There is an old superstition that “bad things happen in threes” and also that “three is the charm”. This sentiment is often regarded as an old wives tale but, for many people, that other old adage, “the proof is in the pudding”, actually bears it out.

Hypnotists in both the stage and therapeutic professions have always known the power of a suggestion given three times and that, in a clinical situation, most people need at least three sessions to effect permanent change. There is even a name for it – The Hypnotic Trinity.

Now science has discovered what those old wives knew all along. Research by R. Douglas Fields has revealed the mechanisms by which long-term memories are created. When a person’s eyes are closed, the subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between what is and is not “reality”. Consequently, during a hypnotic trance, positive and helpful suggestions that are made and repeated at specific time intervals become a new reality for that person. Of course, people remember what things were like before their session, but they have no trouble accepting that those old behaviours are over, and that new ones are the new reality.

Both long and short-term memories arise from the connections between neurons, at points of contact called synapses, where one neuron’s signal-emitting extension, called an axon, meets any of the adjacent neurons’ signal-receiving fingers, called dendrites. When a short-term memory is created, stimulation of the synapse is enough to temporarily strengthen, or sensitise, it to subsequent signals. For a long-term memory, the synapse strengthening becomes permanent.

Early molecular biologists discovered that genes play a role in the conversion of a memory from short to long-term. Their experiments with animals trained to perform simple tasks demonstrated that the learning process required new proteins to be synthesised in the brain within minutes of training, or else the memory would be lost. In 1977, experiments by Uwe Fey of the German Institute for Neurobiology, Gene Regulation and Plasticity, and Richard D. Morris of the University of Edinburgh, further showed that whatever these “memory proteins” were, they did not need to be addressed to a particular synapse; they could be broadcast through the cell but would only affect the synapse that was already temporarily strengthened, and make that connection permanently stronger.

In his laboratory at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the US, R. Douglas Fields and post doctoral fellow, Kouichi Itoh, discovered how to stimulate synapses using electrical frequencies. They were then able to measure the increased response from the synapse to subsequent stimulations after it had received the first high-frequency stimulus.

This increased strength, termed Long Term Potentiation (LTP), can be relatively short lived despite its name, and is the cellular model for short-term memory. However, if the same stimulus is applied repeatedly, three times in those experiments, the synapse becomes strengthened permanently, a state called late LTP. The interesting thing is that the stimuli cannot be repeated one after the other to gain this result. Instead, each burst of stimulation must be followed by a period of inactivity before the same stimulus is applied, to create a permanent imprint.

Moment-to-moment memories necessary for operating in the present are handled well by transient adjustments in the strength of individual synapses. But when an event is important enough, or is repeated enough, synapses fire to make the neuron in turn fire impulses repeatedly and strongly, declaring “this is an event/idea/reality that should be recorded”. The relevant genes turn on, and the synapses that are holding the short-term memory when the synapse-strengthening proteins find them become, in effect, tattooed.

Many people can have a good result from just one hypnosis session, but may find the change is wearing off after a few months. Others become disheartened if they experience little or no change after one or two sessions. Science has proven what hypnotherapists have always found to be true. Most people need at least three sessions to effect permanent change.


By Jan Duncan

Subiaco – Linda Milburn – (08) 9388 6322 or 0409 079 435

Mundaring – Jan Duncan – 0423 936 933

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