As a hypnotist, it's easy to forget that for many people, the prospect of being hypnotized for the first time can be a formidable leap of faith into the unknown. Someone who has never experienced hypnosis can, at best, construct only a vague collage of expectations based on movies, TV, stage shows, documentaries, widely varying experiences of friends, things they may have read somewhere, and hopefully a decent list of a few things not to expect. However the chances of this piecemeal expectation having any semblance to an actual direct experience of hypnosis is minimal, even though they will have experienced naturally occurring forms of hypnosis scores of times. How, then, does a contradictory set of expectations translate into a subjectively meaningful hypnotic event, and what are some ways that we as hypnotists can do to influence the client's unseen mental behaviors, imagination, and motivation within the session for the most optimal and impressive outcome? This is a process I'm referring to here as building the hypnotic gestalt, a German word meaning "form", "whole", or "configuration".
In the early part of the 20th century, perceptual psychologists Max Wertheimer and his colleagues demonstrated that the human brain perceives a cluster of stimuli by organizing it into a "gestalt", consisting of a figure that emerges from and is framed by a whole background, or ground. The figure is the aspect of the environment that stands out to the perceiver and the ground is the backdrop from which figures emerge. Gestalt Psychology was the name for the study of the psychology of perception (Frew, 2008). To borrow these terms and apply to the hypnotic experience, the figure would be the various things we do with our clients whenever we do hypnosis, and the ground is the virtually limitless ocean of subconscious data channeled into a tributary of emotional, somatic, cognitive, and representational experience on the peripherals of the client's awareness on a moment to moment basis. How the client and hypnotist co-construct all of this need not be left up to chance.
Ronald E Shor, one of the giants of hypnosis research and theory, considered suggestibility to be a common but not characteristic phenomenon of hypnotic experience. He proposed a conception of hypnotic depth along three dimensions: a) trance, or the fading of the generalized reality orientation, b) non conscious involvement, the non conscious fulfilling of a role as a hypnotized participant, and c) archaic involvement, the "transferential" relationship towards the therapist (Shor, 1962, p. 28). It is the second dimension, the non-conscious fulfilling of the hypnotized "role", that I would like borrow for the moment.
Certain difficulties and complications with clients can be traced to the lack of a basic idea of what hypnosis is going to be like and what sort of abilities are normal and to be expected. These are the types of things addressed in a good pre-talk. For example, if hypnosis is inadequately defined to the client, then a fear of hypnosis itself, their ability to experience it, and a lack of confidence in the hypnotist's skill could all be greatly inhibiting factors. From the moment they were introduced to the idea of hypnosis in the past, to when they first speak with you as the hypnotist, all the way into to the duration of the session itself, a client's understanding of the "role" of the hypnotized person is constantly being defined, added to, or rewritten.
For this reason, it is standard practice to explain to the client beforehand the sort of things that are to be expected, e.g., that they are going to be able to hear your voice for the duration of the session, that there is no characteristic hypnotized feeling everyone experiences, and that certain behaviors one wouldn't ordinarily expect of themselves, such as hypnotic anesthesia, or even positive and negative hallucinations are not only possible but fairly common, occurring even in everyday life. In this way, we are defining the role of the hypnotized person, so that when they go into hypnosis, the fulfilling of this role becomes increasingly non-conscious and involuntary.
It is important to remember, and to convey, that hypnosis doesn't fade an individual's personality away. The central executive sense of self never loses its supervising function. It is best for this part of the personality to understand its role in the process, and be given something to do. That role might be to focus on something specific, to not actually fall asleep but go deeply relaxed as if they were asleep, or to try and let the conscious mind go into the background and let the deep inner mind provide the associative material necessary to advance in the process of whatever the task at hand may be. If the sort of impressive things we know are possible with hypnosis are not appropriately defined or made believable to the client, then their chances of experiencing them decreases.
In terms of the non-conscious involvement in the hypnotic role, Shor (1962) describes how responses to the directions and suggestions of the hypnotist occur with an adequate motivational basis within the subject. The directions become effective because at some level, they become translated into the subject's own cognitively structured strivings. It is not the hypnotic role taking behavior (or compliance) itself which is a measure of hypnotic depth, but the degree to which whatever hypnotic role taking there is has become non-consciously directive. When this dimension deepens, a compulsive and involuntary quality derives from it: without the subject's experience of conscious intention, and often in defiance of it. The task of being a hypnotized subject has become "not a consciously controlled choice" (Shor, 1962).
Most anyone who has practiced hypnotism with clients over even modest period of time may have noticed that the depth of the hypnotic response of the client tends to occur in waves throughout the duration of the session. One could imagine a sine wave looking like a horizon of hills, a series of peaks and valleys. For our purposes, the wave represents hypnotic depth, at its crest we have the greatest probability of profound response to suggestion. The moments generally considered to be the most reliably suggestible follow the client's realization of hypnosis, which usually occurs after the performance of a convincer: the hypnotic task that is sure to succeed as depth has already been tested for. The successful accomplishment of this task (such as arm catalepsy for example) produces further deepening upon the realization that hypnosis is occurring. It is at this point that some of the most vital suggestions should be given, whether it be the post-hypnotic suggestions they came in for, suggestions for post-hypnotic re-induction of hypnosis, or perhaps something that requires considerable depth, such as age regression or some kind of "parts" work. Of course, the true peak of suggestibility may occur spontaneously at any point in the process unknown to us as observers, but by testing, we at least have some rational indicator of where the client is at in terms of depth, and can proceed from there.
Somewhere around this point of maximum depth, is a golden opportunity to maximize the potential for non-conscious hypnotic role taking, allowing for a dramatically more solid and efficient session. A brief example of this is in the Stanford Hypnotic Clinical Scale for Adults (SHCS) induction which leads the subject into several test items including age regression and the production of a hypnotic dream, "You're going to be able to do all sorts of things that I suggest, things that are interesting and acceptable to you, you will be able to do them without breaking the pattern of complete relaxation that is coming over you" (Morgan & Hilgard, 1978). This is a clear and elegant way to prime the subject for non-conscious hypnotic role taking behavior. It is given just as mental relaxation is induced in the subject. It's a clever way of saying "this hypnosis is going to go very well, you're going to be an excellent subject because you can do all sorts of things without accidentally emerging, and, accordingly, you're going to achieve what you came here to achieve". It is a bit like using one of your three alloted wishes from the hypno-genie for one hundred more wishes. This is where I hope the reader can creatively take this concept further and tailor a suggestion to the particular needs of the hypnotized person.
Another useful area to give role taking suggestions might be around the start of an age regression. The mark of true age regression is revivification, the extent that the experiences are being experienced all over again, in present tense, as if for the first time. Sometimes, the challenge of this work is going beyond hypermnesia, remembering vividly in the past tense. If one wants a vivid textbook age regression using the affect bridge, it might be a good idea to suggest or instruct at a deep level of hypnosis that "any part of you that tries to remember will do not be able to do so, your only job is to focus on the feeling" or "your only job is to step into the picture, letting it move by itself". By doing so, you are preemptively minimizing conscious interference by assigning a specific task as the "figure" of the gestalt, and simultaneously directing the "ground" or subconscious mind.
These sorts of instructions will be most effective, not by using these words verbatim but by being sensitive to what is going on in the session, using your best judgement with regard to how the client seems to be experiencing hypnosis and tailoring your suggestions with best possible fit to the immediate situation. As a mental exercise, one can look back on individual sessions that may not have had as successful an outcome as you might have liked, and ask yourself, what sort of hypnotic role could have been suggested at the most auspicious point in the session, that could have improved the outcome?
Frew, J. (2008). Gestalt Therapy. In J. Frew & M.D. Spiegler (Eds.), Contemporary psychotherapies for a diverse world (177-223). Boston: Lakasha Press.
Morgan, A. H. & Hilgard, J. R. (1978) The stanford hypnotic clinical scale for adults. American journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 21, 2-3, 134-147.
Shor, R. E. (1962). Three dimensions of hypnotic depth. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 10, 23-38.