Frequently Unasked Questions

Mainly for the initiated and the speculative.

What Is Hypnosis?

There seems to be no universally accepted view of hypnosis. The question is complicated by the practices that now stand alongside traditional hypnosis -- Eriksonian hypnotherapy, or NLP, for example, and many others.

I'm thinking here about what is traditionally seen as hypnosis -- a situation in which the client or patient is, to use the everyday term 'put into a trance ' and then in one form or another -- suggestions are put to them.

For me, the essence of the process is that the brain rhythms slow down -- usually pari passu with deepening states of relaxation. There are many ways to achieve this -- some very rapid, some by what the late Duncan McColl liked to call the ' scenic route '  (and often, quite literally scenic). The salient point seems to me to be that the rhythms slow down.

We usually describe these changes using the terms gamma/ beta/alpha/theta/delta rhythm. I'm well aware that these are ' pop ' labels, and that for the serious investigator the changes, subtleties, and complexities that they observe render these labels simplistic to say the least. But for present purposes, they are convenient, and good enough. Please bear in mind, though, that when I use them, I do not mean to imply that there are highly specific phase and function changes at the commonly accepted boundary frequencies of these bands of rhythm. Rather, they are to my mind zones with fuzzy edges, which may differ for each individual; and perhaps, for that individual, from day to day or hour to hour.

However, I also believe that each of these bands has a specific function. It produces a particular type of consciousness, and each type has a purpose. We need them all, and it is important for our -- and our species’ -- mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being to be able to use and move between those bands at will. Unfortunately, and as I believe to our profound -- perhaps ultimately fatal -- disadvantage, we have failed to cultivate the ability to do so.

Language is common to all rhythms, but its use and application varies. The functions of the different rhythms, to my mind, are as follows: --

1) Beta rhythm (approximately 12-40 Hz).

The characteristic function of Beta rhythm is analytical thought. Its purpose is simple -- to keep us alive and functioning in the world. For example, it is important to be able to evaluate how fast the bus is coming down the road which you are crossing, and what may be the consequences of its speed; or how agitated that nearby hippo is, etc.

It is absolutely essential to our physical well-being, and is therefore highly prized. Unfortunately, it has become prized so greatly by society that it has an almost exclusive hold on our educational, business, and professional lives. Attempts to emphasise or develop the other states are often rejected, derided, or fiercely criticised, unless they fall within certain well-defined parameters -- socially accepted arts, organised religions, etc.

2) Alpha rhythm (approximately 8-12 Hz). The characteristic function of Alpha rhythm is relaxed visual imagery. Its purpose -- in my view, and I accept that this is controversial -- is to create, physically and functionally, in the world.

It is often likened, by hypnotherapists, to daydreaming, and I believe that this is, for most people, their most common experience of Alpha rhythm. Now, it seems to me to be odd that a great deal of attention has been paid to dreaming (in sleep), and libraries might be built of books on or around dreaming; from profound and learned analyses -- as for example by Jung -- to popular books on the “meanings” of things encountered or experienced in dreams. Yet I do not think that I have ever seen any serious examination of day-dreaming, though I suspect many of us day-dream at least as much as we sleep-dream. (It may, of course, be that I am simply ignorant of a whole corpus of work relating to this).

A lot of our daydreaming is related to things that we wish for. And I believe that that is its function, and that what you dream of repeatedly, especially when that dreaming is associated with longing and intent (or on the other hand, fear and dread), is most likely eventually to come into existence. Sometimes this happens quite mundanely -- you dream of an Aston  Martin, and eventually you save and manoeuvre your life so that you get it. Or it may be mysterious -- you dream of, pray for, something that seems beyond reach, and ultimately, unexpectedly, for no ' good reason ' it pops into your life.

So, in the alpha-state (and I believe that it is more helpful to speak of beta/alpha/theta/delta/and gamma states than “rhythms”, as it is quite likely that the rhythm -- or frequency/wave pattern -- that produces a given state in an individual may vary from day to day, or hour to hour; and the frequency which produces a given state in you may perhaps be quite different from that which produces a broadly equivalent state of me), visual imagery is of key importance. Analytical thought is either not possible, or is greatly reduced in impact and scope. There may be an increased awareness of peripheral vision. Indeed, I have not yet found anyone who can maintain their relaxed physical state with enhanced peripheral awareness, and carry out logical analytical processes, or mental arithmetic at the same time. I am not saying it is impossible, but it would seem to me to be uncommon. I think it is precisely because analytical thought is not (readily) compatible with an alpha-state that people are much more readily suggestible. This suggestibility, along with enhanced receptivity to mental imagery, and the fact that responsiveness can be rapid in the alpha-state, makes it more useful to the hypnotist than the theta or delta states, where response can often be greatly slowed. And, of course, these ingredients when allied to a strong desire in the subject for the objective of the therapy on which they may have embarked, create conditions similar to daydreaming, and tend to bring that objective from mind into the material world. This schema will mean little to the conventionally-oriented, materialist, mind. But to my mind there is ample evidence that consciousness, far from being an epiphenomenon of the functioning of the brain, is in fact primary. Consciousness is not abroad in the physical world: the physical world is abroad in consciousness.

To summarise, for me hypnosis is primary access to the alpha-state and use of mental imagery and suggestions to bring about change in the patient's/client's world. It is not impossible, and it may be highly effective, to carry out this activity in the theta and delta states -- and even, perhaps, in the gamma-state. I am less sure about the attributes of these states. I note that it has been suggested that the theta state is associated with intuitive creativity -- a state of creative inspiration, as experienced by some great artists, musicians, poets -- and that in Vedanta, the delta-state of deep, dreamless sleep, when to orthodox eyes rather little is going on in the brain, is considered to be the state in which we most closely approach our true immortal selves, or souls. So I tend to regard these other states as little-explored areas which are reaching beyond the normal mental functioning into profound areas of the spirit; high-level control states whose role is analogous to that of the energy fields and subtle counterparts of the physical body. Just as the alpha state may tend to bring day-dreamt material into existence, these states may tend to bring into the material world some of the content and attributes of profound levels of our being.

Possibly hypnosis would provide the ideal means of exploration of these little-known and  but profoundly important territories.