How Hypnosis Works

What is Hypnosis?

That’s a big question, and if you ask 20 different hypnotists you are likely to get 20 different answers. A good place to start might be the American Psychological Association:

In 2014 the Society of Psychological Hypnosis (Div. 30 of the APA) prepared the following official definitions:

Hypnosis: A state of consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterized by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion.

Hypnotic induction: A procedure designed to induce hypnosis.

Hypnotizability: An individual’s ability to experience suggested alterations in physiology, sensations, emotions, thoughts or behavior during hypnosis.

Hypnotherapy: The use of hypnosis in the treatment of a medical or psychological disorder or concern.

 

One way we can get a better understanding of hypnosis is to talk about what it is not. Let’s dispel some of the common myths about hypnosis. Many people have never experienced hypnosis and have only heard or seen it in the context of a stage show or movie. These performances are entertaining and can give the wrong impression about how hypnosis works.

Hypnosis Myths & Misconceptions:

Many people get their ideas about hypnosis from television, books, movies, or even comic books. Though using hypnosis as a plot device might be entertaining and make for good stories, they are often inaccurate.

Will I know what’s happening while I’m in trance? / Will I be asleep?

You are still aware of your surroundings in trance. This misconception about hypnosis likely comes from the use of the term “sleep.” Hypnotists use that word because the unconscious knows how to perform that suggestion. To your unconscious mind, it means close your eyes and go into a relaxed state. Hypnosis causes people to experience a very, very relaxed state of mind; and they may outwardly appear like they are sleeping.

Hypnotists have attempted to find a better word to use; but frankly, it is the simplest and most direct suggestion. Because of this, most people expect the trance to feel more like sleep. A client might expect to not be aware of what is going on around them, like when they are asleep at night. That is not how it works or feels. In a light trance, the conscious mind is very alert and aware of everything. It may even be described as hyper-aware. Deeper states of trance can create more noticeable effects, but some part of you is always aware of what is going on around you. In a trance state your concentration is laser focused, and your imagination and memory are enhanced.

Isn’t hypnosis mind control?

The second biggest misconception is that the while under hypnosis the hypnotist has control over you. Hypnosis is not mind control. A person won’t do anything that is against their will. It is entirely possible to reject a suggestion. On that same note, you cannot be hypnotized against your will either. You must be a willing subject. Your hypnotist must have your full cooperation. If a hypnotist were to give you suggestions that disagreed with your morals or ethics, you would simply reject them.

Can you get stuck in hypnosis?

Another common concern is the possibility of becoming “stuck” in trance. In the hundreds (probably thousands) of years, hypnosis has been used there has never been a case of this happening. If your hypnotist was suddenly called away on an emergency in the middle of your session, you might continue to relax for a bit, but at some point, you would become curious about your surroundings and emerge from trance to investigate.

Will I tell all my secrets under hypnosis?

Hypnosis is not truth serum. It is possible to lie while in trance. You still have control over what you say in trance. No one can make you do anything in hypnosis that is against your morals or ethics. If you feel strongly about keeping a secret, you will. You may feel more comfortable to talk about things you would like to talk about in trance, but you won’t divulge secrets.

Don’t I have to be weak minded to be hypnotized?

No. Trance is a natural, normal state that we find ourselves in and out of every day. Hypnosis is also a voluntary process. Any willing person that can concentrate on the hypnotist’s voice, and follow the instructions can be hypnotized. Mental strength doesn’t matter. As a matter of fact, more intelligent and creative people tend to be more receptive to hypnosis. Strength of mind really has little to do with it. It doesn’t matter if a person is weak or strong minded. Anyone resisting is a poor hypnotic subject. Hypnosis is not a contest of wills. Instead, it takes a strong willed and imaginative person to be a great hypnotic subject.

Why Hypnosis?

We all have a conscious mind and an unconscious mind. Hypnosis deals with our unconscious mind. Your conscious mind is responsible for logical, analytical, linear thinking. Your unconscious mind is more symbolic and holistic. If you think of your mind like a cruise ship, the conscious mind is the captain of the ship; using the same analogy, your unconscious mind is the rest of the crew, the passengers, and the ship. Your conscious minds job is to evaluate information. It handles executive functions and makes decisions, but it has some limitations. For example, your conscious mind can only handle and manipulate seven to ten items.

The unconscious mind, in contrast, can process millions of pieces of data every second. The unconscious has to process our perceptions, habits, beliefs and autonomic bodily functions (like breathing and digestion). Even though our conscious mind can evaluate and make considered decisions about things, it takes time to do it and often relies on the unconscious mind to handle routine tasks. These routine tasks are what we might call habits.

There are two ways we can form our unconscious responses. This is either by “flash” learning (learning from intense experiences) or by steady and continual reinforcement. A good example of slow and steady learning is how you learned to tie your shoes. You probably had to learn that behavior step-by-step before repeating it over and over. During this process of repetition, you were using your conscious to accomplish the task. While this was occurring, your unconscious was creating a long-term behavior. An unconscious task.

Even though the conscious mind is “in charge,” we sometimes reinforce the wrong behaviors. Or we have to change behaviors that no longer serve our goals.  This can be hard to do because the unconscious is very resistant to change. Otherwise, we would be constantly changing our habits and beliefs, or learning habits that might not be useful. Have you ever accidentally deleted something you needed on your computer or phone? Or have you ever run out of space for things you really wanted to save? The unconscious wants to know that you are sure about making changes.

That is where hypnosis comes in. With hypnosis, you can bypass the part of your unconscious mind that resists changes. With hypnosis, we can quickly and easily change both habits and beliefs. Habits are the simple routines that we have learned by repetition that have become involuntary. Beliefs are an assumption or set of assumptions that create sets of habits. Since the unconscious mind runs the body, your perceptions, and emotional responses, once you make changes to your beliefs, you can use those resources to make some pretty spectacular things happen. Belief changes can allow you to change your emotions, change whole sets of habits, and modify how you perceive situations.

What is hypnosis like?

You will never notice the hypnosis. It is odorless, tasteless, and completely invisible. You can really only experience hypnosis by its side effects. Most people and even many hypnotists use the term trance interchangeably with hypnosis. They do go together like peanut butter and jelly, but they are not the same thing. Trance is a description of the experience, or state of being; whereas, hypnosis is a description of a process, the thing a hypnotist does to get you into a trance.

Now that we have that covered… Everyone’s experience of trance is unique. Trance is a skill. Some people are naturally talented; most people can get better with practice.

Disclaimer: You don’t need to be in trance for hypnosis to be effective. Hypnosis can occur without trance.

You might feel any number of sensations while in trance. For example, most people find the sensation to be very enjoyable. They often comment that upon waking they feel like they have had a refreshing nap. Most people’s muscles grow loose and relaxed. Their breathing is generally deeper and slower.  Feelings of warmth or tingling are also common.

During hypnosis, some people feel completely focused and attentive, while others report that their mind drifts away to some pleasant memory or imagined scene. Their recollection may only be a general sense of what is said rather than exact phrases. Often people report an increased ability to visualize. Most people experience an altered perception of time. Their trance may seem much longer or shorter in duration than it actually is.

Trance is a state in which you can think clearly and your imagination is active. Trance is a state where you could move if you wanted to or if there were an emergency, but you would rather just remain delightfully relaxed.