What Is Hypnosis?
Most people's only exposure to hypnosis takes place in ways that typically both intrigue and frighten them. They often see hypnosis in films and television shows where it is portrayed as a frightening instrument of mind control. They see it as a tool used by unscrupulous villains to enslave the will of helpless victims, or they see stage show artistes who use hypnosis to make people do and say things that seem well outside of the realm of what that person would likely ever do or say under normal conditions.
About Hypnosis & Hypnotherapy
Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2011. All rights reserved.
The internet is, unfortunately, awash with false information about hypnotism, often perpetuated by poorly-trained hypnotherapists. Here are five basic points about hypnosis and hypnotherapy that every hypnotherapist should be aware of. These facts can easily be gleaned, or substantiated, by reading modern books and journals on the subject…
1. Hypnotism is the opposite of Mesmerism
Indeed, hypnotism very much evolved in active (at times, fierce) opposition to Mesmerism. Many people confusedly believe that Franz Mesmer was the first hypnotist but in fact, the word “hypnotism” and the practice of hypnotherapy were founded in 1841 by the Scottish surgeon James Braid. Braid spent his latter decades battling against Mesmerism, which he rejected as a pseudoscientific theory. Mesmer and his followers believed that they cured patients by projecting an invisible “fluid” called “animal magnetism” into the bodies of patients. Braid thought this was hocus pocus and carried out many debunking experiments, proposing instead that the effects were due to suggestion and focused attention on imaginative ideas, accompanied by expectation, the conceptualisation underlying most subsequent hypnotism.
2. Stage hypnosis has very little to do with experimental hypnotism or hypnotherapy
“Stage hypnosis” is actually older than hypnosis, if that makes sense. That’s because virtually identical performances were carried out in the early 19th century by showmen (or conmen, depending on how you look at it) who claimed that subjects on stage were entering a trance-like state, responding to hallucinatory dramas, etc., because of the performer’s telepathic powers, or animal magnetism, etc. When hypnotism became popular, showmen carried on performing the same tricks but labelled what they were doing as “stage hypnosis” to provide a more plausible, psychological explanation, as audiences became more sceptical about the paranormal over the decades. However, many of the traditional stunts used in stage hypnosis shows have nothing whatsoever to do with either suggestion or hypnosis and merely involve “smoke and mirrors” type deception.
For example, the most popular stage hypnosis trick was traditionally, the “human plank”, in which a subject supposedly in a “trance” was suspended rigid between two chairs while someone stood on top of their body. This is a “playground trick” that merely depends on the fact that the human body is much more capable of supporting pressure in that position than audiences tend to assume. It has absolutely nothing to do with hypnosis, and the trick works with or without any hypnotic induction or even suggestions. Many stage hypnotists are happy to confess behind the scenes that their acts do not require “hypnotic trance” and often deceive the audiences. For example, the famous magician and stage hypnotist of twenty years, Kreskin, has become a kind of “whistleblower” concerning stage hypnosis, having written several books debunking the acts from an “insider” perspective. Nevertheless, even many hypnotherapists are fooled into believing that stage hypnosis is what it appears to be, sometimes even attending training courses in hypnotherapy run by stage hypnotists. Most stage hypnotists are neither therapists nor psychologists. Many have little knowledge relating to hypnotherapy and are not actually qualified to deliver therapeutic training.
3. Hypnotism has nothing to do with “hypnotic trance”
It’s another common misconception, shared by many hypnotherapists, that hypnosis works by inducing an “altered state of consciousness” called “hypnotic trance.” In fact, the founders of hypnotherapy, in the Victorian era, Braid and Bernheim, never proposed that hypnotism had anything to do with a “hypnotic trance”, this idea partly comes from stage hypnosis and partly from the widespread confusion of hypnotism and Mesmerism. Virtually all modern researchers either completely reject the concept of “hypnotic trance” or posit something very far removed or watered down compared to what most people take that term to mean. Attempts to induce hypnotic trance are well-known, from the accumulated evidence of a great many research studies, to have relatively small effects, e.g., increasing suggestibility by around 15-20% above an already moderately high baseline level.
Most modern researchers now prefer to conceptualise hypnotism in terms of ordinary “cognitive” factors, i.e., beliefs and attitudes, such as the expectancy of responding to suggestions and focused attention, etc. In other words, hypnotherapy seems to work quite well but not because it induces a hypnotic trance, even people who want to stick by this old idea are forced to admit that attempting to induce a “trance” has very mild effects, which sceptics attribute to increased expectation and focused attention. (As an aside, there is very little evidence to support the notion of “indirect suggestion” made popular by Milton Erickson and his followers, which his contemporaries pointed out appeared to be something other than “hypnotism” and to employ fundamentally different processes, etc.)
4. A fairly large volume of positive research evidence exists concerning hypnotism
James Braid, the founder of hypnotherapy, was a passionate empiricist and insisted that hypnotism should be subjected to careful experimental investigation, as far back as 1841. Since that time psychologists have continued to carry out many experiments on hypnosis. In 1933, Clark L. Hull, arguably the most influential American behavioural psychologist, and president of the American Psychological Association, published a groundbreaking book detailing a whole programme of systematic behavioural research carried out on hypnosis. Hull paved the way for many subsequent psychologists to carry out serious research on hypnosis, long before research began on any other psychological therapy.
PubMed, the public face of the National Institute for Health’s database of books and articles in medicine, the largest and most important database of its kind, contains a whole category for “hypnosis” with approximately 11,000 books and articles listed, more than for any other psychological therapy apart from cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). Recent reviews of evidence from clinical trials has generally provided good evidence for the efficacy of hypnotherapy, especially in the treatment of pain and anxiety. However, unlike most other psychological therapies, hypnotherapy has also been subjected to considerable experimental investigation, i.e., in laboratory settings, where brain scans or behavioural experiments have been used to examine what happens to hypnotic subjects. Because hypnosis lends itself well to experimental studies like these a whole category of research evidence exists that other psychological therapies cannot easily imitate.
5. Hypnotism is simple and easy and anyone can do it
No other subject is surrounded by so much misconception. All the false information about hypnotism tends to confuse subjects and a number of research studies have shown that popular misconceptions about the nature of hypnosis actually inhibit people from responding properly. These inhibiting ideas come mainly from stage hypnosis, such as the idea that it involves being under the hypnotists “control” or that the subject should be unconscious or asleep or amnestic for the experience, etc. Braid originally defined hypnotism as an extension of normal psychological functioning, involving heightened focused attention on imaginative ideas, or mental images, of some response, accompanied by increased expectation of it occurring. No special altered state of consciousness or “trance” is required to do this, just the ability to imagine things or adopt a confident, expectant mind-set. Research on hypnosis has consistently shown that hypnotic inductions are not necessary to respond to hypnotic suggestions, although they may help slightly by raising expectation and focusing attention, etc. Likewise, when people are asked to put themselves into self-hypnosis, they tend to respond about as well to subsequent suggestions as when another person, a hypnotist, attempts to induce a “trance”.
A great many studies have measured hypnotic responsiveness in large samples and shown that it follows a standard “bell-shaped” distribution (slightly positively skewed), i.e., the majority of people are moderately responsive to hypnosis, about 20% are highly responsive and about 15% are poorly responsive. However, many studies, largely stemming from Prof. Nicholas Spanos’ seminal research at Carleton University in Canada, have shown that people who respond poorly can normally be trained within an hour or so to become moderately or even highly responsive. This has been found to largely require changing their attitudes toward hypnosis to dispel common misconceptions, which seem to have an inhibiting effect. In particular, the “wait and see” attitude of passivity encouraged by hypnotherapists who tell clients things like “hypnosis is an altered state in which I will speak directly to your unconscious mind”, seems to generally be counter-productive, and subjects tend to respond better when asked to consciously and actively “think along” with suggestions by imagining the things being suggested by the hypnotist.
Fact & Fiction About Hypnotism
This page attempts to correct some common misconceptions about hypnotism and hypnotherapy.
Hypnosis is dangerous
Hypnosis is no more dangerous than meditation or relaxation, which it resembles. There no credible reports of anyone ever being harmed by hypnosis. Several experiments have been conducted in this area and have failed to provide evidence for the notion that hypnosis is dangerous.