Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy Explained ...


Hypothesis of Hypnosis
By Tom Connelly D.Hyp, FBSCH

Basic Theories:

What process is behind hypnosis? Many theories have been advanced and here are those that seem most plausible as candidates for correctness.

  • Atavistic Regression: This hypothesis was proposed by Ainsle Meares MD - former president of the International Society of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. The thought being that as the state of hypnosis progresses the higher functions of the brain gradually become less influencial (or even shut down completely), leaving the subject in a seemingly regressed mental state of more primitive functioning. This earlier state may be prior to the development of the critical function of the conscious mind (as with primitive man or a young child), thus increasing the sway of suggestion and willingness to respond to authority. It may be an instinctive aspect of the primitive animal mind to surrender ones personal authority (as with the herd or shoaling instinct) to another when uncertain of the correct course of action to take, or being confronted with an 'alpha' or dominant personality
    Social Role Theory : This hypothesis was championed by psychologist Robert Winthrop White
    (Harvard Professor of Clinical Psychology) who outlined it in the 1941 edition of 'The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology'. The basic premise is that there is a tendency for people to act out the role that is expected of them and that the results of hypnosis correspond directly to a persons understanding and expectation of it. This is allied with a similar predisposition to socially comply with or 'please' the psychologist.
    Placebo Theory : Sometimes called the suggestion theory, is one of the earliest proposals for the hypnosis effect and was expounded by Professor Hippolyte Bernheim in his work 'Suggestion and its Therapeutic Effects' published 1887. Here the proposal is that the greater part of the human mind does not fall under the auspice of the conscious critical faculty and that this 'greater part' will accept information uncritically under certain circumstances. In fact suggestion alone, even without formal hypnosis, if insistent enough or allied with the subjects belief system could create psychological change. Though one of the oldest respectable theories it still has a large influence on modern clinical psychology (and advertising!).
    Reality Testing Theory: Also known as the Physical theory, as expounded by Barry D. Wyke in the 'Proceedings of the Dental and Medical Society for the Study of Hypnosis' a series of lectures presented at the Royal Society of Medicine in London and in his 1957 booklets, 'Neurological Aspects of Hypnosis and Neurological Mechanisms in Hypnosis'. The proposal here is that the process of formal hypnosis, which involves gradually removing the connection to external senses (closing eyes, keeping still, relaxation, focusing on internal sensation, listening to the hypnotists voice - as opposed to following ones own critical dialogue) may disconnect one from 'ordinary reality' resulting in a partial suspension of criticality and increased suggestibility. This might suggest that hypnosis is a much of a physiological as a psychological process.
  • Minor theories:
    • The 'Modified Sleep Theory' was posited by Dr. James Braid, one of the founding fathers of modern hypnotherapy (circa 1820's). The premise is that through the fixating of attention one drifts into a state similar to sleep (which he called nervous sleep) but not actual sleep, where (as in the dream state) personal reality is not confined by logic and existing beliefs might be challenged and changed.Pavlov's Theory or the 'Conditioned Reflex Theory' suggests that hypnosis results from proximity conditioning. For example repeating the word 'sleep' or 'relax' accesses the stored response to sleep or relax. The Psychoanalytic Theory is based on the relationship dynamic which exists in most people of normal psychology - that is the hierarchical family and social system. In these systems there are times (as in childhood or in employment situations) where one must defer ones egoic requirements to the authority of another person. This is especially so in the relationship of the child to its parents. Freud considered that hypnosis is the exploitation of this deference dynamic combined with the socially instinctive need to please ones perceived superiors.
    • Dissociation Theory was the brainchild of Pierre Janet, Professor of philosophy at the Lycée du Havre in the late 1800's and one of the pioneers of psychoanalysis. His work with hysteria patients led him to believe that the hypnotic state was due to a form of mental dissociation - or a splitting of the mind, or fragmentation of mind. His theory is difficult to understand and has never gained popularity.


No definitive theory has yet emerged although the Placebo theory in conjunction with the bicameral brain model, seems to hold sway and is the most often taught in training schools today. However, practice shows us that at different times and with different cases all of these theories have something to contribute.

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