What is Trance? Is it really possible to hypnotize someone into a very deep trance? Do we even need hypnosis to attain trance in the first place?
Even though the concept of trance has been around since our most primitive hunter gatherer ancestors walked the earth. In the past it was always considered a mystical state, a kind of divine connection to a higher purpose that could invoke the power of Gods and Demons. From magical and compelling internal visions, to experiences of blissful relaxation, accelerated learning and sensations of deeper connectedness, or even just feeling as though you’re totally in the zone, on fire and unstoppable. There are millions upon millions of subjective reports of the various abilities people experience when they’re in a very deep trance state. Yet It’s only in the last 50 years that we’ve developed the technology to explain, in objective terms, just what’s going on as people experience these internal life changing moments of altered consciousness.
With the advent of neurofeedback devices that measure subtle magnetic/electric fluctuations created by the brain and picked up through connecting electrodes to the scalp, we’re now able to detect what happens to our brainwaves as we move in and out of these altered states of consciousness.
Maxwell Cade was one the pioneers in this field, being a Hypnotherapist, having studied Zen meditation since his early twenties and having worked as a government physicist who helped revolutionise radar technology, Maxwell Cade was perfectly positioned to combine his passion for meditation and the mind with his technical skills as a scientist.
In the early 1970s, working closely with one of his students, an electronics engineer by the name of Geoffrey Blundell. Together they designed a multi-channel electroencephalograph (EEG) device that could look at the relationship of the beta, alpha, theta and delta rhythms of each brain hemisphere and display these simultaneously on a graph on an external monitor. Hooked up to this device people could see instantly how their thinking directly affected the quality of their brainwave patterns and the quality of their physiology.
The invention of the Mind Mirror, as they called it, enabled Cade to make startling discoveries about the brain, meditation and consciousness, the subject of his seminal book, The Awakened Mind: Biofeedback and the Development of Higher States of Awareness, published in 1979. In which he discusses his stories, research results and gives many of the most effective meditation techniques recorded by the mind mirror.
One of his main points of interest was studying the brainwave patterns of the most highly accomplished Zen monks, Swamis and Lamas he could make contact with. After studying dozens of such individuals, a highly coherent brainwave pattern began to show a universal state of enlightenment shared by every master.
Where does the saying come from that we only use 10% of our brains?
When normal (non-meditating) individuals were hooked up to the mind mirror, the graph displayed only the beta brainwave patterns contained to a very isolated area in the left frontal hemisphere of the neo-cortex, (top left beta pattern only on the graph above). This being the home of the monkey mind, the part of consciousness we mistake for our complete individual identity. It’s the incessant talking, the logical rationalising, the voice in our heads. Yet while this brainwave pattern was active, all theta, alpha and delta signals fell flat, leaving a very uneven and lopsided looking graph. Only 10% of the brain appears to be active.
Whereas regardless of what denomination or spiritual tradition the enlightened Zen, Swami or Lama master came from, they all shared the same brainwave patterns, the pattern of the awakened mind (full image above). Where left and right hemispheres are completely synced with balanced beta, strong alpha, balanced theta and balanced delta. The full mind is activated to some degree compared to only the 10% of most meditation beginners.
What Cade found remarkable of the awakened mind state, is how the masters managed to maintain this level of coherence even as they were up and walking around, reading a book, teaching a class. It’s as though they had aligned their consciousness to a higher level of coherence than the rest of us, enabling a much more grounded, relaxed, meaningful and joyous approach to life.
After measuring the brainwave patterns of highly successful people, from CEO’s of companies to certain TV show and radio presenters, they discovered that this brainwave pattern didn’t just mark the mind of an enlightened master, it also correlates with people who have mastered their life and used their self-mastery to create massive amounts of success for themselves. And the best part is, he found that this brainwave state could easily be trained into his students in a matter of weeks or months, using special guided imagery exercises and suggestions of deep and blissful relaxation.
So what exactly are these brainwave patterns and what are their correlations to various trance like phenomena?
Beta – these brainwave patterns represent normal conscious thinking, the monkey mind that ruminates, plans, details, analyses and judges. It’s the part that criticises and condemns. It’s active when we’re highly focused on the external world around us, which in itself can be a type of trance state. An example would be people who cling to ideas and external form, even when real world evidence is glaringly obviously telling them something is wrong, think the image of a near death starving anorexic who clings to the idea of being too fat regardless of how many people plea for them to eat more food. Beta brainwave patterns alone are also associated with high levels of anxiety and stress keeping people emotionally attached to these harmful ways of thinking.
Alpha – if beta brainwaves are when we’re highly focused, alpha brainwaves begin to show up as we relax our attention, when we pay attention to what’s going on in the periphery of our vision while still maintaining an alert gaze. As we enter the periphery of our experience, we begin to turn our attention inward, paying attention to those subtle sensations of the physical body and how we feel in relation to our environment. The stronger the alpha waves the more blissful, relaxed and peaceful we feel internally. Like the Zen monk who clears his mind and sits for hours blissfully observing the subtle sensations of his inner form.
One of the key aspects of this type of trance is that it soothes the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) in a way that deepens relaxation beyond what happens during normal sleep. If people fall asleep still feeling threatened or stressed from their days work, the sympathetic nervous system stays active and alert (paying attention to possible threats in the environment). In the past it kept us from being eaten by predators in our sleep, but in modern times it just prevents people from recharging their batteries and getting a soothing nights sleep. People tend to wake up feeling as stressed and anxious as before they went to bed. Developing alpha brainwaves in meditation is like sending a message to the sympathetic nervous system, telling it all is well, and allowing it feel free, unwind and relax. Martial artists who remain calm in even the most stressful situations produce lots of alpha waves, the ability to maintain conscious contact with the sensations and intelligence of the physical body.
Theta – theta brainwaves are the inner movie maker, when people report intense visions and flashes of light they’re accompanied with spikes in theta brainwave activity, they’re the visual dreams as we arouse ourselves out of R.E.M sleep. People often become entranced in their own fantasies, they’ll daydream about future plans or review past experiences, they get so wrapped up in their own ideal lifestyles or past hurts that they neglect what’s happening in the present moment, often ignoring the day to day habits and actions that would lead them to a healthier way of living. Trance at this level can be highly magical going on vivid adventures with spirit guides while having your bum planted firmly on the chair, in practical terms it’s the ability to plan visually different strategies and possible outcomes.
Delta – Characterised by the absence of consciousness, a highly relaxed trance state that signals for the body to begin repairing and rejuvenating as our mind enjoys sleep. Advanced meditators who gain access to this brainwave state while conscious are able to have a very direct influence over their physiology, including the control of heart rate or even controlling blood flow, some people can consciously choose how many drops of blood they allow from their finger if pricked by a needle.
The more recently found Gamma Brainwave is different to the other brainwaves in that it exists in a very low amplitude and is always present, it acts as a carrier wave enabling the other brainwaves to flow from one part of the brain to another. If gamma waves are shut off it can produce schizophrenia type trance states where the brain is unable to connect relevant information from one part of the brain to the next. Schizophrenics are unable to connect dots appropriately enough to develop a coherent meaning of their environment, to distinguish the internal senses to the external stimuli.
Answering the initial questions regarding trance: What is Trance? Is it really possible to hypnotize someone into a very deep trance? Do we even need hypnosis to attain trance in the first place?
Truth is, very few people walk around in an awakened mind state of consciousness, the majority of people walk about already subject to very deep trances of their own creation, the trance of their own thoughts, feelings, fears and frustrations, generated by their subjective approach to making meaning from their reality.
In hypnosis we’re not actually putting people into a super deep trance where they become zombiefied and lose control of their bodies, it’s more like training them to be more awake (on a holistic level), we train them in utilising each of the brainwave states in a more productive and effective way. If they need more alpha patterns to overcome fear, we can lead them into deep relaxation and then train them how to get their by themselves when needed. If they lack vision and inspiration, we implement more guided imagery techniques to get their theta waves activated and train them how to manage their imagination for fun rather than worry.
Hypnosis is ultimately about waking people out of trance and into more efficient living. And in that regard it’s really no different to the various spiritual paths and traditions that have been around for millenia.
For more information about brainwave states and how they relate to health, I’d recommend the following interview with Dr Jeffrey Thompson who is one of the modern pioneers in this type of scientific research: