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How 'highway hypnosis' works

Highway hypnosis. We all know what that is. You get in your car at the end of a long work day, hit the Turnpike for home, then you're in your driveway in what seems like mere seconds. How did you get there?

How 'highway hypnosis' works

Editor's note: Diane Girardot is sending dispatches from the American Psychological Association conference in Orlando, Fla. from August 2-5.

By Diane Russell Girardot, L.P.C.

Highway hypnosis. We all know what that is. You get in your car at the end of a long work day, hit the Turnpike for home, then you’re in your driveway in what seems like mere seconds. How did you get there?  

An alternate personality did not emerge and take over your body, you were not temporarily abducted by aliens, and you are probably not crazy as far as researchers from Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. are concerned. You simply zoned out in what is scientifically called “a dissociative experience.”

What we know about dissociative states, explains Steven N. Gold, Ph.D., is that loss of awareness during dissociation thankfully does not disconnect you from all behavior. Somehow you are still aware deep within your brain of left turns, red lights, and lane changes. Your memory and logic are in tack even though you “zone out” .

But only at one level and a lower level at that. If dissociation occurs at a higher level and you control less of your own behavior that could be a symptom of anxiety, depression, trauma or a deep hypnotic state, depending on your susceptibility. The Nova research presented at the American Psychological Associations Annual meeting last week in Orlando, Fla. found compelling correlations between hypnotic and dissociative states, but also some notable differences, primarily with hypnotizability.

Under a controlled, induced hypnotic state, study participants got points for each observable behavior categorized as simple (like arm levitation) to hard (seeing something that isn’t there).  

“We ended up with some people responding to the simple prompts but not to the harder ones,” Gold said, showing they were not as susceptible to dissociation and therefore not as hypnotizable. People who followed the more difficult instructions were found to have an increase in dissociation and were deemed more hypnotizable. The level of differences in the groups support the notion that some people are more susceptible to hypnosis than others based on some yet unknown “typology”.  

Gold says the next step for researchers is to create before and after hypnosis measures to identify and refine these “types”. Also, because hypnosis is a cued state that starts from a point of relaxation, disconnecting as a response to stress or trauma or even just boredom must occur through a mechanism in your body other than that which is responsible for hypnosis.

Historically, dissociative states have been linked to personality disorders or PTSD type diagnoses. But it is more normal than that and more common. We can “tune out” due to any number of reasons, Gold explains, but the loss of awareness isn’t consistent and is usually at just one level, such as in highway hypnosis.  “Dissociation is easier to explain in this context and people understand and are less afraid when they find themselves home after work and not remembering how they got there.”

Diane Russell Girardot is a Chester County-based licensed mental health professional, who is a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter now merging both careers with her coverage of the APA convention.

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For Inquirer.com. Portions of this blog may also be found in the Inquirer's Sunday Health Section

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