Your Brain on Hypnosis

In a previous blog entry I gave some definitions of hypnosis as an altered state, a dissociation of awareness, focused attention, etc. Here I’d like to define hypnosis by describing what takes place in the brain under hypnosis.

Humans have four basic states of awareness corresponding to four identifiable brain-wave patterns:

• Beta state (alertness, active thinking, and concentration)
• Alpha state (relaxed alertness and light hypnosis)
• Theta state (day dreaming, deep hypnosis, drowsiness, and light sleep)
• Delta state (deep sleep).

The brain passes through each of these four states as the electrical activity decreases on the way to sleep (theta and delta states) and increases on the way to wakefulness (beta state). In other words, we necessarily pass through the hypnotic states every time we go into and awaken from sleep.

We spend most of our waking hours in the beta state of alert awareness. In the beta state the mind analyzes, evaluates, judges, and makes decisions. This is the state in which we attempt to overcome problems with “will power,” often unsuccessfully.

In hypnosis the brain enters the alpha (light hypnosis) and theta (deep hypnosis) states, and one is highly focused on hypnotic suggestions and imagery while suspending the ordinary thinking processes of the beta state. In the alpha and theta states, hypnotic suggestions are integrated into the mind more easily, and memories become more accessible.

There are many techniques for inducing hypnosis, and most of them bring about the alpha and theta hypnotic states with the same basic method that you use to put yourself to sleep at night: you close your eyes, control the sound, and lie still. When you limit sensory stimulation in these ways, your neural activity slows down, taking you from the waking state (beta) into the states of hypnosis (alpha and theta). In these states the brain’s centers of awareness and imagining shift from cortex (where conscious, analytical thinking takes place) to the sub-cortical structures involved in unconscious and emotional processes, the stress response, and long-term memory. In simple terms, by limiting sensory input the brain slows down, and the unconscious mind is made accessible.


Hypnosis and Memory

“Can hypnosis make me forget about someone?”

“Can you help me remember where I put my diamond ring?”

These are common questions for a hypnotherapist. While hypnosis can’t wipe your ex from your mind like the neuralyzer from Men in Black, it could change the way you feel about your memories, or help you locate that important object you hid even from yourself. Amnesia (memory loss) and hypermnesia (memory recall) are two of the most characteristic and impressive phenomena of hypnosis.

Hypnosis can cause temporary amnesia, but it cannot erase memories permanently.
Amnesia can occur spontaneously (i.e. without the suggestion of the hypnotherapist) while in the deepest states of hypnosis. This type of amnesia can mimic psychogenic amnesia, where there is a loss of significant personal information and a gap in memory. However, when the subject is awakened from hypnosis the memory returns.

Amnesia can also occur after hypnosis, often in response to posthypnotic suggestions given by the hypnotherapist. It is usually amnesia of what took place during the hypnotic trance, not of the subject’s personal information and life memories. Unlike the more significant amnesia that can occur spontaneously in the deepest states of hypnosis, the amnesia produced by hypnotic suggestion is more like everyday forgetting, such as when you can’t remember someone’s name or what you were just going to say.

In either case, the duration of hypnotic amnesia is unpredictable, but it is not permanent. The hypnotherapist does not have to reverse the hypnosis for the memories to return. It appears that way in stage hypnosis because the hypnotherapist “removes” the suggestion quickly, before the memory returns on its own.

Can hypnosis help with memories?
Hypnosis can alter your interpretation of a memory and your response to it. With hypnosis you can dampen the emotional impact of a memory by changing its meaning, or by creating a sense of detachment from it. A memory is not only a thought in the mind, but also has a molecular component in the body (Dr. Candace Pert has described this extensively in her book Molecules of Emotion). Hypnosis cannot erase the thought form of the memory or make it inaccessible, but it can alter the physical form of the memory so that you no longer feel stuck, preoccupied, or obsessed with it.

Memory recall
Just as we have moments of amnesia in everyday life, we also have moments of sudden memory recall. The recovery of memory, being the opposite of amnesia, is known as hypermnesia.

Hypermnesia under hypnosis can take on different forms. The most common form is regression, where the subject is generally aware that he or she is reviewing the past from the current perspective. For example, to end an unwanted habit a hypnotic subject might return to a time in his life when he acquired the behavior. Hypnotic regression is also used to help remember details of crimes and find misplaced objects.

Regression is different from the more dramatic state of hypermnesia known as revivification. In revivification the subject appears to relive the incident as if it were actually occurring, and may even exhibit such characteristics as the personality, vocabulary, and handwriting of the earlier period. Most strikingly, the memories following the age to which the subject is regressed become inaccessible. Because of the drama of television and the movies, many people who think about hypnotic regression have in mind this most dramatic form of revivification. In reality, most people who recover memories under hypnosis experience age regression primarily, with some moments of spontaneous revivification.

Hypnosis can also improve memory for people taking tests, memorizing lines, or seeking a mental edge professionally. This usually involves both posthypnotic suggestions from the hypnotherapist along with stress reduction, since stress hormones affect memory and critical thinking negatively.

One final note regarding hypnosis and memory recall: with both age regression and revivification, the material recalled may be inaccurate. A hypnotic subject can fabricate false memories on his or her own or at the suggestion of the therapist, intentionally or unintentionally. Sorry, but you can’t use hypnosis like a lie detector or a truth serum. Yes, I get that question too.