The Big Hypnosis Debate – State Or Non-State Theory of Hypnosis?

Is there such a thing as hypnosis?

Those people that are said to be hypnotised, are they in some sort of special state, distinct from other states of consciousness, or not?

When you see video clips whereby hypnosis is being used and people are doing some very clever things like turning their body into a seeming steel bar and creating analgesia galaxiaestates  in their arms so a pin can pass through without any pain… Can those types of things be performed equally well by people who have not undergone any kind of hypnotic induction?

This is one of the major debates in hypnotherapy and throughout the entire philosophy of hypnosis. Is hypnosis a magical, mystical state that the hypnotist does to people?

The big debate in the field of hypnosis is therefore the state vs nonstate debate, let me explain it…

If I attempt to put it as succinctly as possible, state theorists argue that hypnosis is a special state, an altered consciousness, or even a magical state… Like Mesmerism and so on. They tend to believe the following:

– There is a special state of awareness called ‘the hypnotic trance.’

– This state is marked by increased suggestibility, and enhancement of the imagination and ability to use imagery.

– The state involves a number of reality distortions such as amnesias and hallucinations. They also believe in varying ways of perceiving reality whilst in the state.

– The state involves some involuntary behaviour, often yielding the control of behaviour to the behest of the hypnotist.

– Now whilst admitting that there is currently no conclusive proof to support this, state theorists often support the idea that EEG results will one day demonstrate a unique physiology for the special state of hypnosis. In fact, there is some types of evidence already around that they believe partly proves this.

State theory tends to emphasise differences between hypnosis and everything else.

On the other hand, or in the other corner, we have the non-state theorists, who oppose all the above mentioned points. They tend to believe:

– Concepts such as `trance’ or ‘dissociation’, taken from the field of abnormal psychology, are misleading, in the sense that responsiveness to suggestion is a usual psychological response.

– Differences in response to hypnotic suggestions are not due to any special state of consciousness, but rather to the individual’s attitudes, motivations and expectations, or to the level of which the imagination is involved in the process.

– All the phenomena associated with hypnotic suggestions are within usual human abilities. That is, that things that are done in hypnosis that seem amazing can be done without the aid of hypnosis.

– The apparent involuntary behaviours of subjects can be explained otherwise, without bringing in a special hypnotic trance.

– They predict that no such physiological proof will ever be found, because there is no such state.

So, contrary to what I wrote about state theory, the nonstate theorists emphasise similarities between hypnosis and everything else. It is also known as sociocognitive or cognitive behavioural theory of hypnosis.

Nonstate theorists are also sometimes known as sceptical, rational or common sense theorists.

This debate was reignited by R. W. White in 1941 in his paper, that was way ahead of its time entitled “A preface to the theory of hypnotism” whereby he states:

“Hypnotic behaviour is meaningful, goal-directed striving, its most general goal being to behave like a hypnotised person as this is continuously defined by the operator and understood by the subject.”

(White, 1941: 483)

Most of the argument really then got going in the 1950s and 1960s… Theodore Sarbin, a man also known as Mr. Role Theory and some of his fellows had employed concepts from “role theory” to understand hypnosis.

What they took from that field was the idea that the hypnotic subject has a “role perception” which may or may not adequately define the behaviour of a good hypnotic subject… You know what I mean, where you expect your eyes to turn squiggly, your arms to be stretched out like a zombie, and that you speak in a montone voice in response to any questions… I am kidding of course.

In hypnosis settings, Sarbin suggested that individuals take the role suggested to them and in doing so actively enact the associated behaviours. He was not saying that hypnosis was just people pretending, instead he compared it to the process of “heated” acting of the kind taught by the Strasberg “method acting” school… And boy, do those guys get into their roles! In fact, some studies have suggested that actors are better than average hypnotic subjects, but that’s a discussion for another day.

When Sarbin worked alongside William Coe, they made the claim that the subject simply wanted to please the hypnotist, and as a result, plays out the expected role of hypnotised subject… Maybe even feeling some pressure to comply with the hypnotist’s instructions.

So is that a reason to deny that there is such a special state as the hypnotic trance?

If I was in a hospital, in an operating theatre, choosing to use hypnosis instead of chemical aneasthesia to have an epigastric hernia removed there is no way that I’m going to play a role while someone is probing my innards with a scalpel! I’m going to have to be in a deep enough trance to be analgesic in the relevant area, no?

Now, the main man as far as the non-state theory is concerned has really been Theodore Barber.

Hypnotism is defined by many (especially non-state theorists) as an induced state of increased suggestibility. Yet when a person is hypnotised, they are supposed to produce the phenomenon of increased suggestibility. Thus the argument is circular according to Barber and many other supporters of this view. Some state theorists may reject this idea by not defining hypnotism merely in terms of suggestibility. For many, suggestibility is just one of the phenomena of the hypnotic state and not all.

If you research his work, you’ll see Barber wrote a mountain sized amount of documents to demonstrate that certain hypnotic phenomena (especially amnesia, enhanced muscular performance and arm levitation) can be equally achieved with subjects who were not hypnotised. Instead, the research participants were led by the researchers to have a positive attitude towards the outcome of the task they have been set, to be motivated to perform well, and to expect that they will be able to perform the task.



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