Is Hypnosis Real or Fake and is it Legitimate Science?
by Erika Slater
In this article you’ll discover:
- The answer to the question is hypnosis real or fake, and a better question to be asking?
- What is the science behind hypnosis, and what is the view of the medical community of hypnotherapy as a treatment?
- Who and what can hypnosis help with, and why isn’t it for every person?
- Further reading and resources for help in determining if you should consider hypnosis to help you with personal challenges and self-improvement.
If you’re considering hypnosis to help heal, overcome a challenge, or achieve an outcome, then you may be thinking “is hypnosis is real or fake” and if there’s any ‘legitimate science’ in support of it? After all, why spend time investing in a therapy if it’s a waste of your effort and no chance of helping you achieve your outcome?
There’s a lot of myths and confusion surrounding hypnosis and our understanding of it. History hasn’t always been kind to hypnosis, and for the longest time the medical community viewed hypnotism with skepticism. Also, at times practitioners of hypnosis made outrageous claims, and marketed it more as a commodity service with a guarantee, and emphasizing price, than a legitimate therapy that may or may not be able to help an individual.
So, in this article I’ll provide my answers, based on professional experience and my own study of scientific research on:
- Is Hypnosis real or fake?
- What is the science behind hypnosis?
- Who and what can hypnosis help?
That’s a lot of ground to cover so let’s get going…
IS HYPNOSIS REAL OR FAKE?
I’ve been a professional hypnotist since 2004 and consider myself a logical-minded person – I’m a former computer analyst and left brain dominant! So, I form my opinions by research and cause and effect experience. I need to understand the science behind anything before accepting and adopting it. In my profession I’m a student of the mind. Our mind is a complex scientific topic and frankly we still lack precise understanding of how it works in unison with our body – it’s a relatively new field called neuroscience.
However, there’s enough evidence and experience now to say hypnosis is real and not fake therapy.
But before you skip off because you feel its vindicated your belief it works, or you’ve decided I’m biased and it doesn’t work… it’s also not “magical fairy dust” which once sprinkled over you all your problems dissolve away.
False expectation of hypnosis contributes unfairly to opinions its fake and not real. The more probing and relevant question for you is “can it help you for what you need?” As part of my intake process of clients for my stop smoking hypnosis programs I vet them to determine if they’re ready to quit and if they’ll make a good hypnosis subject to benefit from the therapy.
To explain the reality of hypnosis you need to know key fundamental points as a “consumer” of it before forming your own opinion.
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.” It’s a solid definition. Notice there is nothing about what is done when in hypnosis.
Hypnosis then is the way of getting you into a state where a skilled hypnotist can work with you to achieve your goals for the session. Notice I used the words “work with you” to imply this is a partnership between the hypnotist and you. There’s nothing about you being a passive bystander in the relationship, and letting the hypnotist wave their “magic wand” to fix whatever ails you.
What’s the Difference Between Stage Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy?
The term hypnotherapist came about to distinguish between hypnosis used to entertain such as by a stage hypnotist, and therapeutic hypnosis to help achieve a life outcome. Some hypnotists do both. There’s nothing wrong with stage hypnosis shows as long as you realize its just for entertainment. If you want to know what’s really happening to people in a stage hypnotist show then I’ve placed a link to a detailed explanation in the resource section at the end of this article.
Who Practices Hypnotherapy?
In the U.S. there’s no consistency in the oversight of hypnotists or hypnotherapists in the states. Some require licensing for a hypnotherapist and others don’t. So, depending on where you live anybody can call themselves a hypnotherapist after getting a business license. Even in those states requiring formal certification they can hang a sign on a door as a hypnotist and they’re good to go. There are bodies formed that provide training and certification for hypnotists to support those who wish to distinguish themselves as professionals. One such organization is called the National Guild of Hypnotists and they’re the largest in the world.
For a consumer the best preparation is to interview any hypnotist and ask about their qualifications and experience in hypnosis. A professional hypnotist will answer any questions without feeling threatened. I welcome it in my practice as it shows a person is serious in getting an outcome. It also provides me an opportunity to determine if I should take them on as a client.
Can You Get Real Results from Hypnosis?
There are no guarantees in hypnosis, just as there aren’t 100% guaranteed results in every medical procedure. Hypnotherapists can’t guarantee a client’s behavior after the session, the same a Doctor can’t guarantee a patient will take the medication he prescribed.
Getting a lasting outcome from hypnosis requires a number of factors to be in place, not the least is the skill of the hypnotist. After all, there are mediocre medical practitioners out there so it’s no surprise competence is a primary factor. A hypnotist specializing in the area a patient needs help with is also a predictor of success.
Additionally, the client comes to the table with a number of factors dictating success… or failure. These include: mindset and attitude, belief, commitment, expectations, having an open mind, and willing to actively participate in sessions and use the resources provided after the session is over.
In the next section I’m going to tackle what science understands about hypnosis today…
WHAT IS THE SCIENCE BEHIND HYPNOSIS?
Hypnosis is about reaching and maintaining a trance-like state. People in a hypnotic state are relaxed and have a focused intent. It may surprise you to learn most of us enter a hypnotic state regularly. Common examples are being absorbed in a book or a TV program to the point where your peripheral environment is blocked out. Another example is driving a car on a frequent commute and reaching the destination without remembering much about the journey. These are simple examples of a hypnotic state.
Therapeutic hypnosis isn’t about being under somebody’s spell. It also isn’t about losing control or being asleep. In fact, when in hypnosis, the hypnotist doesn’t want you to fall asleep. You also won’t do anything against your moral code so you can’t be hypnotized to rob a bank! A client is always in control and can come out of hypnosis whenever they want.
For those expecting to be mesmerized and not remember anything sorry to disappoint. Most of the time you’ll be aware of your environment and other noises and remember most of what the hypnotist says.
Conscious Mind vs Unconscious Mind:
For explanation purposes of this article you have two minds in one brain: conscious mind, and unconscious mind (sometimes known as subconscious mind). The conscious mind is active when you’re awake and alert and helps you make decisions throughout your day. Your conscious mind for example is reading this article and generating your thoughts as you read it. Your unconscious mind for the sake of our discussion today, controls your habits and reactions based on passed experiences, and also helps protect your survival. At its most basic it manages your essential functions such as breathing during sleep.
So, the two-mind concept work in unison when you’re awake but when you sleep your unconscious mind takes over. Despite this knowledge we still can’t point to our conscious and unconscious minds on a picture of the brain. It remains for the moment conceptual.
Science and Hypnosis – Studies and Research:
Likely you’ve heard of the placebo effect? It’s defined as “a beneficial effect, produced by a placebo drug or treatment, that cannot be attributed to the properties of the placebo itself, and must therefore be due to the patient’s belief in that treatment.” In other words, the mind produced the effect. So, science acknowledges in some instances you possess the capabilities of healing yourself using the power of your own mind.
So, what evidence does science have of hypnosis as a therapy and its ability to contribute to healing and improving our condition? While scientific research and study has been conducted on identifying the parts of the brain affected by hypnosis, and produced theories around how it may work, there’s still much about our brain we don’t understand so its pioneering work today.
However, this doesn’t mean hypnosis isn’t real or is fake, it just means science can’t explain its workings. This is not an unusual phenomenon though. For example, antipsychotic drugs work to help reduce mentally ill patient’s symptoms, but medical science doesn’t really understand how they work. Psychiatrists have theories but concrete understanding remains elusive. But this doesn’t mean they don’t ease symptoms of the illness and help.
Dr. David Spiegel of Stanford University Medical Center and a team did a study to determine what area of the brain is affected by hypnosis and I’ve put a link to this study in the resource section below – Stanford Medical Study identifies brain areas altered during hypnotic trances.
Studies have also been conducted on post-surgery healing, and one such concluded: Surgical Wounds Healed Faster with Hypnotic Visualization Techniques Broadbent, E., Kahokehr, A., Booth, R. J., Thomas, J., Windsor, J. A., Buchanan, C. M., . . . Hill, A. G. (2012). A brief relaxation intervention reduces stress and improves surgical wound healing response: A randomised trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 26(2), 212-217. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2011.06.014
Another study and its positive results on healing is “Ginandes C, Brooks P, Sando W, Jones C, Aker J. Can medical hypnosis accelerate post-surgical wound healing? Results of a clinical trial. Am J Clin Hypn. 2003;45(4):333-51” and a link can be found in the resource section below.
One more citation related to smoking cessation and hypnosis and its results is “Johnson DL, Karkut RT. Performance by gender in a stop-smoking program combining hypnosis and aversion. Psychol Rep. 1994;75(2):851-7” and you’ll also find a link to it below.
How Does the Medical Community View Hypnosis?
The medical community was slow to embrace hypnosis as a viable treatment and there remains prejudice among some older Doctors. However, today hypnosis, in partnership with other medical treatments, is accepted in pre-surgery and post-surgery work, and in unison with medication to help reduce dependency on drugs with harmful side effects. The medical community struggles with patients who smoke or are overweight and lead unhealthy lifestyles. Because these are behavioral issues and negative habits which the pharmaceutical companies or nutritionists can’t help, then, alternative treatments such as hypnosis are now sought out by healthcare professionals for their patients.
But hypnosis isn’t a panacea and doesn’t help everybody or heal everything. Those conveying otherwise do an injustice to the field of hypnotherapy and create false hope in those desperate for a solution.
In this last section then I’m going to explore who and what hypnosis can help…
WHO AND WHAT CAN HYPNOSIS HELP?
Most people can fall into a state of hypnosis. As I mentioned earlier being relaxed with a focused intent is what you experience when being absorbed in watching a compelling program on TV. However, there are diagnoses and illnesses, particularly serious mental illness, that can prevent people from doing this easily. In addition, if you posses a mindset that’s convinced you can’t be hypnotized, or feel being hypnotized conveys loss of control, then, you’re not a good candidate for hypnosis therapy. Any hypnotist will tell you they’ve had clients where there was a barrier preventing the person from going into the level of hypnosis necessary to do the change or healing work.
Some people are highly suggestible and these usually make ideal clients for a hypnotist. These are the people stage hypnotists single out from the volunteers to take part in the show.
Its not necessary for everybody to be highly suggestible to benefit from hypnosis, but there is a section of the population hypnosis won’t be able to help due to experiencing a barrier to entering hypnosis and/or not accepting of hypnotic suggestions.
What Type of Individuals Benefit from Hypnosis?
I briefly touched on client factors that dictate success with working with a hypnotist. I also mentioned clients having expectations around active participation and treating the work as a partnership with the hypnotist. If you’ve smoked for 30 or 40 years or been overweight most of your life then you’ve got ingrained habits and poor lifestyles to be erased. So, it’ll take work and commitment from the client to get a positive outcome.
In my practice I’ve found I can help most people who show a strong commitment to follow what I ask them to do, both during and after the hypnosis sessions, and using the resources I provide. On the flip side a predictor of failure is somebody who is looking for a “magic wand” or seeking help to overcome an issue because somebody else wants it for them more than they do.
What Can Hypnosis Help With and Can’t Help With?
Common issues hypnosis can help with are aiding people to stop smoking and those seeking weight loss. Other issues are reducing stress, various sleep problems, and most types of phobias. I’ve seen an increase in clients looking to improve their confidence in specific activities and around sports performance. Use of hypnosis in professional sports using visualization techniques has long been studied and employed by sport psychologists.
Other areas hypnosis helps are in pain management and addictions. In particular pain medications can be addictive for patients, and so being able to manage pain but also reduce dependency on drugs is uppermost on Doctor’s minds these days.
Addictions such as drug and alcohol abuse can also be helped employing hypnosis in conjunction with other therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – see article linked to in resource section for more on this therapy. Most professional hypnotists will look for a referral from a medical Doctor before helping with treatment for pain management and addictions. This is to ensure they understand the role it will play in a patient’s overall treatment plan being led by a physician.
Hypnosis isn’t likely to be successful in situations where serious mental illness symptoms are prevalent, and where the patient is in denial and/or where the client has an inability to relax and focus long enough to stay in a hypnotic trance. When medications help reduce symptoms, then, there are psychotherapists trained in hypnosis who use it as a compliment to other techniques, such as previously mentioned Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. So, hypnosis can be an additional resource to help increase positive outcomes in conjunction with other therapies.
What is Self-Hypnosis?
You may have heard the term self-hypnosis and wondered what it’s all about?
Let’s turn again to Wikipedia for help with a definition. “Self-hypnosis or auto-hypnosis (as distinct from hetero-hypnosis) is a form, a process, or the result of a self-induced hypnotic state. Frequently, self-hypnosis used as a vehicle to enhance the efficacy of self-suggestion; and, in such cases, the subject ‘plays the dual role of suggester and suggestee’.”
What this means is you don’t need a hypnotist to induce you into state of hypnosis or guide you through a session and offer suggestions. You can do this yourself. If you listen to sessions on CDs or MP3s you’re still having a therapist guide you as you listen to their voice and absorb their suggestions.
You’ll often hear hypnotists say all hypnosis is self-hypnosis. To a degree it’s true if you look at the work done under hypnosis as all being directed at the client, and it’s the client’s ability to accept the suggestions into their unconscious mind where the real changes take effect. However, in my opinion, it underplays the importance of a hypnotist in providing the guidance and resources to the client which is key to having a successful outcome. While I’ve trained individual clients in self-hypnosis, I’ve found most prefer to be guided in their hypnotic journey.
Hypnosis is real and not fake. But it isn’t effective for everybody and doesn’t work to solve all problems. A successful outcome isn’t only dictated by the skill of a hypnotist and setting the right expectations for a client to avoid disappointment, but their commitment to do whatever it takes.
A client works in partnership with a hypnotist to achieve a specific outcome and so they’re not a passive bystander waiting to be “fixed” by the hypnotist. The hypnotherapist guides the client under hypnosis to their own resources in their unconscious mind and by making hypnotic suggestions throughout the session using various techniques specific to the problem to be solved.
The medical world and science was initially cautious and skeptical about the claims of hypnosis. They considered it unproven and unscientific, and there were no real independent studies to support the claims. There are now studies to not only support hypnosis but also to begin to understand how it works, and what happens in the brain. While our understanding of how the brain works is still in its infancy, nonetheless the medical community now looks to supplement their treatments with hypnosis where it can reduce reliance on medications and overcome stubborn unhealthy habits such as smoking and poor diets causing weight gain.
Most people are hypnotizable and accepting of hypnotic suggestions while in hypnosis, but there is a section of the population who have illnesses or personal barriers making hypnosis ineffective for them.
We’ve come to the end of this article. I hope you’ve found it informative and it spurs you to learn more. Spend time on this blog where I cover a lot more about other questions you may have on hypnosis, or its use for a specific treatment or condition. If you’d like to work with me directly then check out my Hypnosis Services I offer online or in-office here >>>.
Please leave a comment below to let me know if this article helped you in your decision and how you think I can improve this article for you and others.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES RELATED TO HYPNOSIS:
Erika Slater CH
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