Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On Hypnosis (4/20)

Non-State Theories

Theodore Barber, a leading hypnosis researcher is a strong proponent of the non-state theory. For him hypnosis is nothing extraordinary; it is a normal, everyday behavior mistakenly given a special name. So-called hypnotic behavior, according to Barber, can be understood as being the result of interpersonal factors, such as the subject's desire to please the hypnotist by successfully carrying out what is requested of him, much like what often happens between client and therapist in any kind of psychotherapy.

Barber points out that all attempts to define hypnosis to date have involved a semantic merry-go-round: a person is said to behave a certain way because she is hypnotized. But how do we know she is hypnotized? Because she behaves a certain way. Or worse yet: A person is in a trance because she is hypnotized. How do we know she is hypnotized? Because she is in a trance! While the concepts of trance and hypnosis are used to define one another, they are also used interchangeably. According to Barber, proof that hypnosis is a special state of consciousness requires the discovery of behavior other than that used to describe it.

Furthermore, if hypnosis is a special state, shouldn't instruments clearly indicate its difference from a waking or a sleeping state? "For nearly one hundred years," writes Barber, "researchers have been trying to delineate an objective physiological index that differentiates the hypnotic state from non-hypnotic states...The attempt to find a physiological index of 'hypnotic trance per se' has not succeeded."[1] Specifically, physiological measures such as EEG, blood pressure, pulse rates, and body temperature do not demonstrate any variation between a "hypnotic" and "non-hypnotic" state.

Peter Brown, who has studied what underlies the phenomenon of hypnotic communication, modifies Barber's thesis as follows: "Though there are changes in brain functioning during hypnosis, they are not unique to hypnosis nor are they uniform across all subjects...The changes in brain function that occur in hypnosis are similar to the normal ultradian variations in activity and do not appear to differ from changes found in other types of absorbed concentration."[2] Brown adds that "It is easy to speak of an 'altered state of consciousness' or of 'dissociation,' as if we know precisely what these terms mean. The evidence suggests that the trance state involved substantial changes in cognition, emotion, perception, and physiologic regulation. But these changes do not exist in a vacuum. Intermingled with them will be the surrounding context for the individual: their previous history, current concerns, and the quality of the interaction and degree of rapport they experience with the hypnotherapist."[3]

According to the non-state theory, the vital functions and behavior of someone in a hypnotic trance are not dissimilar to those of someone who is not in a trance. People role-play, act, distort, conceal, fantasize, and imagine themselves as others while awake, and they also do these things while hypnotized. While either in a hypnotic trance or an everyday trance, they are able to consciously or unconsciously focus on a particular stimulus and tune out all others. Moreover, Barber and other non-state theorists say that what happens to people in hypnosis can be explained largely in terms of the relationship between the subject and the hypnotist, based on the subject's psychology, motivations, and drives. As children, they try to please their parents; as students, they seek approval from teachers; and as hypnotic subjects, they do the same.

[1]Theodore X. Barber, Hypnosis: Scientific Approach (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1969), p. 7.
[2]Peter Brown, The Hypnotic Brain: Hypnotherapy and Social Communication. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991), p. 175.
[3]Brown, The Hypnotic Brain, p. 241.


  1. Hi,

    The interest to me here is the reference to acting out in ordinary life (as opposed to induced state).
    Seems to me we act out in an inverted way (symbolically) our un-met needs. We don't know we're doing it until we connect with something that displaces the defence against seeing it.

    There are different states, Art tells us there's chemistry going on that proves the shifts in specific brain function/ mood/ memory/ feeling and so on. They can be modified in many different ways through 'suggestion'.

    Some of these modified 'states' are very real to us because the valence (Arts' word) comes right through 1st, 2nd to 3rd with resonant scenarios. This can be horrible if you know it's happening because it feels like you're being controlled by unseen demons. If you don't know it's happening it can be horrible for others.

    Sometimes I feel like how my father behaves and I just can't get out of it and be me. Other times I'm like an angry hungry baby.

    Other states are like being soporifically drugged and who I am is mediated by conflicts of brain chemistry. All these variations are changes in the recipe of brain chemicals brought on by either our willingness to 'believe' our act outs (our way of life) or believe the instructions of others, or both.

    It's the blessed (unexamined) belief systems in our heads that causes the worst I reckon because our defences are organised by that system.

    Things happen to us and we make a belief out of it and then we wonder why we feel stuck or weird later. Or our friends notice but we don't.

    The hypnotist is cleverly playing with our belief systems/ defences/ the intermediary knobs of our brain chemistry. . . but what does that prove?

    You can take one of the spark plugs out of a car engine and it will still run. . . bdum, bdum, bdum, bdum, bdum. . . fascinating, if you like finding out how things work by tinkering, I feel these hypnotists are tinkering.

    Paul G.

  2. Hypnosis almost looks like a one-man cult. We go into our "own world" by cutting off other inputs, which allows us to "live our dream" because nothing is contradicting it.

    -I believe that cults, at base, are just control-environments that in turn allow for 'eccentric' interpretations of the wider reality to take place.

  3. Also: I work with a guy who comes off to everyone as severely "spaced out" like in a part-hypnotic state. But what's interesting is that I know you could abuse and insult this guy to nearly any extreme and it would all just float past him (don't worry - I haven't actually tried). Would that be an indicator to the function and meaning of his dissociation? Maybe extreme abusiveness as a child helped to produce his dissociation in the first place - escaped from his feelings (to an extreme), and is still escaping by directly cutting himself off from sources of hurt.

  4. Andrew: The minute there is major dissociation there is neurosis or hypnosis. Hypnosis is just a contrived neurosis in an effort to further the dissociative process. Neurosis is just hypnosis writ large. art janov

  5. Very nice post related to hypnosis, i really appreciate your work.


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Bailey Endowed Chair of Animal Well Being Science
Washington State University

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