Hypnosis is essentially a state of effective communication between the conscious and subconscious parts of the mind. It is a very simple and natural mental state, something similar to which we all experience when lying quietly in bed on waking, before going to sleep, or even while sitting in a chair day-dreaming. Meditation and states of yoga also produce a similar effect. No one knows the precise origin of what we now call hypnosis. That the mind has power to influence nervous and physical states and the ability to heal was known to the Greeks 2,000 years ago. In different guises and in different parts of the world magicians, witch-doctors and yogi have employed this same power.

In Europe, sixteenth-century scholars, such as the Swiss Paracelsus (1493-1541), showed increasing interest in the phenomenon, which was made famous two centuries later by the Austrian, Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) and known then as animal magnetism. It was a contemporary Scottish surgeon, James Braid (1795-1860), who considered that the mesmerists were wrong and that the condition was a form of sleep – hypnos, after the Greek god of sleep, from which the words hypnotism and hypnosis are derived. At this time research and development were continuing in France, notably in Paris under Jean M. Charcot (1825-1893), and continued into the present century with the work of the Viennese psychiatrist

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). Freud is one of the first to have noticed the (temporary) beneficial effect of hypnosis on certain psychiatric disorders. He showed that the hypnotist could have a strong influence on the behaviour and psychic functioning of the patient, and thus could make his or her suppressed memories of certain experiences vivid for recollection again. After a session of this kind, certain annoying, psychogeni-cally based symptoms such as pain would appear to have vanished, although sometimes not for very long.

How hypnosis works

Despite extensive research there is, to date, no definitive evidence as to how hypnosis works. This is not as strange as it sounds, bearing in mind that the brain has over 10,000 million functioning nerve cells together with many others performing essential supportive functions. The total capacity of the brain is greater than that of the largest computer so far in existence, and identifying the functions of every part is a daunting task.

A simple but reasonably accurate way of picturing how a hypnotic state is established is to assume that by cutting down on sensory input the enormous brain activity is reduced and communication becomes effective. Imagine yourself speaking quietly to someone in a crowded room full of people talking -you cannot be heard. If, however, everyone stops chattering simultaneously then you can be heard easily. Similarly, by closing the eyes and reducing the activity of the muscles – by relaxing – millions of nerve cells in the brain become quiescent. In this state of stillness, unlike the waking state, communication between the conscious and subconscious parts of the mind becomes effective.

We all know what we mean by the conscious mind because we all experience it; and through it, by smell, sight, sound, taste and feeling, we communicate with the world about us. The subconscious, on the other hand, is that huge, hidden part of oneself which controls the life processes and has knowledge and capabilities beyond anything at the conscious level. Having no will of its own it cannot normally act on its own to correct faults that may have originated from external causes. By using the conscious will to activate the subconscious, one can then utilize that power and knowledge just as one uses any expert or technician. Each of us is endowed with our own ‘best physician’ if only we can know properly how to reach and use such a gift.

Inducing hypnosis patient’s consciousness when he or she looks fixedly at it. This hypnotic disc was ‘invented’ by Jerry Andrus.

A In order to induce a hypnotic slate, hypnotists sometimes use a revolving spiral pattern which influences the

Degrees, or depths, of hypnosis range from the so-called hypnoidal, through light, medium and deep trances to the somnambulistic state and even to posthypnotic suggestion. These states vary according to the individual’s inherent susceptibility, state of nervousness and external distractions such as noise and bright lighting. Generally, depth does not greatly influence a particular person’s ability to use hypnosis, that is, one person in a light state may make equally good progress as another in a deep one.

Many techniques for induction are used, including eye fixation, gazing at a point or object, and counting. All that is required, in fact, is to close the eyes and employ a simple technique for relaxing the muscles. The invention, in the late 1920s, of the electroencephalograph (EEG), made it possible to measure some of the brain’s electrical activity. Several different rhythms, alpha, beta, theta and delta were identified; these vary according to whether a person is asleep, awake, or engaged in active thought. Increased sophistication of the techniques used in recent years has made it possible to show that hypnosis is a special state which resembles neither sleeping nor waking. It is more precise to say the consciousness is heightened, but only at the expense of a broad field of perception.

The following changes are characteristic of a person’s condition under hypnosis: . A person is unable to initiate activity and waits for the hypnotist to suggest a course of action. . Attention becomes more selective. . A person often accepts hallucinatory experiences without question. . There is increased responsiveness to suggestions and most hypnotized people will readily enact unusual roles, for example, re-enacting one’s behaviour at an early age. . When instructed to do so, highly responsive people forget all or most of what happened during the hypnotic session.

Treatment by hypnosis

Typically, hypnosis is used to treat anxiety, reactive depression, irrational fears, addictions, obsessions and other psychological states. It can also help physical malfunction such as a duodenal ulcer, colitis and high blood pressure, correct faulty biochemistry – for example, cholesterol and uric acid levels – and effect physical repair even when the person is consciously unaware of the fault.

The individual should be taught by an expert to apply his own will to his own subconscious, so-called self-hypnosis. Interestingly, contrary to popular belief, faith is not necessary for success, only the application of will. This is just as well considering that people who have struggled for many years to overcome their problems by various means, but without success, are often greatly lacking in faith. With rare exceptions, individual symptoms should not be treated, just as one would not give a painkiller for an undiagnosed abdominal pain. Used correctly, however, hypnosis clears not only the main symptom(s) of an illness but also restores the person’s complete well-being. These benefits may remain permanently and do not necessarily fade with the years.

Every one of us carries around this latent, ‘magical’ power. The correct use of hypnosis enables us to develop it to our lasting benefit.