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Assessing the Depth of Hypnosis

by Tom Connelly, D.Hyp, FBSCH

Category: Hypnosis


After practising hypnosis for some time we gradually develop an intuitive sense that indicates to us the depth of hypnotic trance our subjects are experiencing. This impression is probably formed inside us in a number of ways but at the beginning of our training we have to rely on a mixture of guesswork and knowledge 'borrowed' from hypnosis books, videos and our tutors.

The obvious way to make an estimate of the ongoing success of your hypnosis is to watch for the 'classic' indications of the deepening hypnotic state. Some of the following might be observed:

Change of breathing
Pallid / waxen complexion
Postural slumping
REM type eye movements
Eyelid fluttering
Increased Lachrymation
Redness around the eyes

You will be taught to watch for these signs (and others) at the beginning of any hypnosis course of tuition but accurate assessment of trance depth only really happens when the hypnotist can evaluate these signs from personal experience. An important part of this learning process takes place when the hypnotist takes the part of the subject and experiences hypnosis from the point of view of his prospective clients. After being hypnotized a many times the hypnotherapist gains an inside perspective of the mental processes that take place and an empathy for the physical nature of hypnosis. Good experience can also be had from experimenting with self hypnosis and relaxation techniques.

Apart from personal experience of hypnosis it's possible to learn a great deal from verbal feedback. Don't be afraid to ask your subjects about their experience of trance, most will be happy to describe the 'feeling' of hypnosis and many interesting insights can be gained. Remember that hypnosis is a subjective experience and although there are many common elements to it there is much that will be unique to each individual.

It's also possible to gather direct information about the process of hypnosis and depth of trance by using a fractionation type of induction.

With the fractionation method of inducing hypnosis the process is broken into stages and the subject is questioned at each point for a verbal description of their particular experience. So the novice hypnotist can learn a great deal about the experience of relaxation and trance as it occurs in others.

The main Idea behind the fractionation method of inducing hypnosis (sometimes known as Vogt's fractionation) is to discover the personal experience of the subject as they begin to enter trance and then to 'feed back' this information to take them deeper. Subjects are relaxed into the early stages of trance and then roused and questioned for their particular experience of hypnosis and this information is then used to help the subject to go deeper still. So in a very real sense the subject is describing the best way that they personally should be hypnotized! This type of induction is not as quick as other methods but it's interactive nature does seem to lead to the deeper trance states. This method of inducing hypnosis is outlined in most good tuition courses and books but as it is outside the scope of this article the student is advised to search this information out.

Apart from methods of assessing depth of trance through observation there are also physical tests that give the hypnotist valuable information about the ongoing state of hypnosis.

The most common test is for catalepsy, usually of the eyelids. Here the subject is asked to relax the muscles of the eyelids deeply, so deeply that the eyelids will not open. This is an excellent test of relaxation, susceptibility and willingness to co-operate with the hypnosis process.
It is also possible to ask the patient to look upwards with their eyes (the head remaining still) as if at a point at the top of the head and when they have done this you can inform them that they cannot open their eyelids. It is typically quite hard to open one's eyelids with the eyes looking upwards and this might help to convince your subject of the efficacy of your techniques but it is also quite a well known physiological 'trick' and might just as easily arouse suspicion.

Another test to gauge the level of relaxation that has the added benefit of allowing you to test for an increase in body temperature (which indicates a medium deep trance state) is the hand lift technique. After first informing your subject (who's eyes will no doubt be closed) that you are going to lift their hand, gently raise it up and let it go. The hand of a relaxed person will flop limply back. Notice how limp, warm and pliant the hand seems. Suggestions can be added to this testing technique. For example you might suggest "that as your hand falls limply down, you can go deeper and deeper into hypnosis", "as your hand falls to your lap you will go twice as deeply into relaxation."

Finally a cognitive technique to test trance depth, which does not rely on observation or physical testing. Here the hypnotist tests for amnesia (an important hypnotic phenomenon) usually by asking the subject to begin counting backwards from 300 (the actual number is not too important but it must be sufficiently large to be out of the range of 'automatic' counting) and suggesting that a point will soon be reached when the numbers will be forgotten. If a suitable trance state exists the suggestion will be accepted and the subject will forget the numeric train of thought. This method has the additional benefit that even if the subject doesn't have the correct depth of trance at that moment, the counting process may well help to bring it about!

For most practical purposes the hypnotherapist will be more concerned with establishing that there is sufficient trance depth for therapy, rather than the more academic pursuit of gauging the precise depth of trance attained. There seems to be a consensus of opinion from most learned sources that trance depth might not be such an important concern and that effective therapy can take place providing at least a light stage of hypnosis is established. This may well be the case but obtaining a medium to deep hypnotic state has two advantages:

It inspires confidence in the hypnotist, which improves personal performance and is detected, however subliminally, by the subject.
it is a hypnotic convincer and while it might not be any more therapeutic than a light trance state it is more of a contrast to normal waking consciousness and so helps to persuade the subject to persuade themselves that something 'significant' has taken place.
Throughout this short article I have used the convention of dividing the depth of hypnotic trance into three stages - light, medium and deep, as this seems quite sufficient for my purposes. I should point out however that there are several systems of classification, some more ancient than others. The difference is usually one of division and nomenclature as the nature of the state must be a constant but the student may encounter the following descriptions depending on the source of information: i.e., Lethargy, Catalepsy and Somnambulism or Hypnoidal, Somnambulism, Coma / Esdaile state, Hypnosis attached to sleep.
It is important to realise that the 'depth of trance' does not refer to an objective or quantifiable state but is characterised by the phenomena available in that state, thereby equating trance depth with suggestibility. For example, eyelid catalepsy is quite easy to obtain and so when this phenomenon becomes available we can label the trance depth as 'light'. Pain control becomes available as a hypnotic phenomenon only when the subject becomes more suggestible and when this phenomenon becomes accessible we can label this a medium trance depth, and so on. Full amnesia or positive / negative hallucination are among the most extreme of hypnotic phenomena and require the greatest suggestibility and so when these become available we can label this a deep trance state.

Tom Connelly studied clinical hypnosis with the London College of Clinical Hypnosis and has a private practice in East Yorkshire, England.


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