Hypnotic suggestion is ancient. At least as early as 1550 B.C., Egyptian priest-physicians repeated positive suggestions to their patients in trance. In modern times, the theory that the effect of hypnosis is the result of suggestion became prominent with the work of Ambroise-Auguste Liebeault (Sleep and its Analogous States, 1866) and Hippolyte Bernheim (Suggestive Therapeutics, 1889). In the twentieth century, the verbal techniques of “Ericksonian” hypnosis and neurolinguistic programming (NLP) came to dominate clinical hypnosis. Consequently, the popular conception of hypnotherapy today is that the hypnotist induces trance, then repeats carefully constructed verbal suggestions to influence the unconscious.
Suggestion does have an effect. The well-documented placebo effect is a form of suggestion. The hypnotic trance heightens suggestibility by relaxing the critical faculty of the conscious mind, allowing suggestions to make a greater impression upon the unconscious. However, hypnosis is more than a state in which the patient receives suggestions passively. Hypnosis also facilitates the patient’s own unconscious processes. The purpose of trance is not only to increase suggestibility. Hypnotic trance creates an opportunity for the unconscious to fulfill the motive that urged the patient to schedule the appointment, show up, and participate.
Outside of sleep and dreaming, the unconscious mind has important work to do. Overemphasis on the linguistic dynamics of hypnotism (i.e.; the phrasing and delivery of verbal suggestions) diminishes the role of the unconscious. Modern culture has a highly rationalistic belief system that tends to downgrade the unconscious. We like to think we are in control, that our conscious minds have all of the answers, and that we are pretty well aware of our unconscious motives and beliefs. However, the conscious mind is actually very limited and unaware of unconscious processes. Not everything mental can be accomplished on a conscious level. In fact, conscious efforts frequently get in the way of unconscious processes, and people often have problems because the conscious mind is trying to solve a problem that the unconscious can solve better. The unconscious is smarter than the conscious mind, and often has a much better solution to the problem than the patient or the hypnotist. In certain states of hypnosis and meditation, the patient gains greater access to unconscious resources.
The conscious and unconscious processes may influence each other, but they are independent. Consider how sometimes when you are trying to remember something unsuccessfully it comes to you spontaneously after you stop trying. The fact that the unconscious search for the information continues after the conscious mind has moved on demonstrates that the conscious mind and the unconscious can be involved in two independent tasks. While the patient’s attention is fixed on the words of the hypnotist (or in meditation, while one’s conscious attention is fixed on a mantra or a breathing pattern), the usual patterns of awareness are interrupted, and the unconscious automatically searches for a solution to the problem.
Some people have a sudden insight about their problem while in hypnosis, but patients are not always aware of the work of their own unconscious, and do not have to be in order to obtain successful outcomes. Normally, the creative processes of the unconscious take time to become conscious. This can mean that the patient subjectively feels different, but is unable to explain how or why.
We often hear about the positive physical effects of hypnosis and meditation, but these are not the most important reasons to use hypnosis, self-hypnosis, or meditation. Hypnotic trance offers the opportunity for the unconscious to develop what is authentic to the individual, free from the usual limitations and interference of the conscious mind. The role of the hypnotist is not only to induce trance and deliver suggestions, but to facilitate the expression of the patient’s unconscious processes. Hypnosis is more than restorative relaxation or a state of increased suggestibility. Ideally, hypnosis facilitates the valuable work of the unconscious.
Erickson, M. H., Rossi, E. L., & Rossi, S. I. (1976). Hypnotic realities: The induction of clinical hypnosis and forms of indirect suggestion. New York: Irvington.