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Ordinary Trance

William Dubin, Ph.D.

The hypnotic state clients experience in my office as a result of a formal trance induction is just one of the many different trances they experience throughout their day. Subjective experience emerges from the Psyche's attempt to interpret sensory input. The interpretations are biased by a range of factors, including beliefs. For example, skiers with different beliefs about their abilities may experience different subjective realities on the same slope.

black and white spiralThere is nothing unusual about hypnosis-everything we experience is trance phenomena. You can evoke one kind of trance by listening to a trance formation audio file, but you don't need a formal hypnotic induction to change your experiential state. Consider the following thought experiment:

 

 

Thought Experiment: The Emergency. Imagine that you just got a message that someone in your family had been seriously hurt in an automobile accident and you must get to the emergency room right away. Your biological state would change immediately and you would run or drive there as fast as you could, heart pounding, thoughts racing, and experiencing great distress. When you got there and discovered the report was untrue, you would experience relief, a very different trance. Objectively, the report was never true, yet it had a great impact on your physical and emotional state.

State-dependent phenomena-including motivation, perceptual bias and response probability distribution-are determined by the subjective reality that existed in your mind, not by what was objectively true.

Your subjective reality is a creative fiction that you are continually inventing. To be sure, your overt behavior becomes part of world history (and so can never be undone), but the trance that gives rise to it is purely subjective and does not exist outside your consciousness.

Suggestions are invitations to explore a particular subjective reality. Whether the entity that creates it is a hypnotist, salesman, or you, the suggestion is always a creative fiction rather than a claim of objective validity. Typically, the suggestion is designed to promote the interests of its creator-unless that entity is neurotic.

The interests of the stage hypnotist are served when the subject performs foolishly and the audience laughs; the interests of the salesman are served when the customer buys. Your interests are served when you get yourself to act as you intend despite the influence of local conditions that would promote relapse.

The method of hypnotic suggestion, demonstrated by stage hypnotists, can be a powerful tool in the service of behavior change. But because the procedure is portrayed as comedy, the public has developed the wrong idea of how it works. The popular misconception that hypnosis compels the mindless subject to obey the suggestion of the controlling hypnotist probably results from the stage demonstration called the challenge - for example: "Your leg is getting heavier and heavier/you can try to lift your leg/but it will be so heavy/that you won't be able to do it." This sounds like a battle of wills between the hypnotist and the subject, but it is not. In fact whatever happens is produced completely by the subject and is an intra-personal rather than an inter-personal phenomenon. After you have read the explanation, you can experience this classic hypnotic phenomenon by exercising your faculty of imagination with the Heavy Shoe audio invitation.

As you will see, the script is full of lies, such as "your shoe is made of lead/ your leg is too heavy to lift" Scripts such as this are used to demonstrate that simple verbal suggestions can influence the experience and behavior of a cooperative subject. The demonstration can produce humorous or shocking consequences when the subject acts as if the reality suggested by the hypnotist were actually true. Acting as though an objectively false suggestion were true-e.g., your shoe is made of lead-produces behavior that would appear absurd to an observer, and so the audience, who are not asked to buy into the false suggestion, finds it humorous.

Barry's Neurotic Trance

But some things are neither true nor false. Are you a hero or a loser? There is no objective answer to that question. Concepts like that exist only within your mind. But how you perform in the real world depends, to a large extent, upon your subjective reality at that moment. The heroic version of you would react differently than your loser persona. Consider Barry's predicament: He wants, very badly, to perform well, but his self-evaluative perspective produces the wrong trance:

 

Barry exhibits a much sharper wit in social environments where he expects to perform well than in situations that evoke his "loser" persona. The appraisal: "I'm a loser," or the expectation: "I will perform well," exists only in Barry's mind and not in the objective world. Nevertheless, his subjective reality influences how he will behave in the objective world. Whether he reacts to the snide insult at the office party with a witty come back or humiliation depends to a large extent on his subjective reality at the time. His retort is more likely to be clever if he is in a confident trance than if he is in his "loser" trance. He wants to bring on the clever version of himself and enjoy a social victory for a change, but he expects to be weak and intimidated as usual. Observers who know Barry have their predictions-one expected an embarrassing pause and another expected him to say something stupid. But these expectations exist only in their minds. Whatever Barry actually does becomes part of objective reality, while all the other possibilities fade into oblivion.

It would be good for Barry if he performs well during his crisis. But there is a conflict between his intentions-to be the cool and clever Barry-and his expectation of humiliation. Will his expectations or his intentions determine which Barry shows up at the critical moment?

Expectations have the advantage-both Barry and his friends believe them to be true. From our dispassionate perspective we can see they are merely creative fictions which are neither true nor false. Barry's only real limitation is the one that he created.

Unlike insults and injuries that come from outside and tend to heal with time, Barry's recursive problem has been with him for a long time and continually diminishes his fun, increases his misery, and prevents him from establishing an intimate partnership. Such problems tend not to go away by themselves but strengthen with practice.

The illusion of state permanence, a variation of the Soul Illusion, refers to the tacit premise that we will always perceive things as we do now. This may be true for you now as you read, as it is for my clients during their therapy sessions. If only you had access to these cognitive gifts when next you encounter a high-risk situation. Sadly, this is not to be. Instead, you will be influenced in the same way you were the last time you were in a similar circumstance.