How does hypnosis happen?
In hypnosis, the usage of words acquires critical significance because they are believed to bring the ‘dynamic impact’ which is brought upon by the conviction of the hypnotized that their hypnotic experiences are real. Despite this, still mystery shrouds on the mechanism through which hypnosis really works. Some scholars believe that it is rather a ‘mundane psychological process’ whereas there are others who argue that hypnotic responses are not a product of just mundane mechanism, but are products arising out deliberate transformations in ‘cognitive processing’. Stated otherwise, it is driven by ‘phenomenology’, by which it is meant that what hypnotizable individuals experience is based on the intentionality of experience containing both the outward appearance and inward consciousness based on memory, image and meaning. Scholars in fact go a step beyond and state that it is the ‘exaggerated phenomenology’ which is the hallmark of hypnosis.
Exaggerated phenomenology can be described as something that transcends beyond straight forward communication from the hypnotist as a phenomenon where the hypnotized subjects tend to get disrupted and transiently deluded of the source and reality of their experiences. Kihlstrom brings into focus two qualities, viz, “experienced involuntariness bordering on compulsion” and “conviction bordering on delusion” which have formed the basis for defining hypnosis. It is not as if hypnotic responses seem to be taking place easily or looking real, but despite that hypnotized individuals get a feeling as though it is easy and real. It can be explained with some illustrations.
For instance, take the case of post-hypnotic suggestions. This is a process which involves making suggestions to the hypnotized individuals that they would react in a particular way when they receive a specific ‘cue’ as for instance “reaching down and stretching their left ankles’ when they hear a tapped sound as specified in the Harvard Group of Hypnotic Susceptibility. In a series of nine studies, Barrier and McConkey explore the various factors involving responses of post hypnotized individuals both inside and outside laboratory environments. While such individuals did exactly as suggested by the hypnotic coach, yet described their responses as ones which were not in their own control. They have explained the specific instance of one female participant who was given a post-hypnotic suggestion to rub her right earlobe and when the coach asked her about the way she felt immediately after the cue was given and the process happened, she was surprisingly perplexed suggesting that such post-hypnotic response was purely involuntary.
Yet another illustration could be made by referring to the phenomenon of ‘compelling subjective reality’. This could be explained in relation to ‘hypnotic delusions’. This involves making the subject to believe that they would experience a feeling that they are as though a different person from what they normally used to be. In an extraordinary experiment, Sutcliffe did this by giving a suggestion for ‘sex change’ wherein he had instructed the male subjects to become females and vice versa, that is, female subjects to believe them to be males. Such a process was accomplished in highly hypnotized individuals. This is explained in more detail by taking the case of a male participant who had received a suggestion to become a female. Due to his high response to the hypnotic suggestion, he not only changed his name from a male to a female one, but in addition described his appearance to be a female. When he was further asked to open his eyes to see an image of himself in a video monitor, he came out with a response that it was not him. According to him it was ‘disgustingly real’. Again, in yet another experiment, Cox through post-hypnotic suggestions dealt with identity change, whether it was real or unreal. Here also the experiment had shown that highly hypnotized individuals did change their identities. Such studies go towards pointing out the fact that the ‘delusional experiences’ occurring through post-hypnotic suggestions are real in spite the fact that such individuals face strong challenges while in the process of being hypnotized.
What could explain the reasons for such things happening in hypnosis? On going experiments in hypnosis and looking at hypnotic historical research, we can cull out one factor that seems to be responsible for the happenings of such things which is related to the role of ‘expectations’ in hypnosis. According to many scholars as Barber, Braffman & Kirsch and many others who share a similar view, expectation comes out to be a singularly dominant factor that drives the hypnotic delusions. However, other scholars as Benharn, Woody etc have questioned this on the ground that even though it is possible that expectancies could play a significant role in the way the hypnotized individuals respond, yet in real experiments, there emerges a significant amount of variance which is unexplained by the direct or indirect influence of expectations. They however attribute this to the presence of ‘cognitive ability’ which could act as simultaneous predictors of hypnotic performance when taken in terms of individual as well as overall scores. Nonetheless, it is not that easy to altogether dismiss the role of expectations for the reason that it is not as if it is because of expectations the hypnotized individuals feel the suggestions to be real but because it is exactly opposite in character for the reason it violates expectations which as put by Sabrin imply that it is ‘counterexpectaional’.
To the existing theories of the phenomena of ‘phenomenology of hypnosis’, two new ones have been added to explain as how hypnosis happens. They relate to the ‘cold control theory’ of hypnosis as propounded by Dienes and Perner and ‘discrepancy attribution’ theory of hypnotic illusions. Both these theories have to be presented together for the reasons they not only hold similar views of a number of features, as for instance on explaining ‘cognitive psychology’, but are also rooted in similar ways.
Fundamental to any theory of hypnosis is the fact that it should explain as to what drives the behaviors and experiences of the hypnotized individuals. While subjective experience seems to be an integral part of explaining the manner in which hypnosis happens, yet an underlying theme in such explanations is the happening of such experiences in an involuntary manner. In this regard, Bowers distinguishes between doings and happenings where the former is taken to be happenings due to voluntary acts while the latter is seen to be outside the control of hypnotized individuals. This is termed by Witzehoffer as ‘classic suggestion effect’ by which he had meant the process as a conversion of the essential communication into an involuntary experience. In fact, it is suggested by Kihlstrom that Weitzenhoffer relied solely on the factor of ‘involuntary responses’ which only can be treated as ‘truly hypnotic’.
However, the above alone cannot fully explain the post hypnotic experience for the reasons that the effect of hypnosis is neither uniform across people nor the same even within the same individual. This is because in some individuals, it could be due to subjective involuntariness while in others this could happen on account of the play of subjective reality. This makes it necessary for any one dealing with the subject of hypnosis to keep in mind the important distinction between ‘involuntariness and reality’. This is because, through hypnotic research, the role of ‘involuntariness’ has been unduly stressed which however does not appear to be the only or singular factor for the reason not all hypnotic suggestions lead to only this experience.
Barnier and McConkey with the help of 2×2 matrix for hypnotic items, explains two terms, viz, motor vs. cognitive items by using direct vs. challenge terms. Motor items relate to such actions as moving one’s arms upwards through the usage of levitation suggestion whereas cognitive-perceptual items deal with either of the perceptions, memories, thoughts including emotions, viz, positive or negative. The direct suggestions aim at telling the individuals as to what exactly their responses should be, as for instance, their arms would get heavy and fall down when the suggestion relates to lowering of the hand. Challenging suggestions test the existence of a reality by making it as though it does not exist, as for instance, suggesting to the individual that they cannot smell anything and compare this with real experience by asking those to take a real sniff form say a bottle containing smelly stuff.
Now, we can turn out attention to the explanation of two new generational theories, the first one which relates to cold control theory of hypnosis. The starting point of this theory is the understanding of the distinction of being in a certain mental state and while so, being aware of being in that state. This is comparable to the one explained by Hilgard according to whom such a distinction could be explained by distinguishing between control and monitoring. This explained by two terms, viz, a first order and higher order states respectively, wherein the first order state relates to the world and the higher order state transforms one from this to another state. For example, looking at a cat causes a visual representation what it is in reality and this represents a first order state. On the other, imagining that you see a cat transforms one to a higher order state, viz, second order state. Yet another example could be that when an individual thinks that he intends to make their arms rigid, takes such individual to a second order state.
The theoretical basis for cold control theory is drawn from three sources, viz, (i) cognitive theories of control (e.g. that of Hilgard), (ii) disassociation and interactionist theories, (for instance that of Comey and Kirsch), and (iii) the higher order though (HOT) theory of consciousness. It postulates that successful responses to hypnotic suggestions could be realized through making a deliberate intention to perform such actions in a cognitive manner without having to form a higher order of thought (HOT). Stated otherwise, it arises out of an executive control wherein the requisite changes are brought in by avoiding on the one hand accurate HOTs and on the other hand entering into inaccurate HOTs where in this implied to mean that the individual did not intend such an action at all. This is in sheer contrast to such hypnotic theories which claims ‘executive functions’ compromise the effectiveness of hypnosis for the reason this theory advances the view that anything that could be done outside the scope of hypnosis could be carried out as a hypnotic suggestion. In effect, this means if a thing outside the realm of hypnotic suggestion, then it cannot be brought within its purview through hypnotic suggestions. If at all there is a difference between hypnotic and non-hypnotic suggestion, it rests on the way the response is felt in a subject manner. The importance of this theory lies in the fact that such a difference has a big bearing on the way hypnotism works as for example a subject would not be in a position of being put in a first order effect, without an interesting subjective experience. Again in earlier theories changing habitual formations or things that were considered to be responsible for distracting the individuals were considered to be difficult, but as per theory this no longer is difficult irrespective of the fact whether such things are tried in a normal ways or applying hypnosis. In short intentions are given a supremacy over expectations in cold control theory.
The second theory, viz, Discrepancy-attribution theory of hypnotic illusions advances the argument that hypnotic illusions could be understood within the theoretical framework which deals with memory illusions wherein illusions refer more specifically to hypnotic responding rather than specific ‘cognitive delusory’ phenomena as for instance hallucinations. According to this theory, there is a positive relationship between the manner hypnotic suggestions are produced and evaluated in terms of the impact such suggestions produce. The point to be noted here is active involvement which even though appears to be contradictory yet considered to be valid for the reason in experiments the subjects have described the response itself in convincing terms. Stated otherwise, it is not necessary for the subjects to observe a contradiction between their active effort and involuntary/real experiences. Nonetheless, it is also argued that more research would be needed to validate more firmly the discrepancy-attribution theory in such areas as for instance, relating to fluency of illusions. This does not in any way reduces the importance of this theory for the reason it deviates from the past theorizations in the field of hypnosis which gains the supportive evidence from studies in this area.
The foregoing discussions lead us to one important conclusion, viz, that the field of hypnosis is not only growing but is becoming more and more scientific. At this stage, what may benefit the field is working towards a broad integration of various theories by putting together complementarities that may exist between them and reconciling the differences through further research. For example, similar to the role of expectation, the role of context is yet another area which may need further explorations. The newly emerging theories along with the existing one offer a vast scope for further research in the field of hypnosis.