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Hypnosis And Hypnotherapy From A Sociological
Point of View
What is hypnosis? In the centuries people have given
different definitions of this phenomenon; the word
hypnosis is commonly used:
- to indicate a series of different communication
techniques for the induction of a state characterised
normally by a physical relaxation.
- to indicate one of the possible results of the
utilisation of these techniques, which is defined
in other words as “trance”.
This terminological confusion is in reality linked
to the fact that in the last century and in the first
part of this century, people did not make distinction
between the two concepts and the word “trance” was
considered synonymous of the word “hypnosis”.
A lot of contemporary theories (and we too) doubt
on the usefulness of the utilisation of the word “hypnosis”
in these old meanings; in the next pages we will examine
Types of paradigms
In the study of the hypnosis, theorists are divided
on which paradigm could provide the more complete
and efficient comprehension of the so called hypnotic
Some very important questions that are asked about
- Is hypnosis a modified state of consciousness?
- Is hypnotic behaviour involuntary?
- Is it impossible to modify the “hypnotisability”
of a person?
The data gathered have not yet eliminated all theoretical
discussions and disagreements in this areas. Nevertheless
we can observe, in the last years, a strong development
of the sociological perspectives. From a sociological
point of view, the answers to all this questions is
The existence of the
Theorists of hypnosis are divided on the usefulness
of evoking the concept of “hypnotic state” or “hypnotic
There are at least three different viewpoints:
- The first viewpoint is that hypnosis produces
typical changes in the state and in the conditions
of a person. These changes could play a very important
role in responses of subjects to suggestions; Edmonston,
for example, believes that the existence of a particular
state is necessary to explain some hypnotic phenomena.
He links strictly hypnosis and relaxation. A problem
in this point of view is that there are no criteria
to find a difference between relaxation and hypnosis
(posing terminological problems) and that most hypnotic
phenomena can happen without relaxation.
- A second viewpoint is that hypnosis produces a
change in the state and condition of the person;
nevertheless, this modified condition is perceived
in an explanatory rather than descriptive manner.
That means: we cannot say that the change of the
condition of the person produces automatically the
hypnotic phenomena. It is also the position of Hilgard
and others. Zeig and Rennick assert that the concept
of trance is not useful, and that it is preferable
not to use it; we can study better hypnosis as an
Hypnosis is seen as a situation, or a context,
activating or increasing processes that are active
in some daily moments. These processes, together
with the hypnotic induction, are responsible of
the modifications of behaviour and consciousness
that accompany the hypnotic induction.
- A third viewpoint is that the concept of trance
has not usefulness, and it risk to be source of
errors. It is entirely recognised that, sometimes,
hypnotic subjects experiment a relaxation, with
large variety of sensations and modifications in
the perception of the atmosphere surrounding them
(Brentar 1990). The sociocognitive theories does’nt
look at these modifications in the behaviour of
subjects as an explanation of the hypnotic phenomenon.
They look to the changes that we can observe
in the subjective experience as products of the
beliefs, expectancies, actions of subjects --
in other words, a function of their prehypnotic
expectancies and of their desires to experiment
what is implied in the hypnotic communication.
For example: a subject that expects that after
having been hypnotised he will not remember anything
(because he/she has read stories in which hypnotised
subjects had a complete amnesia), will develop
amnesia very easily, while a subject that expects
to remember everything normally will tend to remember
everything. An interesting experimentation has
been conducted by Spanos on two groups: the first
of American students, the other of Malaysia.
This experimentation has shown that each groups
answered to the hypnotic inductions in a different
manner, although homogeneous in each groups; for
example, some of Americans showed signs of amnesia,
while none of the students of Malaysia showed
signs of amnesia.
In addition, ideas that subjects use to evaluate
their behaviour and their experience can also
condition their experience of the hypnosis. For
this reason, the socio-cognitivist theorists affirm
that there is not a unique state of trance; instead,
we can have different somatic changes and different
perceptions, following the cognitive and social
factors existing in the hypnotic context.
In these theories, it is the hypnotic induction
that gives information and elements that serve
to shape the hypnotic experience.
The hypnotic induction helps the persons to
“find their roles” (Coe & Sarbin); it serves also
to establish expectancies on the type of state
that will be lived (Kirsh, Wagstaff); it contains
words and sentences commonly associated with passive
states or with receptivity. For example, the hypnotist
can tell to the subject the word “sleep“; by making
that he suggests already a precise behaviour (to
remain relaxed, to let himself go etc.).
If we tell somebody to imagine to sleep, and
after that he tells us that he has imagined to
have slept, there is no need to suspect a state
with characteristics similar to those of sleep,
that means only that he has done what we have
asked him to do.
There are several sociological (and non physiological)
theories. Each of them bring attention on some of
the specific phenomena that can be observed during
the hypnosis induction for producing the state refered-to
We can say that in our daily practice in Nice, this
is the kind of theories that we find more explanatory
of what we observe.
1. Hypnosis As A Subjective
There is a substantial evidence that the hypnotic
state is very different from a modified consciousness
state such as the result of drugs or sleeping. The
fact is that hypnosis is not, objectively, a distinct
state, although it could be felt nevertheless by some
subjects as a “Special State”.
The fact itself to see an experience as a “special
state” could lead the subject to the conviction that
unusual things could arrive, and as a result of its
expectancies, these things can happen.
A subject that is convinced to be in a “Special
State” , will react well to suggestions. But this
will not happen because he is really in a special
state under the physiological viewpoint, but because
he believes in this kind of experience, arriving to
a responsivity similar to what we can observe in the
SUTCLIFFE calls this point of view as “skeptic”.
SUTCLIFFE reports some experiences to demonstrate
that. For example, a subject feels a change of sensitivity,
while the physical analysis shows that this change
is not linked to the level of the physiological elements,
but rather to the level of expectancies. This viewpoint
does not deny that physical changes can be brought
through the use of hypnosis. It asserts only that
changes are indirect or similar to physical changes
that could have been caused by other techniques. Learning
hypnosis means therefore learning particular strategies
that can produce the “hypnotic phenomena”.
In our practice we see often the hypnotist is “a
director of expectancies”; he creates expectancies,
and he directs them. The more he will create expectancies,
the best will be the results. People practicing self-hypnosis
understand that are using a method for changing their
expectancies, and self-hypnosis is, in reality, just
a ritualisation of a natural process.
2. Hypnosis as a product
of the situation
T.X. Barber asserts that it is not usefull to try
to understand the internal state of the hypnotised
subject, since we can not observe directly internal
events. He asserts that it is far more significant
to examine the factors of the environment of the hypnotic
subject. More specifically, the question is:
which factors in the hypnotic situation lead the
subject to reply to suggestions or to not reply? One
of the results of the researches of T.X. Barber is
that in reality all hypnotic effects can be reproduced
by a subject that is not-hypnotised, provided that
the subject is correctly motivated and that the situation
is coherent to the performance. T.X. Barber’s research
is directed toward the induction of modifications
in perceptible experiences, such anaesthesia and hallucinations,
to show the needlessness of the presupposition of
T.X. Barber (1969) criticises the concept of a “hypnotic
state” for two reasons:
- On the basis of a circularity logic (the hypnotic
phenomena should indicate the existence of a hypnotic
state but the affirmation: (a) “somebody is hypnotised
because it shows hypnotic responses”, is explained
by the former (b) “it has hypnotic responses because
it is hypnotized”)
- Because hypnotic inductions are not necessary
for the production of a large quantity of hypnotic
phenomena (some people shows age-regressions spontaneously,
or some people can have anesthesia without hypnosis).
Recently, Kirsch, Mobayed, Council and Kenny (1991)
have gathered data supporting the following affirmations:
- there are not identified physiological indicators
of the “hypnotic state”;
- all phenomena produced by suggestions after hypnotic
inductions can be also produced without hypnotic
- the apparent increase of the “suggestibility”,
met in some subjects after hypnotic induction is
weak and can be reproduced by a lot of other methods
(imagination, placebo etc. ).
Altough the supporters of the absence of a particular
state deny the specificity of the hypnotic state,
the majority of them does not deny the subjective
reality of the hypnotic experience, and does not believe
that the subjects fake the phenomena.
(That means: subjects believe in good faith to experiment
a particular situation simply because this situation
is characterised by sensations that FOR THEM are new,
but that in reality are natural).
The immediate environment is seen as crucial in
obtaining the hypnotic phenomena. In our practice
we observe that attention to small things is important.
The hypnotist tries to establish within the subject
a positive attitude toward hypnosis. That can be made
by describing the hypnotic experience reasonably but
enthusiastically to a new subject. In the normal practice,
the motivation of a client to be hypnotised is normally
connected to particular purposes, such as stopping
to smoke, loosing weight, overcoming a fear or improving
his/her sport performances.
Tipically, in such cases the motivation is already
high. Positive expectations could be increased by
a confident and competent way of doing from the hypnotist's
On a more trivial level, perhaps, some environmental
factors would be considered as important. The former
would include the general atmosphere of the office,
the walls' coulours, comfortable seats, maybe a soft
music, and an image of professionality through placing
in view diplomas and certificates.
All these factors will influence behaviour, but
the most important factor is the hypnotist. Nothing
can replace the skill of the hypnotist to maintain
the control of the hypnotic situation from beginning
In the practice of self-hypnosis we give much importance
to imagining surrounding people reacting positively
to what we do.
3. Hypnosis As A Role-Game
Since more than 40 years, the biggest question
on hypnosis has been what Fellows (1990) called the
controversy “particular state” / “not particular state”.
Sarbin (1950) attacked the traditional idea of hypnosis
as a modified state of consciousness (“hypnotic trance”,
“hypnotic state” ) produced by hypnotic induction.
SARBIN looks to hypnosis as a Role Game, but when
you play a role game it is not necessary “to fake”.
He describes it as an automatic entrance in a certain
SARBIN brings to attention an analogy with theatre.
He says that an actor could become so absorbed in
its role to literally forget who he really is. People
who are familiar with recitation are aware of this
From this point of view, hypnosis is the result
of an imagination totally coherent with the hypnotic
role until the moment where the subject loses contact
with reality thus becoming capable to feel himself
and the world as suggested by the hypnotist, in a
similar way the actor feels the world created by the
The permissive method of induction is connected
to this theory. That means: it is important to obtain
an active cooperation from the subject, and to encourage
his imagination. Expressions such , “feel that your
arms are heavier,” or “imagine to be on a tropical
beach with the sun heating your face” are appropriate
examples. Encouraging subjects in what we can call
the “behaviour as if” is a sort of invitation to follow
the role suggested by the hypnotist. In this theory,
the responsibility is placed on the subject himself.
The subject is asked to employ his/her imagination
to transform his/her experience. The hypnotist is
seen as an assistance or a guide, or, as some people
say: “It is you that make the hypnosis. I am just
a guide for you” .
Certainly there is not an unanimous opinion among
researchers and theorists concerning the essential
nature of hypnosis.
Kuhn (1962) asserts that the real work of the science
begins when researchers adopt a common paradigm.
All these different viewpoints on the same thing
are derivated from the different manners employed
to think and to shape the reality of the researchers.
Each of them brings attention to a different point,
and to fully understand the phenomenon of hypnosis
is absolutely necessary to put them together. In the
same manner, to practice hypnosis in an efficient
way, we have to put together the implications of all
Beyond the apparent variety, the sociological perspectives
seem to offer a complete explanation of all the hypnotic
phenomena, giving very good suggestions for an efficient
These theories show us too that is possible to observe
the hypnotic phenomena from a totally not-physiological
point of view, and cast doubt on the utility of using
medical (and psychoanalitical) models in this area
that seems to be better covered from a sociological
- Barber, Spanos, Chaves: “Hypnosis, Imagination
and Human Potentialities”. Elmsford, NY: Pergamon
- Barber, T.X.: “Hypnosis: A scientific approach”.
New York: Van Nostrand Press
- Bandler, Grinder: “Trance-Formation”. Meta-publications
- Godin, J.: “La nouvelle hypnose”. Bibliothèque
Albin Michel Idées
- Lynn, Rhue et alii: “Theories of hypnosis”.
- Michaux, D.: “La Transe et l’Hypnose”.
- NGH: Annual Convention 1995. Merrimack NH: National
Guild of Hypnotists
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