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What is Hypnosis?

What is Hypnosis?

Does Hypnosis work?

Hypnosis is a series of natural and normal psychological processes used in a systematic sequence to create a relaxed mental state with greater receptivity to influence and change.

Hypnosis is beyond a doubt one of the most powerful methods of creating change in a person.

Although each of us responds to hypnosis at various rates (from instantly to over several sessions) even the slowest response to hypnotic suggestion is usually much quicker than conventional therapy approaches. There are many theories of exactly what hypnosis is, however so far there is no clear cut agreed explanation. BUT the ‘experience’ of hypnosis and the scientific validity of the results gained while using hypnosis do have a definable quality.

What does hypnosis feel like?

Hypnosis is a concentrated state of physical and mental relaxation. Some earlier methods of hypnotic induction focused on gradual physical relaxation, slowly using the physical relaxation to take you into a deeper state of mental relaxation. (NB: The hypnotic sessions on this site do not use the gradual relaxation approach as it can take 30 minutes and is therefore time consuming). Later as science developed a better understanding of various mental states, the approach to the hypnotic induction changed towards using suggestions and imagination to acquire the mental and internal awareness.

The relaxed physical and mental state of hypnosis causes either a dulled awareness or at times a super focused awareness. The mind just finds it too much effort to really be bothered thinking or noticing too much, rather it is easier to simply focused or think about what is being said during the hypnotic session.
So hypnosis feels very comfortable and natural to us, in fact we go into a state of hypnosis all the time. Examples include:

  • Reading, turning the page and forgetting what you have just read
  • Driving and arriving somewhere having forgotten the trip
  • Talking out loud when concentrating
  • Daydreaming

What a hypnotic session does is to create this state, deepen it and use the phenomena available (while in hypnosis) to bring about the desired changes through either straight suggestion or actual therapy.

Phenomenon of Hypnosis

When in a hypnotic state one of the things that occurs is an increase in the suggestibility of a person. There are many theories to explain why this (and other hypnotic phenomenon occur) however despite all the theory’s lack of consensus … the results of an individual to create change remains constant. When in this state of mind, the sub conscious mind (the part of us that creates automatic behavior) is less influenced by your own self talk and tends to accept the suggestions, ideas and concepts that are given by making personalized ‘ahuh moments’ which result in different beliefs or attitudes and therefore behavior in a given situation. In addition the subconscious is considered the place where your imagination and emotions are experienced. Therefore you experience the suggestions given to you more intensely which in turn makes them more believable and allows the subconscious mind to begin creating your reality based on the suggestions.

What is HypnosisIt is often said that the subconscious is like a computer. It does not know right or wrong, good or bad it just runs programs. The programs (behavior/beliefs/attitudes) come from many sources but perhaps the most common source is by what you ‘think’. It is generally accepted by Subconscious Mind therapists that subconscious wants to give you what you want. It knows what you want by the kinds and types of thoughts you have, and the types of questions you ask yourself during your self talk HOWEVER, most of the time our thoughts are random and negative, often we think about what we don’t want rather than what we do want.

The subconscious then goes about creating our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and attitudes, based on our automatic and often unconscious thinking. (remember you are thinking ALL the time, but we seldom pay attention to what we are thinking) Hypnosis allows for quick change by focusing our minds on what we want, and communicating that to the subconscious in a way that it understands AND in a way that is accessible to the unconscious mind. Thinking of your subconscious like a computer again. The mind will only run the programs that you have.

You may want to adopt a different belief attitude or behavior but until you actually install a new program you will often fail. It is exactly like you wanting to use the computer to create a database, but you only have software for a word processor.You have great intentions, you know what you want, but the computer won’t do it for you. Hypnosis is a lot like installing new programs that you want to have rather than the ones that have been put in there but accident, society, experience or other people.

What is Hypnosis?

Hypnosis by its very nature is an elusive and problematic construct in current psychological circles. Difficulties defining exactly what hypnosis is, how it works, and its overall effectiveness, have plagued scientists since its application was first demonstrated by the founder of hypnosis, Anton Mesmer.

Rossi (1986) stated “since the inception of hypnosis some 200 years ago, it has been impossible to find general agreement among professionals on just exactly what hypnosis is” (p.3). This feeling is echoed among many researchers, among them, Hall (1989) who has commented that hypnosis is a “collection of techniques in need of a unifying theory”. Krenz (1984), as do most paraprofessionals and the majority of practicing clinicians using hypnosis, defines it as is “an altered state of consciousness” (pg. 210); yet even this simple explanation is open to debate. The only real agreement on definitions of hypnosis by scientists are those that do not attempt to explain what it is or how it works, rather what appears to happen to subjects in hypnosis. As such Erickson’s definition of hypnosis as an “inner state of absorption” (Erickson, Rossi, and Rossi, 1976), tends to be widely accepted despite its lack of descriptive qualities.

The following video is a well known study of ‘Selective Attention’.

See how your selective focus and attention allows you to simple not notice. When in a hypnotic state used for therapy, quite often your attention is focused and selective on what your objective is. Your ability to worry about or think about or even notice what used to be an obvious and normal situation becomes much reduced as the new programming becomes your reality

The State vs Non State Argument in defining Hypnosis

Hypnotic literature’s most widely disputed issue is whether hypnosis is either ‘an altered state of consciousness’ or a combination of common conscious psychological functioning processes. Is hypnosis a state of consciousness (trance), induced via myriad’s of induction techniques as Neodissasociation theory proposes? Certainly the majority of practicing clinicians who work with hypnosis, work within the dissociation model (Oakley, Alden, and Mather; 1996) think so. However, the social cognitive school will say, if the hypnotic condition is a ‘state of mind’ why then, is there so much variation in:

1 Differing subjects ability to obtain that state, and
2 Response to suggestion, by subjects within this state.

These points are supported by the various attempts to increase suggestibility of hypnotic subjects that have failed to show conclusive results. Although the non state theorists dispute the creation of a unique state (via the hypnotic induction) they do not dispute the subjective reality or the experience of subjects who claim to be hypnotized; or believe that responses are faked or the result of compliance.

Kirsch, Mobayed, Council and Kenny (1991) presented a summary supporting the non state theorist that can be defined by the following:

  • No unique physiological markers of the hypnotized state have been identified
  • All phenomena produced by suggestion following a hypnotic induction can also be produced without the hypnotic induction.
  • Increases in suggestibility following induction can be duplicated and exceeded by a variety of other techniques (including: task motivational instructions, placebo pills and imagination training) cited in Lynn and Hue, pg. 602

For example, Barber (1996), found in all of his experiments, which compared the hypnotic condition with persons given task motivational instructions, that the obtained results were not significantly different from each other. That is, both conditions provided similar results. Barber concludes that his studies provided evidence that hypnosis is not a “state” but rather can be explained via people s motivations, attitudes and expectancies. Barber and many other researchers have focused on comparing the hypnotic condition to other psychological processes that produce non hypnotic behavior.

In the author’s opinion here lies the crucial difference between hypnotic techniques used in the applied setting, and the scientific reductionist experiments. While it may be crucial for the continuing understanding of psychological processes to adopt this reductionist experimental approach unfortunately, it has not been constructive in providing findings that representative of, or able to be generalized to the applied setting. Hypnosis is simply not used in the applied setting as a single process, rather, it is combined with other techniques (task motivation instructions, imagery, mental rehearsal etc.) to produced the desired effects.

Despite the general disagreement among researchers as to which construct best defines hypnosis (see theories of hypnosis below), the majority of practicing clinicians work within the Dissociation model (Oakley et al, 1996). This factor is not reflected in research as the majority of researchers examine the construct of hypnosis within the social cognitive model. Often, past researchers either lacked an understanding of the hypnotic process, or in an attempt to work within a theoretical construct, controlled for too many variables adversely effecting the potential for results. This reductionist approach although important for establishing the essential components of the hypnotic process, adds to the body of literature a negative bias on the effectiveness hypnotic intervention has in the applied setting. (This means that while it is important in studies and research to break each study down to explore just one component of hypnotherapy to see if it works by itself. In the real world it is the combination of all the methods used that combine to produce a result).

Major Theories of Hypnosis

There are three classifications of accepted scientific theories of the hypnotic mechanisms used primarily for research. These are the Neodissasociation, Sociocognitive and the Phenomenological theories of hypnosis. In addition to these theories which are applied in the scientific community, most paraprofessionals using hypnosis use a different construct definition, which this author has labeled the ‘Paraprofessional Account’.

Neodissasociation Theory of Hypnosis: (Hilgard; 1986)

Hilgard developed this theory based on earlier work of the French Psychiatrist Pierre Janet (1856 1947). Neodissasociation theory proposes a hierarchy of cognitive systems, each dissociated from each other, but under the control of an ‘executive ego’. Hilgard (1991) suggests that the cognitive systems are similar to “schema” as described by Bartlett (1932) in his theories of memory encoding and retrieval. The facilitation of a ‘hypnotic trance state’ can influence and change the executive functions (via suggestion) and alter the hierarchical arrangements of the substructures. Hilgard believes that this is what takes place when motor controls, perceptions and memory are changed. Under hypnotic influence, the hypnotist can repress normally available conscious experience and make normally repressed processes more accessible. This effect has been demonstrated experimentally by Hilgard, with what is known as the ‘hidden observer effect’. Hilgard’s theory supports the state theory construct in the state vs. non state argument, i.e. hypnosis is a different state of consciousness from our normal waking state, and one that is induced via the hypnotic induction process.

Social Cognitive Perspective of Hypnosis: (Coe and Sarbin, Spanos, Wagstaff)

The social cognitive perspective does not view hypnosis as an altered state or as a single process; rather hypnosis is a response due to the social and situational aspects of the hypnotic context, along with the subject’s attitudes, expectations and beliefs about hypnosis. Social cognitivists are skeptical of hypnotic behavior., claiming that such behaviors can be observed without hypnosis by simply motivating and instructing subjects. Coe and Sarbin, and Spanos contend that hypnotic behavior. is a role governed social behavior. in which one participant plays the role of hypnotist while another plays the role of (being a) subject. The subject uses ordinary cognitive strategies such as imagery, fantasy, and selective attention to create subjective experiences he or she then report being hypnotized While Coe and Sarbin place an emphasis on the subject merely playing the hypnotic role, Spanos contends that the behavior. is directed by personal goals, perceptions, attribution’s of the social task and private experience. Wagstaff maintains that different hypnotic behavior. and displays by subjects will require different explanations, and are usually a combination of concepts such as; conformity, compliance, belief, attitudes, expectations, attention, concentration, relaxation, distraction, role enactment and imagination.

Interactive Phenomenological Theory of Hypnosis (McConkey; Sheehan)

These Interactive Phenomenological theories place importance on the interaction of multiple variables during hypnosis, which are dependent upon the understandings of the subjects experience (Lynn and Rhue, pg. 11). Parallels exist between this and the Sociocognitive perspective on the importance of the multitude of interactive cognitive and situational determinants (attitudes, beliefs, expectancies etc.); however this approach places more importance to the interactive process and differences between hypnotic and waking behavior. In addition the subjects personality traits have a prominent role in shaping the hypnotic experience.

Although among psychologists, there seems to be no firm definition as to what hypnosis is and how it works; this appears not to be the case among hypnotherapists without psychological training. Indeed, paraprofessionals using hypnosis generally have a consensus as to how they define the construct of hypnosis and its role in producing change. The explanation although simple and perhaps naive, provides, when described to the client, a working metaphor that facilitates high expectancy for change. Previous reviews of hypnotic studies have failed to consider the lay approach, perhaps due to its simplistic, naive nature and lack of empirical evidence. However it is important to take it into account for two reasons. First, the majority of persons who engage in hypnosis for sporting performance enhancement (or therapy), do so via paraprofessionals rather than trained psychologists or researchers. Second, the majority of exceptional claims that spur the research into the effects of hypnosis come from these non controlled subjective accounts, of subsequent improvements.

Paraprofessional Account of Hypnosis

Paraprofessionals have tended to use the same definition of hypnosis for decades, although it recently has been paraphrased by Heap (1996) who suggests that among the myriad of varied processes the two central components of hypnosis are: Trance and Suggestion (p. 498). The trance state is viewed as a natural but distinct state of consciousness that is automatically entered into by everyone, every day, when participating in activities such as: day dreaming, talking to oneself or being engrossed in concentration. These activities (as is trance) are usually associated with increases in alpha brain wave activity, and can be auto induced via a multitude of hypnotic induction techniques. The most common method of inducing the trance state is via suggestions of relaxation and cognitive disassociation. Heap defines trance as a “waking state in which the subject’s attention is detached from his or her immediate environment and is absorbed in an inner experience such as feelings, cognition and imagery” (p. 498).

The trance state facilitates communication with the subconscious mind, (the part beyond consciousness that carries out automatic operations; including beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, motor programs and almost anything that is “done without conscious effort”). The trance state allows for, communication with the subconscious mind, by direct suggestions and guided imagery, which in turn creates changes in an individual’s automatic programming. Conversely communication can occur from the subconscious mind to the conscious mind (Hilgard’s hidden observer), providing insight, recall of memories and an ability to created a suggested subjective experience (by the hypnotist) without the hypnotized subject’s conscious effort.

Paraprofessionals tend to view the subconscious as an individual entity capable of independent communication and re programmable behavior. The function of the subconscious mind is to serve the day to day functioning of an individual by taking care of their automatic needs. Some lay hypnotists also contend that the subconscious stores memories in perfect details which are able to be accessed with hypnosis and recalled in perfect detail. Many of the constructs used by paraprofessional explanations and definitions of hypnosis have obviously not stood up to scientific investigation, for example Bartlett’s (1932) explanation of the role of schema in memories, clearly demonstrates that memory encoding and recall is based on individual schema and not the actual event itself. Currently the debate over false memories, that are often elicited via hypnosis and suggestion, demonstrates that the clarity of a memory does not reflect its accuracy.

What is Hypnosis?.. There is no clear answer, but any one using hypnosis correctly knows that it is a very powerful method of creating changes in attitudes, beliefs and behaviors . often without too much conscious effort. It is safe, quick and a remarkable vehicle to the power of ones own mind.


Andrew Dobson

Dr Andrew Dobson is a qualified Psychologist, Hypnotherapist and Life Coach and the owner and creator of Mindfit Hypnosis - providing online hypnotherapy since 2002. For over 20 years, Dr Dobson of Mindfit, has provided Real Therapy based on Science using the Subconscious Modalities of Hypnotherapy and NLP.