Hypnosis is a very familiar state into which we naturally go every day, at least twice a day: when we fall asleep and when we wake up. The (normally) very short times between wakeful alertness and sleep are called the hypnagogic (when we wake up) and the hypnopompic (when we fall asleep) states, and in that situation the condition of our minds is very similar to that of a light state of hypnosis. Sometimes these states last longer and they can give rise to interesting phenomena like lucid dreams.
Now, some people who are not familiar with hypnosis expect to feel something unusual when they are hypnotised, and since they find it to be so familiar, they dismiss it because they don’t recognise it as something unusual. It’s interesting that when someone says to me: “I didn’t feel hypnotised” and I ask: “How would you feel if you were?” they normally start laughing and answer: “I don’t know”. If you have never been hypnotised before and your knowledge of this state comes only (or predominantly) from seeing some stage hypnotist on TV making people do silly things, it is understandable that you expect something special and get confused when you continue to feel your normal self, just very relaxed. It is quite normal and people have these perplexities sometimes.
For this reason I want to give you a few examples of familiar, everyday situations where you put yourself naturally into hypnosis, and this will explain why you don’t feel different or “strange” during a session of hypnotherapy.
There are many situations in our everyday life that lead us into hypnosis. One of these is daydreaming for example: when we are daydreaming we vividly see images in our mind’s eye and they are much more precise, sharp and detailed than normal memories are. If someone suddenly comes up behind us and talks to us while we are daydreaming, we jump because we were in ‘another world’.
When we are concentrated and absorbed in something we are in hypnosis. If for instance we read a fascinating book while we are travelling on the train we might miss our stop because external reality fades away - as in daydreaming - while we are engrossed in the fictitious adventures of our novel. External reality does not disappear completely though, and in the event of an emergency we are ready to face it, but if the emergency does not arise, reality recedes into the background and we are far away, somewhere else in the inner world that our imagination has created.
When we watch an engrossing film and we start feeling strongly involved in the story, we are in hypnosis because we concentrate on the “reality” of the story and we loosen our contact with the world around us: we forget that we are watching actors and that the characters are fictitious. We forget that there are cameramen all around them, spotlights and onlookers, that no one is actually dying or in danger and that there are no monsters ready to attack us at any minute. We take the action for reality and we start reacting emotionally to it in such an intense way that our body starts producing adrenaline, endorphins, tears and anything else which is appropriate to the situation, as if it were actually happening to us.
If instead of watching a film on the TV sitting on our sofa at home, we go to the cinema and sit there in the dark, looking at a very large screen and listening to loud music and dialogue, we go even deeper into hypnosis and when we leave the building we might feel a bit confused for some moments: for example if it was a historical plot set in the Renaissance or Middle Ages, we might be slightly surprised to see strong lights and cars around us. If it was a science-fiction film we might expect to see a spaceship hovering over the rooftops in front of us. If it were a horror film we might be wary on our way home and the familiar landscape can suddenly take on a different, more sinister appearance.
The fact is that our subconscious is not able to distinguish between what we call “reality” (the physical world around us) and our imagination: the subconscious runs on different tracks and it does not have analytical faculties. While our bodies are made of matter and are therefore subject to well-defined limitations and boundaries, our mind can create all the realities it wants and fly there whenever it wishes, without any limit. Hypnosis uses this capacity of ours in order to change behavioural patterns and also to retrieve lost memories that - for some reason - our subconscious has archived deep inside.
Our conscious mind - like our physical body - is limited. Its role is to be focused on processing incoming material, taking quick decisions and then moving on to something else. There is no space for much information: the processed or peripheral/non-essential information goes into the storeroom, which is our subconscious. Imagine the subconscious as a very powerful computer with an enormous memory, and our conscious mind like a small memory stick/flash drive. Unfortunately though, unless we go into some special state, the retrieval facility is activated only for a minimal part of the material stored in our depths. To access the entire storeroom we need to dim the external stimuli and relax our rational, analytic faculty, going deep inside ourselves. In this condition our brain emits alpha waves. These waves are the same waves we emit just before falling asleep and immediately after waking up (hypnopompic and hypnagogic states), when the dreams of the night are often still clear in our mind, before the shutter falls so that the rational/decision-making mind can operate again without distractions.
Hypnosis does not mean surrendering to someone else’s will or becoming vulnerable to someone else’s suggestions. This would be too dangerous and our mind has an automatic defence mechanism, an alarm. Even if you are deeply engrossed in an intriguing novel, for example, if you suddenly smell gas, you are immediately back in the rational/decision-making mind and you act instantly. In a glimpse the story in which you were so engrossed disappears and you are back in the Here and Now, fully operative, in the same way as your dreams quickly fade away when you wake up and get out of the bed in the morning. No one can control you unless you allow them to do so..
No core ethical principle or secret you do not want to divulge can be overridden by anyone else. However, if you have a wish which you are somehow inhibited about fulfilling, you can do so under hypnosis because hypnosis helps you to overcome your inhibitions and express yourself more fully, doing what you wish to do. This explains stage hypnosis: people might wish to go on stage and entertain the public, but they are too shy and self-conscious to do so under normal conditions; however, with the “excuse” of being hypnotised they feel free to perform according to their inner wishes. But no hypnotist will ever be able to make them do something they consider wrong. Experiments were conducted to prove this: a woman was happy to perform silly things in front of a group of scientists under hypnosis, but when they gave her a gun and asked her to shoot someone in the room she did not do it.