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What is hypnosis?

When we talk about hypnosis we often tend to be either talking about either:

  • the relaxed, focused, absorbed feelings associated with being in hypnosis (sometimes called a 'hypnotic state' or 'trance state'), or
  • the interesting things people can do when hypnotized (such as not feeling pain, or experiencing altered sensations or perceptions) – these are often the result of suggestions

We can visualize this separation:

What is hypnosis?

Figure: Separation of hypnotic 'trance' and suggestion can be a useful way of thinking about the effects of hypnosis

Definitions

Hypnosis is a broad subject which covers a lot of separate areas. We'll start with some simple definitions. Many of the quotes below are from the American Psychological Society definitions of hypnosis - rather than just some person's opinion on what hypniosis is, these definitions have come about by groups of scientists reaching a consensus based upon over a century of research. Not all hypnosis researchers agree with all the parts of these definitions but they are a good starting point.

Hypnosis

“A state of consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterized by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion.” (APA, 2014)

One of the first things to know about hypnosis is that it affects how we pay attention to things. When people are hypnotized their attention tends to be focused on what the hypnotist is suggesting. They don't tend to pay much attention to what is going on around them unless they are directed to do so. In some ways this focused state of attention is a bit like how it feels to get lost in a good book or movie – you're so absorbed that you're not paying much attention to what is going on around you.

The second big thing to know about hypnosis is that it affects how you respond to suggestions. A definition of suggestions is given below, but essentially these are invitations by the hypnotist to experience the world in a different way. For example, a dentist using hypnosis might suggest that to their patient that their mouth is feeling pleasantly numb. Or a therapist using hypnosis might suggest to their client that they are watching memories of a traumatic event without feeling overwhelmed. Hypnosis typically means that suggestions are experienced more strongly, or more effortlessly.

Hypnotic induction

“A procedure designed to induce hypnosis.” (APA, 2014)
“While some people think it is not necessary to use the word hypnosis as part of the induction, others view it as essential.” (APA, 2003)

A hypnotic induction is an invitation for someone to enter hypnosis, and will typically involve instructions and suggestions to help someone to become hypnotized. Often the hypnotic induction will involve instructions for relaxation, but although this is pleasant it is not absolutely necessary. For people new to hypnosis an induction is often a bit longer, but with practice people often find that they can enter hypnosis much more quickly.

Hypnotizability

“An individual’s ability to experience suggested alterations in physiology, sensations, emotions, thoughts, or behavior during hypnosis.” (APA, 2014)

The terms hypnotizability and suggestibility are often used interchangeably. Not everyone experiences the effects of suggestions equally. Some people experience these effects of hypnosis very easily, readily, and profoundly (highly hypnotizable). Despite trying, other people aren't able to experience very much at all (low hypnotizable). Most people fall somewhere in-between (medium hypnotizable).

There is a debate about whether the term hypnotizability should measure 'responsivity to suggestions in hypnosis' or 'the difference in how responsive someone is to suggestions in- and out of hypnosis'.

Hypnotherapy

“The use of hypnosis in the treatment of a medical or psychological disorder or concern.” (APA, 2014)

Hypnotherapy is the clinical use of hypnosis. Doctors, dentists, psychologists, nurses, and other health professionals all use hypnosis to help their patients. Hypnosis is not actually a therapy in its own right, but is better thought of as a set of techniques that a skilled therapist can use to help bring about change. Many professionals believe that you should have a prior qualification in a medical or psychological specialty before you use hypnosis - just like a mechanic should know how to fix cars before getting to work with a wrench.

Suggestion

“One person is guided by another to respond to suggestions for changes in subjective experiences, alterations in perception, sensation, emotion, thought, or behavior” (APA, 2003)

Suggestion is what leads to the most interesting effects in hypnosis. For example, if someone with a painful arm is hypnotized then they may feel focused and relaxed. It is not until they are given a suggestion such as "your arm is beginning to feel numb and insensitive" that they start to experience pain relief. The same is true for other types of suggestions too. Suggestions can be direct, as in the previous example, or they can be indirect such as "you might begin to notice changes in how your arm is feeling". One theory is that suggestions work by altering our expectancies (expectations) of what is going to happen, and that we then have experiences in line with our expectancies.

Debate among researchers

Not all hypnosis researchers agree about all aspects of hypnosis. Some scientists argue that hypnosis is an 'altered state of consciousness' marked by changes in the way the brain functions. Others believe that hypnotised people are actively behaving in a hypnotic manner, and are not just passively responding to suggestions. Therapists who use hypnosis sometimes talk about using hypnosis to access contents and resources of the unconscious mind, whereas other researchers might shy away from language like this. It is possible that these explanations all describe different parts of the overall phenomenon of hypnosis.

 

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