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What is Hypnosis?

Author: Todd I. Stark

From the Hypnosis FAQ by Todd I. Stark

Web version, revision 2. Last update: February 16, 1997.

Hypnosis refers to just about any situation where we respond
to verbal suggestions in a particular special way. This involves
a mentally very flexible condition where our imagination and
fantasy are more free and more vivid. A series of instructions,
called an induction, is the most common way to do this.
Just about any situation where we relax and allow ourselves to
become absorbed in something can lead to the appropriate
conditions for hypnosis. These conditions also sometimes occur
without relaxation, such as immediately following confusion or
distraction. Most hypnotic inductions involve a highly
cooperative process, rather than hypnosis being something that is
"done to" someone.

Science and the Arts of Hypnosis

Hypnosis today is often considered from two different
perspectives : the sciences used to study how it works,
and the arts used to make use of it for specific purposes.
These are such very different perspectives for two main reasons.
First, there is the schism between the academic and the clinical
subcultures that is found in many fields of psychology. Second,
there is the particularly wide gap between hypnosis practice and
academic psychology because of the periods when hypnosis was
considered completely disreputable. This helped to polarize even
further those who helped the arts using hypnosis to survive and
those who would study hypnosis scientifically.

In science, there is the basic idea of being able to create
psychological conditions where people respond to verbal
suggestions in a seemingly unusual way. This is what researchers
study, and what forms the foundation for the practice of hypnosis
as an adjunctive treatment in medicine. In order to study
hypnosis in this manner, we define it as precisely as possible,
and in most cases we utilize simple tests and suggestions. It is
primarily from this perspective that the current document has
been written.

The second perspective is the historical creation of the arts
of hypnotic influence. This means making use of response to
verbal suggestion in order to influence attitudes and behaviors
more dramatically or over a longer period of time. This might be
a healing art, a performing art, or a form of self-help. When we
use hypnosis as a healing art, it is a form of psychotherapy and
adheres to the same basic principles and ethical considerations
as other forms of therapy. As a performing art, hypnosis has very
little in common with psychotherapy aside from the occasional
elimination of superficial symptoms by suggestion.

Skill at hypnosis does not automatically confer healing powers
or medical qualifications on anyone. If someone is not
qualified to treat something
hypnosis, then they are not qualified to treat it
hypnosis either.

For more information on the arts of hypnotic influence,
especially hypnotherapy as practiced by non-psychologists, I
recommend starting with Roy Hunter's excellent FAQ on the alt.hypnosis
newsgroup, maintained at Roy's home page at
In order to learn more about psychotherapy in general, I highly
recommend either of two starting places : Dr. John Grohol's award
winning Mental Health page,
or Mental Health Net.

1.1 Defining Hypnosis

Since there is no single well accepted theory of hypnosis, the
trick is to make the definition as theory neutral as possible,
descriptive and not implicitly explanatory. Yet even the
description is sometimes controversial. One thing that has become
known for certain is that hypnosis is only interesting from a
phenomenal perspective.

The subjective experience of hypnotized people is what
is special about hypnosis, not any identifiable objective
measurements. If there are any objective behavioral correlates of
hypnotic experience, they are either so subtle as to escape
detection, or so idiosyncratic that we can't draw general
conclusions from them.

Prominent researcher E.R. Hilgard provided the following in
his 1965 review of the scientific data on hypnosis up to that
point (Hilgard, 1965) :

"Without attempting a formal definition of
hypnosis, the field appears to be well enough specified by
the increased suggestibility of subjects following induction
procedures stressing relaxation, free play of imagination,
and the withdrawal of reality supports through closed eyes,
narrowing of attention, and concentration on the hypnotist.
That some of the same phenomena will occur outside of
hypnosis is expected, and this fact does not invalidate
hypnosis as a research topic.

Specifying exactly what "increased suggestibility"
means has been extremely difficult. What this means in practical
terms is that the hypnotized person experiences certain classical
hypnotic phenomena, particularly in response to verbal
suggestion. Years ago, one of the hypnosis researchers
(Weitzenhoffer) dubbed this the "classic suggestion
effect." The thing that sets these hypnotic phenomena apart
from simple compliance with a suggestion is that they are experienced
as being somehow effortless or involuntary
. This is what sets
hypnotic suggestibility (sometimes called primary
) apart from other kinds of compliance. The
sensation of responding in an involuntary way is the most notable
difference between hypnosis and other conditions.

(Zamansky and Ruehle, 1995).

Both the concept of hypnosis and the practice of hypnosis have
been controversial throughout its two hundred year modern
history. Since the very beginning of this period, many
practitioners of hypnosis as an art form have had great regard
for it, and then later come to the conclusion that it consists of
"nothing more than" imagination. Little, if
anything, that we can do with hypnosis is actually unique to
hypnosis. A hypnotic induction is not essential to demonstrate
hypnotic phenomena. Modern research has largely confirmed that
hypnosis is not a unique physiological state, and that
imagination is indeed a central element. At the same time,
though, we have come to an increasing regard for the depth and
subtlety of human imagination under all conditions !

One of the most promising advances in the theoretical
perspective on hypnosis has been the communications analysis
approach. This was pioneered by the followers of Milton Erickson
and other innovative hypnosis experts who saw hypnosis as a dynamic
cooperative process involving intimate human
communication as well as imagination, rather than (or in addition
to) a problematic state of consciousness.

1.2 What else is "like hypnosis ?"

There are basically three varieties of things that are
commonly called hypnosis or compared to hypnosis :

  1. Formal hypnosis, which includes relaxation and the use of

  2. Self hypnosis ("suggestions" are provided
    mentally and silently, or provided on a previously made

  3. Alert hypnosis (there is no relaxation component)

Common examples of how these processes are used include :

  • Hypnotherapy : Psychotherapy which emphasizes the
    use of hypnosis.

  • Medical hypnosis : Used as an adjunct to medical
    treatment to reduce pain or other symptoms.

  • Stage hypnosis : Emphasizing confusion,
    distraction, and social pressure to gain quick, dramatic
    compliance for entertainment purposes.

  • Self-Help : Using taped inductions, prepared
    scripts, or self-talk to attempt personal changes with
    the help of suggestion.

Things that have little or nothing directly to do with
hypnosis include :

  • sleep

  • barbiturate-induced stupor

  • gullibility or moral weakness

  • mental illness

  • "brainwashing"

The important elements in things we call hypnosis are, roughly
in order of decreasing importance :

  • slightly enhanced primary suggestibility for
    verbal language (words are effortlessly converted to
    actions and perceptions, we sense our response as

  • engagement of imagination and fantasy (absorption
    in a dramatic role, seeming "as real as real",
    suspension of critical judgment)

  • vivid imagery and intense emotion

  • cooperative interpersonal communication, response to
    social cues (there is a guide, and we trust them)

  • relaxation and enjoyable stillness

One of the ways to help make a complex definition more clear
is to provide examples of things that don't fit. Some of the
things that are not hypnosis but appear to share some
similarities include :

  • Meditation : Meditation often shares some
    characteristics with our psychological state under
    hypnosis. Descriptions of our spontaneous experience
    under some kinds of meditation are similar to those under
    some conditions of hypnosis. Some people infer from this
    that the "trance" seen in hypnosis and that
    seen under meditation is the same. The observation is an
    interesting one, but there is currently no good way to
    confirm or disprove this notion, without actually turning
    meditation into hypnosis by testing for response to
    suggestions. Meditation does not necessarily involve
    specific responsiveness to verbal suggestion, or an
    enhanced sensitivity to social cues. It may or may not
    involve fantasy. These are important elements in
    hypnosis, particularly from a process perspective.
    Sensitivity to social cues is a cornerstone of the
    communications analysis view of hypnosis, and is absent
    during meditation. A meaningful definition of hypnosis
    that emphasizes how we use it will not include meditation
    as an example, and vice versa.

  • Guided imagery : While it appears very similar,
    and often overlaps, hypnosis is not "just"
    guided imagery. There are additional important elements
    to hypnosis that are not generally found in guided
    imagery. We can certainly engage in guided imagery during
    hypnosis. But not all hypnosis involves guided imagery,
    and guided imagery does not necessarily result in
    hypnosis. More importantly, the skill for imagery is
    not the same as the skill for entering and using hypnosis
    Vivid imagery is an important element in hypnosis, but it
    is not sufficient. There are other elements needed for
    hypnosis, including but not limited to hypnosis-relevant
    attitudes (Glisky, Tataryn, and Kihlstrom, 1995). There
    is evidence that guided imagery under hypnosis has subtly
    different effects on the body than guided imagery under
    relaxation alone. Also, there is so far no strong
    correlation between abilities at imagery and abilities at
    hypnosis. Vividness and motor imagery are only weakly
    correlated with hypnotizability, although the ability to
    become absorbed in imagery is slightly better correlated
    with hypnotizability. Ultradian cycles for imagery and
    hypnotic susceptibility vary at different rates (Wallace
    & Kokoszka, 1995). Overall, imagery is an important
    component in hypnosis, but guided imagery is not in any
    sense synonymous with hypnosis, the underlying ability to
    do hypnosis and the underlying ability to do imagery are
    two different things. To illustrate in practical terms
    that imagery is not the primary factor, it has been
    observed that verbal hypnotic suggestion takes effect
    even when we concentrate on imagery that is contrary to
    the suggestion ! (Zamansky and Ruehle, 1995)

  • Self-hypnosis : The main reason why modern
    practitioners like to say that "all hypnosis is
    self-hypnosis," is that they feel it is necessary to
    emphasize that the hypnotized person is the one in
    in both cases, and should be the focus of
    attention in hypnosis study. This is entirely true. Like
    meditation, however, self-hypnosis is not dependent upon
    responsiveness to verbal suggestion or responding to
    subtle social cues, so it really is a different process
    in some important ways. The key experience of
    involuntariness or effortlessness in hypnotic responding
    is shared by hypnosis and self-hypnosis, so they clearly
    share a similar kind of psychological state in general.
    However, one involves dynamic responses to ideas, and the
    other dynamic responses to words. There is no external
    guide during self-hypnosis. There are differences in the
    ease with which we can be hypnotized by another person
    and with which we can hypnotize ourselves. There is some
    evidence that automated response to words is an important
    element in hypnosis. For a number of reasons, it is
    necessary to make a distinction in spite of the
    similarity of hypnosis and self-hypnosis.

  • Self-regulation, or "alert hypnosis" :
    This includes autogenics, biofeedback, and other methods
    used to influence autonomic body processes or increase
    primary suggestibility that do not involve a formal
    hypnotic induction. These are often distinct from
    hypnosis because they do not involve responding to social
    cues, but rather to cues provided by instrumentation. In
    addition, there is often no essential verbal component,
    and no necessity for relaxation. Some would call these
    methods kinds of "alert hypnosis," and in cases
    where the remaining elements are present, this is
    probably as reasonable as the distinction of
    self-hypnosis for cases where only the interpersonal
    element is missing.

  • Subliminal self-help tapes : Let's assume for the
    sake of discussion that there exists a
    "subliminal" technology that actually works.
    This means that a message is encoded which we can
    reliably perceive but not be aware that we are receiving
    it. The message would become what is known as
    "implicit," meaning that it can affect our
    behavior though we do not recognize it as a memory of
    anything in particular. Hypnosis can also create or make
    use of implicit memory, however that doesn't mean that
    anything that affects implicit memory is hypnosis. As far
    as is known, subliminal suggestion would have none of the
    important elements that distinguish hypnosis ! Why do we
    even for a moment think that this would work in some way
    similarly to hypnotic suggestion ? I discuss this in
    detail in another section.

  • Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) :
    Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) is partially derived
    from careful observation of the patterns in what happens
    during hypnosis. It is therefore, at least in part, an
    extension of the communications analysis view of
    hypnosis. NLP borrows its basic concepts largely from
    cognitive psychology, which views behavior as guided by
    schemata or strategies. NLP practitioners use a variety
    of methods to attempt to determine what strategies people
    use for various activities, and then to modify those
    strategies or utilize them for other purposes. Some of
    the techniques used in NLP also resemble "alert
    hypnosis," because they use language patterns also
    used in hypnotic induction to elicit cooperation, build
    trust, and increase the effectiveness of suggestions. In
    practical terms, very little of NLP involves hypnosis.

  • The Placebo Effect : The placebo effect is the
    most common name for various bodily responses to
    expectations, especially with regard to medical healing
    effects. Placebos are commonly used with control groups
    in medical experiments, because a certain amount of
    positive results can be expected in some people because
    of expectations of a positive result. Attitudes, beliefs,
    and expectations are known to play a very important role
    in our behavior under hypnosis, just as they play an
    important role at other times, and suggestion is a factor
    in placebo response. The role of expectations in hypnosis
    is particularly interesting because of the dramatic
    effect on our imagination. One of the most fascinating
    examples is in the elaborate role enactment known as
    "age regression," where the content is often
    directly related to expectations set prior to hypnosis. Hypnotic
    suggestion cannot entirely be described as placebo
    effect, however, as there are a number of distinct
    Some of these differences can be
    demonstrated experimentally. This is why we can
    meaningfully compare hypnosis experimental groups with
    placebo control groups. Response to hypnotic suggestion
    is much more closely related to the semantic content of
    the suggestion than the more general effects of placebo,
    that is, it is far more specific. The correlation between
    placebo responders and hypnotizability is good but nearly
    strong enough to conclude that they are the same
    attribute. The placebo effect has some overlap with
    hypnosis, but is not the same thing as hypnotic
    (Evans, 1977; Evans 1981; McGlashan,
    Evans & Orne, 1969; Orne, 1974)

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