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Milton Erickson was wrong

By on August 9, 2014

At least according to a 2008 article in Scientific American by Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz. Below you will find this nice little article discussing whether or not trance is a separate and distinct state of consciousness.

We like the article because it shows how its writers, wanting to prove a specific viewpoint, cherry-pick the theories of others in this case our hero Milton Erickson. The article quotes several research studies that demonstrate hypnosis has few markers in terms of behaviors that separate it from normal states of waking consciousness (actually the article is a little out of date, being from 2008 – more recent brain scanning studies have found specific trance markers, but that’s a separate issue).

Lilienfeld and Arkowitz take Erickson to task for suggesting that hypnotized subjects experience post hypnotic amnesia (forgetting what happened during a trance), and literalism (responding to questions literally). The interesting thing is that they do not say hypnotized subjects do NOT exhibit these phenomena, but rather that non-hypnotized subjects also exhibit these phenomena.

What Lilienfeld and Arkowitz conveniently overlook is that Milton Erickson didn’t say that trance is some special state of consciousness distinct from everyday experience. On the contrary, Erickson repeatedly says that trance itself is a normal everyday state of consciousness that we all experience repeatedly during the course of any day. So for the writers to suggest that Erickson was wrong in saying these hypnotic phenomena are limited to trance states is rather silly.

Lilienfeld and Arkowitz also make the important point that hypnotic phenomena, such as amnesia, are the result of suggestion (independent of what Lilienfeld and Arkowitz consider to be ‘hypnotic trance’). It seems like they fail to consider the possibility that Erickson was actually making suggestions to his students (and clients) in making these statements, even though it’s difficult to imagine any reason for an amazing teacher like Milton Erickson saying anything in public if it wash’t a suggestion to his audience.

In any case, the article makes some great points:

  • Hypnosis, and in particular obtaining hypnotic phenomena, does not require formal trance. They can easily be obtained in more ‘open-eye’ trance states.
  • Hypnotic phenomena rely on expectation. If both you and your client expect something to happen in, or after, trance then it probably will!

Enjoy the article, other than our criticisms above, it is really rather good!

He is in a deep, sleeplike trance, oblivious to everything but the hypnotists soft voice. Powerless to resist the hypnotists influence, the subject obeys every command, including an instruction to act out an upsetting childhood scene. Few if any modern hypnotists use the celebrated swinging watch introduced by Scottish eye surgeon James Braid in the mid-19th century. Is Hypnosis a Distinct Form of Consciousness?

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