What is Hypnosis?
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
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 without
hypnosis, then they are not qualified to treat it with
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 http://www.hunter.holowww.com.
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
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
suggestibility) 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 :
- Formal hypnosis, which includes relaxation and the use of
- Self hypnosis ("suggestions" are provided
mentally and silently, or provided on a previously made
- 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 :
- barbiturate-induced stupor
- gullibility or moral weakness
- mental illness
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
control 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
differences. 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
suggestion. (Evans, 1977; Evans 1981; McGlashan,
Evans & Orne, 1969; Orne, 1974)
Suggested Pdf Resources
- “What is Hypnosis?”
- Hypnosis can be used to help treat anxiety, depression, guilt, low-self esteem, phobias Hypnosis is a relaxation technique that is similar to meditation.
- What Is Hypnotherapy?
- Hypnosis makes the therapy briefer and more effective. The hypnosis tool facilitates change.
Suggested News Resources
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- Brain drainer: Indonesian hypnotherapist unlocking minds of terrorists
- The other technique is what's called waking hypnosis,'' says the US-trained hypnotherapist. It is the latter that Mr Mardigu deployed in interrogations and, like all hypnosis, it required the detainee to be congenial, if not a willing participant.
- How hypnosis can help earthquake victims
- Hypnosis is an effective tool for working through emotion and feeling based responses. It's been documented in use for a very long time and became quite popular for shell shocked infantrymen during WW I.
Suggested Web Resources
- Hypnosis - What Is Hypnosis
- Hypnosis has been used to treat a wide number of ailments, yet many understand very little about this process. Learn more in this overview of hypnosis.
- Hypnosis - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Hypnosis is a mental state (according to "state theory") or imaginative role- enactment (according to "non-state theory").
- HowStuffWorks "How Hypnosis Works"
- 3 hours ago The practice of hypnotism dates back centuries, and there are those who swear by its validity.
- What is Hypnosis | Wendi.com
- Hypnosis is a normal state of mind, one which most people go in and out of every day.
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