Hypnosis: Suggestion and Illusion: the Power of Words

by Ken Wear, January 2001

Confusing and conflicting ideas abound and an almost mystical aura surrounds hypnosis. For most of us our only observation of hypnotism has been its use in entertainment, and it is often thought to be somehow akin to the sleight-of-hand or illusions of magic.

While it is easier to describe what hypnosis is not than what it is, in reality hypnosis is a very common experience for all of us. As we go to sleep we first enter the alpha state, in which breathing slows, muscles relax and heart rate slows, but it is a state of calm wakefulness in which our senses are very much alert, and, if nudged, we claim to be awake. In sleep the brain waves slow still more to the theta state, and the senses are no longer active. (Beyond that there are further stages of sleep that do not concern us here.)

In hypnosis we wish to induce the alpha state but arrest the descent into the theta state by maintaining mental alertness and focus. And with the mental focus our senses are in a state of heightened sensitivity and the ability to recall remains strong. But there is no sensory change to tell us we are in a hypnotic trance; in fact, it is common for a subject to deny afterward being hypnotized. Some practitioners include suggestions that cause some unusual response to convince his subjects, after they are brought out of the hypnotic trance, they were indeed hypnotized, such as uncommon thirst. The sense of total relaxation does persist after the trance and is indeed very pleasant even if short-lived.

If you have read self-help books to enhance your ability to get along with people or hold your own in relationships or improve your salesmanship (or myriad other objectives) you may recall the suggestion to repeat a particular phrase or idea over and over. The author is encouraging you to impose on your subconscious mind an idea that will improve your responses to people and events; that phrase or idea is comparable to the suggestions the hypnotist will plant in your subconscious during your session; it is akin to self-hypnosis.

In our modern era the practice of hypnosis started with Mesmer, but the power of suggestion has been practiced for millennia, as you will recognize if you reflect on ancient religious practices. (Picture, if you will, a religious shaman exciting his listeners to a religious fervor.) Hypnosis is likely nearly as old as language. Truly, it is no more than a new name for an ancient art.

By contrast, in stage hypnotism (the use of hypnosis for entertainment) it is questionable if the alpha state that characterizes hypnosis is involved at all. In fact, a researcher, based on the use of hypnotism in entertainment, concluded that hypnotism is a hoax, that it is in fact an unspoken agreement between hypnotist and subject. Based on what he was analyzing, the researcher reached a proper conclusion. But let me explain:

Recall the method of selection of subjects to take part in stage hypnotism. All are volunteers. Recall that the audience, including volunteers, has paid for the privilege of being entertained; volunteers obviously consider their participation as part of their own entertainment. Some may be motivated by a desire to confound the hypnotist, but all are volunteers. And most volunteers are predisposed to cooperate. In a practical vein, the hypnotist does not have the luxury of adequate time to induce a trance; if he took the time, the audience would become restive. It is the hypnotist's task to select between willing subjects and those wishing to trip him up. In either case, whether or not a subject is hypnotized is not an issue; the only issue is whether the hypnotist has chosen his volunteers wisely.

My mentor, Dr. A. M. Krasner, did not like the word "trance" because of the negative connotation to many people. Taking it as a mental state of heightened suggestibility, let us use the word to describe that state of relaxation and alertness that is entered during the hypnotic induction. What is a hypnotic trance like? Superficially, I could say (and, for purposes of demonstration, please perform each step in turn):
"Lower your head and close your eyes [pause];
take three deep breaths [long pause];
now open your eyes and look up [short pause];
now how do you feel? [brief pause]
If you did this exercise with me, you have just experienced the sensation of being hypnotized."
Many people afterwards deny they were hypnotized at all; as in the alpha state of approaching sleep, there are no peculiar feelings that you can use to distinguish between ordinary wakefulness and the hypnotic state. But you will be supremely relaxed and alert, and your senses will be sharp.

If the subject is abandoned while in a trance, he will either spontaneously exit the trance or the trance will revert to normal sleep and, except for the effect of suggestions that have been planted, there will be no after effects as a consequence of the hypnotic trance. However, because of the alpha state there is a concentration, a sharper focus, on the words of the hypnotist, and this produces a heightened receptivity to suggestion. And, apart from the benefit of relaxation, it is this heightened receptivity that we use to assist a person in whatever purpose he had in pursuing hypnosis. Let me list a few uses: Giving up smoking or changing another habit, wise eating or weight loss, pain relief, reducing tinnitus, recall of past incidents (this or a prior life), overcoming the anguish of a failed romance, improving sexual function, going to sleep readily.

The brain is a truly remarkable mechanism. Your conscious mind allows thought; it recognizes messages the nerves bring from your body and responds to those messages; it interprets what the eyes and ears sense. But much of your brain operates below your consciousness to control things like breathing and digestion and to intercept nerve signals of normal bodily operation. Every nerve in your body is susceptible to stimulation continuously (non-stop 24/7); when triggered the nerve impulses are forwarded upstream to the subconscious mind. Your subconscious mind filters all of those signals brought by the nerves and forwards to your conscious mind only what seems necessary to allow your conscious mind to respond, such as hunger or pain or danger. In hypnosis we wish to plant suggestions in your subconscious mind to influence its workings in sorting or to pair a recognized bodily demand with a desire you have introduced such as pairing hunger with your desire to lose weight.

But you cannot with the brute force of your conscious mind require your subconscious mind to alter its workings; suggestion is subtle and works without your conscious control. For instance, I am convinced that to a limited extent you can express to your subconscious a wish and it will attempt to alter its workings in response to your wish, but you cannot with your conscious mind require it to do so. (A personal example: At one time I read about sleep, that the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep was shallow and dreams took place during REM sleep. I reasoned that my body needed deep sleep so I wished to cease REM sleep with its dreaming. Well, I reasoned incorrectly; REM sleep is just as necessary as deep sleep, but my subconscious mind did respond by ceasing to let dreams appear in my conscious mind. I still dream; on rare occasions I remember a dream; but I seldom have a conscious recollection of a dream. I made a mistake; I would like to be aware of dreams, but I have been unable to command my subconscious mind to allow recognition of dreams.) So, the workings of the subconscious mind are subtle and hypnotic suggestion, to be effective, must work within the limitation that your conscious mind cannot impose but your subconscious mind can receive and incorporate those suggestions into its workings.

You may have read a self-help book with the notion of repeating a particular phrase over and over so it becomes embedded in your subconscious mind and thereafter influences your behavior. It is an effort to force your subconscious mind to cooperate; it may or may not "take" depending on brain operation that is beyond your conscious control, as, for instance, when the newly-introduced idea produces a conflict with something you have previously attempted to introduce or with a fundamental or core belief.

Is it only the weak-minded who can be hypnotized? Not at all. The weak-minded have difficulty concentrating, and if you cannot concentrate your chances of being hypnotized are poor.

Are there personal traits that lend to hypnosis? Yes, certainly. People of an imaginative bent, such as writers or musicians, find it easier to achieve a trance than the analytically oriented such as engineers or bookkeepers. Because, the better you are at visualizing yourself in pleasurable activities, the more readily you may be hypnotized, I encourage exercising the imagination, as in visualization -- something like day dreaming. Imagine yourself in pleasant surroundings, such as a park or a woodland or the beach -- or, for the ladies, an extensive shopping mall. One of my favorites is walking along a narrow farm road with a fence to my right; what I feel and see and smell and hear depends on the season; I allow myself to move around, taking part in pleasurable activities or simply examining whatever confronts my senses. It is true that, once you have experienced hypnosis with its extreme relaxation you will find it much easier to re-enter a hypnotic trance; in fact, you may find yourself welcoming it.

Is there a mind-set that hinders achieving a trance? Certainly. For instance, you may in your mind try to act as observer of the process rather than participant. If you are actively participating, your chances of reaching a trance are greatly improved, but, if you act as an observer, your chances are reduced. Or, if you are convinced hypnotism can't or won't work, or may be harmful, that conviction will likely override any conscious effort to cooperate with the hypnotist. And, for success, you must make a deliberate effort to avoid distractions so your focus can remain on the experience at hand.

People differ in their attitude toward hypnotism, all the way from those who deny the possibility to those who have not drawn a conclusion about hypnosis to those who welcome the experience. Some are fearful that it might work (or are convinced it does work) and might have a deleterious effect. Some distrust the hypnotist. Some, perhaps out of curiosity, attempt to observe themselves during the experience and thus have a divided purpose and do not fully participate in the hypnotic induction, with the result they weaken or deny themselves the benefit of the suggestions what were the purpose in undertaking hypnosis. Persons with prior experience can testify that it is a pleasurable experience with no effect beyond the suggestions planted by the hypnotist -- certainly nothing debilitating or a residual harmful effect.

People differ in their response to the hypnotist. Some approach hypnosis as an adventure that adds to their life experience, some are unwilling to contemplate what they perceive as surrendering control to the hypnotist, and some make an effort to cooperate regardless of any preconceived notions. About a third resist; repetiton may improve their chance for success. A second third should reach a shallow trance on the first attempt; repetition improves depth of trance. The other third should, on the first attempt, reach a depth of trance that is adequate for success. It is true that some -- a very few -- people are capable of entering a much deeper trance, perhaps to an extent comparable to sleep-walking. But such a highly suggestible person is the exception. And, even so, it would require extended effort on the part of both hypnotist and client in order to enter such a deep trance.1To view footnote, click here.

How did I approach hypnotizing a client? There are many techniques but I used a relaxation technique. After some reminders and two or three demonstrations of the near-irresistible effects of suggestion, I suggested you visualize yourself taking part in a very relaxing setting. And then I suggested relaxing first one area of your body and then another so that you gradually become extremely relaxed and focused. This is most often adequate to induce a shallow trance. The procedure may be repeated in a variety of ways to deepen the trance until you are prepared to receive suggestions. Now, you had approached the hypnotist for help in achieving some personal objective so, because you had agreed on your objective, you are anticipating suggestions and readily receive them. Since introduction of suggestions was the purpose for the trance, the purpose has now been served so the trance may be broken and the session ended. And you are left with a tool to help you in pursuing your objective.

It should be evident, since this is the alpha state and you are fully alert, anything that produces mental agitation or loss of concentration will be disruptive of the process. Hence your morals are not put to sleep; you cannot be compelled to do something contrary to your nature or even contrary to your wishes. In fact, such a radical suggestion would result in your abandoning the trance and aborting the session.

An example: A friend was hosting a hypnotist and wished a demonstration. She liked beer and someone thought making beer unappetizing would be a splendid trick. So the hypnotist went through his paces and suggested she would dislike beer. Now, I don't know what result you, the reader, would expect from this hypnotic session, but, after coming out of trance, her first demand was for a beer. She had not wanted to give up beer, and the hypnotist was helpless to require her to want something she had not beforehand desired for herself.

(I would caution against irresponsible antics should you undertake to hypnotize a friend. It is possible to introduce suggestions that deceive the senses, such as making a walking stick feel like a snake or the touch of your hand feel like a spider; this aspect makes a strong contribution to the entertainment value of hypnosis. If the friend has a deadly fear of snakes or spiders, you could produce a strong, unpredictable and possibly dangerous reaction. I doubt you would be successful in hypnotizing a known enemy, but murder and suicide have been attempted by progressive reduction of heart or breathing rate; but when the subject lost consciousness natural bodily responses took over and death was frustrated. One could, of course, construct a situation where the subject innocently walked into a booby trap.)

Once you have a desire, hypnosis can assist you in pursuing that desire. But hypnosis cannot introduce a desire; it cannot require you to want something against your wish. It is not a technique we can use to torture our fellow men; hypnosis is a tool we can use for our own betterment.

Let me emphasize that cooperation is vital in reaching a trance. The question of motivation must be explored by the hypnotist before he undertakes working with a client. There are certainly other ways to assess motivation, but the surest technique lies in assessing a fee that the person considers to be significant. For instance, were I to charge you $15 for one of my tapes, your purchase might be simple curiosity or a party stunt; but if you paid $200 for the tape I could reasonably conclude you are adequately motivated to cooperate. But some applications are so self-evident that adequate motivation can be assumed.

I had used hypnotism on a limited basis with friends, both in person and via cassette tapes. To assist in weigh reduction, or give up smoking, or gain the peace of sleep, or revisit the past, or relieve pain in a specific part of the body. I have used hypnosis on myself -- prepared a cassette tape and then listened to it -- to relieve pain (plantar fasciitis, or the perennial feeling of a stone bruise of the heel), to achieve sleep, and to help overcome the trauma of a shattered love affair. Despite my analytical orientation as a physicist and engineer I can attest to its effectiveness.

Can hypnosis be of value to you? I don't encourage it for trivial purposes or to delight your friends. It is a powerful technique that should not be wasted in absent-minded trivialities but reserved to help you achieve worthwhile goals in your life.

You may send an e-mail that will pass my spam filter if you use as Subject -- I read your post about hypnosis -- exactly as you see it here. Click here for the e-mail form.. (Or you may visit my soon-to-be-christened (5-27-06) web site on a different server by clicking here.)

To return to Contents of Ken Wear's Web Site, click here.

A personal anecdote using hypnosis to relieve pain: added 2004

The mind is indeed a marvelous machine. I once edited a private publication and one of my subscribers suffered lower back pain. Over time I had several letters from her and they were consistently pessimistic, the product of someone whose life was painful. I prepared a tape and sent it to her; she replied it did no good. I pointed out that listening to the tape as part of her background would not be effective, that she must concentrate on the message on the tape. She did. Pain relieved! She didn't need to tell me; her next letter was so enthusiastic and full of life and joy and peace that I knew a drastic change for the better had occurred in her life. She later told me that occasionally she felt twinges of pain and listened to the tape to gain relief.

A couple years later she moved with the assistance of her daughter. She apparently strained her back and was again in misery, but she had misplaced the tape. Before I could prepare a copy she found the tape. Knowing what would result from listening to the tape, with tape in hand the pain receded and she did not listen to it. The mind is truly a marvelous machine.

But, on the down side: I once did a demonstration for a group of friends and suggested that, upon hearing a certain phrase including the word mosquito, the person would touch the end of his nose. The session degenerated to a general discussion and time ran out; I could not remove the suggestion at the end of the session. A year later one participant in that session laughingly told me she still responded reflexively to that phrase by touching her nose. (I should have included 'hearing my voice' in the suggestion to limit its application.)

I have reflected many times on people's response to hypnosis. Evidently my friend initially had little confidence but was willing to try anything that offered at least some promise of relief from her pain. And I did offer it free of charge; she had nothing to lose and her pain gave her strong motivation. Fortunately, few friends in my immediate circle experience chronic pain, but I have offered tapes to others who did suffer chronic pain; whether through disbelief or unconcern my offers have often been declined. One, a woman I was dating at the time and whose son-in-law had lung cancer and was in severe and chronic pain, declined; and I supposed at the time that, since it was not her daughter and she herself claimed a high threshold for pain, she was oblivious to her son-in-law's suffering. I offered the tape to several hospice operators, with not a single response; perhaps their motives should be impugned. I realize the sensation of pain is part emotion and part physical, but some people apparently have a strange response to the pain of others.

My personal experience with pain: Hypnosis relieved hat perennial feeling of a stone bruise on my left heel; it has proved to be a permanent remedy; whether or not the condition has corrected itself (and I find myself favoring that heel occasionally in dancing) I have not sensed pain in the heel for years. But I underwent surgery to repair a hernia and was in excruciating pain; the surgeon prescribed a narcotic. But under the influence of the narcotic I felt the pain but simply didn't care so it wasn't bothersome. (I ceased the narcotic since its effect was to cloud my mind so it was not functional.) I felt it wise to endure the pain rather than use hypnosis to ease it since I did not wish to train my body to ignore pain in that part of my body and therefore fail to warn me of another problem in the future.

5-26-06 For a long time I had abandoned the idea of offering my tape to pain sufferers, but I have come to view that as inappropriate on my part. I am now trying to find ways to introduce the idea of hypnosis for pain relief to specific populations of sufferers such as amputees who experience phantom limb pain. Of course, the secret to success in hypnosis lies is formulation of suggestions the client can apply to his peculiar needs. The suggestions I have formulated for pain worked for me and have worked for others. 9-17-07 Efforts through two veterans organizations and two military hospitals treating battlefield injuries have been frustrated, so my effort is being abandoned. I am left in wonderment at attitudes and fear the money motive is too strongly entrenched.

It is well to understand something of the physiology of pain sensing and relief. As I have mentioned, pain is pain only as the cognitive portion of your brain recognizes it. Those signals brought to the brain by the nerves pass through a region of the brain that operates below your consciousness, often called the subconscious. And in this region a decision is made whether or not to forward the signal to the cognitive portion. So whether or not you are aware of pain depends on the operation of your subconscious mind. Those signals originate in a nerve ending in intimate association with your body part, but they pass through a network of connections and synapses to pass along the spinal cord to its connection with the brain. Each nerve cell has a nucleus which provides nourishment and performs other maintenance tasks, a strand which connects upstream toward the spinal cord, and a very long strand that terminates in the body part. Ordinarily a pain signal originates in that termination in the body part, but, due to damage to the strand or other cause (often unknown) a spurious signal may originate somewhere else along that strand. In the case of amputees the strand was cut between sensing end and nerve cell nucleus; if a spurious signal originates in the remnant strand the nucleus faithfully forwards it upstream. Our purpose in hypnosis is to use either the intelligence residing in the nerve cell itself or in its connections (so the signal doesn't reach the subconscious mind), or in the subconscious mind so it can intercept and repress the pain signals and they don't reach the conscious mind.

Applications of hypnosis: (from a deleted essay)

When practiced by an experienced and responsible practitioner, hypnotism can be effective for:
Stress relief
Memory, concentration improvement and improved study habits
Relief from worry and overcoming examination anxiety
Improved self-confidence and overcoming shyness
Overcoming procrastination
Improved performance in tennis, golf, body building and sex
Overcoming stage fright
Improved salesmanship, and
Overcoming fear of success, failure, water, heights, crowds and closed places
And this is far from a complete list.

Evidently hypnosis can be used to improve our habits and performance in any activity involving mental control of self. It is certainly not mind control. It is perhaps unfortunate that most of us have knowingly experienced hypnosis only during entertainments, since that has led to a general perception that it is akin to magic or illusion. You may have noted that, in entertainment sessions, suggestions planted by the hypnotist for their entertainment value are removed at the end of the session. Suggestions planted during hypnotic trance, if not removed by the hypnotist, will have greater force than mere wishing but they cannot run counter to your morals, to deeply held convictions or to imbedded wishes.

Suggested research: Dead languages, Atlantis and prior lives using hypnosis (from a deleted essay)

I have pondered how there may be ultimate confirmation of the Spirit Realm. One possibility lies in our legends of Atlantis. Should there indeed have been such a place, surely there was some sort of language, likely more or less unified. Now, proponents of prior lives regression assert that an individual, while revisiting places and times from his past, may recall and relate conversations within his experience in the local tongue and dialect of that time and place, yet be able to translate the gist of what he has heard into the language of his present existence. It should then be possible to gain insight into complexities or nuances of now-dead languages through careful application of prior lives regression. Specifically, it should be possible to compile a lexicon of the language or languages of Atlantis, should such a place have existed in our past.

Success or failure of such an effort to compile a lexicon should be interpreted carefully. Rationally we must admit, lacking confirmation, theories may be in error. Glossalalia is one evident possibility. Even with several Atlantian languages, extended effort over time by many investigators must surely lead to lines of demarcation; total lack of correlations leads to its own suggestion. But those of a truly scientific bent must of necessity view efforts in these directions as plausible unless and until extended efforts either demonstrate viability or suggest futility. As some say, you cannot prove a negative; but there is a point in continued efforts that the hopelessness of success becomes dominant; a true scientist cannot write off the possibility of Atlantis until extended effort has been spent using methods that are inherently capable of success.

Evidently success in compiling a (or several) lexicon(s) must, at the same time it demonstrates the validity of Atlantis as concretely a part of homo sapiens' past, also produce concrete confirmation of prior lives (or reincarnation or the recycling of the spirit -- whatever term you wish). If Atlantis indeed existed we can commence with conviction a search for its location and artifacts of that civilization. And at the same time we can incorporate into our systems of religious belief the scientific certainty that the spirit survives.

Scales to estimate depth of trance have been devised. In order they are (from Duke University): insusceptibility, physical relaxation, mental relaxation, heaviness of limbs, slower breathing and pulse, susceptibility to post-hypnotic suggestion, glove anesthesia -- useful in dental surgery and child birth, experiencing illusion, somnambulism -- sleep walking, age regression, recall of lost memories, to the extremes of hallucination and inhibition of spontaneous muscular activity. Discussions I have read do not hint of either number of subjects susceptible to, or extent of effort to reach, the various depths. I suspect that the traditional bell curve should be applicable to correlations of susceptibility, effort and depth of trance with insusceptibility at one end and hallucinations (or inhibition of muscular activity) at the other end and most of us in between with a peak in the curve at susceptibility to post-hypnotic suggestion or glove anethesia.

My printer takes 8 pages or 4 sheets of paper to print this document.