The Nature Of Hypnosis

Although the nature and phenomena of hypnosis are still incompletely

understood, there are a multitude of theories which attempt to explain

its mechanism and results. The most that can be done at this time is to

explore various views which are held by leading authorities at present.

It can be said, however, that a majority of authorities agree that

hypnosis ensues as a result of natural laws which have been incorporated

in the human organism since the beginning of man as he is today.

The older theories show almost as much disparity as today, but for the

purposes of history it is probably necessary to enumerate only the

"animal magnetism" of Frederick Anton Mesmer, and a mention of the

"hysteria syndrome" of Jean Martin Charcot. Both names loom large in the

history of hypnosis. Mesmer, an 18th century physician, believed that

hypnosis occurred as a result of "vital fluids" drawn from a magnet or

lodestone and which drew their unique qualities from the sun, moon and

stars. Charcot, as well as Pierre Janet and others, was convinced that

hypnosis was a form of hysteria and that only hysterics could be

hypnotized. The former (Mesmer) thought further that metal became imbued

by the solar qualities, and his system is also known as metalogy by

which he meant the proper application of metals. Naturally, these

theories have been largely abandoned today, although there are still a

few who think that hypnosis is a form of hysteria.

Some pioneers, notably Dr. William S. Kroger, a psychiatrically-oriented

obstetrician and gynecologist who limits his practice to hypnotherapy,

believe hypnosis is a conviction phenomenon which produces results that

parallel the phenomena produced at Lourdes and other religious healing

shrines. His formula is that faith, hope, belief and expectation, all

catalyzed by the imagination, lead inevitably to hypnosis. He, like

Emile Coue before him, is convinced that you cannot "will" yourself to

be hypnotized, and that whenever the will and the imagination come into

conflict, the imagination wins out. This fits in perfectly, of course,

with the author's already discussed visual-imagery technique which

requires a high degree of imagination. Dr. Kroger, like a few others,

has proved to his own satisfaction that all hypnotic phenomena can be

produced at a non-hypnotic level.

A large number of hypnotists, including the author, has come to believe

that hypnosis is a semantic problem in which words are the building

blocks to success. Not just any words, but words which "ring a bell" or

tap the experiential background of the subject. This is why "sleep"

continues to be in the lexicon of the hypnotist even though hypnosis is

the antithesis of sleep. The word is used because hypnosis superficially

resembles sleep inasmuch as the eyes usually are closed, the body in a

posture of complete relaxation. Actually, the mind is hyperacute.

Pavlov, however, believed that there was an analogy between sleep and

hypnosis in that each involved cerebral inhibition. Words, of course,

would be of little use without the added effect of his conditioned


Probably the most widely held theory is that hypnosis is a transference

phenomenon in which the prestige of the hypnotist and his relationship

to the subject plays an important role. This theory is bolstered by the

fact that all schools of psychotherapy yield approximately the same

results even though the methods differ. This would logically indicate

that the relationship between the therapist and the subject was the

determining factor. The only trouble with this theory is that it does

not explain self-hypnosis. On the other hand, we know that a strong

interpersonal relationship is necessary for hypnosis.

In the opening chapter of the book, I explained that hypnosis was a

state of heightened suggestion in which the subject adopted an

uncritical attitude, allowing him to accept suggestions and to take

appropriate action. This is excellent as far as it goes, but it does not

explain how suggestion works. This is the crux of the hypnotic dilemma

and the answer is far from solved. Hypnotists are much like those who

use electricity every day of their lives, but have no idea of the nature

of electricity. It is enough for them to know it has been harnessed for

their use.

If there is one thing virtually certain about hypnosis it is that some

parts of the brain are inhibited and other parts expanded by the

process. Pin-point concentration is given as the reason for this

selective procedure which narrows the horizon of the subject to what the

hypnotist (or he, himself) is saying, screening out all other stimuli.

But why is this high order of concentration so easy under hypnosis when

Asians, notably the Chinese, have been trying for centuries to

concentrate on one subject for as long as four or five seconds. We do

not know the mechanics of this metamorphosis of an ordinary brain into

an organ of concentrated power. According to Janet, this is accomplished

through the formation of a group of unconscious memories and activities

which takes over the usual stream-of-consciousness type of thinking. It

is implied that the process may be atavistic.

One of the newer theories--one held by Dr. Lewis R. Wolberg, a

psychoanalyst--is that hypnosis is a psychosomatic process in that it is

both physiological and psychological in character. Physiologically,

Wolberg believes that hypnosis represents an inhibition of the higher

cortical centers, and a limitation of sensory channels such as takes

place in sleep. He also believes that the psychological process operates

through transference. Others agree that it is a transference process,

but that it is more of an extension of the subject's own psychic

processes which is enlarged to include the voice of the hypnotist or his

own thoughts or voice. Incidentally, an excellent book along these

theoretical lines is Hypnotism--An Objective Study in Suggestibility

by Andre M. Weitzenhoffer, Ph.D.

The newest theory in the field is of particular interest to those

reading this book inasmuch as it postulates that all hypnosis is

self-hypnosis, that the patient always hypnotizes himself and that it is

a wise hypnotist who knows who is hypnotizing whom. This is a logical

conclusion and it disperses any ideas that hypnotic patients become

dependent on their therapists. Actually, hypnotists today always teach

their subjects self-hypnosis so that any chance of dependency is


Milton V. Kline, professor of psychology at Long Island University,

postulates that hypnosis is primarily retrogressive. He has written that

the organism functions differently on various levels of behavior

(regression), and that the behavior breaks down into component parts.

The theory that regression can spotlight personality disorders found in

more infantile states is also widely held. He also is a proponent of the

idea that hypnosis is an abnormal manifestation of a normal process, an

opinion he shares with many.

Dr. Kline thinks that retrogression and regression alter perceptions and

feelings, and, in the case of the latter, causes us to go backward in

time to the point where re-education may be employed. This is a

legitimate use of regression although it is not used so much these days

to uncover past traumatic incidents. Actually, regression, by

duplicating the exact earlier age, manner of speech and thought, etc.,

makes us once more as little children, a condition to be desired for

certain forms of therapy.

An atavistic theory, held to some extent by Dr. Jerome M. Schneck,

clinical associate professor of psychiatry, State University of New York

College of Medicine, is that hypnosis should be equated with states of

immobilization on the basis of his observation that some subjects equate

hypnosis with "death." He suggests this is comparable to the

"death-feint" of animals to avoid danger. Others, primarily Europeans,

have pointed out the analogy between the hypnotic state of animals and


Another widely-held theory is that hypnosis is a state of dissociation,

meaning that it constitutes a group of unconscious memories and

activities which may be dredged up to replace the stream of

consciousness. Automaticism, of course, is inherently part of this view,

and is presumed to negate volition. Activity of the cerebrum, which

controls the conscious and voluntary system, is rendered


My own thoughts on the matter are that hypnosis results from, first of

all, a good transference; secondly, from a conditioned reflex; thirdly,

from the person acting as a hypnotized person (role playing), and,

fourthly, from a suspension of the critical faculties. Along the

last-named line, I believe that hypnotic suggestions have an autonomy of

their own which supersede all else in the hypnotic situation. There are

many more theories I believe are partially correct, but the ones named

will do for the purposes of this volume. Incidentally, all the hypnosis

theories presented are equally applicable to self-hypnosis except where,

as in transference, it is obvious a therapist is needed.

In conclusion, the author would like to take issue with those who

believe that it is the monotonous intonations of the therapist that

cause the subject to lapse from the deeply relaxed state into true

sleep. I have observed many times, by comparing verbalization with

silence, that the former gives the subject's mind a focal point of

attention which prevents him from entering a sleep state where

hypnotherapy is impossible. Like the man who cannot sleep because of an

active mind, sleep and myriad thoughts and suggestions are incompatible,

and I believe, once a hypnotic state has been attained, that the subject

is kept awake (unless definite sleep suggestions are given) by the

therapist's series of suggestions. We have discussed the effect of the

experiential background at length, and surely nothing connotates sleep

more than closing one's eyes--test No. 1. And so, in my view, you are

doing two things when you talk to the subject; you are giving him

helpful suggestions, but you are also keeping him awake and hyperacute

so that these suggestions will sink in.