What Is Hypnosis?

What Is Hypnosis?

Hypnosis is a trance-like state that resembles sleep but is induced by a person whose suggestions are readily accepted by the subject. Some supposed hypnotic indicators and subjective changes can be achieved without relaxation or a lengthy induction by means of simple suggestion or waking hypnosis, a fact that increases the controversy and misunderstandings around hypnosis and the hypnotic state.


Hypnosis is a controversial topic, as many researchers think that there is really no such thing. There is some history dating back at least to the 1700s of the use of mentalism and other methods some of which are now labelled as 'hypnosis'. The first recognizable practitioner of hypnosis was Franz Anton Mesmer, an Austrian physician of the 18th-century.

Abbe Faria was the first man who attempted to use the power of suggestion to cure illnesses. He was eventually discredited but his followers continued to hypnotise people with his techniques. The term hypnosis came from a Scottish physician, James Braid, who used the Greek word for sleep to create the term. James Esdale a Scottish physician in India used hypnosis as a surgical anesthetic. Modern research however indicates that in these cases, the ability of each individual patient to mentally reduce pain or focus on the imagination as a tool for pain relief is how the process actually occurs, and that the concept of 'hypnosis' is misleading.

Psychiatrist Amir Raz has used hypnotic suggestion as way of controlling automatic dispositions, specifically the reading of words in the Stroop effect. There is as such a great deal of controversy about whether there is any such thing as hypnosis. Many of the effects produced by 'hypnosis' have several alternate theories to describe their occurrence. Since the use of the term 'hypnosis' many of its 'practitioners' have been subject to much research, criticism, curiosity and myths.

Theories of Hypnosis

Some theories of hypnosis attempt to describe hypnotic phenomena in terms of brain activity while others concentrate more on the phenomenological experience. In either case, a fundamental distinction is between "state" and "non-state" theories of hypnosis. State theorists believe that an altered state of consciousness is a core part of hypnosis, whereas non-state theorists believe that more mundane psychological processes such as focused attention and expectation are sufficient to explain hypnotic phenomena.

The precise definition of what constitutes an altered state of consciousness is a matter of some debate. Although many people who are hypnotized describe their experience as "altered" it is difficult to use these terms in the absence of a prior definition. The American Psychological Association remains neutral in the argument between "state" and "non-state" theorists. However, this controversy may soon be resolved, as modern brain-imaging techniques offer hope for an increased understanding of the science behind hypnosis, and as the value of both perspectives is increasingly recognized.

Hypnosis Methodologies

The act of inducing hypnosis is referred to as an induction procedure. There is no consensus among practitioners or researchers for which method is the most effective induction procedure. Many associate hypnotic induction with a swinging pendulum, but there are many usable techniques. Most commonly the hypnotist will use calming techniques designed to relax the subject by suggesting that their limbs are going limp, eyelids are getting heavy, etc. Relaxation is not a key factor, however, as hypnosis can be induced during vigorous exercise.

Hypnotic susceptibility is a measurable amount of responsiveness that one can have to hypnosis. Not all people can be hypnotized, but about 10% of people respond exceptionally well. There is little evidence linking susceptibility to intelligence or personality traits, but some research has linked hypnosis to the amount of absorption and imagination in subjects. Recent research suggests that highly hypnotizable people have high sensory and perceptual gating abilities that allow them to block some stimuli from awareness (Barnier, McConkey, and Wright, 2004).

There is a common claim that no one can be hypnotized against his will. The counter-claim given by many hypnotists is that while it is not possible make someone do anything against his will, it is possible to change what it is that he wishes to do. This lowering in inhibitions is called disinhibition and can sometimes be found in the hypnotized subject and leads him to performing acts that he would normally consider socially unacceptable or simply would not do otherwise.

New research, developed by Gerald Kein, Board Certified Hypnotist, has claimed that everybody is equally hypnotizable. The rule is simply "people accept hypnosis in direct relationship to the amount of fear they have." Successful hypnosis is attained by the removal of any inhibitory fear. With fear removed, most individuals can be deeply hypnotized in 5-10 seconds. Licensed mental health professionals are generally not trained in these techniques and use the old progressive relaxation hypnotic induction developed in the 1940s (Kein, 1985).

Alpha- and theta-state theories

Through data collected by electroencephalography (EEGs), four major brain-wave patterns�frequency of electrical impulses firing from the brain�have been identified. The beta state (alert/working) is defined as 14�32 Hz, the alpha state (relaxed/reflecting) as the 7�14 Hz, the theta state (visual imagery) as 4�7 Hz, and the delta state (sleeping/dreaming/deep sleep) as approximately 3�5 Hz.

One physiological definition of hypnosis states that the brainwave level is not necessary to work on issues such as stopping smoking, managing weight, reducing phobias, improving athletic performance, etc., is the alpha state. The alpha state is commonly associated with closing one's eyes, relaxation, and daydreaming.

Another physiological definition states that the theta state is required for therapeutic change. The theta state is associated with hypnosis for surgery, hypnoanesthesia (the use of hypnosis to numb sensation of pain), and hypnoanalgesia (the use of hypnosis to decrease sensitivity to pain), which occur more readily in the theta and delta states. Anesthetics, sedatives and hypnotics disrupt neuronal synchrony, thought to underlie theta waves, in both humans and animals, as well as in simple neuronal circuits. It should be noted that hypnoanalgesia of the skin is a common test for somnambulism. Arm and body catalepsy are one of a few tests done to determine readiness for these surgical applications.

However, it is important to reflect upon the fact that both arm and body catalepsy can be induced in normal non-hypnotized subjects. Indeed, arm catalepsy is a standard stage-hypnotist's test of susceptibility. Moreover, normal, non-hypnotized subjects can be found in any of these states of cortical arousal without also displaying any of the behaviour, traits or the enhanced suggestibility associated with being hypnotized.

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Social Constructionism and Role-Playing Theory

This theory suggests that individuals are playing a role and that really there is no such thing as hypnosis. A relationship is built depending on how much rapport has been established between the "hypnotist" and the subject (see Hawthorne effect, Pygmalion effect, and the Placebo effect).

Generally, during the communication process people can become more receptive to suggestion, causing changes in the way they feel, think, and behave. Some psychologists such as Robert Baker claim that what we call hypnosis is actually a form of learned social behavior, a complex hybrid of social compliance, relaxation, and suggestibility that can account for many esoteric behavioral manifestations. Psychologists, such as Sarbin and Spanos, have suggested that strong social expectations are played out by subjects, who believe they are in a state of "hypnosis", behaving in a way that they imagine a "hypnotized" person would behave.

Nicholas Spanos states "hypnotic procedures influence behavior indirectly by altering subjects' motivations, expectations and interpretations" and hypothesized that the behaviors associated with hypnosis are acted out knowingly by the person. He alleged that there are two reasons that cause people to misconstrue their state of consciousness as hypnosis. One of the reasons being that people believe that their behavior is caused by an external source instead of the self. The second is related to the way hypnotic rituals are performed. The hypnotist says certain things which are first interpreted as voluntary and then later on in the procedure as involuntary. An example being "relax the muscles in your legs" and then later "your legs feel limp and heavy".

Much experimental work has demonstrated that the experiences of supposedly hypnotized subjects can be dramatically shaped by expectations and social nuances. In short, individuals are choosing to act out a role and experiencing effects based on their expectations and subtle methods of communication, the mechanism by which these take place have in part been socially constructed and are not based on the idea of an altered state of consciousness.

Dissociation and Neodissociation Theories

Pierre Janet originally developed the idea of dissociation of consciousness, as a result of his work with hysterical patients. He believed that hypnosis was an example of dissociation: areas of an individual's behavioral control are split off from ordinary awareness. In this case, hypnosis would remove some control from the conscious mind and the individual will respond with autonomic, reflexive behavior. Weitzenhoffer describes hypnosis via this theory as "dissociation of awareness from the majority of sensory and even strictly neural events taking place."

Neuropsychological theory of hypnosis

Neuropsychological theories of hypnosis attempt to explain hypnotic phenomena in terms of alterations in brain activity. Based on large amounts of EEG research, hypnosis appears to shift brain activity to the anterior cingulate cortex and left prefrontal cortex in those susceptible.

Hypnosis as a conditioned process leading to sleep

Ivan Pavlov believed that hypnosis was a "partial sleep". He observed that the various degrees of hypnosis did not significantly differ physiologically from the waking state and hypnosis depended on insignificant changes of environmental stimuli. Pavlov also suggested that lower brain stem mechanisms were involved in hypnotic conditioning.

Some modern well-known hypnotherapists subscribe to this theory, since in hypnosis, the subject typically appears to be asleep because of eye closure that is typically part of the induction procedure. However, there is quite a bit of literature on blood pressure, reflexes, physiochemical and EEG studies which indicates that hypnosis more closely resembles complete wakefulness.

Hyper�suggestibility theory

Currently a more popular theory, it states the subject focuses attention by responding to the suggestion of the hypnotist. As attention is focused and magnified, the hypnotist's words are gradually accepted without the subject carrying any conscious censorship of what is being said. This is not unlike the athlete listening to the last pieces of advice from a coach minutes before an important sport event: Concentration filters out anything that is unimportant and magnifies what is said about what really matters for the subject.

Informational theory

This theory applies the concept of the brain-as-computer model. In electronic systems, a system adjusts its feedback networks to increase the signal-to-noise ratio for optimum functioning, called a "steady state". Increasing the receptability of a receptor enables messages to be more clearly received from a transmitter primarily by trying to reduce the interference (noise) as much as possible. Thus, the object of the hypnotist is to use techniques to reduce the interference and increase the receptability of specific messages (suggestions).

Systems theory

This theory may be regarded as an extension of James Braid's original conceptualization of hypnosis - as involving a process of greatly enhancing or depressing the activity of the nervous system. It takes and establishes the necessary organization of the nervous system into interacting subsystems. On that basis it develops a picture of hypnotic phenomena as involving not only increasing or decreasing of the activity of particular subsystems, but on their interaction. As a result it brings into centre stage the phenomenon of feed-back loops, familiar in systems theory, and thereby throws light on a mechanism for creating the more extreme of hypnotic phenomena.

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