Survey: What Does Hypnosis Feel Like?

Brief review of Edmonston’s 1977 survey, by D. Robertson. Thanks to Donald for posting this at the NCH facebook fan page, do go and become a fan for more of this fabulous stuff.

In 1977, the hypnotist William Edmonston carried out a survey which attempted to obtain feedback on the personal experience of hypnosis from a large number of hypnotic subjects. The questionnaire went out to 191 different clinicians using hypnosis, who were members of the Society for Clinical & Experimental Hypnosis or the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. They were asked to distribute the questions to their “three best hypnotic patients.” (Meaning that these results are probably from a significantly above-average sample.) Responses were finally received from 99 hypnotic subjects in total. Edmonston used the evidence from this survey to support his defence of the 100-year old Pavlovian theory that hypnosis is inherently a state (“cortical inhibition”) resembling sleep or at least physical relaxation.

Four questions were posed. Edmonston provides the following example of the responses given by a particularly articulate subject. These are the words of an anonymous 29-year old patient who received hypnotherapy from her psychiatrist.

1. In your own words, describe what being in a hypnotic state (trance) is like for you. Please be as detailed as possible.

Being in hypnotic trance is being as totally relaxed as is possible while still in a “conscious” state. It is a state of well-being, of not caring about otherwise troubling situations. It is a rest from “reality” which causes that reality to become important. A feeling of “everything will be all right” and “My God! how could that have seemed as important to me” (Although I at least don’t reach exclamation point stages while in hypnosis.) It is a stable, comfortable, good, warm, unanxious state to be in -nothing pulls at one’s decision-making centres, no demands are made, nothing has to be done. If questioning by the doctor is going on, cooperation is, of course, expected but the effort (and it is an effort to disturb this comfortable state) is minimised, I would suppose, by the confidence in the person asking the questions. In my experience, too, hypnosis has been a state of feeling”someone will help me now, he will make things right again,” etc. – It’s an “I could stay here and thiws way all day” feeling -retrospectively, time does, indeed, pass more quickly than expected in hypnosis.

2. What, for you as a hypnotised individual, is unique about hypnosis?

Unique as compared to other means of relaxation? Alcohol gets me high then sick then headachy -even in small quantities. Tranquilisers never semed to really effectively take care of anxiety because my conscious mind could fight them off. Hypnosis, while not inducing any foreign agents into the body, results in ultimate relaxation and has none of the unpleasant side effects. Of course, I am sure that unless the subject had trust and confidence in the operator, it would be very difficult to give in to the abandonment of relaxation.

3. How do you determine when you are hypnotised? For example, is there some feeling, some sensation, some change you perceive? Please describe in detail.
It is difficult to describe in words something that must be felt. A try: At first a heaviness when the limbs become flaccid and muscles are consciously loosened. Then something happens in the head; a distance swimming through, taking away the daily viswions which have habitually caused the teeth to clench and the brow to crease. It might be called “tingly” but it is not so sharp. It might be called dizziness but it’s not a loss of control as such. A stillness is also there. And a special emptiness. Physically, there is an unwillingness to move-I suppose, more concretely (pardon the pun), the limbs and muscles are somehow heavy (but not really!) and immobilised. In an apparent contradiction, I am also going to say that there is a certain floating feeling which however does not cause a lack of control nor does it cause fear. – there, I knew I couldn’t describe it!

4. Please describe anything else about hypnosis which seems important to you.

The greatest importance, it seems, of hypnosis is that it enables the individual, that is, it has enabled me, to realise that I have within myself the ability, power to control my own behaviour, attitudes and actions to a certain extent. The idea of me talking to myself is amazingly right! I know better than enyone how I feel -therefore I have to be the most sympathetic person for me to receive advice and suggestions from. Self-hypnosis, particularly, insures the utmost in private counselling.

I love hypnosis! It’s great! Everyone should try it!

Two independent judges were used to categorise the responses given by all 99 subjects to the first three questions, in order to arrive at the figures below. (There was a statistically very high level of agreement between the judges’ verdicts.) For brevity, I have left out responses which scored below 4%.

1. In your own words, describe what being in a hypnotic state (trance) is like for you. Please be as detailed as possible.
84% Relaxation
64% Carefree, at peace, calm, loss of fear, well-being
32% Concentration, focused attention
15% Floating
14% Dissociation, transcendental experiences
9% Numbness
8% Reduced sensory perception
8% Individualised physiological or sensory phenomena
8% Other
6% Time distortion
5% Feeling of warmth
4% Increased anxiety

None of the 99 subjects described their hypnotic state in terms of increased sensory perception, automation (automatic movement), or by reference to therapy or pain reduction, although these latter are probably perceived as consequences of the state rather than inherent characteristics of it.

One subject can be classed as responding to more than one description. Hence, if “relaxation” and “carefree,” etc., are combined, the figures show that 87% of subjects described the “hypnotic state” in terms of physical or cognitive relaxation. Responses to the other two questions, what is unique about hypnosis and how do you decide if you are in hypnosis, were more varied but produced broadly similar sorts of answers.

Edmonston, William E. ‘Neutral hypnosis as relaxation’. AJCH, 1977, 20, 69-75.