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All About Hypnosis Part 2: Defining Hypnosis

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Defining Hypnosis
Defining the brain and hypnosis.

Hello and welcome back to part 2 of our all about hypnosis Series. Everywhere I go everyone wants to know more about what I do. The instant I tell them I am a hypnotist they usually have a million questions to throw at me. And often they themselves have trouble defining hypnosis as a term. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it because its an important topic to me. I love teaching people what we know, what we don’t, and what our personal definitions are at Hoosier Hypnosis.

If you missed the first part of our series you can find part 1 here . Or if you’d like more information check out our All About Hypnosis page for more information and links.

So today I thought we would dig a bit deeper and talk about what hypnosis is and isn’t. The various theories out there and the variety of definitions.

Lets get started!

What is Hypnosis?

That’s a big question, and if you ask 20 different hypnotists you are likely to get 20 different answers. The truth is that we still are learning a great deal about how hypnosis works.

However, 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.

This definition is not wrong but what does that mean? We’ll come back to this in a moment, I promise.

Imprecise Definitions

However precise this definition appears, it is not the whole story. Mainly because we don’t know all the parts of the brain involved, how they interconnect, or exactly how we get the effects that we do. Hence why many researchers get hung up on theories and state vs non state questions.

The truth is that we don’t have a precise definition. Which is fairly common for a number of concepts related to the mind and consciousness. We just don’t have enough data to find the words to create a near perfect definition. For example, Webster defines hypnosis as “a trancelike state that resembles sleep but is induced by a person whose suggestions are readily accepted by the subject” and “any of various conditions that resemble sleep.” While consistent with the perceptions people maintain about hypnosis, it is only part of the picture.

Contradictory Explanations

The question of whether hypnosis is an altered state or a continuum of our normal state of awareness has been debated. You can see this reflected in the following contradictory definitions of hypnosis:

“Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness. It is characterized by an increased ability to produce desirable changes in habit patterns, motivations, self-image, and lifestyle. Alterations may be produced in physiological functions, such as pain, that are usually inaccessible to psychological influence.” – Clinical Hypnosis Principles and Applications by Crasilneck & Hall.

“Hypnosis is not a ‘state,’ but rather a ‘descriptive abstraction’ referring to a number of interrelated and overlapping processes.” –Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis by Kroger.

Words Matter

There also appears to be a large misconception related to the words that hypnotists use. While hypnosis can resemble sleep. It doesn’t have to. In fact, most hypnotists hate that we have to use that word at all. However, it appears to be the best one we have at our disposal for the time being.

In fact, there are types of hypnosis that do not involve sleep like states at all. Waking hypnosis and conversational hypnosis are not like sleep at all. It is a common misconception. in many cases, a subject is actually more awake, more focused, and concentrating more intensely.

The word hypnosis doesn’t help either. It is derived from the Greek word “hypnos” meaning sleep. As I mentioned in our section on hypnosis myths and misconceptions, the person who coined the term (James Braid, the father of modern hypnosis) attempted to rename the phenomena. He wishes to call it “monoideism” (meaning focus on one idea), but the name had already stuck. This concept, however, is far more in line with the subjects experience of hypnosis.

More Accurate Definitions

This is where we come back to that definition from the beginning. It fits in with the phenomena Braid described. This heightened attention leading to higher suggestibility. Below is a second definition that is similar to what Braid might have agreed with.

“[Hypnosis is]…an increase in focal attention to one aspect of the total situation and a concomitant constriction of peripheral awareness of other aspects.” – Trance and Treatment: Clinical Uses of Hypnosis by Spiegel & Spiegel.

Our Definition

While I would entirely agree with James Braid, I would like to expound on his definition. As well as those mentioned above. Hypnosis is definitely an enhanced state of concentration brought on through a relaxed state. However, I would also add some additional caveats and a bit of an explanation.

Hypnosis is a process that bypasses our critical mind and seeks the attention of our autonomic or unconscious mind. By this I mean the part of our mind that automatically makes decisions in a pinch without over-analyzing them. The part of our mind that has access to all the data and sensory input that comes in, and not just that which we need immediate access to.

Our unconscious mind sees and hears things that we don’t catch with our conscious mind. And our unconscious controls a number of things that we cannot consciously control such as our heart rate. It is also that part of the brain that steps forward when an emergency happens or we tune out during a long drive. It is the part of our brain that acts when our conscious mind is otherwise preoccupied by stress, anxiety or other thoughts.

We believe that we use hypnosis to bypass this part of the brain. In this way, we work directly with the part of your brain underlying all of your decisions. While I think this is just an add on to Braid’s definition, I believe it is an important delineation. If nothing else it clarifies our position on the topic.

Definitions Matter

Hypnosis is well-studied, but as in many fields of science, theories are debated. These definitions at least give a glimpse of hypnosis from the scientific perspective and a more balanced understanding of one of the most fascinating phenomena of the human mind.


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