The Problem of Measurement in Hypnosis

In perusing the web, I ran across a neat little article from Psychology Today, dealing with “The Trouble with Hypnosis.”  Since I wasn’t aware that we had any trouble with hypnosis, I delved into said article and came up with an interesting point of view.  You can look at the piece via the link above, but let me summarize, if I may, just what the author believes is the “trouble” with the treatment mode known as hypnotherapy or hypnosis.

The trouble, from PT’s point of view, is that hypnosis as a process does not seem to lend itself to measurement  Yes, believe it or not, despite many attempts to quantify and capture this experience in a bottle, researchers have not been able to show that anything special is going on physiologically when a person enters hypnosis (beyond the obvious drop in blood pressure, slowing of heartbeat, deeper breathing associated with being relaxed in any condition).  That is, there don’t seem to be any brainwave patterns that can be readily identified as indicating the “hypnotized” state.

Actually, this is not quite true.  According to one online source, “In some studies, EEGs from subjects under hypnosis showed a boost in the lower frequency waves associated with dreaming and sleep, and a drop in the higher frequency waves associated with full wakefulness. Brain-wave information is not a definitive indicator of how the mind is operating, but this pattern does fit the hypothesis that the conscious mind backs off during hypnosis and the subconscious mind takes a more active role. Researchers  have also studied patterns in the brain’s cerebral cortex that occur during hypnosis. In these studies, hypnotic subjects showed reduced activity in the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex, while activity in the right hemisphere often increased.”

The real problem seems to be that we don’t quite have that telltale brain signature that screams “this person is under hypnosis.”  And if we can’t reliably tell whether or not a person is in a “trance,” then we can’t reliably measure such a trance.  Measurement, you see, is the scientist’s bread and butter.  If we can’t measure something, then how on earth can we find out how it works, or to what degree it works in any given situation?

These are fair questions for physiologists, but they are actually irrelevant for psychologists, who have been trying to measure behaviors and their causes for more than 100 years without anything like what a hard-core scientist would call “scientific accuracy.”  The hard fact is that we are dealing with human behavior, and much as we try–sometimes with limited success–to predict such behavior, we are nearly always stymied by the fact that every human mind is different.  That is not to say that brains are necessarily different, but it is to say that the processes of the mind–while they can be generalized to some extent–do not in any way lend themselves to comparative measurement from one mind to another.  [Merriam Webster defines mind as “1 :the element or complex of elements in an individual that feels, perceives, thinks, wills, and especially reasons. 2 :the conscious mental events and capabilities in an organism.”]

I find this strangely reassuring, in that it confirms that we are not cranked out of the celestial factory with minds that work exactly the same.  That would make us little more than advanced robots, and it would be rather boring.

The fact that hypnosis is not a measureable process does not concern us, because in countless studies and in countless practitioners’ offices, the results have spoken for themselves.  As long as we accept that we have not yet figured out the physiology behind hypnosis–if physiology is even relevant–this should not prevent us from taking advantage of the obvious salutary results.  I am reminded of the fact that even in medicine, which assuredly holds itself in higher scientific self-esteem than mere psychology, some compounds are known to work for some conditions, yet the scientists do not precisely know “how” they work.

Will we ever know precisely “how” hypnotherapy works?  That certainly is a question for speculation!