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Notes on Pavlov & Hypnotic Sleep Therapy

The Nobel prize-winning Russian physiologist and psychologist, Ivan P. Pavlov,
developed an influential theory of hypnosis based upon his experiments in animal
conditioning. Pavlovs collection of lectures entitled Conditioned Reflexes (1927)
culminates in The experimental results obtained with animals in their application to
man which summarizes two conclusions of his research in relation to hypnotherapy,
That the state of relaxation induced in human hypnosis resembles the physiological
phenomenon of animal hypnosis and results from intense fatigue or inhibition of
specific cells in the cerebral cortex (cortical inhibition) irradiating to other parts of
the brain.
That hypnotic suggestions function by using words as stimuli to evoke conditioned
responses which are intensified in nature because the general inhibition of the
cortex leaves individual rapport zones, i.e., residual centres of attention and
excitation in which conditioned reflex responses to words become greatly enhanced.
In refreshing contrast to the subsequent technical debate stemming from such
theories, Pavlov himself opens his discussion of conditioning and hypnotherapy in
terms which appeal to common sense observations from daily life.
It is obvious that the different kinds of habits based on training, education and
discipline of any sort are nothing but a long chain of conditioned reflexes. We all
know how associations, once established and acquired between definite stimuli and
our responses, are persistently and, so to speak, automatically reproduced,
sometimes even although we fight against them. For instance, in the case of games
and various acts of skill, it is as difficult to abolish all sorts of superfluous
movements as to acquire the necessary movements and it is equally difficult to
overcome established negative reflexes, i.e., inhibitions. Again, experience has
taught us that a difficult task should be approached by gradual stages. We know
also how different extra stimuli inhibit and discoordinate a well-established routine
of activity, and how a change in a pre-established order dislocates and renders
difficult our movements, activities and the whole routine of life. Again, we know
how weak and monotonous stimuli render us languid and drowsy, and very often
lead to sleep. We are also well acquainted with different cases of partial alertness
in the case of normal sleep, for example a sleeping mother next to her sick child.
All these [human] phenomena are analogous to those constantly met with in our
animals and described in the preceding lectures [] (Pavlov, 1927, Lecture 23).
The method of inducing hypnosis in man involves conditions entirely analogous to
those which produced it in our dogs. The classical method consisted in the
performance of so-called [Mesmeric] passes weak, monotonously repeated
tactile and visual stimuli, just as in our experiments upon animals. At present the
more usual method consist in the repetition of some form of words, describing
sleep, articulated in a flat and monotonous tone of voice [i.e., direct verbal
suggestions of relaxation and sleep]. Such words are, of course, conditioned stimuli
which have become associated with the state of sleep. In this manner any stimulus
which has coincided several times with the development of sleep can now by itself
initiate sleep or a hypnotic state. [] Most of the procedures producing hypnosis

become more and more effective the more frequently they are repeated. (Pavlov,
1927, Lecture 23) Braid had emphasized the law of sympathy and imitation
whereby hypnotic subjects seem to show an enhanced ability to imitate the
behavior of others.
Pavlov pre-empts later social theories of learning by
acknowledging the role of this mechanism in hypnotherapy.
Obviously we deal with a certain degree of inhibition of some parts of the cortex a
state in which the more complicated forms of normal activity are excluded and
replaced by responsiveness to immediate stimuli. This partial inhibition allows of or
even favours the establishment and reinforcement of the physiological connections
between certain stimuli and certain activities, e.g., movements. In this manner, in
hypnosis all activities based on imitation are accentuated and we see revealed the
long-submerged reflex which in all of us in childhood forms and develops the
complicated individual and social behavior. (Pavlov, 1927, Lecture 23)
Pavlov conceived of hypnotic suggestion as a complex example of a conditioned
reflex, fundamental to human nature,
Among the various aspects of the hypnotic state in man attention may be drawn to
suggestion so-called and its physiological interpretation. Obviously for man
speech provides conditioned stimuli which are just as real as any other stimuli. At
the same time speech provides stimuli which exceed in richness and manysidedness any of the others, allowing comparison neither qualitatively nor
quantitatively with any conditioned stimuli which are possible in animals. Speech,
on account of the whole preceding life of the adult, is connected up with all the
internal and external stimuli which can reach the cortex, signaling all of them and
replacing all of them, and therefore it can call forth all those reactions of the
organism which are normally determined by the actual stimuli themselves. We can,
therefore, regard suggestion as the most simple form of a typical conditioned
reflex in man. The command of the hypnotist, in correspondence with the general
law, concentrates the excitation in the cortex of the subject (which is in a condition
of partial inhibition) in some definite narrow region, at the same time intensifying
(by negative induction) the inhibition in the rest of the cortex and so abolishing all
competing effects of contemporary stimuli and of traces left by previously received
ones. This accounts for the large and practically insurmountable influence of
suggestion as a stimulus during hypnosis as well as shortly after it. The command
retains its effect after the termination of hypnosis, remaining independent of other
stimuli, being impermeable to them, since at the time of primary introduction of the
stimulus into the cortex it was prevented from establishing any connection with the
rest of the cortex. The great number of stimuli which speech can replace explains
the fact that we can suggest to a hypnotized subject so many different activities,
and influence and direct the activities of his brain. (Pavlov, 1927, Lecture 23)
Pavlov considers the question as to why hypnotic suggestions should be more
effective stimuli than the imagery experienced in dreaming, a point which could be
made in comparing hypnosis with ordinary daydreaming or reverie as well.
It could be questioned why does suggestion carry in itself such a commanding
influence as compared with dreams, which are usually forgotten and only have a

very small vital significance? But dreams are due to traces, generally of very old
stimuli, while suggestion is a powerful and immediate stimulus. Moreover, hypnosis
depends upon a smaller intensity of inhibition than sleep. Suggestion, therefore, is
doubly effective. Still further, suggestion as a stimulus is brief, isolated and
complete, and therefore vigorous, while dreams are generally linked up into chains
of various, sometimes inconsistent or antagonistic, traces of stimuli. (Pavlov, 1927,
Lecture 23)
Soviet Hypnotherapy (Platonov)
Following Pavlovs seminal physiological research, which concluded that hypnosis
was a form of artificial (conditioned) sleep, Platonov and other Soviet researchers
began employing hypnotherapy on a massive scale. They developed a form of
hypnotherapy which employed extended periods of suggested sleep in a manner
resembling Victorian Mesmerism but based on laboratory research on conditioning.
Indeed, Platonov subtitled his book on hypnotherapy The Theory and Practice of
Psychotherapy according to I.P. Pavlov. (1959).
In the Soviet approach, subjects were left to sleep for around an hour following a
hypnotic induction without any further suggestions, i.e., in total silence so that they
could rest without any disturbance whatsoever.
We have always used long-continued suggested sleep as an auxiliary therapeutic
method. It is usually employed in more or less grave conditions as a concluding
method after a course of psychotherapy and serves the purpose of restoring the
function of the cortical cells and consolidating the therapeutic effect obtained.
Even short suggested sleep not infrequently exerts a positive influence on the
patients nervous system. This is indicated by very numerous observations of many
authors, as well as our own and those of our associates. In a number of cases even
a state of light suggested sleep produces a certain therapeutic effect of itself,
without any special suggestions.
Thus, upon awakening from the very first
suggested sleep some of our patients frequently report the disappearance of pain or
unpleasant sensations. (Platonov, 1959: 234)
Sleep induced by suggestion often seems considerably more restful and
recuperative than normal, nocturnal sleep. Platonov cites research by Petrova, one
of Pavlovs research team, supporting this observation experimentally (Platonov,
1959: 234). Platonov applied this method to the prevention of hypertension,
treatment of ulcers, and other physical conditions, but also in the treatment of
However, Platonov also found physiological evidence that the
recuperative function of hypnosis was significantly deepened when explicit
suggestions of a state of absolute rest, e.g., were used instead of the normal
procedure, merely suggesting that the subject was sleeping deeper, etc.
(Platonov, 1959: 77-78).
These studies have led us to the recognition of the extraordinarily great importance
of a special physiological state of deep rest specially created by verbal suggestion.

It must be especially emphasized that natural sleep does not always put all the
organs and systems of man into a state of complete rest. [] It is precisely for this
reason that it is necessary to exert special influence on the subjects cerebral cortex
by a verbal suggestion that his organism is in a state of complete rest during
which all of the experienced emotions have been fully eliminated, while his brain
and all organs and tissues are rapidly regaining their functions. Thus the first step
in the verbal suggestion [sleep, sleep deeper, etc.] puts the person from his
usual waking state into a state of suggested sleep, while the second step in the
suggestion [rest completely] creates special conditions for deep rest during this
suggested sleep. (Platonov, 1959: 78).

He goes so far as to claim that this special method succeeds by inducing a

maximal activation of the restorative function of the cerebral cortex. (1959: 235,
his italics).
In the vast majority of cases, Platonovs clinic employed short sessions of direct
hypnotic suggestion, followed by around an hour of deep hypnotic rest in silence,
for about 5-6 sessions.
This approach would be considered unusual today.
However, deep rest of this kind clearly has considerable therapeutic potential.
Experience has shown that one hour of this state, in most cases, provided maximum
rest for the entire organism. This prolonged state of suggested deep rest is
extraordinarily beneficial not only to the cortical dynamics and the entire higher
nervous activity as a whole, but also to the functional state of all tissues and organs
and the entire vegetative and endocrine system. (Platonov, 1959: 79).
Platonov seemed to believe that any suggestions given during this state might
disturb the state of rest, a fact consistent with a number of empirical observations,
e.g., Clark L. Hulls (1933) findings on the phenomenon of initial negative reaction in
response to direct suggestion. He also argued that continued rapport with the
hypnotist required the retention of a certain level of awareness, and therefore
stimulation of the cerebral cortex. Whereas, in these periods of silent relaxation,
with no disturbing suggestions from outside or need for continued attention, the
subject was free to enter an even more profound level of relaxation. After a while,
the subjects receiving suggested sleep appear to become unresponsive to
suggestion. Indeed, the subject becomes progressively detached from their whole
environment for a while, including the hypnotist as the following report from one of
Platonovs patients illustrates.
When I am in a state of hypnosis, writes a woman patient, I experience different
sensations at each session. Thus during the first session I continued to feel my
entire body but was unable to move a single member and though I clearly heard the
voice of the hypnotist and was conscious of everything my thoughts were in a sort
of muddle. This was what I should call bodily sleep. At each successive session my
body grew increasingly heavier, I no longer felt it, though I continued to hear all that
was going on and it seemed to me it was all happening somewhere far away, I was
not quite conscious of it, and it was all absolutely immaterial to me.

During the last, fifth, session I no longer felt my body at all, as if I had none. Nor
could I think of anything. I had no thoughts at all. I heard various external sounds
which did not concern me in the least. During suggestions I heard everything
clearly, but my mind failed to work, and the words of suggestion relating to my
former experiences in no way affected me.
At the words of awakening, I begin to awaken at first from the head, as it were:
thoughts rise in my mind, I begin to think about how to move, to get up; I
understand everything that takes place around me, but begin to feel my body
somewhat later; as my consciousness clear up, I begin to feel a heaviness
throughout my body, which subsequently dissipates upon complete awakening.
(Platonov, 1959: 73)
At a time when psychoanalysis was struggling to achieve success with roughly twothirds of patients despite taking many hundreds of sessions, Platonov and his
colleagues reported 78% success rates in just 5-6 sessions by using Pavlovian
hypnotherapy with tens of thousands of patients presenting with a variety of
psychiatric and general medical conditions in Soviet polyclinics and hospitals.
This approach is obviously impractical for modern clinical practice. Clients may
resent paying for a session in which they are merely left to relax in silence.
However, a similar technique might be used in different settings, e.g., during group
workshops or between sessions with the aid of a self-hypnosis CD.