“What is hypnosis?” — This is a lovely question, because there are so many answers!

Magic dust

Some people think that hypnosis isn’t real, that it’s just an act. Some think that it’s some kind of woo-woo magic. Others think that it’s the work of the devil! Most people admit that they don’t know what it is.

Let’s start with something that hypnosis isn’t.

It’s not gullibility or stupidity

Some people think that hypnosis only happens to stupid or gullible people. “Only stupid people can fall for that!” Or, “I can’t be hypnotised because I’m too clever.”

The fact is that well educated, highly intelligent people, with strong critical skills and a discerning eye, can be hypnotised as well as anyone. It doesn’t take stupidity or gullibility to be hypnotised. It takes intelligence and suggestibility. It takes imagination.

What’s the difference between gullibility and suggestibility? Gullibility is when you accept things told to you without critical analysis or confirmation. Suggestibility means having an open mind, being ready to accept any new idea as long as it is sensible and passes critical testing. There is a huge difference between gullibility and suggestibility.

A hypnotist uses your innate suggestibility to implant important suggestions. If all it took were gullibility, we wouldn’t have to hypnotise you; but we would only be able to work with gullible people!

Now, let’s move on to what science already knows as fact.

The science

When people are put into an MRI machine, researchers can see a clear difference between people who have been hypnotised and people who are pretending or imagining. For example, when giving volunteers a carefully-measured dose of pain, the brains of those trying to ignore the pain, or pretend or imagine that they don’t feel it, show significant differences compared to the brains of those who have been hypnotised to not feel pain.

Surgical operation

Some time ago, a surgical operation was shown live on More 4, a UK channel, where the patient received no anaesthesia, but was instead hypnotised not to feel any pain during a hernia operation. (An anaesthesiologist was on hand in case anything went wrong.)

The operation went smoothly, and the patient was conscious and in good spirits throughout.

You have probably read of hypnosis being used to cancel out pain in dental work where the patient has been allergic to anaesthetic drugs. This has been done many times successfully.

These instances cannot be faked, not even by a master actor, showing that hypnosis is genuine. But is it magic (or the work of the devil)?

I’m a scientist at heart, so I’ll say that everything is explainable in science, even if we haven’t found the answers yet. Hypnosis can seem like magic, even to hypnotherapists and stage hypnotists, but it’s not. It’s a genuine faculty of the human mind.

So, hypnosis is… what?

The biggest problem with figuring out what hypnosis is that it hasn’t ever been clearly defined. There are a few contradictory scales, and many contradictory definitions. Myths abound. The Oxford English Dictionary likens hypnosis to sleep, despite there being no connection to sleep, and knowing that a hypnotised person usually is acutely aware of what’s going on even while their eyes are closed. Some hypnotists say that a hypnotised person cannot be made to do something that they would normally refuse to do, while others say the opposite.

At our current stage of technology, we can define hypnosis not by what it is, but rather by what it does. Hypnosis, successfully done, puts a person into a state of mind where suggestions are quickly (even immediately) accepted as real, and become part of the person’s world.

In a stage show, a successfully hypnotised person (“hypnotee”) might be told that the hypnotist is invisible, and the hypnotee genuinely will not see the hypnotist. In a therapy session, the hypnotee might be told that they will feel calm and confident during a public speaking engagement, and that’s exactly what will happen.

The difficulty

The difficulty with this is threefold.

The ability to be hypnotised

Firstly, everyone seems to have a different ability to be hypnotised — yes, being hypnotised seems to be a skill! Some people can be hypnotised fully, so that what the hypnotist tells them becomes their reality. They can be made to do something that they’d normally refuse to do (although most hypnotists believe that a hypnotee can’t be made to do something that they see as unethical).

Some people can be partly hypnotised. For example, they might be unable to hallucinate something not real (like the hypnotist being invisible), yet find that their hand can be stuck firmly to their armchair.

Yet others seem not to be able to be hypnotised at all, or only after a great deal of effort.

Obviously, the first type of person (highly hypnotisable) is ideal for pain-free surgery without anaesthesia, which is a good idea because research has shown that with such surgeries, people tend to heal quicker than those with anaesthesia, especially general anaesthesia.

The second type of person (fairly hypnotisable) is usually capable of achieving decent hypnosis, but might take a lot more work.

The third type of person (non-hypnotisable) seems not to be able to achieve the required hypnosis, although — I suspect — they can experience, say, reduced pain with enough work.

Responses to the hypnotist

Secondly, my fellow hypnotherapists and I have discovered that sometimes a person will appear to be non-hypnotisable, but a week or two later, suddenly becomes highly hypnotisable. Or, going to a different hypnotist solves the problem.

No one knows why.

What seems to be happening (this is a hypothesis and isn’t proven) is that there is a part of you that chooses whether or not to respond to the hypnotist, and when it does, it chooses how hypnotisable to make you.

Therefore, when trying to categorise someone as highly, partly or non-hypnotisable, it seems that it might depend on the circumstances rather than the hypnotee.

Types of hypnosis

Thirdly, there are definitely different types of hypnosis. The stereotypical image of someone lying asleep — or, rather, appearing to be asleep — in a therapist’s chair while being hypnotised is in fact practiced (successfully) by many hypnotherapists. This is, as you can imagine, quite different from a state where you are dancing around on a stage, fully awake, fully aware, but hypnotised to believe that you are winning an important dance competition.

This is an important concept, so it deserves a chapter of its own…

Types of hypnosis

Hypnosis can vary from a highly direct, eyes-open, fully awake and aware state to an indirect, sleepy, eyes-closed, reclining and fully relaxed state, and all kinds of states in between.

It’s tempting to think that these different types of hypnosis should have different names, but that’s not useful, because each type can be (and sometimes is) quickly converted from one to another. For example, I might hypnotise a client using a strongly direct way, and a few minutes later convert it into a deep sleepy relaxed state. There seems to be no limitation!

Models of hypnosis

There are many models of the mind, and several models of hypnosis. You can think of these models as theories or hypotheses, but they are really models, because in the therapy room, they all work, and we can switch between them as necessary.

The subconscious mind

Science has already determined that what you perceive (what you see, hear, feel, taste, smell) is an interpretation of what your physical organs (eyes, ears, skin, etc.) sense. You don’t perceive reality; you perceive an interpretation of sensations.

In the most common model of hypnosis used by hypnotherapists and stage hypnotists, your body has two agents (“individuals”). One is the “conscious” mind, the part that you think of as yourself, when you use the words “I” and “me”. The other is the so-called “subconscious” mind, intelligent but very different in character from you.

In this model, the subconscious mind is what controls your perception. It (or he or she?) decides what you perceive and how you perceive it. It also has control over your muscles, and therefore is able to take over any function from you if it so chooses.

People who have had the experience of wanting to do something, but being unable to because they couldn’t move due to fear, might agree with this interpretation! They’d say, “I wanted to walk there, but something inside me stopped me.” Or, if you’ve ever said or done something that you truly didn’t want to do but couldn’t help yourself, maybe this makes sense to you! “I couldn’t help it. I tried, but still it happened!”

In this model, hypnosis happens when your subconscious mind agrees to work with the hypnotist, regardless of what you decide. So, if the hypnotist tells you that she is invisible, your subconscious sill simply refuse to pass her image from your eyes to your conscious mind. The hypnotist will be invisible to you. If the hypnotist tells you that from now on, you will be calm and confident when you give that public speech, that’s what will happen.

Other parts

There are more complicated models that admit more than just the two agents (your conscious and unconscious minds).

For example, the “parts” model states that there are multiple agents (“parts”) that collectively make up the subconscious mind. One particular model feels that these parts are made up on the spot, and can vary from time to time.

Other models

Another model says that there’s no such thing as a subconscious mind, and that hypnosis is just you being suggestible.

Yet another model says that there are external entities (like ghosts, say) that inhabit you and affect you, and so by hypnotising you, we can access them and get rid of them (or keep them if they’re helping you).

These are all models; they are not scientific facts.

The only fact is that, at this stage, we don’t know what really happens inside that wonderfully complex and beautiful machine that is your brain. We simply know that, regardless of which model eventually proves to be real, they all have their uses — and hypnosis is real!

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