What Is Hypnosis?

Psychologist guiding patient through hypnotherapy
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What Is Hypnosis?

Hypnosis is a trance-like mental state in which people experience increased attention, concentration, and suggestibility. While hypnosis is often described as a sleep-like state, it is better expressed as a state of focused attention, heightened suggestibility, and vivid fantasies.

People in a hypnotic state often seem sleepy and zoned out, but in reality, they are in a state of hyper-awareness.

While there are many myths and misconceptions, hypnosis is a very real process that can be used as a therapeutic tool. Hypnosis has been shown to have medical and therapeutic benefits, most notably in the reduction of pain and anxiety. It has even been suggested that hypnosis can reduce the symptoms of dementia.

Types of Hypnosis

There are a few different ways that hypnosis can be delivered:

  • Guided hypnosis: This form of hypnosis involves the use of tools such as recorded instructions and music to induce a hypnotic state. Online sites and mobile apps often utilize this form of hypnosis.
  • Hypnotherapy: Hypnotherapy is the use of hypnosis in psychotherapy and is practiced by licensed physicians and psychologists to treat conditions including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eating disorders.
  • Self-hypnosis: Self-hypnosis is a process that occurs when a person self-induces a hypnotic state. It is often used as a self-help tool for controlling pain or managing stress.

Uses and Potential Benefits

Why might a person decide to try hypnosis? In some cases, people might seek out hypnosis to help deal with chronic pain or to alleviate pain and anxiety caused by medical procedures such as surgery or childbirth.

The following are just a few of the applications for hypnosis that have been demonstrated through research:

  • Alleviation of symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Control of pain during dental procedures
  • Elimination or reduction of skin conditions including warts and psoriasis
  • Management of certain symptoms of ADHD
  • Treatment of chronic pain conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis
  • Treatment and reduction of pain during childbirth
  • Reduction of dementia symptoms
  • Reduction of nausea and vomiting in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy

Hypnosis has also been used to help people with behavior changes such as quitting smoking, losing weight, or preventing bed-wetting.

Impact of Hypnosis

What impact does hypnosis have? The experience of hypnosis can vary dramatically from one person to another.

Some hypnotized individuals report feeling a sense of detachment or extreme relaxation during the hypnotic state while others even feel that their actions seem to occur outside of their conscious volition. Other individuals may remain fully aware and able to carry out conversations while under hypnosis.

Experiments by researcher Ernest Hilgard demonstrated how hypnosis can be used to dramatically alter perceptions. After instructing a hypnotized individual not to feel pain in their arm, the participant's arm was then placed in ice water. While non-hypnotized individuals had to remove their arm from the water after a few seconds due to the pain, the hypnotized individuals were able to leave their arms in the icy water for several minutes without experiencing pain.

Tips for Hypnosis

While many people think that they cannot be hypnotized, research has shown that a large number of people are more hypnotizable than they believe. Research suggests that:

  • Between 10% to 15% of people are very responsive to hypnosis.
  • Approximately 10% of adults are considered difficult or impossible to hypnotize.
  • Children tend to be more susceptible to hypnosis.
  • People who can become easily absorbed in fantasies are much more responsive to hypnosis.

If you are interested in being hypnotized, it is important to remember to approach the experience with an open mind. People who view hypnosis in a positive light tend to respond better.

If you are interested in trying hypnotherapy, it is important to look for a professional who has credentials and experience in the use of hypnosis as a therapeutic tool.

While there are many places that offer hypnosis training and certification, it may be helpful to look for a mental health professional who has been certified by the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. Their program is open to health professionals with a master's degree and requires 40 hours of approved workshop training, 20 hours of individual training, and two years of practice in clinical hypnosis.

Potential Pitfalls

Misunderstandings about the subject of hypnosis are common.

  • While amnesia may occur in very rare cases, people generally remember everything that transpired while they were hypnotized. However, hypnosis can have a significant effect on memory. Posthypnotic amnesia can lead an individual to forget certain things that occurred before or during hypnosis. However, this effect is generally limited and temporary.
  • While hypnosis can be used to enhance memory, the effects have been dramatically exaggerated in popular media. Research has found that hypnosis does not lead to significant memory enhancement or accuracy, and hypnosis can actually result in false or distorted memories.
  • Despite stories about people being hypnotized without their consent, hypnosis does require voluntary participation on the part of the patient. People do vary in terms of how hypnotizable and suggestible they are while under hypnosis, however. Research suggests that people who are highly suggestible are more likely to experience a reduced sense of agency while under hypnosis.
  • While people often feel that their actions under hypnosis seem to occur without the influence of their will, a hypnotist cannot make you perform actions that are against your wishes.
  • While hypnosis can be used to enhance performance, it cannot make people stronger or more athletic than their existing physical capabilities.

History of Hypnosis

The use of hypnotic-like trance states dates back thousands of years, but hypnosis began to grow during the late 18th-century from the work of a physician named Franz Mesmer. The practice got off to a poor start thanks to Mesmer's mystical views, but interest eventually shifted to a more scientific approach.

Hypnotism became more important in the field of psychology in the late 19th-century and was used by Jean-Martin Charcot to treat women experiencing what was then known as hysteria. This work influenced Sigmund Freud and the development of psychoanalysis

More recently, there have been a number of different theories to explain exactly how hypnosis works. One of the best-known theories is Hilgard’s neo-dissociation theory of hypnosis.

According to Hilgard, people in a hypnotic state experience a split consciousness in which there are two different streams of mental activity. While one stream of consciousness responds to the hypnotist’s suggestions, another dissociated stream processes information outside of the hypnotized individual's conscious awareness.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.