Hypnosis is a spooky phenomenon. Through mechanisms that are not fully understood, this technique allows seemingly impenetrable barriers to be bypassed: repressed material can be recovered or manufactured; moments of imprint vulnerability can be relived and rewritten; psychological and physical symptoms can be alleviated or created; even involuntary physiological processes can be dramatically modified. In this article, we will explore hypnosis from a psychodynamic perspective in order to gain insight into the phenomenon’s effects on defensive functioning, and vice-versa.
There are as many explanations of the nature of hypnotic phenomena as there are schools of thought regarding the nature of the human psyche. The most popular model of hypnosis is the ‘altered state’ theory, which holds that hypnosis is a unique state of consciousness. This state tends to be viewed as one characterized by a relaxation of inhibition coupled with a type of intense focus that facilitates powerful associative and dissociative activity. This model has been generally accepted by psychodynamic practitioners going back to Sigmund Freud, who believed hypnosis to be a method of inducing a profound transference reaction, such that the patient could regress to a level of psychic process outside the range of experiences that are accessible to the ego.
Since the 1960s, it has been empirically demonstrated that hypnosis is not any single state, but rather a range of neurological and phenomenological states that are highly dependent upon the relationship between practitioner and subject, the motivations of both participants, and the general hypnotic susceptibility of the subject. More recent psychoanalytic theorists have often conceived of hypnosis as a nonmalignant ‘regression in the service of the ego,’ in which the ego gains access to primary processes in order to reorganize and reorient its defensive position. In contrast, other psychoanalytic theorists have more closely followed Freud in emphasizing the mechanism of transference through hypnosis, arguing that hypnotic induction allows for reparenting of the superego through identification with the hypnotist. It is interesting to note that these conceptions focus primarily on the psychologies of the id and superego, leaving the role of the ego secondary in each of the major psychoanalytic conceptions of hypnotic phenomena. These models each fall short to some degree: the regression model fails to explain the hypnotic subject’s advanced ability to defend against negative emotions, while the transference model fails to account for the success of self-hypnosis. There may be something to be gained by examining the role of ego functioning more closely.
One of the key features of the hypnotic experience is the feeling of involuntariness. In fact, recent hypnotic theorists tend to regard this as a measure of the depth of a hypnotic trance—the subject’s ability to willfully engage in involuntary actions. There is another type of psychic process which operates in this fashion: the defense mechanism. Defense mechanisms operate unconsciously by definition, and can only be observed by the individual after the defensive behavior has already been engaged. Also like hypnotic phenomena, defense mechanisms have a volitional quality; they occur in order to achieve some purpose of the individual as a whole.
Modern ego psychology generally positions the ego as a spectrum of processes which work to reconcile internal and external need-states. Some parts of this process are consciously available to the individual, while others occur outside of consciousness. At least some of those unconscious ego processes appear to remain outside of consciousness for specifically protective reasons, and the defense mechanisms can be seen as operations of the ego which serve to keep that which cannot be conscious from becoming so. But why should it be the case that certain intrapsychic occurrences necessitate this type of protection? What is being protected, and what is it being protected against?
It is difficult to attempt answers for these questions without risking reification of the ego. If we accept the ego as a process of reconciling the internal and external—that is, the biological and the sociological—then it is this balance itself which would be defended. The ego is, then, the semi-individual, who must be at once an organ of nature (the self-preserving and directly reproductive process) and an organ of society (the species-preserving and indirectly-reproductive process.) It is the central personage that must balance self-actualization with altruism. Therefore, the ego must be the decider, the part of the individual that is capable of perceiving and assessing the full range of need-states and their attendant variables, and implementing suitable compromises on an ongoing basis. If some of this central tendency remains outside of consciousness, then, it must be assumed that consciousness itself—and therefore the “person” who is identified with that consciousness—is something other than the ego and furthermore something which is mediated by the ego.
Let us now reconsider hypnosis from this egodynamic perspective. The general tendency of hypnotic phenomenology is toward an involuntariness of action that yet has a volitional quality. There are three primary ways of inducing this quality of experience: through a relaxation of the conscious processes, as in the standard ‘relaxation induction;’ through a disorientation of the conscious processes, as in a skillful ‘confusion induction;’ or through an overwhelming of the conscious processes, as in the highly directive hypnotic induction one might use with a hurt or frightened patient in an emergency situation. It would be easy to assume that hypnosis is the continued operation of the ego in a situation where consciousness has itself been relinquished. However, this is not the case; most hypnotic subjects experience themselves as fully conscious during hypnosis and are afterwards able to accurately remember the events which took place. However, the conscious experience of the hypnotic subject does tend to be significantly different from the normal waking state. Attention—the measure of what will ultimately become a part of conscious experience—tends to become highly focused, so that the subject’s consciousness can be fully absorbed by a relatively small range of real or imagined stimuli. The direction of attention and contents of consciousness become at once extremely flexible, capable of dramatic alteration upon the introduction of a suggestion, and remarkably stable, capable of being sustained far beyond the subject’s attention span in a waking state. So what has happened?
It is certain that the hypnotic induction has modified both the content and process of consciousness. It is also reasonably certain, that the ego—the conciliatory process—remains functional and in fact gains influence through this process. The resultant hypnotic state is remarkably lacking in the anxiety or tension that normal, moment-by-moment negotiation between need-states requires. It is as though the arbitrator of consciousness has come to exist in a vacuum, as though an armistice has been achieved in which the individual is devoid of opposing needs. In fact, it is as though the needs themselves have been withdrawn.
The most simple and tenable conclusion, then, is that the hypnotic state is one in which the ego has successfully wrested control of the entire human machinery from the hands of both nature and society at once. The id and superego are disallowed access to consciousness, and the ego—with its full range of access to both primary and introjected processes—determines autocratically what needs will and will not be expressed. In a sense, the ego becomes the consciousness.
Another way to consider this issue is through the lens of ego state theory, which holds that each “individual” psyche is actually comprised of a number of essentially autonomous personality structures—“ego states”—that are more or less integrated based on the individual’s level of systemic adaptation. Under this theory, even healthy people can have large numbers of highly differentiated ego states which may or may not manifest in consciousness. These ego states are seen as being capable of interacting with one another outside of conscious awareness, even acting out psychodramas between internalized figures. Ego state theory arose from Jack & Helen Watkins’ hypnotherapeutic work and tends to be put into practice in the hypnotic situation, as this situation allows individual ego states to be manifest in consciousness and behavior.
It is well-known in psychodynamic circles that an individual can use very different patterns of defense from one situation to the next, and that these patterns of defense tend to correspond to transferences from previous situations. It is a common experience to feel and act atypically in certain situations or around certain people, even to the point of feeling that one is ‘not oneself.’ Ego state theory would say that these experiences represent instances of emotional stimuli imbuing a previously unconscious ego state with the libidinal energy necessary to gain control of consciousness. In a poorly-integrated individual, the shift from one ego state to the next may be so rigid that we would diagnose a dissociative identity disorder. In the average, fairly well-integrated person, however, the changeover is far less dramatic, and ego states will tend to have access to large portions of one another’s experience.
Where does this leave us in terms of understanding what is taking place during hypnosis, with regard to the ego? If we accept the premise of ego state theory—and there is some good empirical reason to do so—then we might consider ego states to be representative of constellations of internal and external demands which have been balanced in the past. This is, essentially, transference, with the added twist that there is a differentiated personage—with attendant differences in cognitive and personality functioning—inside the “individual.” The transference then becomes not the act of transferring feelings from one situation to another, but of transferring libidinal energy to the actor who has previously played a similar part.
If this is the case, then the ego processes we have previously described gain a unique quality. The ego is still responsible for negotiating between id and superego, and in doing so it would have to create appropriate connections between the cognitive and emotive apparatuses necessary to complete the negotiation and thereby succeed in coping with the situation. If this pattern were to be imprinted in some lasting way, it could be reused, providing a rather economical solution for the ego to manage the infinite complexity of incoming and outgoing need-states. Neurologically, lasting imprints are created in two ways: through long-term potentiation by repeated use; and through short-term potentiation by highly charged, traumatic material. If the solutions reached by the ego are in fact crystalized in this way, it would help to explain the mechanism whereby trauma tends to result in dissociation and, occasionally, in dissociative identity disorder. Long-term potentiation of an adaptive cognitive-emotive pattern would tend to result in an ego state more fully integrated into the overall pattern of functioning, whereas traumatic potentiation would tend to result in a hasty and highly differentiated one. It would contain the memories and feelings of the traumatic event or events, but have little access to other ego states—and vice versa.
So what of the hypnotic situation, in which the ego has presumably become the consciousness, and otherwise inaccessible ego states can be rendered? Our previous hypothesis is actually strengthened: the mediating function appears to be isolated from the influence of the needs which it mediates during hypnosis. It becomes capable of both accessing and influencing the contents of any of its ego states independent of situational data, and therefore has the time and energy to reassess and rearrange any part of its defensive structure.