Trance and altered states of consciousness have been recorded in different cultures since ancient times; from the ancient Egyptians, to the Greeks and Romans and more recently and ‘infamously’ to Franz Mesmer (from which the word ‘mesmerise’ derives) in the 18th century.
However the word “Hypnotism” was first used in England by Dr James Braid in the early 19th century. The etymology of the word comes from the Greek, hypnos (sleep) + osis (condition). Deep sleep is however a somewhat a misleading name, and I will explain why further on. Later in his life, Braid himself life regretted his choice, but by then it was too late, the name had already spread.
In the 20th century Freud (with his studies on the subconscious mind) and most importantly Milton Erickson, the pioneer of modern hypnotherapy, marked another important step to make hypnotherapy the science we know today.
There are hundreds of different definitions of what hypnosis is, some poetic and picturesque, some more methodical. Basically we can say that hypnotherapy is a method used to artificially reach a natural state of pleasant, deep relaxation and inner awareness. In this state we are better connected with our unconscious mind, so that hypnotic suggestions can be presented and new behaviours can be instated with greater effect. This new behaviour can be effective for a few days or many weeks, depending on the subject. The permanent change is accomplished once the new suggested behaviour becomes so natural to the subject’s unconscious mind, that it will automatically replace the old behaviour. This practice of promoting healing or instilling positive behaviours is what we now call, and recognise as, hypnotherapy.
The difficulty in scientifically explaining hypnosis lays in the fact that it is not easy to measure, it is not an exact science and the experiences and results can vary from each individual. In the last century, with the development of EEG (electroencephalography), science has greatly helped us with the understanding of this phenomenon. The brain is an electrochemical organ formed by brain cells called neurons. They communicate to each other through electricity and the electrical activity generated is represented in waves. With the aid of ECG we are able to register the frequency of these waves and to categorise them.
Beta Waves: It is the fastest activity, with 15 to 40 cycles per second. It is the typical state of an alert and focused mind, but also of tension and panic.
Alpha Waves: There are slower waves, 9 to 14 cycles per second. They are typical of a less stimulated state, what we may experience just after completing a task and then relaxing. It is a fairly tranquil state, creative and pleasant. Alpha waves are not detectable in states of extreme feelings such as anger, excitement and deep sleep.
Theta Waves: Slower than Alpha, 4 to 8 cycles per second, the state of day-dreaming, meditation, deeper relaxation, light hypnosis and automatic action like driving for few miles and then not recalling it. These are associated with our subconscious mind, where all our experiences, memories and learning lay.
Delta waves: The slowest at 1 to 4 cycles per second. We experience them in deep sleep, possibly very deep hypnosis. No other waves are active in Delta status.
Waves’ frequencies change gradually, overlapping and flowing from one into another. When we are almost asleep we are usually in Alpha, we then drift into Theta before falling into deep sleep in Delta. A person under the effect of hypnosis is usually experiencing Alpha or Theta waves. This is when our subconscious mind is more aware and easily accessible, when the hypnotic suggestions are more effective and more able to reach our unconscious mind. That is why the literal definition of hypnosis as “deep sleep” is not correct.
Each subject will experience hypnosis in a different way with a different state of trance and different feelings afterwards, however most people will benefit some positive changes in their life. One result common to almost everybody is a feeling of relaxation and wellbeing.
Freud was the first to scientifically understand the presence of an unconscious mind and explain it. His theory was considered shocking in his time, nevertheless, his work is at the very foundation of modern psychoanalysis. It was Freud who divided the mind into conscious and unconscious.
The conscious mind involves all the things we are aware of, our mental processes, what we think and talk about rationally and all the memories that we can recall easily.
The unconscious mind takes care of all our body functions (we don’t think about breathing or moving our feet when we walk) and stores all our memories (we don’t really forget anything that happened to us, we are just not able to consciously recall it).
So, with hypnosis we induce a natural state of total relaxation, which leads us to a trance or hypnotic state in which our conscious mind is at rest, giving space and awareness to our unconscious mind and enabling us to be more in contact and harmony with it. This explains why relaxation induction is such an important part of hypnotherapy’s procedure.
Relaxation techniques are rooted back in ancient history, however in our modern society, relaxing and switching off is increasingly more difficult. We always have something to do, something to think about, so being able to relax completely has become a luxury that would be extremely beneficial for anyone
In early twentieth century a Chicago doctor, Dr Jacobson, first realised that our muscle units work on an “All or Nothing Principle”. This means that our muscles are either completely relaxed or not at all; there is no half way. He realised most of his patients were in a constant state of tension which had become their normal state. This would provoke a lot of physical discomfort, mental problems, difficulty in sleeping etc. Asking them to consciously relax each muscle at a time, starting from the legs and feet, moving up to the head and scalp, he was able to simply induce relaxation. Breaking the pattern of constant tension substantially improved their quality of life. This technique is called “Progressive Muscle Relaxation”, and is at the base of hypnotherapy.
So having gone on a brief journey through history, we have a better understanding of hypnotic phenomena and their roots.
Today, hypnosis has lost most of its old labels of magic and supernatural. What we have with hypnosis is an effective, helpful and completely safe series of techniques that enable us to deeply relax, get in touch with our unconscious mind and find our inner strength and resources.