What is the trance state? It’s not easy to define. The researcher Charles T Tart, in his book Altered States of Consciousness, actually says:
“To my surprise, for every defining characteristic of a trance mentioned by one authority, another authority would use the opposite characteristic”
My understanding of the Ericksonian view of trance (I should probably say ‘an Ericksonian view’ since Erickson’s legacy has gone in many directions, and his own view of trance as far as we can tell from his writings, videos, and interviews, is so vast, complex and multifaceted that it resists being solidified into a simple definition) is that trance is a narrowing and focusing of the person’s attention so that they are more aware of some things and less aware of others.
Using this definition, where trance is a state where you’re paying more attention to some things, and less to others, then rather than thinking of trance as an exotic and rarely occurring state that has to be induced by someone else (think of the traditional image of the ‘hypnotist with his swinging watch’), we might wonder “When are we not in a trance state?”
This is the idea of the ‘everyday trance’, trances that happen without formal ‘trance inductions’.
We can think of examples from our own day-to-day experience without too much effort – for example:
- you’re scrolling through Facebook late at night; part of your mind is thinking that you really should put the phone down and go to bed, but twenty minutes later, you find you’re still scrolling through it
- when driving – if you’ve ever had a day off work, got in the car to go somewhere, and found yourself taking your normal route to work, even though you wanted to go some other place altogether;
- or (second driving example) if you’ve been on the motorway (freeway/autobahn/autoroute) for some time, you realise you’ve missed your exit, and also that you have no memory of the past twenty minutes;
- or you’re watching TV, completely engrossed in a really gripping series or your team going to penalties in the final, and your partner has to ask you three times if you want a drink before they get your attention;
- or just losing yourself in a daydream, or concentrating intently on something to the point where we lose track of what is happening in our external environment. What we concentrate on can be external (a candle flame, music) or internal (breathing, a mantra, an image or idea).
Another characteristic of trance is that it is experienced as happening to us, without any regulation, control, or effort by the conscious mind.
Finally, trance is characterised by the spontaneous emergence of hypnotic phenomena such as amnesia, perceptual distortions, and dissociation.
Ericksonian hypnotherapists use trance as a way of loosening the grip of the normal conscious mindset, which may be contributing to problems by trying to maintain control of the client’s environment.
Utilising naturally occurring, ‘everyday’ trance can be a useful way to do this.
So trance has three characteristics:
- Narrowing or fixating of attention, either externally or internally.
- It is experienced as something that happens to us.
- Various hypnotic phenomena spontaneously emerge.
Plus, it can and does happen naturally. So far from being an unusual ‘altered state’, it could be argued that we are in a trance state of one kind for another most if not all of the time.
When are we ever fully aware of everything around us?
Next: what if psychological problems are actually trances?