Intentional Trance Formation

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William Dubin, Ph. D. is licensed by the state of Texas as a Psychologist, and is specialized in the treatment of addictions, having received the ...Read More

It is often possible to discern a structure to people’s difficulties, in which internal states and external events continually recreate the conditions for the recurrence of each other.
– Paul Wachtel

The hypnotic state clients experience in my office as a result of a formal trance induction is just one of the many different trances they experience throughout their day. Anxiety, confidence, anger, and desperation are each trances, or psychological states, and each determines the value of state-dependent phenomena such as perception, motivation, and behavior in a different way. You are a different person when you are anxious than when you are confident; when you are cool than when you are desperate. How you see things and how you are likely to act is often dependent on the psychological state you are in at the moment.


Self-Fulfilling Prophesy is commonplace because one’s psychological state influences state-dependent phenomena in predictable ways. People who do not believe in themselves tend to perform in ways that confirm their original bias; the same is true for people who do believe in themselves. People with social anxiety tend to perform poorly in social settings, and Bernie, who believes everyone is trying to screw him so he better screw them first, is surrounded by people who are continually trying to screw him.

In each of these examples, an individual’s subjective reality influences how things play out in the objective world. And, in each case, real-world performance was influenced by unintentional trance formation. Intentional Trance Formation [also known as Hypnosis] refers to purposely changing your psychological state in order to influence state-dependent phenomena including perception, motivation, and behavior.

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Hypnosis is not fundamentally different from ordinary experience; all experience is trance phenomena. We are always in one psychological state or another [hungry, angry, lonely, bored, sexually aroused]. The only thing unusual about a formal hypnotic induction is that the state change is elicited intentionally rather than by events that happen.

To sample a formal trance induction now, please click here. By paying close attention to the script and focusing on the visual stimulus [feel free to let your eyes close at any time], you will evoke an altered psychological state.

But you do not need a formal induction to evoke a trance formation. Consider the following thought experiment:

Thought Experiment: The Emergency

Imagine that you just got a message that someone in your family had been seriously hurt in an automobile accident and you must get to the emergency room right away. Your biological state would change immediately and you would run or drive there as fast as you could, heart pounding, thoughts racing, and experiencing great distress. When you got there and discovered the report was untrue, you would experience relief, a very different trance. Objectively, the report was never true, yet it had a great impact on your physical and emotional state.

In this example the State-Dependent Phenomena-including motivation, perceptual bias and response tendencies -were determined by the subjective reality that existed in your mind, not by what was objectively true.

Your subjective reality is a creative fiction that you are continually inventing. To be sure, your overt behavior becomes part of world history (and so can never be undone), but the trance that gives birth to it is purely subjective and does not exist outside your consciousness.


When you tell yourself to raise your hand it goes up, but when you tell yourself to calm down, become sexually aroused, or salivate, you may not get the desired response. This is because consciousness is a property of the rational processing system, which can operate your skeletal muscles, but cannot directly control your passions.

There is, however, an indirect method by which you can exert a conscious influence over your biological responses: Instead of willing the response, aim your attention to the stimulus that elicits the intended response. For example if you want to salivate, instead of telling yourself to salivate, imagine licking a juicy but sour lemon-the same approach works with sexual arousal, anger, and other emotional reactions.

Thought Experiment: Evoking a Cringe

Take a few moments to relive a time when you embarrassed yourself. You will find that the more vivid the image and the more you can get into it, the greater the cringe effect.

If you were able to evoke the cringe, then you successfully initiated trance formation-that is, you willfully aimed your attention to a particular stimulus-in this case, an embarrassing moment-in order to produce the intended state change.

Because this is an early exercise and I wanted to make it easy, I used cringe imagery rather than efficacy-enhancing imagery, which would have been more useful for our goal of encouraging virtuous self-fulfilling prophecies. Indeed, it requires effort to use self-suggestion in a positive way because most people are biased against efficacy enhancing suggestion. Some people actively work to suppress suggestions such as I am competent, successful, loveable, etc., because they were specifically trained to be modest or self-deprecating. For many individuals, the shaming suggestion [I am not good enough, I am defective, etc.] is the key to their addictive trap.

Using Suggestion

Suggestions are invitations to a try on a particular trance. Whether the entity that creates the suggestion is a hypnotist, salesman, or you, the suggestion is always a creative fiction rather than assumed to be objective reality. Typically, the suggestion is designed to promote the interests of its designer-unless that entity is neurotic.

The interests of the stage hypnotist are served when the subject performs in a way that makes the audience laugh; the interests of the salesman are served when the customer buys. Your interests are served when you act in accord with your interests and principles.

The method of hypnotic suggestion, demonstrated by stage hypnotists, can be a powerful tool in the service of behavior change. But because the procedure is portrayed as comedy, the public has developed the wrong idea of how it works. The popular misconception that hypnosis compels the mindless subject to obey externally generated commands results from a technique called, the challenge-for example: “Your leg is getting heavier and heavier/you can try to lift your leg/but it will be so heavy/that you won’t be able to do it.”

This sounds like a battle of wills between the hypnotist and the subject, but it is not. In fact the effect is an intra-personal rather than an inter-personal phenomenon. Scripts such as this are used to demonstrate that simple verbal suggestions can influence the experience and behavior of a cooperative subject. The demonstration can produce humorous or shocking consequences when the subject acts as if the reality suggested by the hypnotist were actually true. Acting as though an objectively false suggestion were true-e.g., your shoe is made of lead-produces behavior that would appear absurd to an observer, and so the audience, who are not asked to buy into the false suggestion, finds it humorous.

Barry’s Neurotic Trance

But some things are neither true nor false. Are you a hero or a loser? There is no objective answer to that question. Concepts like that exist only within your mind. But how you perform in the real world depends, to a large extent, upon your subjective reality at that moment. The heroic version of you would react differently than your loser persona. Consider Barry’s predicament: He wants, very badly, to perform well, but his self-evaluative perspective produces the wrong trance:

Barry, a clever but socially anxious engineer, can be very funny but is inarticulate in social settings in which he feels like a loser. The appraisals: “I’m a loser,” or “I am a witty guy” exist only in Barry’s mind and not in the objective world. Nevertheless, his subjective reality influences how he behaves in the objective world. Whether he reacts to the snide insult at the office party with a witty come back or with a humiliating silence depends to a large extent on his subjective reality at the time. His retort is more likely to be clever if he is in a confident trance than if he is in his “loser” trance. He wants to bring on the clever version of himself and enjoy a social victory for a change, but he expects to be intimidated as usual. Observers who know Barry have their predictions. But these expectations exist only in their minds. Only the actions Barry performs become part of objective reality; the other expectations and possibilities will fade into oblivion.

It would be good for Barry if he performs well during his crisis. But there is a battle between his intentions-to be the cool and clever Barry-and his expectation that he will be tongue tied. The winner of the battle determines which Barry shows up at the critical moment? The expectations have the advantage-both Barry and his audience believe them to be true. From our dispassionate perspective we can see they are both creative fictions, which are neither true nor false until Barry performs and actualizes one of them.

Barry’s limitation does not come from outside of him, nor is it due to a slow wit. He is handicapped by his own self-limiting suggestion. In contrast to injuries that tend to heal with time, the source of Barry’s misery is Barry and so the passage of time offers no respite. Barry’s creative fiction continually recreates the conditions for the nervousness and social incompetence that confirm his worst fears. Like Barry’s social anxiety trance, Bernie’s anger is the creation of his psyche. But the anger, once evoked, distorts state-dependent phenomena. The truth when you are angry is different than the truth when you are contrite.

Bernie reported that “during a chaotic situation at an airport ticket counter someone kicked me in the back of the leg. When I turned around to confront the asshole I saw a handicapped girl in a wheelchair, which had evidently rolled, out of control, down a ramp and into me. She was terrified by the rage on my face.” He contritely described how his subjective reality changed instantaneously as a result of the new information, although objective reality now included a terrified little girl, a fact he still cringes over.

You get to determine what is meaningful, nature determines what is salient. As the stories of Barry and Bernie illustrate, anxiety and anger provoking stimuli are highly salient and often elicit self-defeating trances. We want your core motivation-rather than the most salient stimulus of the local environment-to influence your motivation, appraisals, and behaviors during high-risk situations. For more on the use of your imagination to promote adaptive rather than maladaptive trances, please click here.

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