Meditation and hypnosis seem pretty similar, on the outside, for those who have heard as well as those who know little about them.
And if you have used both guided meditation and self hypnosis, you would see a striking similarity in the way these two strategies work. But does this mean that the two brain improvement techniques are the same thing?
We are going to look into each technique at length and see the similarities as well as the differences between them for proper comprehension.
What is Hypnosis
Hypnosis, to many people who have not fully understood it, is said to be that technique hypnotists use to take charge of someone’s mind and make them do all the weirdest things they want them to, as shown in many movies and entertainment centers.
However, this is a technique that goes far beyond that and is said to have medical benefits, other than just mere entertainment.
While there are many definitions out there, the main definition, according to NCBI, a branch of the US National Library of Medicine, is that hypnosis is a waking state of consciousness or awareness (a trance like state) where someone’s attention is directed inwards to experience feelings, mental images and perception, with the attention to the outer experiences of the environment being temporary detached from them (1).
A hypnotist offers a number of suggestions to the person being hypnotized and the person receives them and feels them as real.
By cooperating in this interaction of suggestions from the hypnotist and the response from the participant, a hypnotic reality is created.
Hypnosis is now being used in health centers, as hypnotherapy, for helping patients drop certain negative behaviors and habits such as smoking and drinking as well as overcoming stress and anxiety. Studies show that it also has the potential to bring down symptoms of dementia (2)(3).
How Hypnosis Works
In the grand scheme of things, hypnosis works on the subconscious mind, where we hold our beliefs, habits and concepts of different aspects of life.
Hypnosis is used in therapies to help access this part of the mind and change the negative habits, behaviors and beliefs that weigh down a patient’s mental, emotional and physical health.
As the hypnotherapist gives the suggestions, they create a state of relaxation in the patient’s mind and sort of opens up their inner world, increasing their imagination abilities, perceptions and sensations.
This way, the patient is guide through all the areas of their life that they are having troubles with and are carefully walked through on how to get rid of the unhealthy habits and thought patterns.
While it has not been fully established what exactly happens from the beginning to the end when someone is hypnotized, an increasing number of studies through brain imaging is revealing how the brain works when hypnotized.
Stanford School of Medicine researchers did a study on this and worked with 57 participants, some of whom were highly hypnotizable while others weren’t (4).
They studied the participants under the brain imaging machine as they put some of them on prerecorded hypnosis sessions. This study showed that there were 3 main areas of the brain that were affected.
First, is the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which is responsible for assessing state of affairs. It helps with judging the things that one should worry about and those that aren’t worth it.
There was reduced activity in this area of the brain which means when someone is hypnotized, they have a low tendency to judge what they should immerse themselves into and what they shouldn’t, and readily get into what is available.
Second, there are significant changes in the areas of the brain that are involved in identifying and separating feelings from thoughts.
And the hypnotized people showed better abilities to distinguish their thoughts from their feelings. This means, you could picture stressful and depressing thoughts while you imagine having a good balance of your feelings and sensations.
Third, there was activity in the region of the brain that is linked to self consciousness. The study showed that the hypnotized participants were less self-conscious and they would easily do the things they felt they’d never do when they are not hypnotized.
This shows that, through hypnosis, it is possible for people to have different reactions and approach to various challenging situations.
Features of The Hypnotic State
The hypnotic state can be characterized by:
1. Deep relaxation and focus
2. Openness to suggestions
3. Strong abilities of perception and imagination
4. High sensitivity to sensations
5. Shame, embarrassment and self consciousness disappear
What is Meditation
Meditation, on the other hand, is the continuous training of the mind through quieting the thought process in focus and relaxation as a way to get it to become calmer and more aware.
A good definition by Deepak Chopra, an experienced meditation expert and author of the book, “Timeless body, ageless mind” says meditation is the progressive silencing of the thought process until you reach the ground of being, which is the source of thought, the self of the individual as well as the source of the universe.
There are many types of meditation that come with varying styles.
Some of the most popular forms include mindfulness meditation, vipassana meditation, loving kindness meditation, Biblical meditation, chakra meditation, transcendental meditation and guided meditation.
Each form has its own way of training the mind and they have different purposes, but in essence, they help exercise the mind.
For the most part, meditation involves getting into a meditative state where you are relaxed yet highly alert and trying to observe your thoughts, feelings and sensations.
Meditation was initially practiced by religious and spiritual people, but nowadays, it has been taken up by many people who are neither spiritual nor religious as a self-improvement technique.
How Meditation Works
For many forms of meditation, focus on breathing is crucial as it helps to gather focus and increase the level of awareness, although other objects of focus are still used by other forms.
The importance of this is that it improves the ability of the meditator to get into a meditative state and gives them the opportunity to have a successful and deeply interactive meditation session.
During meditation, there is a tendency to lose focus and the mind to divert into other things outside of what the meditator is focusing on.
It is most prevalent in beginners and it is considered very okay as it is a natural occurrence. However, the meditator is encouraged to redirect the focus gently to the breath or object of focus.
By reducing those instances of lost focus and having lengthy moments of complete focus on the session and what you are supposed to do throughout the session, it shows you are growing in focus and awareness.
Essentially, meditation is a way to train the mind on certain aspects of the mind that help us slide and permanently add them into our lives.
In the case of mindfulness meditation, the idea is to grow in mindfulness that we can then spill over to our daily lives with the aim of remaining mindful throughout. The same with loving kindness. We learn to be loving, kind and generous and aim to be that way every time.
There are also changes that occur to the brain during meditation, both temporary during the meditation session and permanent for those who meditation frequently on the long term.
Features of The Meditative State
The meditative state is characterized by:
1. Deep relaxation and focus
2. Being alert and focused
3. A quiet mind with few to no thoughts (focused thoughts for those forms that involve thoughts)
4. Awareness of thoughts, feelings and sensations without judgments or actions
5. Low breathing rate and deep calmness
The similarities that both meditation and hypnosis have are:
* They both involve relaxation and focus – When one gets into a deep meditative state, they feel relaxed and focused which is the same case with hypnosis.
* There are lots of myths and misconceptions around both – When it comes to hypnosis, the stories and movies that are based on it are normally false. Most people think that hypnosis is only about hijacking your mind and making you do what the hypnotist desires. This is quite the contrary.
On the side of meditation, martial arts movies, ninja movies and false shows have made many people believe that meditation will make you fly, float in the air or heighten your senses in a supernatural way.
* Guided meditation and self hypnosis follow a fairly similar path – Guided meditation is now becoming a popular way to meditate as it helps the meditator have a productive meditation session without having to know how to meditate. All they have to do is listen to an instructor, either physically present or through prerecorded meditation session from meditation experts, and listen to them as they follow through in their minds.
The same thing happens with self hypnosis. People only have to listen to hypnosis recordings from expert hypnotherapists and do what they are told as they are taken through a mental journey.
* They both involve a certain level of consciousness – While this aspect is limited, both the meditative and hypnotic state do involve a certain level of wakefulness. When you are meditating, you are normally aware of your inner and outer world (if you keep your eyes open). You can hear sounds and smell different things in the background during your session, if they are available.
Also, when you are in a hypnotic state, you are aware of your surroundings even though you are focused on the suggestions and relaxed. Your senses are still awake in both scenarios.
* They both have medical benefits – Hypnosis is used for medical purposes to help people overcome bad habits, anxiety, pain and other areas of their lives. Studies on meditation have also shown that the practice helps people with various needing areas of their lives such as stress, anxiety, depression, improving concentration and overall well-being, among others.
The main differences between meditation and hypnosis are:
* They all have different goals – With hypnosis, the main aim is to change certain behaviors, habits, thought patterns and beliefs and overcome negative aspects of our lives. That is the end goal. We don’t wish to remain in the hypnotic state after we have achieved that.
However, with meditation, there is no end.
The main reason we meditate is to get into the meditative state and remain there so as to find peace, harmony, wisdom and happiness. The reason we get into a meditative state is to maintain a permanent meditative state in our lives. As Jiddu Krishnamurti, the great Indian philosopher and spiritual leader said, “Meditation is not a means to an end. It is both the means and the end”.
* They approach the mind differently – As obvious as this sounds, these two techniques stimulate different states of the mind. Hypnosis brings about the hypnotic state and meditation, the meditative state. The states as seen above, may look alike but they have fundamental differences.
* The focus is directed on different things – With hypnosis, your focus is on the suggestions and the effects they cause in your mind and body.
With meditation, the focus is on either the breath or the chosen object, based on the type of meditation you are doing.
In the end, both meditation and hypnosis are really great tools for self-improvement. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, have hugely benefited from the practices in terms of mental development, reduction of stress and anxiety, among other areas.
And while there are a few differences here and there between them, they all help people who use them in their own different ways.
It all boils down to what you feel is more effective for you as a person. There are people who find self hypnosis to be more fulfilling for them than meditation and vice versa.
And the only way to know what works best for you is to follow your gut instincts when making the choice.
It is also good to have given both techniques a try before choosing, the experience of each will help you see what goes well with you and what doesn’t. You might even come to love both, who knows.