imagine their white blood cells attacking "germ cells"
in their body and then performed this exercise through self-hypnosis
twice daily for one week; relaxation, in which they floated effortlessly
in a large tank of warm water containing Epsom salts and repeated
the session one week later; or neither method.
Students who underwent hypnosis displayed larger jumps in two
important classes of white blood cells than participants in the
other groups. The greatest immune enhancement occurred among highly
hypnotizable students in the hypnosis group.
One of the most persistent of the many controversies surrounding
hypnosis is its use in facilitating the recall or (re)experience
of events which are distinctly out of the range of what most people
think of as usual human experiences. For the present discussion,
we might divide these extraordinary experience into three overlapping
- Experiences which seem extraordinary because what is remembered
(while under hypnosis) as having previously happened seems to
defy commonly accepted canons of plausibility, such as the controversial
UFO abduction phenomenon,
- Experiences which, perceived as happening during hypnosis,
seem to defy commonly accepted canons of plausibility, or would
require a drastic theoretical revision to accept, such as psychic
- Experiences which seem extraordinary because they have an
unusually powerful or lasting effect on the individual, such as
certain deeply religious or mystical experiences,
The veracity of events recalled under hypnosis is considered by
most experts today to be problematic to determine. Hypnosis facilitates
the recall of details in good subjects, and also facilitates the
manufacture of details during recall that were not neccessarily
present previously. This in fact is characteristic of recall in
general, which has been demonstrated to be far from a permanent
and unchanging record, but more a dynamic and adaptive process;
a shape-shifting moire pattern of sorts, conforming to inner needs
and ongoing mental activity, more than a videotape recording of
the precise details of perceptual events.
There is also some evidence that hypnosis may additionally aid
in providing 'state-specific' context to aid in the recall of
information and experience of which the individual is otherwise
Which of these complex and incompletely understood processes is
dominant in the recall of someone's extraordinary memories of
seemingly implausible events is extremely difficult if not impossible
to determine from the hypnotic session alone.
Neither claims of unimpeachable veracity under hypnosis (the 'hypnosis
as truth serum' idea) nor those of hypnosis being completely unreliable
in facilitating recall ('false memory') stand up to close scrutiny
as a general principle applicable to all cases of controversial
hypnotic recall. The best evidence available seems to indicate
that hypnotic methods can sometimes be valuable in a number of
ways, both to the individual's psychological health and in helping
to gather factual information, but that they should not be relied
upon by themselves or given special preference over other kinds
of testimony for such things as legal evidence, nor considered
to be accessing anything like a perfectly faithful permanent record
of past perceptual events.
This section closes with an illustrative philosophical excerpt
from a recent book investigating perception, memory, and consciousness,
based on years of observation of synesthesia (cross-sensory perception);
"The Man Who Tasted Shapes: A Bizarre Medical Mystery Offers
Revolutionary Insights into Reasoning, Emotions, and Consciousness,"
Richard E. Cytowic, MD, Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam Publishing 1993,
"While pointing out the overlap between emotion and memory,
I want to emphasize that memory is not simply a fixed look-up
table. It too is a creative process during which the state of
the brain's electrical fields change. The sensory cortices generate
a distinct pattern for each act of recognition and recall, with
no two ever exactly the same. They are close enough to cause the
illusion that we understand and have seen the event before, although
this is never quite true. Each time we recall something it comes
tainted with the circumstances of the recall. When it is recalled
again, it carries with it a new kind of baggage, and so on. So
each act of recognition and recall is a fresh creative process
and not merely a retrieval of some fixed item from storage."
"Furthermore, persons, objects, and events are not perceived
in their entirety but only by those aspects which are, have been,
or can be experienced and acted upon by an observer..."
"... All that we can know about anything outside ourselves
is what the brain creates from raw sensory fragments, which were
actively sought by the limbic brain in the first place as salient
chunks of information..."
"... Put in a more familiar context, artists and creative
writers look at the world in a certain way. It is the same world
that everyone else sees, but seen differently. Contemporary people
often call artists weird because they do not seem to be seeing
the same things that the majority sees. It is critical to realize
that the sensory gateways that feed into the brain establish their
own conditions for the creation of images and knowledge. Artistic
giants knew full well that their visions were not shared by most
people. Even when persecuted or abandoned because of their vision
artists persist. That is all the can do because their visions
are their reality, and for many of us they subsequently become
our reality when we experience their art."
(copyright (c) Richard E. Cytowic, MD)
There are a number of links between the sorts of situations commonly
associated with hypnosis, and the experience of what are often
called 'psychic phenomena,' (herein primarily meaning apparent
extrasensory perceptions, and psychokinesis, but also such related
experiences as apparitions mediumistic phenomena, and such strange
occurrances as the apparent suspension of death).
Hypnosis has a strong historical connection with spiritualism,
as evidenced partly by the shared traditional emphasis on 'trance,'
especially 'trance' appearing as a stupor (contrasted with the
confusing notion of an 'alert trance' or 'waking trance' in some
kinds of hypnotic situation). Spiritualism, in turn, has very
strong associations with both the origins of various schools of
psychology, and modern parapsychology, and the study of 'psychic
phenomena' in general. The reason for quoting that term here is
to emphasize that the term originally meant such subtleties of
mental life as what we today often think of as the'subconscious'
or 'unconscious' mind, rather than specifically and exclusively
such things as ESP, hauntings, or poltergeists. At the time, it
seems there had been less of a feeling that there was a distinct
difference in plausibility between 'unconscious processes' and
those today generally considered paranormal. Because of this,
the term may tend to be ambiguous when used in a discussion where
a wide variety of experiences are being included.
Early (circa late 19th century, early 20th century) psychology
was largely a philosophical endeavor, which included a wide range
of areas of investigations that were grouped in ways that might
seem a little strange today. For example, the American Society
of Psychical Research (ASPR), today probably thought of mostly
as having been a pioneering organization in the study of the paranormal,
devoted a great deal of its early efforts (and an explicit section
of its charter) to studying what we today usually consider mundane
aspects of hypnosis.
Hypnosis has thus long had a popular traditional association with
such controversial psychic phenomena as ESP, PK, poltergeist activity,
and clairvoyance, as well as various forms of occultism and some
kinds of religious healing rituals.
Of particular pertinence here, there is also a tenuous but persistent
experimental link between hypnotic processes and laboratory psi.
The link is particularly prominent in anecdotal evidence, but
this is often of questionable reliability, for reasons that will
be described here. It is in the more controlled laboratory psi
data that the more truly demonstrable anomalous results appear
that give us cause for further investigation.
First, the difficulty with this sort of experiment, and the kinds
of protocols and controls required should be recognized. While
the open-minded researcher of anomalies might not wish to reject
the useful subjective verbal reports of hypnotic subjects, they
also have to contend with the remarkable subtlety of non-paranormal
(conventional sensory) human perception and communication.
Milton Erickson, for example, described an experiment with hearing
impaired 'lip readers.' He discovered that they actually read
a much richer panorama of cues than simply the moving lips. The
lip reading subjects would sit with their backs to a blackboard
on which there were various geometric designs. The designs were
then covered with sheets of paper. In front of the lip readers
sat a group of non-hearing-impaired participants, who were instructed
to look at the blackboard and say and do nothing. Someone else
removed the paper covering the geometric symbols, one at a time.
The lip readers were instructed to write down anything that they
read from the participants in front of them who were observing
the geometric figures.
The lip readers were able to "read" the names of the
geometric figures apparently from their partner's faces, with
varying degrees of accuracy. One subject, a diagnosed paranoid
psychotic, who believed they heard other people's thoughts about
them, was reported as having perfect accuracy.
Erickson applied this insight to his hypnotic technique, by recognizing
the significance of messages he himself didn't realize he was
giving. A similar analysis has frequently been applied to anecdotal
reports of cases of apparent telepathy, but where 'cold reading',
or the skill of gathering information surreptitiously through
subtle but conventional sensory clues, appears to be a likely
Someone might actually suggest that the paranoid psychotic patient
in this particular experiment, and some or all of the other hearing-impaired
patients, were actually employing some telepathic faculty to some
degree. But most interpretations would probably focus on the use
of subtle clues that the participants observing the blackboard
were unaware of providing. The nature of hypnotic communication
('rapport') is such that the participants are particularly well
attuned to the nuances of each other's movement, speech and expression.
This, combined with the lip readers' existing capacity for attending
to subtle body language, contributes to the appearance of an even
more extraordinary, even paranormal, information transfer, and
makes it more difficult to sort out the precise mechanisms of
information transfer involved.
Modern psychological reviews might also focus on the hypothesis
that the paranoid psychotic subject was likely dissociating their
perception of what they were reading from their awareness of its
source (rather than the obvious appearance of receiving it from
an extrasensory source). This resembles the dissociation theory
of how trance mediumistic (trance channelling) behaviors and some
religious experiences (such as hearing the voice of God) may occur,
at least in some cases. The concept of cognitive dissociation
is a central one to many modern psychological descriptions of
hypnotic and peripheral phenomena, as we will see in more detail
later. In particular, we will see that dissociation provides an
extremely useful description, but not neccessarily an adequate
explanation of all of the data.
Today, most psychologists, and virtually all of those investigators
known as parapsychologists, are aware of the complexity of human
perception under even conventional circumstances. They would generally
tend not to consider a psi hypothesis to be demonstrated
in this sort of situation, given the apparently demonstrated correlation
of exceptional body language reading skills and high hit rates.
This is of course entirely different from demonstrating that a
psi faculty is not operating. Just that the experimental
situation in this particular case does not provide evidence of
But there are other experimental results, with protocols more
specifically designed to rule out subtle conventional sensory
communication. These give us reason to at least consider and test
a psi hypothesis, with an eye toward ruling out subtle body reading
effects, in hypnotic situations. It appears from some results
that under certain kinds of conditions hypnosis may at least be
slightly conducive to anomalous information transfer, even when
subtle cues are eliminated.
One well known difficulty of even this result, though, is that
it is not clear whether hypnosis is facilitating some elusive
'ESP' faculty in some general way, or more specifically improving
the percipient's ability to perform on the particular kinds of
tests in use. In other words, the dramatic interpretation of hypnosis
as an altered state in which paranormal capacities are provided
or enhanced may not be the best or only explanation, even if the
psi hypothesis itself were to receive growing experimental support.
There is also the crucially important matter of just exactly what
it is about the process of hypnotic induction and its effects
on the subject that changes hit rates in certain laboratory psi
In another section, we briefly review T.X. Barber's work demonstrating
that most if not all of the unusual phenomena reported during
hypnosis are also seen under other conditions. He and his colleague
Sheryl Wilson in their work on the theory of the 'Fantasy Prone
Personality' also provide us with another link between psi and
hypnosis, the observation that there are distinct similarities
in personality variables between people who are excellent hypnotic
subjects, and those who report large numbers of psychic experiences.
It should be emphasized here that this theory does not support
the once popular notion that good hypnotic subjects are simply
gullible or neurotic, or otherwise mentally ill; as no correlation
with any of these personality variables has ever been determined.
Rather, the FPP theory paints a picture of natural visionary individuals
with a rich inner life and often extraordinary psychosomatic responses,
but who are perfectly well able to distinguish their vivid fantasy
life from reality, just as most of us can distinguish a dream
from a memory of actual events, most of the time.
In other words, among the factors that the FPP does NOT correlate
with well at all is any diminished capacity for reality testing.
This should be born in mind particularly because of the popular
connotations of the term 'fantasy-prone,' and the questionable
veracity of recollections occurring under hypnotic procedures.
A report from an FPP subject is not inherently either more or
less reliable than one from other subjects, in or out of hypnosis.
Their rich mental life does not neccessarily intrude on their
external perceptions, except under various very unususal kinds
of conditions, such as spontaneous hallucination triggered by
Additionally, there is the complex psychological question of whether
the individual interprets their experience as 'real' or 'imagined.'
When an LSD user comes down from their trip, they don't generally
continue to believe that their face was melting or that the sky
actually changed to flourescent green during their experience,
they distinguish it as an 'altered state.' However, during the
trip, the altered perception may be quite convincing.
In hypnotic extraordinary experiences, we find both cases where
the individual believes that their perceptions were due to an
altered state, even though it seemed real at the time, and those
where they believe something quite bizarre actually happened,
not the result of an unusual perceptual state. And the two types
of cases are not at all easy to distinguish by any means other
than relying on the report of the subject.
It has also been observed that even a polygraph is of extremely
limited value in distinguishing whether a bizarre occurrance actually
happened to an individual or was hallucinated or 'confabulated.'
In many cases, the individual believes that a hallucinated or
hypnotically constructed event happened, when unambiguous independent
historical records indicate that it did not.
The particular conditions under which spontaneous hallucination
can occur, and under which they can be confused with external
perceptual experiences are not well known, nor is there any known
method of distinguishing a spontaneous hallucination from an external
sensory perception. Even theories of how drug action (e.g. LSD)
causes hallucinations are highly speculative, and spontaneous
hallucinations are much more slippery.
Two current theories of spontaneous hallucination concern changes
in the chemical environment of endogenous neurotransmitters or
neuromodulators which influence perception (endorphins and serotonin
being the most commonly cited); and possibly some unique mode
of function of temporal or temporolimbic brain pathways, perhaps
influenced by electromagnetic fields.
How these unusual brain conditions relate to psychic phenomena
and to other observations related to hypnosis in general is not
yet well established.
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