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Does latest sleep research tell us anything about hypnosis?

Posted Jun 10 2010 1:12am

‘Hang on a minute!’ I hear you cry. ‘But you have been lecturing us for the last three years about how important it is to recognise that hypnosis is not the same as being asleep…

Exactly. Which is why a new study led by Chien-Ming Yang from the National Chengchi University in Taipei, and reported here in the wonderful Mindhacks blog , is so interesting.

The new study investigates the early phases of sleep, the transitions between wakefulness and sleep often referred to as the hypnagogic state.

The way that our mind works in this phase is, as yet, poorly understood – just as the phenomena of hypnosis are poorly understood from anything other than a phenomenological level. As yet, neuroscience can’t explain hypnosis, just as it can’t yet fully explain the complex mechanisms of sleep and dreaming.

This new study took a very small sample size – 20 people – and asked them to take an afternoon nap in the lab whilst wired up to an EEG monitor measuring electrical activity in the brain, eye movement,  heart rate and muscular movements. It combined this data with accounts from the participants themselves about their experiences. Here is how Mindhacks reports the study:

As the participants drifted off they were awakened at different times: either just after eye-closing, the onset of ’stage 1′ sleep where you’re still aware of the external world, the onset of ’stage 2′ sleep where awareness starts to diminish, and after five minutes at ’stage 2′ where awareness should have largely disappeared.

After wakening, participants were asked questions about their perception of being asleep and the experience of their own minds: “Did you fall asleep?”, “Did you see any visual images?”, “Were you able to control your perceptual experiences?”, “How real did any of the experiences seem to you?”, “How well were you able to control your thoughts?”, “Were your thoughts logical?” and several questions to try and capture the conscious experience of sleep onset.’

The study found that the experience of having control over their own thoughts, and how coherent and logical these thoughts appeared to be, began to change almost as soon as the participants closed their eyes. As time went on, the thoughts appeared increasingly unusual and autonomous.

However, as soon as ’stage 2′ sleep began, participants seemed to experience a marked change into a state of mind where thoughts became much more freewheeling and seemingly illogical, almost as if they took on a life of their own.

Participants’ awareness of the outside world remained largely present until ’stage 2′ kicked in, at which point it quickly dropped off.

It seems that, when woken, people largely reported the experience that ‘I was asleep’ when they felt that they no longer had control over their increasingly illogical thoughts and not when their awareness of their surroundings was reduced.

This is very interesting on a number of levels for a hypnotherapist. Firstly, as hypnotherapists, we will have experienced our clients returning to full conscious awareness of the room, reporting things like: ‘That was weird. I know I wasn’t asleep. I could hear everything you were saying but it was as if my thoughts kept drifting around.’ Or ‘I was aware of everything and I could hear your voice but I can’t quite remember now what you were saying. I went to all kinds of places.’

If I were to guess, I would say that the ’stage 1′ phase of hypnagogia certainly seems quite similar to that of hypnosis – with the marked difference that the hypnotherapist is using language and suggestion that is designed to enable the client to  experience a more focused quality of awareness, with their thoughts directed towards particular imagery, ideas, feelings and sounds.

Another way of interpreting the test data might be that thoughts become less consciously directed as participants drift from ’stage 1′ to ’stage 2.’

I often feel that these fascinating studies are just barely touching the surface of some of the richest and most mysterious experiences of our inner life: thought, day-dreaming, fantasy, creative imagination, trance.

What I like about this small study is its methodology – correlating EEG data with interviews with the participants themselves. I think it’s only when we start to put the two kinds of research together  that we begin to get a picture of what happens when we turn our attention inside ourselves.

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