Sunday, November 25, 2012

Tao of Psychology Part 6: Erickson Revisited

Surprise! More Milton Erickson :P. In all seriousness, though, in my first article on Erickson, I primarily covered the general character of his therapy and methods. I didn't, however, say much about trance or hypnosis, what those are, how they work and what you can do with them. While I won't be giving any instructions on how to actually induce a trance (ok I lied, sort of), I will be describing what you can do with one, how that relates to what I've been discussing, and some of the latest findings in neuroscience and how that relates to trance.

What is Hypnosis?

While the word 'hypnosis' might bring up images of swinging watches, 'hypnotic gazes' and the like, hypnosis can easily be defined as any communication which causes a change in thinking in another person. Advertisement is hypnosis, teaching is hypnosis, negotiation is hypnosis, even social situations are hypnosis. All of our mental problems can be ascribed to hypnosis, and any successful treatment is also hypnosis.

More specifically, hypnosis affects people on an 'unconscious' level, where responses seem 'automatic', and not voluntary or controlled. "Un-conscious" literally refers to anything that isn't conscious. When you walk down the street, you don't think "ok now left foot go there, now right foot go there, now left foot.." and so on. You just walk, and your unconscious does all the rest. Your unconscious regulates your breathing and immune response, it filters your experience and it performs all the skills you've mastered and no longer need to think about. It also has the reigns on all of those latent mental abilities that you always hear about how we don't use them.


Characteristics of Trance

 You can't really talk about 'hypnosis' without also talking about 'trance', although like hypnosis there's a lot of superstition surrounding the phenomenon. Really a trance is just a mental context. When you go to work, you probably put yourself into a 'work trance'. When you 'fly into a rage', you're invoking an 'angry trance'. People who are good at performing or playing music will put themselves into a 'performance trance'. As you might guess, we're in some sort of trance or another all the time.

However, in most of these trances, 'consciousness' is in the foreground; reacting, watching and making the usual fuss. In a 'hypnotic trance', the unconscious is brought to the foreground, which is what makes this sort of trance different and special. It is not, as many hypnotists do their best to convey, a state of 'increased suggestibility'. You do not become a mindless slave or automaton. Rather, you gain more direct access to your more subtle inner machinations, to your imaginative abilities, to your autonomic functions, and to many other abilities that you probably didn't know you had.

There are certain profound differences in awareness that characterize a "trance" as opposed to the normal "waking state". Awareness of 'external reality' is essentially traded for 'internal reality', leading to what is called "rapport", where the person ignores and/or gives no significance to external reality objects. Instead, ideas are given reality, and additionally examined very closely to relevance to the subject as a person. While a person in a trance is very receptive to ideas, they will reject or defeat any ideas which they find objectionable or harmful. It is this very engaged ideation which allows access to various physiological and intellectual capacities. Also, as a result of a limited awareness of reality contexts, a person in a trance may fail to find amusement in things which they normally would in the waking state (like practical jokes).

Outwardly, there are observable differences between someone in a 'hypnotic trance' and someone who is 'normally awake'. Probably the most obvious and profound indicator is that their pupils dilate like satellite dishes. It's almost impossible to miss. They also tend to relax their muscles and take on a sort of spaced-out or stuporous look. Their movements take on a strange rigidity (catelepsy), their attitude becomes more child-like, they lose awareness of most things in reality unless you specifically point them out, and they become very literal in the way they interpret what is said to them (due to the literal interpretation of ideas). Check out the video links at the end of the first Erickson article for examples.

Light vs Deep Trance

 Most hypnotists seem to recognize that there are 'light' and 'deep' trances, and some even add in a 'medium' category, although for reasons I'll explain I don't consider that distinct. Basically, in a 'light' trance, the conscious mind is still 'awake', and can even participate in eliciting and experiencing hypnotic phenomena. In a light trance, you're generally limited to associative phenomena like positive hallucination, although you can also elicit dissociative phenomena in a localized way. For example, you could develop amnesia for your name in a light trance, but if you developed amnesia for the entire experience the trance would automatically 'go deep'. It's really a sliding scale, with fine variation in how far you've 'drifted off', but at some point you really 'zone out', which is called 'deep trance'.

In 'deep' trance, your consciousness has either gone away, or to sleep, or is simply in a state where it is so comfortable that you just don't care about anything. You don't care enough to try to move, or to speak, or to pay attention to anything in reality. In a 'deep' trance, it's possible to elicit all of the associative phenomena with profound lucidity, and to elicit all of the dissociative phenomena like negative hallucination, amnesia and anesthesia in a global way.

Hypnotic Phenomena

There are a number of specific phenomena associated with trance as they are easily identified as unusual and are easy to elicit consistently. There are also many more than I could list, some profound and some subtle, which cover a wide range of experiences and capabilities above and beyond what is well studied. I'll try to give some examples of both to give you a pretty decent overview and an inkling at what sorts of things are possible with hypnotic phenomena.

Some basic phenomena:
  • Ideomotor activity (and automatic writing)
  • Positive hallucination (experiencing something that isn't there in any of the senses)
  • Negative hallucination (not experiencing something that is there)
  • Anesthesia/analgesia
  • Hyperesthesia (amplification of senses)
  • Amnesia
  • Hypermnesia (extreme recall)
  • Time distortion (time seems faster or slower than what the clock says, sometimes extremely so)
  • Control of breathing, heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, blood flow (to specific areas, has even been used to reduce bleeding during surgery) and immune response (amongst other things)

Erickson also often used hypnosis to awaken people's 'intuition'. He took the position that the unconscious could be aware of more things and process them faster than consciousness can (modern science agrees, more below). He used this to help people improve their performance in sports, to make creative leaps, and went into a trance himself to improve his awareness of his client's state and to allow himself to instantly respond to whatever they did during therapy.

To give a firsthand account of something similar, back in my "pickup" days, I had the opportunity to see someone who was 'in state'. I decided in the moment to see if I couldn't go into a trance to 'copy' that state, and so I defocused my eyes and watched him for a moment; and as he moved and interacted I could see sort of 'swirls' occurring around his elbows and other joints, and soon I felt a strange new feeling arising from my center. This expanded like a flame, and then when I went to walk away it didn't even feel like my body. I moved like he did, almost exactly, and at his pace (which I had to slow down). Later I was making small talk with some customers and it didn't even sound like me (although it wasn't like him either). I was more confident, easygoing and personable than I have ever been; normally I hate making small talk at all.

Of course, that experience didn't last, but it was astounding how I was able to 'absorb' so completely what someone else felt and how they moved. Especially when it was something so alien to my own experience.

There is another case of Erickson's which I think is illustrative. He once had a blind woman come to him because she thought hypnosis might help her see. Having no sense of sight, it was difficult to distract her and limited the kinds of hypnotic phenomena he could elicit. After much effort, he finally managed to get her to manifest arm levitation, and left her only with the suggestion that she would be surprised. Later, she found that she could walk and move easily and smoothly like a sighted person. Being blind all her life, she had built up her senses of hearing and touch over her lifetime which she was able to synthesize so that she could move gracefully without thinking about it.

Posthypnotic Suggestion

By linking a hypnotic suggestion either to a class of experiences or to a future time, it effectively becomes a posthypnotic suggestion. When the trigger for the suggestion is activated, the person goes into a 'posthypnotic trance', during which time they carry out the suggestion. This may persist until the suggestion is fully carried out, or it may only last a moment and then the person wakes up with residual hypnotic phenomena.

Hypnotic Sophistication

To Erickson, unless you intended to purposefully deceive him (and probably even then), he considered you a good subject as a matter of fact. However, he often spoke of a distinction between subjects in terms of "sophistication", which I did not understand for a long time.

In order for a person to carry out a suggestion such as "stay in trance, but act as if you were awake", or "you have an interesting experience, and learn important things", they must first be able to manifest basic hypnotic phenomena such as ideomotor activity and hallucination. The more abstract and complex the suggestion, the more sophisticated the subject must be in order to carry it out.


Many of Erickson's first experiences with trance were autohypnotic. You can learn autohypnosis through a posthypnotic suggestion, and/or you can also learn to do it in a 'naturalistic' way which Erickson described. His method was simple: Gather, in your mind, all of the impressions which are relevant to what you want your unconscious to do, focus on them clearly in consciousness, and then set them in the back of your mind for safe keeping, with the knowledge that your unconscious will respond when it has come up with a solution. It may respond like a bolt of lightning out of the blue, or intuitively without you noticing that something has changed, or perhaps in a dream, but you won't know until it does. Of course, sophistication helps, but it isn't necessary to get a good response.

Hypnosis & Neuroscience

While modern neuroscience has found out virtually nothing about trance itself, or hypnosis in general, it has found some fascinating things about representation and memory which are linked to trance phenomena.

It was found that for the primary senses (VAKOG) each could be trained so that you can remember and name more details of things you've seen. Hypnotic games with hallucination and hyperesthesia can achieve the same thing without having to do 'flash card' type work. Nikola Tesla, for example, gained his engineering skill because as a child, he was in such boring and captive circumstances that he found himself drifting off to daydream worlds regularly. Later, when he learned engineering, he figured that because he already had such imaginary prowess that simulating engineering in his head would be easy. Turned out he was right.

They've also found that reaction time can be reduced, regardless of age. This can be trained through martial arts practice, or ironically through first person shooter games like Halo(tm). Posthypnotic suggestions have also been used to aid in improving reaction times.

Previously I mentioned how memory champs use the method of loci to memorize obscenely large bits of information (like 18,000+ digits of pi). The method of loci is a combination of visual representation and anchoring, both skills which can be practiced and improved through hypnosis.

Other experiments have used people as living computers. They showed some subjects pictures of helicopter pads and had them become familiar with what one looked like on a satellite photo. They then hooked the subjects up to an EEG and rapidly flashed many satellite photos in front of them while measuring the output. They found that even though the person wouldn't have any conscious awareness of it, whenever they saw a helicopter pad in a photo their brain would register an 'aha' response, telling the computer to search that frame to find a pad. The photos were cycled fast enough that they could barely see anything at all.

Closing Thoughts

Hypnosis not only offers the possibility of directly teaching the fundamental skills and states needed for inner work, but also the possibility of awakening the latent potential of the human intellect and human action.  It can be used to bypass and break up rigid conscious states, and to achieve rapid change and growth. It's faster and more powerful than meditation, and I almost consider it to be a way of life. Ultimately, it's something you'll have to experience for yourself.


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