We experience trance states every day of our lives. When you are day-dreaming, in deep thought, or even watching television, you are in a trance. When you are going to sleep at night, you are in a trance. Trance states are observed in science by brainwave activity. These waves change when a person's brain becomes relaxed. A trance can be light, or very deep like deep sleep.
Many of us know exactly what we should be doing to address the situations we're uncomfortable with. When we want to lose weight we know we shouldn't eat emotionally, and that we should finally get around to joining that Zumba class or hiking group. We understand that logically, it's extremely unlikely that we'll be involved in a plane crash, so we should just book that long-awaited holiday. And when we're ready to quit smoking we know that we simply shouldn't light up that cigarette!
We have, however, come a long way from the days of Mesmer’s animal magnetism. The increasing interest in mindfulness meditation suggests that mainstream acceptance of the mind-body connection is growing. This year, two well-received books by serious science journalists, Marchant’s Cure, out in January, and Erik Vance’s Suggestible You, out this month, explore this territory — the demonstrable results of hypnosis, faith, and even magic — long dismissed as pseudoscience or explained away as the placebo effect. Just last month, NPR reported that placebo pills work even when people know they’re taking a placebo. “Those are real, biological changes underlying those differences in your symptoms,” Marchant told Science of Us earlier this year. It’s all in your mind. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real.
In a July 2001 article for Scientific American titled "The Truth and the Hype of Hypnosis", Michael Nash wrote that, "using hypnosis, scientists have temporarily created hallucinations, compulsions, certain types of memory loss, false memories, and delusions in the laboratory so that these phenomena can be studied in a controlled environment."
This finding—that PHA temporarily disrupted some people’s ability to recall the past—echoes decades of hypnosis research. What is entirely new in Mendelsohn et al.’s study is their demonstration that PHA was associated with a specific pattern of brain activation. Consistent with what normally occurs in remembering, when people in the non-PHA group performed the recognition task and successfully remembered what happened in the movie, fMRI showed high levels of activity in areas responsible for visualizing scenes (the occipital lobes) and for analyzing verbally presented scenarios (the left temporal lobe). In stark contrast, when people in the PHA group performed the recognition task and failed to remember the content of the movie, fMRI showed little or no activity in these areas. Also, fMRI showed enhanced activity in another area (the prefrontal cortex) responsible for regulating activity in other brain areas.
It would be difficult to find an area of scientific interest more beset by divided professional opinion and contradictory experimental evidence…No one can say whether hypnosis is a qualitatively unique state with some physiological and conditioned response components or only a form of suggestion induced by high motivation and a positive relationship between hypnotist and subject…T.X. Barber has produced "hypnotic deafness" and "hypnotic blindness", analgesia and other responses seen in hypnosis—all without hypnotizing anyone…Orne has shown that unhypnotized persons can be motivated to equal and surpass the supposed superhuman physical feats seen in hypnosis.
But psychiatrists do understand the general characteristics of hypnosis, and they have some model of how it works. It is a trance state characterized by extreme suggestibility, relaxation and heightened imagination. It's not really like sleep, because the subject is alert the whole time. It is most often compared to daydreaming, or the feeling of "losing yourself" in a book or movie. You are fully conscious, but you tune out most of the stimuli around you. You focus intently on the subject at hand, to the near exclusion of any other thought.
In 1974, Theodore X. Barber and his colleagues published a review of the research which argued, following the earlier social psychology of Theodore R. Sarbin, that hypnotism was better understood not as a "special state" but as the result of normal psychological variables, such as active imagination, expectation, appropriate attitudes, and motivation. Barber introduced the term "cognitive-behavioral" to describe the nonstate theory of hypnotism, and discussed its application to behavior therapy.