Fear Versus Safety: Hypnotising The Reptilian Brain

The triune model divides the human brain into reptilian, mammalian and human components. The theory is that as we grew smarter over our evolutionary history, we bolted on new structures to the brain. As such, all mammals have a simpler, more reptilian brain at the centre. Humans have extra features on top of that, creating three separate layers.

As with all of neuroscience, the truth is much more complicated than this. Even so, this simple model helps you be a better hypnotist.

The reptilian brain consists of the basal ganglia, the structures that sit on top of the spinal column. It controls involuntary actions, whether they are ingrained (such as regulating temperature and heart-rate) or learned (such as habits). It also has a role in motivation, decision-making and memory.

Any hypnotist will find this intriguing. Stage hypnotists know all about temperature – a popular opening for a routine involves hypnotising subjects to feel hot, then cold, then hot again. Then there are classic trance phenomena like arm levitations and eye locks. In other words, involuntary actions. And hypnosis is excellent for treating decision-making issues, whether they are bad habits, addictions or even depression.

Whatever hypnosis does, it clearly affects the basal ganglia.

This means that you need to keep the subject’s inner lizard happy. If the basal ganglia block the trance, it doesn’t matter what fancy moves you try. Even if the subject consciously wants to change, it doesn’t matter – the human brain is only part of the picture.

If you want to hypnotise people, you need the basal ganglia on board. One of its (many) tasks is to detect physical threats. When danger strikes – whether it’s a speeding car or angry dog – you respond before you’re consciously aware of it. What do the classic fear reactions – freeze, flight and fight – have in common? They combine automatic decision-making and involuntary actions.

So the basal ganglia will not enter a trance if the subject feels physically threatened.

This is common sense. It also contradicts the Svengali style of hypnosis, where a sinister and creepy dude battles his subjects into submission. I won’t say it’s neurologically impossible to threaten someone into trance, but it’s highly unlikely.

If you want to hypnotise someone, they should feel safe. That means being non-threatening. It also involves controlling the environment. If the subject can’t relax, you’re fighting an uphill battle from the start. This doesn’t mean you can’t hypnotise someone who’s stressed or even in a panic attack. It does mean, though, that the subject has to believe that you are a safe person to be hypnotised by. They have to believe this to their very core.

There’s a lesson here for subjects, too. Do you have bad habits you want to get rid of? Do you make the same wrong decisions over and over? Try sending instructions from your neocortex to override your basal ganglia (aka, rely on willpower). When that doesn’t work, give hypnosis a go. It adjusts your thinking at the source of the problem, not millions of years of evolution away from it.

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