You are getting very sleepy

As a born skeptic, I was always convinced that hypnosis was quack science. Then I reached the end of my tether. I'd promised myself I would quit smoking before I turned 30. In the months approaching my birthday, I still found myself sucking down a pack a day. I tried self-control. I tried tapering. I tried cold turkey. Nothing worked.

Unwilling to commit to regular Smokers Anonymous meetings, I decided to try hypnosis. Three hundred dollars later, I found myself in a small, dingy office sitting across from a maddeningly serene hypnotherapist with a shock of red hair. He led me through a series of exercises. I imagined myself as a child: energetic, ebullient, unhampered by addiction. Didn't I want that again, the therapist asked? Didn't I crave health more than nicotine? Clearly not, I thought. But when I walked out of his office I found myself chucking my unfinished pack of Camel Lights.

It worked--for six months. Apparently, I'm more committed to debauchery than health. Still, when I decide to quit, I intend to try hypnosis again. It's the best solution I've stumbled on so far. And now I know why.

Neuroscientists have discovered that when impressionable people undergo hypnosis, they experience verifiable shifts in perception:

Recent brain studies in people who are susceptible to suggestion indicate that when they act on the suggestions their brains show profound changes in how they process information. The suggestions, researchers report, literally change what people see, hear, feel and believe to be true.

(This Is Your Brain Under Hypnosis)

Brain imaging revealed that, after being hypnotized, American test subjects "saw" colors that weren't there, and lost the ability to read English. This may seem unbelievable, but it makes sense given our increased knowledge of how the brain processes information:

Information from the eyes, ears and body is carried to primary sensory regions in the brain. From there, it is carried to so-called higher regions where interpretation occurs.

(This Is Your Brain Under Hypnosis)

Humans are extremely efficient at carrying sensory data downward. Surprisingly, we are less capable of feeding our interpretations of this information back up to the conscious mind. This is a function of our machinery. "There are 10 times as many nerve fibers carrying information down as there are carrying up."

What does this mean exactly? It means that our conscious impressions are often based on logical extrapolations. We use past experience to fill in missing information and form conclusions. We have, for instance, an existing framework in place for perceiving faces. We don't need to reinvent the wheel every time we meet someone. Each new face we encounter is initially stored as a slight variation of an existing "face recognition" template. Intellectual information is filtered through existing theoretical frameworks. I know. It's all a little abstract. What you really need to know is "what you see isn't always what you get."

Hypnosis, apparently, works because it influences the parts of our brains involved in making logical leaps based on existing frameworks. For example, you might see a flower and recognize it as yellow. But a skilled hypnotherapist can override this impression. She can tell you, 'No, you're mistaken. The flower is blue." If you're susceptible to hypnosis, your brain will accept this new interpretation. "If the top (or conscious mind) is convinced, the bottom level of data is overruled."

These findings have profound implications, because they suggest that our "perceptions can be manipulated by expectations." According to Michael Posner, a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon, "This is fundamental to the study of cognition." We are inching closer and closer to identifying the biological mechanisms that determine how we perceive the world.

Current research suggests that human beings are the architects of their own reality. Put simply, science is confirming what new-age philosophers have been saying for decades: you are ultimately responsible for your perception of reality. And if you're current perception is causing you heartache, it's possible to change it.


More like this

The Stroop Effect is one of the most-studied phenomena in psychology. The test is easy to administer, and works in a variety of contexts. The simplest way to see how it works is just to look the following two lists. Don't read them, instead say the color each word is displayed in, as quickly as you…
A continuation of our "greatest hits" from past Cognitive Daily postings: [originally posted on May 9, 2006] The Stroop Effect is one of the most-studied phenomena in psychology. The test is easy to administer, and works in a variety of contexts. The simplest way to see how it works is just to look…
Walking to school the other morning: Elder offspring: What's that smell? Is that smoke? Dr. Free-Ride: Yep. Someone has a fire in the fireplace. Look, there's the smoke curling out of the chimney. To me it smells good on a cold morning, but when enough people do it, all the little particles in…
THE term 'hypnosis' was coined by the Scottish physician James Braid in his 1853 book Neurypnology. Braid defined hypnosis as "a peculiar condition of the nervous system, induced by a fixed and abstracted attention of the mental and visual eye". He argued that it was a form of "nervous sleep", and…