What is Hypnosis and How Does Hypnosis Work?
by Erika Slater
In this article you’ll discover:
- What is hypnosis. You’ll discover some of the history of the topic, debunking of some myths, and what the field looks like today.
- What science is beginning to capture and uncover about exactly how hypnosis works as well as the tools, and techniques, used by professional hypnotherapists today to help individuals obtain positive outcomes.
- The difference between stage hypnosis and hypnotherapy, and how entertainment remains on the stage and not used in an hypnotherapists office.
- Further reading and hypnosis resources around the cited hypnosis studies, and understanding further what hypnosis can be used for, and the benefits it provides.
Two common questions I’m asked at meetings I attend when people learn I’m a hypnotist is, what is hypnosis and how does hypnosis work?
The fact is, we’ve still so much to learn about our brain and how it works, and though we have some scientific research as it relates to hypnosis, and our brain on it, we have just begun to scratch the surface.
In this article I’ll explore in some depth these two questions to provide what answers we know today, and how hypnosis can help you now even if we don’t entirely understand all the nuances around the impact it has on our brain.
WHAT IS HYPNOSIS?
Before we go any further I’d like you to watch this brief 2-minute video. It not only quickly explains what hypnosis is all about but also what it is NOT about. It’s a little bit of a myth-buster and will give you a basic understand of hypnosis. Enjoy and come back and read the rest of this post when ready…
It’s been known by different terms, some of which conjure up negative connotations and connections with the mystic arts. It’s depicted in movies as a way of putting people under spells and influencing them in a bad way or to do, or say, bad things. Swinging watches or asking somebody to “Gaze into my eyes and you’re feeling sleepy” are common scripts in films for what the public deem as a hypnotist ‘putting you under their spell.’
Of course, in real life it’s none of these silly things, and a hypnotist performing therapeutic work with a person is operating under a different script and mode of operation.
Firstly, a hypnotist doesn’t want you to fall asleep. They want you to be in a relaxed state for sure and focused on their voice, but not asleep. It’s not even necessary to close your eyes but most people prefer to block out the physical, and visual world, to help with focus and concentration, and closing one’s eyelids helps folks do this.
Some hypnotists like to use a prop to help with getting a patient into the “trance-like” state. Having a person focus on a prop, like a hanging small shiny stone on the end of a chain, can aid with obtaining the trance-like state quicker, but equally many hypnotists just have the patients focus on their voice. I’ll talk further below about the word “trance” in just a minute; an innocuous flash word used unfortunately to depict a “sleep walking” person seemingly not in control of their actions, which is far from the truth.
The final myth to dispel about hypnosis is “being under somebody’s spell.” I’ll talk about stage hypnosis, which is very different and far removed from therapeutic hypnosis or hypnotherapy, in a later section. The fact is all hypnosis is considered by many hypnotists to be self-hypnosis – although this is debatable and underplays the role of a hypnotist, but for the sake of our discussion today it doesn’t matter.
The patient then is an active participant in entering hypnosis, and the hypnotist is the guide to help the patient enter the hypnosis state, and help with the work done under hypnosis and beyond the session.
A hypnotist can’t put any hypnosis subject under their spell to do things against their moral code or act in a way they don’t wish to act. The patient is in control of their hypnosis session at all times. A hypnotist can’t put a subject into hypnosis against their will, and then tell them to rob a bank and they will (unless of course they rob banks already!).
Effectively, there has to be a willingness for the patient to go into hypnosis for hypnosis to work.
I mentioned the word “trance” earlier and so here’s a brief explanation and why it’s a common condition for us all to experience almost daily.
There is nothing bad or evil about being in a trance. Most of us go into trance each day. It’s a state of intense focus to the point of blotting out what is going on around us. An example would be absorption in a movie at a theater or watching your favorite show on TV. In this instance the film has inducted you into a trance. Hypnosis is just an alternative way of inducing a trance-like state. But it isn’t sleep.
So, what is hypnosis? Wikipedia defines hypnosis as “… a state of human consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness and an enhanced capacity to respond to suggestion.”
Notice no mention of sleep.
So, the state of hypnosis and trance are essentially the same. Depending on the nature of the work with a person it may be desirable to induce a deeper trance to effect changes. But for much work a hypnotist performs, such as helping folks to stop smoking using hypnosis, weight loss services, stress reduction and sleep problems, it’s not necessary to induce a deep trance in an individual.
Where did the term “hypnosis” come from and who coined the term?
Again, borrowing from Wikipedia “… the term ‘hypnosis’ comes from the ancient Greek word hypnos, ‘sleep’, and the suffix -osis, or from ‘put to sleep.’ The words ‘hypnosis’ and ‘hypnotism’ both derive from the term ‘neuro-hypnotism’ (nervous sleep), all of which were coined by Étienne Félix d’Henin de Cuvillers in 1820.” The term hypnosis was popularized by James Braid.
While the word seems to imply “sleep” given where it’s derived from, the fact is it only appears for folks to be asleep, but they can be brought out of hypnosis, or their trance, instantaneously either by the hypnotist or themselves.
In this section we’ve covered what is hypnosis but for the inquisitive mind it doesn’t explain how does hypnosis work? So, let’s visit that question now…
HOW DOES HYPNOSIS WORK?
As way of a disclaimer before we start, science is still at the early stages of understanding how the brain works, so, much of what we’ve learned so far is theory based on circumstantial evidence, fMRI brain scans, and observations.
Neuroscience is advancing rapidly and is discovering regularly new connections for the dots we already know.
But it’s important you know we are still learning about really how hypnosis works. Science focuses on evidence-based results and so studies continue to be run to uncover the many mysterious of the brain and understanding what happens to our brain when under hypnosis.
Remember here we are not talking about if hypnosis works, but instead how hypnosis works.
By way of introduction think of your mind as having two aspects. Your conscious mind – which is reading this sentence now – and your unconscious mind (also called your subconscious mind).
When you’re awake your conscious mind controls your deliberate actions and thoughts. It’s a gatekeeper for you and considered to be your critical-thinking and reasoning machine and its aim is to protect you from harm. So-called: fight or flight reasoning in threatening situations!
On the other hand, the unconscious mind, for the sake of our discussion today, controls our habits and reactions based on passed experiences, and also protects our survival. At its most basic it manages our bodily functions such as breathing and stages of sleep for physical and mental recovery.
However, the unconscious mind isn’t relegated to a minor role when we’re awake in fact it injects thoughts and actions throughout the day without the conscious mind being aware. Frankly, we’d overload the conscious mind and it’ll shut-down if each time we drove a car we had to require it to deliberately access our stored experiences of driving.
Driving a car is a complicated task – remember your first lesson? Of course, now, you drive on a road and turn corners and get to a destination rarely without paying much attention to actually driving, but more on navigating.
Thank your unconscious mind for that!
One person who has made it a large part of his research to understand scientifically how hypnosis works is Dr. David Spiegel, professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Spiegel and his colleagues published a study discussed below in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
Spiegel has first hand experience of using hypnosis as an alternative to pain medication when he used it after shoulder surgery. “This isn’t just some weird parlor trick,” he says. “It’s a way we use our brains that’s different.”
“In the study, the team chose 36 people who were highly hypnotizable, and 21 people with low hypnotizability served as the controls. Everyone was then given a series of fMRI scans during several different conditions: at rest, while recalling a memory and during two bouts of hypnotism.”
Interesting things happened to the highly hypnotizable group under hypnosis. The researchers saw a drop in dorsal anterior cingulate activity. This part of the brain we know fires up when there’s something to worry about, but under hypnosis is simmers down. Additionally, they saw suggestions that “your brain in hypnosis is intensifying it connection to your body,” Spiegel says. They saw these changes in the “…part of the brain where you plan things and carry out routines – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – and the insula, a part of the brain that helps regulate body functions, like increasing blood pressure and heart rate.”
Alternatively, other brain areas had reduced connection, such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and a part of the brain characterized by self-reflection.
“Taken together, these changes help explain how hypnosis can have powerful effects, including tamping down stress, anxiety, pain and self-consciousness. Spiegel believes the practice can – and should – be used instead of painkillers in many cases. His own previous research has shown when people in pain are taught self-hypnosis, they use half the pain medication and had half the pain than those who were just given access to opioids.”
Dr. Spiegel concludes about hypnosis, “It’s a real-deal treatment that should be given the same respect that a lot of other treatments we use that are sometimes less efficacious and more dangerous.”
For more information about this study check out the Time article about Dr. Spiegel and his colleagues work. You can find the link to “The Secret to How Hypnosis Works” in the additional resource section below.
I’ve also included a link in the same section to a recent article I did that also included more about Dr. Spiegel’s work and others entitled “Here’s What Hypnosis Does to the Brain – What Happens to Your Brain on Hypnosis Revealed.”
So that’s recent science behind understanding how hypnosis works. Let’s turn now to hypnotherapists and psychologists for their explanation of how it can help us quit smoking and overcome other challenges around weight loss, phobias, and stress reduction. How do professional hypnotists use hypnosis to help people make significant changes in their life?
Roger Elliot is one of the founders at Uncommon Knowledge, a group in the UK that creates self-hypnosis sessions for lay people, and training and courses for professional hypnotherapists.
Roger explains: “… hypnosis ‘re-educates’ your unconscious mind. By that I mean your habitual responses, or instincts. So, for example, you might think of a certain person and feel nervous. How does that happen? You thought of someone, and even though they weren’t in the room, you felt nervous! How did you do that? Well, at some stage, a mini hypnotic state glued together in your mind that particular person and the emotion of anxiety. That’s what hypnosis does – it helps you learn – and fast”
But using hypnosis we can change this “emotional reaction – how you feel about something.” The implications then are far-reaching. Changing how we feel about cigarettes, unhealthy food, stressful situations holding us back, exercise, and much more.
Earlier I talked about thinking of our mind has having two critical components, conscious mind and unconscious mind. The conscious mind is our critical thinker which it needs to be to guard us from making poor decisions that could put ourselves in danger. However, it can also impede us from making changes to bad habits. As making changes to habits requires access to where they are stored – in our unconscious mind – we need to bypass the conscious mind, and work directly with our subconscious mind.
This is what hypnosis allows us to do.
It quietens the conscious mind so it gets out of the way, so we can focus on making real changes in the unconscious mind.
A common mistake we all make is thinking about what we don’t want rather than what we do want. Unfortunately, when we focus on what we don’t want this is usually because we have a negative feeling or emotion attached to that thought, and it just reinforces in our unconscious mind those negative feelings when we think about it. You see the problem?
So instead, Roger Elliot explains… “Using hypnosis a lot trains your brain to focus on what you want, not on what you don’t want, giving you control over the contents of your thoughts. That’s why, if you want to get out of your own way, we recommend using hypnosis on a regular basis. This gives you the immediate benefits of the hypnosis itself, plus in the longer term, stops you doing negative self hypnosis and making life difficult for yourself.”
For more from Roger Elliot check out the link in the resource section below called “How Hypnosis Works.”
Professional hypnotists and hypnotherapists then use hypnosis on a subject to quieten their conscious mind and awaken their unconscious mind. The therapist can then work with the patient to make suggestions to change their behavior directly to the subconscious mind.
What’s important about this is during the hypnosis experience real changes can be made in your unconscious mind. Your unconscious mind is what will be most affected by hypnosis in a positive way.
While under hypnosis, the therapist offers post-hypnotic suggestions which will be used going forward in your life! These new suggestions will replace old, negative ways of thinking which may have led to bad habits, low self-esteem and even addictions.
The hypnosis subject has effective triggers they can use and focus their attention on. These triggers will help them develop new and improved ways of thinking and responding!
Many people’s first exposure to hypnosis is by way of a stage hypnotist and as entertainment. They see people doing and saying silly things. This conveys, incorrectly, that a hypnotist has complete control over a patient – a sort of mind control. This is just not true.
But the stigma of stage hypnosis spills over to therapeutic hypnosis and so the next section will be revealing to you as I explain the real differences between the two types of hypnosis, and why this shouldn’t worry you.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN STAGE HYPNOSIS AND HYPNOTHERAPY:
When you go a stage hypnosis show, then the hypnotist is there to entertain you. They’ve been paid money to perform so they’d better give you a good show. You know what to expect, people saying and doing silly things.
A therapeutic hypnotist, or hypnotherapist, isn’t there to entertain you, but do serious change work with you a willing subject who wants to get results for a better and healthier life. This is true in both a private or group setting.
I could stop there but I know you want to understand how does a stage hypnotist get members of the audience to do and say outrageous things?
Next time you go to an event featuring a stage hypnotist and they ask for volunteers from the audience, pay careful attention to the process they use to get to the few people they’ll use in their act, and reject the rest. The filter exercise they use is intended to exclude all those who aren’t highly suggestible subjects. Each stage hypnotist has developed their own selection process so they only end up with those people who they know are highly hypnotizable and in addition will “play along” with the act.
If you’re thinking to yourself but they do such ridiculous stuff they must be under his control then frankly you would not make a good subject for a stage hypnotist. Choosing the right volunteers requires the stage hypnotist to be an expert in understanding people.
Terrence Watts has written a fuller article about this topic and I’ve provided a link to his article “Stage Hypnosis – How and Why it Works” in the resource section below.
There are many therapeutic hypnotists who also perform stage hypnosis as well. In my practice I focus exclusively on using hypnosis to help people overcome significant life challenges and get positive outcomes.
The results I seek to get for my clients are long-lasting.
With the help of science and advances in technology we are just beginning to understand how hypnosis works and how it can help the medical community. In addition to it’s common uses in helping people to quit smoking, eat healthy and lose weight, and overcome stress and phobias, hypnosis is providing alternatives to medications for pain management.
Hypnosis is a heightened state of awareness which means your mind becomes more focused. Individuals are able to shift their focus to specific qualities of an experience and hold them there. This allows people to place their attention on things they want to change and avoid focusing on the things they don’t want to think about. Wherever your thoughts go, this is what you’re going to focus on most, and continually bring it into your personal awareness.
Some people call this “tunnel vision.”
Through tunnel vision, you’re able to isolate, intensify and ingrate your focus on one key perception or experience and hold your concentration there. You only see, hear and feel what you choose to. Anything that doesn’t fit into your thinking scheme, or the experience you’re trying to manifest during hypnosis, is blocked.
Once in a state of hypnosis, either with the help of a professional hypnotist or through self-hypnosis, an individual can work on making changes in their unconscious mind for positive outcomes through triggers and post-hypnotic suggestions. If you’d like to consider working directly with me then you can check out my online and in-office Hypnosis Services here or if you have a different need then contact me here.
There is nothing magical about hypnosis and it requires a willing subject who is in control of their thoughts throughout a session to be able to make changes for outcomes they want.
If you’d like to learn hypnosis for free then check out Mark Tyrell’s 5-Day Video course here >>>
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES RELATED TO HYPNOSIS:
Erika Slater CH
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