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2. What is a hypnotic "trance" ?

2.6. "Trance Reflex" and the appearance of stupor

So the question remains, if trance is not sleep or stupor, then why do hypnotized subjects commonly appear so passive?

The consensus on this subject, from studies of 'waking hypnosis,' ('trance' in which the subject acts normally and does not show any evidence of the classical relaxed deep trance state), and from many years of clinical observations, is that the apparent lethargy and catalepsy are more a result of suggestions used to deepen hypnosis than a necessary correlate of suggestibility or trance itself in general. In a way, a side-effect of trance rather than a quality or cause of trance. There is also seemingly a temporary but distinct immobilizing reflex following certain kinds of stimuli used in some hypnotic inductions. This may help provide a temporary or initial facilitation of hypnotic suggestibility in some people, according to some theories.

Monotonous visual stimuli, surprise, fear, physical restraint, and a number of other factors have long been observed to produce 'trance' with fixation (followed by defocusing) of gaze, narrowing or attenuation of externally focused attention, general immobility, and various physiological changes which resemble the correlates of relaxation and internally directed (visual) attention in humans.

Perhaps the most routine observance of this is with people gazing into television sets or in the familiar case of 'highway hypnosis.' It appears that this type of 'trance' induction often precedes the production of hypnotic suggestion phenomena, and can occur prior to any verbal suggestions, from proprioceptive or visual stimuli alone. It is probably closest to the traditional view of the hypnotist swinging a watch to put their subjects 'to sleep.'

One means of searching for the basis for this seemingly reflexive trance response is from phylogenetic data, using animals. A similar response occurs in monkeys and other animals under both laboratory and natural conditions, as an apparent passive defensive response (resembling death) under certain extreme conditions.

Various Russian researchers investigating animal hypnosis seem to have discovered electroencephalographic correlates of this animal 'death trance' which resembles the initial trance/inhibition effect that sometimes precedes human hypnotic suggestibility. They report an interhemispheric asymmetry of the brain, which a recent Russian email journal article, (Petrova E.V., Shlyk G.G., Kuznetsova G.D., Shirvinska M.A., Pirozhenko A.V., HYPNOSIS IN MACACA RHESUS IS CHARACTERIZED BY DIFFERENT PHASES AND INTERHEMISPHERIC EEG ASYMMETRY), summarizes as being

"created as the result of the activation of the right hemisphere."

They cite:

  • Simonov P.V. The Motivation Brain, Gordon a. Breach Pub., N.Y.-L., 1992.
  • Kuznetsova G.D., Nezlina N. I., Petrova E.V. Dokl. Akad. Nauk, 1988, 302:623.
  • Petrova E.V., Luchkova T.I.,Kuznetsova G.D. Zh. Vyssh. Nerv. Deyat. 1992, 42: 129.

As evidence of a correlation between right hemisphere cortical activity and human hypnosis, they cite:

  • Gruzeiler J., Brow T., Perry A. et al. Int. J. Psychophysiol., 1984, 2:131.
  • Meszaros J., Growford H.J., Nady-Kovacs A, Szabo Cs., Neuroscience, 1987, Suppl. 22:472.

One investigation into the relationship of primate behavior and electrical activity of the brain (EEG) involved 45 male Macaca Rhesus monkeys seated in a primatologic chair and observing the oscillation of a shining ball, 4 cm in diameter, placed 15 cm in front the animal's eyes for 15-20 minutes.

In this experiment, six of the monkeys immediately stopped motor activity. At first their eyes were fixed on the ball, then muscle tonus weakened, eyes became unfocused, and respiration slowed. These same symptoms appeared in the remaining animals, although they developed slower. During the first 2-3 minutes of the stimulation, the slower responding monkeys showed a negative reaction to the ball (a monkey abruptly turned away or tried to push it away). Then the negativism ceased and the first signs of inhibition appeared: yawning, scratching, and obtrusive hand motions.

Finally, what the experimenters call the 'hypnotic state' ensued; eyes fixed on the ball, the animal became calm, and closed its eyes. This state continued from several seconds to several minutes and could be observed several times during an experimental session. In 12 monkeys that displayed orienting or aggressive response to the ball, visual signs of inhibition were not observed under these conditions. Further physical restraint (fixation of hands and trunk) resulted in the 'hypnotized' behavior. This is in contrast to the more usual behavior of monkeys, what the authors of the article call the 'freedom reflex' which results when they are taken from their home cages and placed in the primatologic chair.

As they describe the EEG observations:

"The electrical activity of monkey brain cortex before hypnosis was characterized by a robust polyrhythmia and presence of theta- and beta-rhythms. In one monkey the alpha-rhythm was dominate. During hypnosis, slow activity (delta and theta) with increased amplitude appeared, periodically alternating with low-amplitude activity. Power spectrum maps showed that in the low-amplitude phase the decrease in the power of all rhythms was paralleled in three monkeys with robust beta-1 rhythm with a predominance in the left hemisphere. In the high-amplitude phase, delta and theta-rhythms dominated in the right hemisphere."

"The analysis of the coherence and correlation functions showed the decreased relationship between hemispheres (especially in the frontal cortical areas) under hypnosis and its increase during relaxation (as compared to the background)."

"The analysis of the EEG showed that in the brain of hypnotized monkeys interhemispheric asymmetry appears: the domination of the theta- and delta-rhythms in the right hemisphere or beta-rhythm in the left hemisphere - depending upon the phase of hypnosis."


Factors shown to facilitate this "animal hypnosis" include vestibular (pose in the chair) and somatosensory (fixation) stimuli and emotional stress (fear), novelty to the experimental conditions, and additional proprioceptive (restriction of the motor freedom) and visual influences. Various sources seem to indicate similar factors which operate on the corresponding 'trance response' in humans.

In addition to the 'trance reflex' which is seen to sometimes accompany or precede hypnotic induction, the factor of 'trance logic' which surfaces under deep trance also adds to the catatonic appearance, as the primitive language capacity in trance logic could easily contribute to the appearance of stupor. But the individual is actually, in general, wide awake and thinking, and in control of themself, but extraordinarily focused on their internal experience, and on the voice of the hypnotist.

"... the general tendency of the hypnotic subject to be passive and receptive is simply expressive of the suggestibility of the hypnotic subject and hence a direct result of the suggestions employed to induce hypnosis and not a function of the hypnotic state."

Milton Erickson, circa 1944.


The most obvious reason to make this distinction is to dispel the popular myth that a hypnotized person is unconscious or unable to respond to emergencies, or to oppose the will of the hypnotist if they should wish to do so. In fact, Erickson did a famous detailed study of attempts by the hypnotist to force their will on hypnotized subjects, and observed that not only did the subjects discriminate what suggestions they would and would not respond to, and refused to respond to some, but then often came up with ways to hurt or humiliate the hypnotist in retaliation for the attempt. And that they were even more selective about what suggestions they would not respond to under hypnosis than they were normally!

Another reason this distinction is made is because of extraordinary skills of some hypnotists to 'induce trance' (gain a unique kind of compliance or communication) with people who had not been prepared or relaxed by a classical induction, and who in fact steadfastly and effectively resisted all attempts at classical induction of trance.

A third reason is that we observe in some hypnotic phenomena that an individual can be hypnotized, with the help of a traditional progressive relaxation procedure for example, and then "remain hypnotized" (equally responsive to suggestion) long after leaving the state of physiological relaxation and classic apparent catatonia. So, the 'trance,' though it may in fact start with a process similar to that which commonly leads to sleep, or may start with the 'trance reflex,' it is not dependent upon stupor, nor even necessarily relaxation.


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