Altered ‘state’ of consciousness versus the ‘nonstate’ theory of hypnosis

Written by Amanda Walsh

The notion of a hypnotic ‘trance’, an ‘altered state of consciousness’ or ‘special state’, emerged from what are referred to as the ‘state’ theories of hypnosis. The premise of ‘state’ theory is that, through the actions of the hypnotist, the inducing of a ‘trance’ the ‘unconscious’ or ‘subconscious’ mind responds to suggestion. Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy (CBH) holds a ‘nonstate’ perspective opposing the ‘state’ theory. This article aims to clarify, what the research evidence reveals and why CBH an evidenced based approach, proposes that a special state or ‘altered state of consciousness’ is an inaccurate explanation for what occurs in hypnosis.

‘State’ theories derived from what is referred to as Mesmerism. Braid (1841, 1845) the father of the modern ‘nonstate’ theoretical perspective, demystified the superstition and deception of Mesmerism replacing it with an empirical theory. Through research efforts to settle, the ‘state’ versus ‘nonstate’ debate a superior understanding of hypnosis has emerged with practical implications for effective hypnotherapy.

The terminology of ‘state’ theory persists in everyday language.

People frequently formulate ideas based on ‘state’ theory. I feel it is important to highlight at this point; the common use of ‘state’ terminology in language. Terms such as ‘trance’ and ‘unconscious’ are prevalent in everyday language. One might say that this is similar in a sense, to the way in which Freud and his theories, still commonly referred to when people talk about theories of psychology. I digress for a moment to clarify why exactly I refer to Freud in order to highlight this point. Whilst Freud is an important figure, in the sense that he stimulated research, his theories nonetheless are neither reliable nor valid. For instance, Freud’s psychoanalysis on average took 1,300 sessions in 5 years, with a significant percentage of the women’s symptoms getting worse. I will let you be the judge of the effectiveness of Freud’s theory and practice. Nevertheless, in everyday speech, Freud, his theories and associated terminology frequently referred to when people talk about psychology, as if his unfounded theories were somehow synonymous with valid psychological theories and findings. Freud’s claims fuelled an abundance of research; leading figures in the area of psychology were determined to discredit and highlight the errors in his assertions and thus provided alternative rational, valid and reliable explanations and theories.

The point I am making is that often, as is the case with hypnosis, there are numerous false assumptions, which ‘pop psychology’, self-help books, cartoons and film makers, draw upon to captivate the audience. This serves to reinforce misconceptions and invariably certain terminology becomes embedded in language. As we are all very much aware, that for instance, in searching for a topic on the internet, there is an abundance of grossly inaccurate information, some of which is frankly completely bizarre. This is definitely the case when people comment in the area of psychology, psychotherapy and hypnosis. There are very out of date views, opinions, terminology regarding the area of psychology, psychotherapy and hypnosis. This is more than ever apparent when people refer to ‘trance’ or ‘altered state of consciousness’. While a popular and awe inspiring concept, there is no evidence to suggest such a theory.

Research is vital in any field. Rigorous scientific research brings the area forward.

Where would any field or the integrity of any field of study be without adopting to important research findings?

Prominent researchers examining the area of hypnosis discard the concept of ‘altered state of consciousness’ and ‘trance’. Importantly, those psychologists and professionals who do not entirely reject the terms or use of terms such as ‘subconscious’ do so in a metaphorical sense or put forward an extremely diluted or weak version of what many people commonly believe the terms to represent.

‘The reality is that most of what is observed and experienced when hypnosis is said to be taking place (in the clinic, in the laboratory, on stage, on training courses, and so on)… can be satisfactorily explained provided we ground our explanations in a modern scientific understanding of the human mind, namely mainstream psychology and its related disciplines. Yet many writers have neither the knowledge nor the inclination to do this. I have lost count of the number of books I have seen which, on their covers, announce that their authors “at long last divest hypnosis of the mystery that has surrounded it” while between the covers they do the exact opposite, often by appealing to some magical entity called ‘the unconscious mind’, pop psychology, and oversimplified notions of the human brain’. (Heap, 2006: bold added for emphasis)

‘Nonstate’ evidence based proponents hold that, through verbal or non-verbal direction, one invites, encourages and prompts the individual to enhance receptive mind-set; absorption, motivation, expectancy and imagination (Heap and Aravind, 2002). This contrasts starkly, with the ‘state’ assumption that responsiveness is predisposed and fixed. Authorities in the field of psychology and hypnosis view ‘state’ theory as reductionist, holding unsubstantiated assumptions.

According to research evidence, one can be trained to be a better hypnotic respondent. The significance of skills training, in addition to the impact of the therapist’s skills and technique on responsiveness are fundamental research findings and crucial for the effective use of hypnosis in treatment. These findings are derived from ‘nonstate’ rigorous research investigation. Identifying with a role, (role of a hypnotic participant), found to result in physiological and psychological changes. This research evidence, conflicts with the ‘state’ assumption that somehow through the hypnotist’s power the ‘unconscious’ responds to suggestion. Empirical research proposes that imaginal absorption (Barber, 1969), strategic enactment (Spanos,1991) identifying with a role or role enactment (Sarbin and Coe, 1972) and response expectancy or response set (Lynn and Kirsch, 2006), are psychological processes involved in hypnosis.

Brain activity does not suggest that one is in a ‘special state’ during hypnosis.

Again I emphasise that ‘trance’ and ‘altered state of consciousness’ are outdated concepts. For instance, some writers claim that people in hypnosis experience a ‘trance’ or ‘altered state of consciousness’, which they consider to produce higher frequency of ‘alpha’ or even ‘theta’ brain waves on electroencephalogram (EEG) brain scans. They propose that these findings suggest hypnosis somehow accesses the ‘subconscious’ or ‘unconscious’, a claim which is false and unreliable.

In actual scientific research by leading researchers in the field, the results reveal that brain imaging changes which occur in the brain activity are far more complex than some authors of ‘pop psychology’ would have us believe. Rigorous, valid reliable research is vital in researching psycho-physiological phenomena. Changes occur in brain activity during hypnosis, however, the changes, which do appear on brain scans, are task specific. Putting it very simply for the sake of brevity, for instance, if a task in hypnosis, required increases in concentration levels therefore the area(s) of the brain utilised, thus appearing activated. The area(s) of the brain for instance related to speech or visual imagery activated if the task requires the individual visualise an image or talk about the image. In other words, the brain activity reflects the level of concentration or modality required as opposed to an ‘altered state of consciousness.’

Brain imaging technology does not support ‘state’ theory. Changes relate to the task performed by the individual and are variable; this is consistent with ‘nonstate’ theory. Adopting ‘nonstate’ approach hypnosis incorporated with cognitive and behavioural approaches to treatment. Mainstream psychological research is consistent with ‘nonstate’ CBH (Lazarus, 1997). ‘Nonstate’ CBH embraces the role of psychological and physiological factors, acknowledging that hypnosis inextricably interlinked with mainstream experimental, clinical, and neuroscience research investigation.

My point is quite nicely summed up in the following quote:

‘Very few topics in the whole history of mankind can have given rise to so many absurdities, misunderstandings and misconceptions. From the very beginning, the study of hypnosis has been tied up with fantastic conceptions like animal magnetism, the influence of the stars and similar tarradiddle. Even nowadays, popular conceptions of hypnosis are extremely confused and the journalistic reports in newspapers have done but little to clarify the issues involved.’

Hans Eysenck, Sense & Nonsense in Psychology (1957)

In conclusion, ‘state’ theory is invalid and unreliable. In contrast, ‘non-state’ theory is a common-sense approach, focusing on making meaning clear. A special state, an ‘altered state of consciousness’ popular concept, made increasingly popular in attempts to intrigue and enthral us in movies, books and on stage. There is an air of mystery about these concepts. Whilst entertaining theories, ‘state’ theories are inaccurate. These are ideas, which have actually, become embedded in language. They are however, found invalid, in an overabundance of research investigations. Leading researchers in the field have employed a ‘nonstate’ theoretical perspective. ‘Nonstate’ theoretical perspectives emphasises cognitive, behavioural and social processes, the conscious factors involved in ones responding to suggestion. CBH equips clients with valuable insight and long-term coping strategies, crucial to relapse prevention. This approach is absent from ‘state’ theories.

Have you every wondered where the idea of ‘healing energy’ comes from? Click here to read ‘healing energy vs experimentation.

Another article which may interest you Is Hypnosis a Distinct Form of Consciousness? Written by Lilienfeld and Arkowitz (2009). To see excerpts Click here.

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