Trust versus Status: Hypnotising the Mammalian Brain

Trust versus Status: Hypnotising the Mammalian Brain

In the triune model, the reptilian brain (the basal ganglia) makes up the physical core of the human brain. Layered around that is the later-to-evolve mammalian cortices. Since hypnosis influences the subject’s entire mind, it pays to know how the mammalian brain (the limbic system) helps and hinders the trance process.

Like the basal ganglia, this is not one system but a series of related lobes. They enable a huge range of functions, all of which we’d consider as part of what it means to be human.

Firstly, there’s the amygdala. This part of the brain influences your attention, making it of interest to hypnotists. In particular, it controls which stimuli you pay attention to and which ones you don’t. It scans the environment for surprising events, ready to activate emotions like fear.

The amygdala is probably responsible for the extreme suggestibility that follows a shock. This is why police like to order people to get down after kicking down the door. When surprised, your mind goes blank. It defers decision-making to the authoritative commands, so people find themselves dropping before they’re even aware of it. From a hypnotic perspective, many inductions (such as the handshake induction) use surprise to induce this state. From there, the subjects accept a simple command like ‘sleep’.

Not just physical threats and surprises engage the amygdala. It’s closely involved with social processing, meaning that it registers facial expressions, body language and signs of status. Humour – a form of social surprise – relies on the amygdala too. This might be why hypnotists tend to like puns and jokes. When someone laughs, they’re halfway to trance.

The limbic system also includes the hippocampus. Like the amygdala, the hippocampus controls a range of interesting functions. It’s mainly used in spatial processing, something hypnotists exploit with techniques like guided visualisations. It also plays a key role in learning.

There are other features of the mammalian brain. Even so, these two components tell us a lot about hypnosis. Unconsciously, subjects constantly assess you. If you are physically or socially threatening, they’ll shut down. On the other hand, they’ll respond to warmth and authority. Surprise them and make them laugh. If you want them to learn, ask them to imagine pleasant scenes.

Compared to solitary lizards, mammals tend to be social creatures. It’s no surprise that the mammalian brain focuses so much on the social reality. Embrace this reality and you’ll reach them in entirely new ways.

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