Both hypnosis and meditation involve changing of the mindset from usual conscious awareness. When we are in our usual state of awareness our conscious mind can be highly active, occupied fully with our tasks at hand, and is unaware of input from the subconscious.
How Meditation and Hypnosis are Achieved
Meditation involves a singular focus such as the breath (mindfulness breathing meditation) or a mantra (transcendental meditation). Such a mental activity allows part of our conscious mind to rest while we are awake. As we rest, we can become more aware of the moment, including thoughts and feelings from our subconscious.
In contrast, hypnosis usually involves imagery and suggestions made by a clinician or even self-suggestions. When the mind is engaged in imagery, which sometimes is complex and employs all the senses, it is more receptive to suggestions. This increased receptivity occurs because the mind in hypnosis does not critically evaluate an incoming suggestion, which allows it to better take effect. For example, take the suggestion, “Allow your hand to become numb.” A mind in its usual state of awareness would reject that suggestion because it would seem impossible to follow. A mind occupied with imagery in hypnosis, would internalize the suggestion without evaluating its plausibility. In that circumstance, numbness likely would develop, as many individuals are capable of such a phenomenon.
Purpose of Meditation and Hypnosis
The purpose of meditation is to allow the mind to clear, to stay in the present moment, and to remain non-judgmental about what is perceived with the five senses or thoughts that may come to mind. Another common mindfulness meditation involves loving kindness in which the focus is on directing loving thoughts towards a specific target (e.g., individuals, groups of people, or the world). Through practice of meditation for 30-40 minutes daily for several weeks, individuals can become calmer and happier, feel more self-aware, have an increased attention span, have improved memory, and express more kindness. Research has shown that use of meditation for eight weeks can change the physical structure of the brain: The part of the brain responsible for learning (hippocampus) enlarges, while the part of the brain that is reactive to stressful situations (amygdala) shrinks!
In contrast, the purpose of hypnosis is to prompt change involving specific goals: Use of hypnosis can achieve most of the benefits reported with meditation and can be applied to improvement in physical or psychological symptoms, athletic performance, insight, or resolution of habits. Effective hypnosis can require only 3-15 minutes of application daily. Research has shown that hypnosis can change our thought pattern on a subconscious level. However, changes in brain structure as has been seen with meditation have not been demonstrated with hypnosis.
Combining Hypnosis and Meditation
A recent study described combining hypnosis and meditation through introduction of suggestions to engage in mindfulness (e.g., focusing on the breath) while patients were doing hypnosis. It remains to be seen whether such an approach can accelerate the achievement of the physiological benefits that occur with meditation alone. A study that has not been done, to my knowledge, is to examine the effectiveness of providing suggestions to an individual in a meditative state. I suspect that enhanced receptivity to suggestions would occur in such a situation. We would need to evaluate whether such an approach would lead to different outcomes than use of hypnosis alone.
Children tend to have shorter attention span than adults, and therefore tend to be much more willing to use brief hypnosis interventions than to meditate for much longer periods of time.
Take Home Message
Hypnosis and meditation both have significant beneficial effects. If you are seeking to achieve a specific goal, use of hypnosis likely will require less of a time commitment and may be more effective than meditation. On the other hand, meditation has been shown to have physiological benefits that have not been demonstrated with hypnosis. Thus, meditation may be better for general well-being.
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