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A Gentle Introduction to Trance Theory

by Dennis R Wier(more info)

listed in hypnosis, originally published in issue 60 - January 2001

Most of you have an idea as to what a trance is. But, that idea is probably different than the idea you will learn here.

Most likely you got your idea as to what a trance is from watching TV movies or reading books which described someone who was in a trance. "Look at her" said the hero pointing to the heroine, "she's in a trance!" And, sure enough, when you looked at her, she was staring off into space. And that became your idea of what a trance was.

What these TV ideas do is confuse the appearance of trance with a mental condition. When I said that your idea of trance was different than what you will learn here, what I meant was that I will define a mental condition for trance which is not necessarily how a trance appears to others.

Where do I get my ideas? Why am I qualified to say what a trance is or is not? Trance is a complex condition and ill-defined at best. How can I say that I have successfully analyzed this problem and found a solution?

First, I am not an academic. By profession I am a computer systems analyst. In my profession I get the worst, most complex and most ill-defined problems you can imagine. I analyze these cans of worms and come up with what I like to modestly describe as elegant solutions. Over the years I have discovered that nearly all computer problems have human counterparts, and so, some of my analytical abilities have often been called upon to address practical psychological problems. So I have technical and analytical problem solving abilities.

As I began to look for solutions to practical psychological problems that I discovered among my clients - for indeed, their problems also gave me problems - I started to study hypnotic techniques and NLP. This study gave me a practical familiarization with hypnosis.

Another part of my personal history has been involvement with various meditation systems for over 35 years. For some years I could say I was addicted to meditation. As I realized that addiction to anything was personally harmful, I began to wonder if meditation was so great, why I should become addicted to it. About the same time, in my professional career, I noticed that some of my colleagues were addicted to computers. Indeed, they were really addicted to all high-tech toys. Some of the most brilliant software developers I was associated with, looked and smelled like bathless street people.

Now I began to discover that there was something common about addiction and meditation and high technology and I began to really get curious about what the connection might be. I made the connection that we all might be in a trance of some sort, but I didn't know really what a trance was, so I started to do some deeper research on hypnosis and hypnotic theory, mostly reading the books and papers of Hilgard, Erickson, Rossi, Bandler, Orne, Wagstaff and many others.

While these gentlemen had theories as to what hypnosis was, they did not address the phenomena which specifically interested me: namely, trance, meditation, addiction, and so on. And that is when I decided to apply my skills as a systems analyst and my inner perceptions as a long-term meditator to the problem of creating a paradigm which was at the root of all forms of trance.

I knew that you can explain anything if you have enough variables and so-called degrees of freedom, so my idea was to design a model for trance which introduced only necessary terms and concepts. I was just applying good computer systems concepts, but these concepts are also good science.

Another problem I had with the scientific investigators of hypnotic phenomena was that they seemed to work from the outside in, measuring subjective responses to questionnaires given to subjects who had been hypnotized using a standard method of induction. Then, they would draw conclusions from their research.

Psychological research done in this way is remarkable and exacting work, but fundamentally useless to a real understanding. I could not imagine why anyone would want to try to investigate a subject such as hypnosis without having at least some type of theoretical paradigm to work from. It was like writing a computer system without any programming standards. Yes, you can get lots of code. But you can't get a working system.

Actually Kuhn argued it best when he said that the real work of science begins once a community of workers has adopted a unified theoretical paradigm.

So what is my theoretical paradigm for trance? Basically I claim that the necessary and sufficient condition for a trance to occur is whenever there is a sustained cognitive object loop of sufficient length of time to cause dissociation. A cognitive object is an abstract way to denote a thought, any thought, whether it is a word, an idea, a feeling, a vision. When a set of cognitive objects repeat often enough, you will go into a trance.

Now, this is an interesting definition. First, under this definition we experience trance quite often, except that it has not until this definition been called a trance. But with this simple definition we certainly include all of the phenomena that we term trance.

This definition has interesting implications. So far, the definition has not introduced any wild or mysterious concepts. It has not introduced the concept of belief, for example. You do not need to believe that you will go into a trance in order to go into a trance.

At the same time, some ordinary experiences such as listening to music and becoming enraptured by it would become suspiciously under this definition. Is our being enraptured by the repetitive melodies and rhythms the single necessary and sufficient condition for musical rapture? I claim that this is so.

It is possible to examine many ordinary and extraordinary human thought activities and to discover cognitive loops. We can also discover that each of these loops results in something like a dissociated state which are - all of them - trance-like according to the common definition, and which I claim are absolutely trances.

Another part of the trance model says that a trance creates a dissociated trance plane. What is that?
Trance alters the way mental energy is utilized. When we are in a trance some cognitive functions are disabled. This disabling of specific cognitive functions is what gives a trance its character, if you will. Just as the hero noticed that the heroine's eye motion had been disabled, he presumed that she was in a trance.

The dissociated trance plane is the collection of these disabled cognitive functions. Every trance has its own specific set of disabled cognitive functions and therefore a unique dissociated trance plane.
The reason why I refer to a dissociated trance plane instead of a specific cognitive function is that not all cognitive functions are known, and in my view the cognitive functions as we can describe them are not well enough defined to be useful for trance research.

The reason for this is that what we call memory is or can be somehow connected with judgement, and judgement is somehow connected with volition. Therefore, whenever I say that when you are in a trance then your volition is disabled, I am using more or less a social-psychological term to describe a characteristic of the dissociated trance plane.

Until cognitive functions can be rigorously defined with the help of considerable physiological mensuration research as well as additional theoretical speculation, I supposed we will have to make do with the social-psychological terms that are more easily understood. But I am not happy with them.

Now, the model for trance is complete and we only need to figure out what it implies and to verify in reality that trance works like the model states.

Once again, trance is a specific dissociated state which will always come into existence whenever a set of cognitive objects repeat in a loop. The trance always implies that some cognitive functions are disabled.
It is the kind of cognitive functions and the order in which they are disabled which gives rise to a wide variety of trance types.

For example, if a trance generating loop first results in the disabling of consciousness, then sleep is produced. Is sleep a trance according to my definition? Yes, sleep is a trance.

But if consciousness is not disabled, but only awareness of the body, then we have another type of trance which is useful during so-called surgery under hypnosis.

If consciousness is not disabled, but volition is, then we have a state which can be described as suggestible which begins to look like a hypnotic state.

So, from a practical point of view, the trance theory model says that there is a trance generating loop which consisting of repeating cognitive objects. This loop creates a dissociated trance plane in which various cognitive functions are disabled. And depending on the order that these cognitive functions are disabled as well as which specific ones are disabled and which are not, you have different trance states.

Let's look at some more examples of trance so that you can understand how to further apply this model.
Music consists of repeating rhythms and melodies. From a trance theory point of view, music consists of multiple trances, one for each repeating rhythm or melody. Most of these musical loops repeat only a few times and there is a minimum number of repetitions needed before a dissociated trance plane will be created. Musical trance can be described as the creation of multiple trances followed by their collapse.

However, another cognitive loop is precisely this repeated creation and collapsing of dissociated trance planes.

Certain types of music are more trance-inducing, generally, than others. Musical loops which are sustained, such as in shamanistic or so-called trance-drumming, have at least the critical element of high repetition. Thus, the high repetition of the musical loop is more likely to produce a single dissociated trance plane. Religious and military marching music also has a higher likelihood of inducing trance because of the high repetition of the musical loop.

Certain sports such as jogging, swimming, basketball, etc. require repetition of action and therefore a repetition of cognitive objects. These sports all create dissociated trance planes and therefore trance.
Watching television or a movie also generates trance because of the attention loop between the viewer and the images viewed. This cognitive loop is very short and simple. You look, you integrate the image, you look again. The processing of the content of the images takes place in the dissociated trance plane in which a variety of cognitive functions are disabled.

All forms of meditation practice involve the repetition of cognitive objects of varying degrees of complexity. The relatively simple meditation of watching the breath will induce a meditation trance. More complex forms such as are practiced by Tibetan Buddhists or Sufis may consist of combinations of meditation and hypnotic trance. Visualizations and physical movements can be combined with mantra yoga to produce multiple dissociated trance planes.

Most forms of neurotic and psychotic behavior exhibit repeated actions or verbalizations. From a trance theory perspective, any repeated cognitive object loop induces a trance with a consequent disabling of cognitive functions. It is too early to state with conviction which loops cause which cognitive functions to become disabled, or to identify specific therapeutic strategies for pathological trance. But, the application of trance theory to these behaviors is promising.

In my own research of trance, it was possible to simulate a bipolar disorder for a short period of time through performing a certain sequence of meditation steps. This suggests to me that there must be some forms of schizophrenia that are nothing more than out-of-control trance states. A possible treatment strategy which suggests itself then is to teach trance theory and trance control techniques to those who suffer from bipolar disorder. Obviously, more research is needed.

The Book: Trance: from magic to technology How and where to get it.
Dennis R. Wier, Director
The Trance Institute, Inc.
Sunnehaldenstrasse 7
CH-8311 Bruetten, Switzerland
Telephone: (++41) 52 347 10 08
Fax: (++41) 52 347 10 09


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About Dennis R Wier

Dennis R. Wier is a computer consultant and a long-term meditator (since 1965) who lives in Switzerland with his wife Doris. His comments are the result of his personal realizations and investigations. He may be contacted by snailmail at The Trance Institute; Sunnehaldenstrasse 7; CH-8311 Bruetten, Switzerland, or by email at For more detailed information on trance theory and trance engineering, order the book TRANCE: from magic to technology from Trans Media or take a course at the Trance Institute. His web site is at

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