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Andrew F. Houston

General medical practitioner __________________________________________________________________

This paper attempts to answer the question "what is hypnosis?" In the first part the author links hypnotic experience to the verb 'to be'. In the next part he links religious experience to the verb 'to be'. In the final part he links play to the verb 'to be' and suggests that play should be the model for hypnosis.


Field (1973 p491-492), in a survey of the words used during trance induction, found that there was an increase in the use of 'will', 'as', and the variants of the verb 'to be' - 'be','is', and 'are'. The increased frequency of 'will' is easy to explain as the use of the future tense in trance induction is important in order to instill belief and expectation into the subject. The adverb 'as' can be easily understood because it gives the sense of continuing experience when used in conjunction with a verb in the present tense. More interesting however, is the presence of the verb 'to be'. This, too, gives us the present tense continuous when used in conjunction with a verb. Matters become curiouser and curiouser the more one studies 'to be'.

The word is present in 'becoming', 'belief' and 'behaviour', and it is interesting to speculate on why this should be so. These words are prominent in psychological and religious practice. Somewhere back in the early formation of language the verb and it's additions '-coming' , '-lieving' and '-having', have been combined and it might tell us a lot about ourselves if we could understand why. Perhaps a linguist or philologist could provide an answer.

In hypnotic practice 'to be' allows the past and the future to be experienced as the present, and of course it is the present tense which is the hallmark of hypnotic experience. Way back in the times of proto-language 'to be' must have been one of the first words invented. We recognise this point unwittingly, with the humour of recognition, when we hear the sentence, "Me Tarzan, you Jane." What is missing, of course, is the verb "to be." This might have been followed by the world's worst joke when Jane falls pregnant. "Me Bull, you Elephant". Note the metaphor and the reframing, which are also important in clinical hypnosis.

Field (1973 p483) got close when he talked of 'the hypnotized subject who "becomes" a child'. The question one should ask, to start with, is not "what is hypnosis?" but rather, the more illuminating "what does it mean to become hypnotised?"Asking the question in this form emphasizes that it is the becoming which is important and which forms the common denominator. It is the failure to address this question that results in sterile theories in the literature. We do not have a coherent model to explain the differences between being hypnotised by Mesmer in 1770 and by a hypnotist in 1993; or to explain religious 'trance' and being 'entranced' by a play or book.


Hypnosis can be seen as the experiencing of a story in the present tense. The story is our beliefs. Much of human mental anguish occurs when the things that happen to us do not accord with the story.


As regards religion, you may have noticed that religious literature is full of 'being', 'becoming' and 'belief'. It is the verb 'to be' that gives us metaphors, of which there are more than 180 for Jesus in the Bible , and more than 145 for the Church (Cruden's 1984). Thomas a Kempis' 'Imitation of Christ' encouraged people to become like Christ (as defined by Thomas a Kempis of course) with a lasting effect on Western civilisation. To speak of someone who has died (i.e. past tense) as though he were alive (present tense), is hypnotic, and allows one to experience the deceased. It allows dramatisation of the past and even of the future with a powerful hypnotic effect on the audience. It is no accident that the Bhagwan Rajneesh left a directive for his followers, after his death, always to refer to him in the present tense, nor that the founder of Scientology was a former Sci-Fi writer.


Clues to the importance of the religious/hypnotic experience can be found in the Bible itself. In Exodus 3.v 14 we read, "God answered, 'I AM; that is who I am. Tell them that I AM has sent you to them.'" (N.E.B.). And it occurs again in John 8.v 57-58: "I tell you the truth ," Jesus answered ,"before Abraham was born , I am! " (N.I.V.) Augustine in his Confessions (Book 11 Ch 20), says there are three times: ' a present of things past, a present of things present, and a present of things future', the first being memory, the second sight, and the third expectation.


The Mass consists of 'becoming' a participant in a meal. There is the focusing of attention on the Host, the elevation of the Host above eye level, the cue for trance signalled by a bell, the 'hallucination' of the 'Real Presence'.


According to Crystal (1988 p9) "Yahweh is a scholarly attempt at reconstruction of the divine name represented by YHWH in the Hebrew Old Testament, interpreting its meaning as part of the verb 'to be', to give the title "the One who is." In Islam the world was created by God's word kun ("be") out of nothing (EB Vol 9 p949). In Buddhism we have The Wheel of Becoming.


Now we come to the interesting bit. Debate continues in the literature about the nature of hypnosis and what it is. On the one hand we have the believers, who consider that hypnosis is a special state, while on the other there are the sceptics, who say that hypnosis does not exist. On some points there is universal agreement that;

• hypnosis involves child like experience (the buzz phrase for this among the credulous, is " archaic

involvement ")

• hypnosis involves imagination.

• hypnosis involves roleplaying.

• the explanation for hypnosis, whatever it is, should be naturalistic.

As a humble medical practitioner, (Special Subject - the bleedin' obvious), it seems to me that play satisfies all four criteria; and it is puzzling that no-one has suggested that this is the correct model for hypnosis. Anyone who thinks that 'trance logic' is a characteristic of 'hypnosis' has not recently had an argument with an 8-12 year old. I swear that my child at play once looked straight through me. Does this not qualify as 'negative hallucination'? I put it to the reader that the hypnotist and his subject are at play, and that the therapeutic efficacy of the hypnotic experience fulfills the same function in the adult, as play does in the child. All that is necessary is to postulate that adults (some virtuosi more than others), retain the ability to behave like children. Just as a child becomes a cowboy or an Indian ("you be the Lone Ranger, I'll be Tonto"), so the patient becomes hypnotised, a native becomes possessed, and the Mass celebrant becomes a participant at a meal. Tell me what 'becoming' is and I'll tell you what hypnosis is.

Acting is closely related but it differs in that the actor is aware of his audience and is in effect "showing off". It is in fact the audience which goes into trance. As any systems analysis would show the essence of hypnosis is that it is conducted between two (or more) participants without reference to any audience, and that it is completely self-contained. The same is true of child's play.

I first became aware of the difference between acting and hypnosis at the 4th European Congress of Hypnosis held in Oxford in 1987. A workshop entitled "Systems Analysis Hypnosis" was conducted by two South African psychologists, David Fourie and Stanley Lifschitz. They stood at the back of the room, observing the scene. In the middle, was a hypnotist facing his subject, both seated on chairs. In front of them, was an audience of some 15 people. The hypnotist was asked to hypnotise his subject, which he did over a period of 10 minutes. There was then a short debriefing as to what had occurred, using a systems approach. The hypnotist and his subject were then asked to turn through 90 degrees to face the audience, and the hypnotist was asked to re-hypnotise his subject. This was accomplished with some difficulty, (or was it?), much to the discomfiture of hypnotist, subject and audience. At the subsequent debriefing, the hypnotist complained that by the act of facing the audience his "power had been taken away" from him. His subject complained that she thought she had been "called upon to give a performance". The audience had been quite amused, as it found itself complying with some of the hypnotists suggestions. What was an hypnotic session, had been converted into theatre.

There would thus appear to be a connection between play in children, hypnosis in adults and also religious experience, particularly mystical religious experience, the common link being, becoming.

MacDonald et al. (1975) describe Play and it's functions. Among these are that:

• Play is intrinsic with no awareness of an audience.

• It may be unstructured or highly structured and governed by rules.

• It is a means of acquiring the skills, attitudes, and modes of behaviour required in adult life.

• It takes the stress out of failure.

When a task is related to Play it makes success more likely because the child is less tense and anxious, gives up less easily and is eventually able to solve the problem.

The development of a child through play is greatly assisted by understanding adults.

Morris (1977) describes also how children

• Investigate the unfamilar until it has become familiar

• Impose rhythmic repetition on the familiar

• Vary the repetitive pattern

• Select the most satisfying of these variations and develop these at the expense of others

•Combine and re-combine these variations with one another

It is not hard to see the similarity and indeed the identity between the above and hypnotic and religious practice. The process is the same, only the cognitive content may be different. When one looks at the therapeutic uses to which hypnosis is put, they are precisely the problems one would have expected the patient to have solved, in play, when a child. It has been said that we are young in order that we may play. We do not play because we are young.

So there you have it. My conclusion is that the Trinity is hypnosis, religion and play and the unifying principle is the present tense of the verb 'to be'.


"Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: For of such is the kingdom of God." Mark 10:14. Luke 18:16.(K.J.V.)

"Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." Mat.18:3. (K.J.V.)


Cruden's Complete Concordance (1984) Preface pages (unnumbered) MacDonald Publ.

Crystal D.(1988) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Guild Publ. p9.

Encyclopaedia Britannica (1980) Vol 9 p949

Field P.B.(1973). Humanistic Aspects of Hypnotic Communication in "Hypnosis: Research Developments and Perspectives". Ed. Fromm and Shor. London. Paul Elek. pp481-493

MacDonald I. (1975). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Human Development. London. Marshall Cavendish. pp48-52

Morris D. (1978). Manwatching. London. Triad/Panther. pp267-270