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The hypnotic Oxytocin complex

New pieces for an old puzzle?

Summary: the hypnotic oxytocin complex (hoc) is a theory that departs from the interaction between the hormone oxytocin, mirror neurons and some defined social psychological contexts. Discussed is the question whether the hypnotic oxytocin complex is a state or non-state theory. The similarities and differences between the HOC and the OMNI-theories and practice are discussed. Of course attention is paid to the practical importance of the hoc.


Portret Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin 1706-1790

Anton Mesmer might have thought differently about this, however, it may be possible that without the Franklin Commission (Ellenberger 1970) today there would not have been any hypnosis research. Because Mesmer was convinced that his actions were based on the existence of a fluid. The Franklin commission did not believe that and designed a plan to verify that. With this they realized first scientific hypnosis research. And more than that, Franklin and his colleagues not only rejected the fluid theory, they also searched for an explanation of the phenomena they witnessed. They thought about imagination.

With that two theories came into existence. One was grounded on the science of physics of a subtle physical fluid. Not that that was so new, because Mesmer was inspired by theories about mineral magnetism, the much older sympathy and by the at that moment very modern gravity and electricity. Many people thought that this were very thin materials. Opposites of this was a psychological explanation. The supporters of this were of the opinion that the phenomena came from a congenital human quality, namely fantasy. They did not explain how this fantasy was stimulated. However also the supporters of the fluid theory used (social) psychological elements. Because not everybody was capable of magnetizing everybody. The magnetizer not only needed magnetism but all so a strong will with which he could directs this fluid. The magnetizer, who was mostly male, also needed to possess a healthy body and a healthy mind. Next to that the correct moral and ethical convictions were indispensable. The imagination (suggestion), the social psychological interactions, however all so the physiological features were pieces of puzzle that during the next centuries would be fitted together, sometimes wrought together,  with an endless patience and would lead to endless discussions and for the most of these theories inglorious oblivion.

So no magnetism, however, opposites: From one contrast in the other. If the first impugnment was about the existence or nonexistence of the fluid, next they quarrel happily on about the question if the phenomena originated in the quality of the person itself like sleep and the degree of suggestibility or was it provoked by manipulation of the surrounding through suggestions.

Foto van een volle spreekkamer van dokter Liebeault

This state versus non-state discussion became more complicated because the supporters of the idea that hypnosis is a ‘state’ was divided into two camps. Led by the neurologist J.M. Charcot of Salpétriêre mostly saw as the explanation of the phenomena as coming from within the patient and was of the opinion that hypnosis was a hysterical condition. Hypnosis was supposed to be a neurosis that could be induced artificially by pre-ordained (hysterical) persons. Opposite of this was the school of Nancy. Inspired of the fact that the denial of the existence of the fluid was forcefully contested, they came to the insight that the explanation of imagination was not crazy after all. A suggestion was not just a suggestion. No, a suggestion was a rich source that could be used plentiful. Led by Bernheim en Liébeault this became the trademark of the school of Nancy. Bernheim eventually went so far that he declared that even the (artificial) sleep could be missed, shortly that everything was suggestion. Yet most scientists in general agreed that hypnotism was not an illness but a medicine that could be directed with success. The supporters of Nancy put more weight on the influence of the hypnotists than their opponents from Paris. A powerful will was very handy, however, next to that a good contact, ‘rapport’ was absolutely vital in order to have success with the patient.

The thought that hypnosis belongs to development psychology is underrepresented. Is it necessary for a healthy development that somebody develops his hypnotic talents? Or rather not? And what happens when this natural talent for hypnosis does not develop? What physical components does hypnosis have, like hormonal and neurological and which interaction do they have with the social life in the form of education, friendship and love? And we did not yet discuss the use of the natural capacity in this case suggestibility in the use of eliminate all kinds of development disorders. These are the kind of questions that are raised when one studies hypnosis from a view of development psychological perspective. The Dutch physician and hypnosis researcher Stokvis (1953) pointed out rightly that: “.. The connection between character type and physique, the observation with sufferers from encephalitis, the phenomena of the hypnotic condition, the research of Pavlov, this all pointed in the direction, that psychological processes can also be seen as a biological event.”

Neuropsychology studies the working of the brains in relation to behavior. It is studied how our brains observe, feel and move. This young science did not yet find any indication for a neurological pattern that would be indicative of a hypnotic trance. The changes depend on the type of suggestion. Yet it shows that suggestions cause changes in perception or experience that are not simply the result of imagination. Gruzelier found that high suggestible test persons significant showed more brain activity in the anterior congulate gyrus than low suggestible test persons. They also had more brain activity at the left side of the prefrontal cortex. The anterior conjugulate gyrus is involved in the processing and shaping of the emotional shading, emotional learning and vocalizing. However, also the long term attachment happens here, next to maternal behavior and starts motivating purposeful behavior. This is also the area were endocrine and autonomous are influenced and directed (J. Rhawn 2000).

Hypnotic Oxytocin complex

The functions mentioned above are also part of the hypnotic oxytocin complex (hoc). The neuropsychological explanations carry specifically support for the hoc in terms of the role of the oxytocin: attachment, influences of the voice, facial recognition and situational learning. However no trance. Supported by these findings, some people think that trance does not  exist, because it is not proven.

That by no means says that suggestibility c.q. hypnosis without trance experience is of little less valuable. In practice, a waking suggestion often is equally useful as suggestions in a state with a trance experience

According to Calvin D. Banyan & Gerald F. Klein (2001) a waking suggestion is a kind of hypnosis in which  someone is unaware of the attempts by someone to get some hypnotic influence.

That results according to them in a suggestibility without a formal hypnotic induction: “everyone is receptive to suggestions given by others.” Especially if these suggestions come from someone with greater authority or expertise. For example, children are very suggestible and accept as truth what their parents tell (Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, tooth fairy, and Monsters).

These suggestions can be extremely credible for a child even though they are not at all that for an adult. Another well-known example is the relationship between doctor and patient. If a patient asks the doctor’s opinion, what the doctor says will sound very powerful because of the inequality of the situation and also because the patient lacks medical knowledge. ”

The importance of a trance experience is also located in the belief of the patient that he was in a different, special, therapeutically valuable state.

The other way around a trance-less hypnosis can also be helpful. D. Elman (1964) gives interesting examples of waking hypnosis. Both to reach a waking hypnosis and to be able to give hypnosis suggestions a certain basic suggestibility is necessary.

The waking hypnosis is characterized by a lack of a trance but also by the lack of an induction that increased the suggestibility. Yet there is enough suggestibility to give suggestions. That points to a lifelong continuous hypnotic suggestibility. This suggestibility changes of nature and function according to the developmental stages and life circumstances require.

It is believed that there is  a lifelong hypnotic suggestibility. This changes in character and function according to the demands of the development psychological phases and circumstances of life. Some indications are found that show that oxytocin plays an important role in developing and maintaining hypnosis and vice versa. Bryant et al (2011) found that oxytocin makes hypnosis easier because the hormone promotes people to have more trust in the hypnotist.

The psychiatrist from Vienna Sigmund Freud studied with Charcot, however, his own psychoanalytical theories offered him a different outlook on the phenomenon hypnosis. According to Freud hypnosis is a regression to the infant state that results during the formation of a crowd. During those days there were not so many people, so with two people already, for instance your mother, you had a crowd. Another psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi (1910)  continued with this and thought that the regression went as far as the womb. They searched for the ‘oceanic feeling’. On basis of this children could develop a hypnotic relation with their father and mother.

It is possible that what D. Elman calls the Esdaile state  corresponds to the oceanic feeling of Freud and Ferenczi. This condition, also called the hypnotic coma, is reached after the somnambulism is passed. The techniques to achieve this state consists mainly of deepening suggestions. An important characteristic  is that the patient enjoys this state so much that he sometimes  stubbornly refuses to return to the ordinary waking consciousness. Unlike many predecessors Elman see great advantages in the Esdaile State: the numbness achieved without suggestions is in his opinion useful in operations and childbirth.

Elman patients describe this deep hypnosis, as: ‘ the best state of hypnosis there is. It is wonderful. I can’t remember ever been so relaxed. ” Doctors and patients were without exception enthusiastic about the Esdaile State: this state brought complete euphoria.

‘A doctor who experimented with  the Esdaile State for the first time with Elman stated to have heard everything around him. To the question why he did not respond to that fire the man answered: ‘ Because I knew there was no fire. I heard you whisper that you were to pretend fire. I heard you talk about the tests that you wanted to do with me. If nobody left the room why should I belief there is a fire? ” Also here we see a rich rapport and an unlimited confidence in the surroundings. Both phenomena we know of the oxytocin.

Instead of contrasts like state-non state or dissociation versus cognition, there are all so circular causality versus linear models when speaking about theories on hypnosis, as does H. Stephenson (2011). He compares hypnosis with a dance and concludes “the dance leads the dancers” and means that the therapist as well as the patient play a separate role and both are cause and result in each other’s role in hypnosis. Such a mutual mechanism is also the case within the oxytocin metabolism such as for examples with the mother-child attachment and falling in love.
Stephenson’s idea fitted well with the role-play as an explanation for hypnosis that was worked out by the social psychologists (Sarbin (1950; Sarbin en Coe, 1972). In this vision the hypnotized person acts in the way that he thinks is expected of him. There is no question of replaying a role or imitation, however the actual living of the role: they assume the role of somebody that they expect the hypnotist wants to see. This theory probably points the most to the working of mirror neurons. The hypnotized person creates an image using these suggestions upon which the mirror neurons anticipate and start the accompanying behavior.

In the 70s of last century it seemed that everybody supported the assertion that hypnosis is an “altered state”. In a short period after that this discussion seems to have disappeared in a mysterious way. Irving Krisch (1992) stated: “the best evidence for the existence of a separate state would be the discovery of clear biological markers of this state.” In 1969 Hilgard predicted that it would take another 20 years for that. Kirsch was much more pessimistic and predicted that it would take another 50 to 100 years before there would be biological evidence. On the question he post himself if this really matters, Kirsch (1999) gives the answer that these does matter because: “the public at large has ideas about hypnosis: they see a relation between the state and the behavior of the hypnotized person. Just as with sleep and dreams or waddle and drunkenness. Some, like Hilgard (1969,1973) denied these relations, however Kirsch persist on the opinion that hypnosis needs to be explained. He notes that the discussion about the character of hypnosis never was stopped, however, that it was repacked into all kinds of vague euphemisms such as ‘special process’, ‘social psychological cognitive’ and ‘cognitive behavioral’. According to Kirsch these are terms that never can be used for clear defining.

The hormone oxytocin could be the marker as desired by Hilgard and Kirsch. There are a lot of similarities between the formation and working of oxytocin and the formation and characteristics of hypnosis that point to that.
The most important data is probably the fact that oxytocin and hypnosis can both be influenced by social psychological factors and that they both have a coherent reciprocity.

The Hungarian scientist K. Varga and her colleagues (1993) point to the importance of reciprocity of the hypnosis. They explicitly point out that hypnosis is not one-way traffic. They mention three aspects that influence reciprocity.

  1. The context of hypnosis.
  2. An altered state of consciousness.
  3. Transference and countertransference

One of the most important characteristics of hypnosis is the increase in suggestibility. An important function of oxytocin is the activation of mirror neurons. The oxytocin plays a role in relations in different phases of development such as birth, education, forming of couples and social relations. These are exactly the moments in which we see hypnotic phenomena as suggestibility.
It is important to note that the mechanisms that promote the production of oxytocin have a great similarity with the mechanisms that induce hypnosis. They are both connected to the senses. We can think about rhythm, scents, taste, voice/language and music, touch and eye contact. In the several stadia of life and events these starters are activated separately of in combinations. Important phases are amongst others the perinatal period, attachment, education, amorousness and social rolls.

Perinatal period & attachment                                                                                    

Already before birth mother and child have to do with oxytocin, and directly after birth they can’t without the hormone. In the womb the fetus produces oxytocin by masturbation as a anticipation on the painful and stressful birth, as a starter of the attachment and to make it possible to activate the mirror neurons immediately after birth. The mother need the hormone for the birth process, the activation of the milk production and the bonding process. The sense related mechanisms to activate the production of oxytocin directly after the birth are among others skin-to-skin contact and eye contact. Hypnosis c.q.suggestibility in this phase we note in echoing by the baby of movements, smiling and eye contact by the mother.


The next important phase is the relation with regards to the education between mother and child (parent and child). Here we see the starters of oxytocin production in the form of rhythmic games, singing, speech and skin to skin contact. Hypnotic phenomena are here the wider admissibility for also cognitive suggestions and the increased imagination. This is the phase in life wherein children are bombarded with educational suggestions.

Elman indicates the help of children’s rhymes to hypnotize. This technique is especially suitable for short-term treatments such as injections.

Fairy, Fairy, prove to me

Just how easy this can be.

I’ll close my eyes and see your smile

And watch you dancing all the while.

While you’re dancing in the light

Everything will be all right.

Fairy, fairy, prove to me

Just how easy this can be.

Starting from puberty to adolescence the relation with the parents becomes looser and the child goes more often independently on the path of oxytocin. (Rhythmic) music, dancing, sport, sex, however, also smoking and drugs are starters of the flow of oxytocin. The hypnotic components are than especially geared towards social activity and the forming of relations (rapport) and sex. With regards to the forming of relations this is about forming couples and the formation of social networks.


Falling is love is the third phase in which starters of oxytocin are active: skin to skin contact, sex, voice and speech, eye contact, smiles, dancing etc. The increased suggestibility seems to be geared especially towards the formation of couples (rapport) in which the suggestions to and from seem to determine the success of the relationship. Significant is the use of imaginations geared towards the future and post hypnotic suggestions. Not seldom do we see blind obedience towards each other.

Social attachment

Finally at a later phase family and friendships ties and group feeling come into play. Also here there are starters of the oxytocin speech and voice, groups activities such as making music and sports. Next to that one have marriage and family ties and one is part of the educational relations with their own characteristics as (grant) parent.


In the course of time, dozens if not hundreds of theories are worked out to explain hypnosis and suggestion. For our purpose we keep it simple by stating that hypnosis is the interaction of suggestibility and performing suggestions or in physical terms said the interaction between oxytocin, mirror neurons and social psychological factors. In this regard hypnotizing is the artificial increasing of suggestibility by stimulation of the oxytocin production and the activation of mirror neurons by offering suggestions. The suggestibility is the physical and mental receptiveness for suggestions and the preparation on the execution of suggestions.

The suggestibility is also the ability to actually be able to turn suggestions into action. These suggestions can be physical as well as mental in character. To start these activities the mirror neurons are responsible. Oxytocin therefore is a hormone but also active as neurotransmitter. The mirror neurons start the action after they are stimulated by the oxytocin to fire directly or indirectly. The oxytocin makes the mirror neurons fire as a reaction on social behavior. The subjective experience of trance is in this vision only an epiphenomenon. Together with Bernheim we can claim that the hypnotic sleep is not necessary for suggestibility. That does not alter the fact that a deep hypnosis in the form of a very high level of oxytocin can explain the advantages of the state of somnambulism, such as a high suggestibility.

The connection between the oxytocin and mirror neurons was evident from a research by Richard Ebstein (Perry, Anat et al 2010) and his team. They gave 24 men a little oxytocin and a control group a placebo and after that let them watch a video of walking people and to recordings of a jumping ball. The mirror neurons of the oxytocin group were much active that the mirror neurons of the people who received a placebo. However, that was only the case when people watched the walking people. Watching the jumping ball alone could not activate the mirror neurons towards action. Also the work of Hepker MacKenzie (2013) of the University of Puget Sound (USA). proofed the effect of oxytocin on the mirror neurons. These very important outcomes shows that oxytocin and mirror neurons form a team of which the oxytocin determine if the mirror neurons will come into action. Because the production of oxytocin is started in a social context the mirror neurons do the same and will remain inactive when seeing lifeless objects such as a jumping ball. The relation between mirror neurons and oxytocin is also important with autism that is characterized by a shortage of oxytocin as  well as dysfunctional mirror neurons.

Rossi & Rossi (2006) researched the relation between mirror neurons and hypnosis. They noted; “Neuroscience describes the activities of mirror neurons in the human brains as a mechanism through which we experience empathy and recognize the intentions of others by observing them and as such automatically mirror their brain activity.
This assertion is supported according the Rossi’s by studies of the dysfunctional mirror neurons of for example autistic people. Such research into empathy seems to agree with the historical and literature research of hypnotic induction, rapport and many classic phenomena of suggestion. The Rossi’s see this as the preparatory explanation of the functioning of mirror neurons rapport zone for the transmission of information to the observing consciousness and of the plasticity of the brain.
The relation between hypnosis and the mirror neurons is also the field of work of M. Burgmer et al (2012). They think that the neurological basis of non-organic motion disorders is not clear and because the conversion disorder has a lot in common with the hypnotic state they choose an experiment in which a temporary motion disorder is caused in the form of a hypnotic paralysis.

Conclusions: New pieces for the same puzzle?

The  hypnotic oxytocin complex explains the hypnotic phenomena by pointing to the interaction of the hormone oxytocin and the mirror neurons in a social psychological context. Certain social psychological circumstances, phases of development and relations activate the production of oxytocin that in its turn fires and activates the mirror neurons in order to execute suggestions.
Kirsch states that the best proof for the existence of a separate hypnotic state is the discovery of the physiological markers of such a state.
Oxytocin and mirror neurons are fixed values and conditions for a hypnotic state for as far that it is not meant as the subjective trance experience. For their functioning they are both dependent of the variable social psychological factors. In fact this is a non-state argument. For the hoc the question if the theory belongs to the state or non-state not important. It is both and it is not both. In comparison with other theories we notice that most theories contain parts that fit into the hoc. That is not surprising because most theories do not exclude each other, however, complement each other. There are theories that are directed on the character of hypnosis such as sleep, half sleep and dissociation or describe (a part of) the phenomena: experience of trance, suggestibility. However, there are also theories that have their focus on the procedure through which hypnosis comes about: role play, suggestibility, the one is mostly pointing towards the social psychological factors and the other points to the variables that are brought in by the person to be hypnotized (hyper suggestibility or the presence of a traumatic experience). The most conventional theories can contribute to the hoc. Even the hours of manipulations by the magnetizer can from the point of view of hoc be seen as an oxytocin stimulating massage.

Does it matter if there is a good explanation for hypnosis? Yes, some people think, because the public at large has ideas about hypnosis. They do see a link between ‘the state’ and the behavior of the person to be hypnotized. The constant portraying of hypnosis in cultural expressions such as literature and movie is a factor for the image that they have of hypnosis. This works as the ‘circular causality’ of Stephenson and can be of help to the clinician.


The hoc opens perspectives for a lot of new research, in which the contribution of endocrinologists and neurologists can be important. Especially the interaction between the hormone and the mirror hormones should be the field of research. When does the oxytocin decides to put the mirror neurons to work is such a question. Just as important is the question what forms of suggestions give the best results for the production of oxytocin and how that works. Here come the enthusiast and skillfully hypnotist in view.

Regarding to the different induction methods there could be large differences in suggestibility between methods of Ericksonians and Elmanians (OMNI’s). Measuring hypnotizability is  debatable because the tests don’t measure hypnotizability or suggestibility but the degree to which the suggestions are carried out. One can have a high oxytocin level and  are very high hypnotizable but still unable to perform a wrong given suggestion. More objective is to measure the oxytocin levels before and after the induction.

The clinical practice

When we are able to develop hypnotherapeutic protocols through which we can stimulate the production of oxytocin at the right moment the hoc can contribute to the treatment of problems related to the malfunctioning of the production of oxytocin or mirror neurons activity such as autism, problems with attachment, eating disorders, social phobias, shyness, addiction, etc. Therefore, it is important that research is undertaken whereby the results become available for professionals. Especially the first line hypnotherapists can play an important role in this. A good communication between both groups is necessary therefore. Next to that it is necessary that therapists are open to improve their way of working. Not from an economical point of view, however, from the point of view of the interest of the patient.

©Johan Eland 2013 / Antiquariaat Lilith
./. Publication in part or total is allowed with a source link. All rights reserved.


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