AskDefine | Define hypnosis

Dictionary Definition

hypnosis n : a state that resembles sleep but that is induced by suggestion [also: hypnoses (pl)]

User Contributed Dictionary



From hypnos "sleep" + -osis.


  1. a trancelike state, artificially induced, in which a person has a heightened suggestibility, and in which suppressed memories may be experienced
  2. the art or skill of hypnotism


Derived terms

Extensive Definition

Hypnosis (from the Greek hypnos, "sleep") is "a trance-like state that resembles sleep but is induced by a person whose suggestions are readily accepted by the subject."
The technique is used for medical purposes to relieve anxiety or otherwise improve or alter behavior. It is also used in popular stage acts in which subjects are persuaded to perform bizarre feats.
Other variations include mass-hypnosis, in which crowds are simultaneously influenced, and autosuggestion in which subjects persuade themselves.


During the Middle Ages and early modern period, hypnosis began to be better understood by physicians such as Avicenna.

Methods and effects

General methods

Hypnotic susceptibility is the measurable responsiveness that a person has to hypnosis. Not all people can be hypnotized, but about 10% of people respond exceptionally well. There is little evidence linking susceptibility to intelligence or personality traits, but some research has linked hypnosis to the amount of imagination in subjects. Recent research suggests that highly hypnotizable people have high sensory and perceptual gating abilities that allow them to block some stimuli from awareness.
There is a common claim that no one can be hypnotized against his will.

General effects

Focused attention

The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis's web site says "Hypnosis is a state of inner absorption, concentration and focused attention."


It often appears as if the hypnotized participant accepts the authority of the hypnotist over his or her own experience. When asked after the conclusion of such a session, some participants claim to be genuinely unable to recall the incident, while others say that they had known the hypnotist was wrong but at the time it had seemed easier just to go along with his instructions. (Richard Feynman describes this, in his memoir Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, as his own hypnotic experience.)

Depth of hypnosis

Pupillary reflex

The esoteric publication Hypnotism, by Danish hypnotist Carl Septus, is an early reference work that notes the absence of the pupillary reflex sign. Septus states specifically that after subjects have been asked to open their eyes during a deep trance, light shone into the eyes does not cause pupil contraction. The hypnotist may use suggestion to keep the subject in hypnosis, but must avoid suggestions relating to eyes, visual focus, light, or the dilation or contraction of the pupils.



Hypnotherapy is a term to describe the use of hypnosis in a therapeutic context. Many hypnotherapists refer to their practice as "clinical work". Hypnotherapy can either be used as an addition to the work of licensed physicians or psychologists, or it can be used in a stand-alone environment where the hypnotherapist in question usually owns his or her own business. The majority of these stand-alone certified hypnotherapists (C.Hts in the U.S., Diploma. Hyp or DHP in the UK) today earn a large portion of their income through the cessation of smoking (often in a single session) and the aid of weight loss (body sculpting). Psychologists and psychiatrists use hypnosis predominantly for the treatment of dissociative disorders, phobias, habit change, depression and post-traumatic syndromes. There is no evidence that 'incurable' diseases (such as cancer, diabetes, and arthritis) are curable with hypnosis, but pain and other bodily symptoms related to the diseases are controllable. Some of the treatments practiced by hypnotherapists, in particular so-called regression, have been viewed with skepticism.
The American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association have both cautioned against the use of repressed memory therapy in dealing with cases of alleged childhood trauma, stating that "it is impossible, without other corroborative evidence, to distinguish a true memory from a false one", and so the procedure is "fraught with problems of potential misapplication".

Medicine and dentistry


In a lecture to the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH) during their annual conference at the State University Of New York, Dr. Milton Erickson taught the process of indirect hypnosis while Dr. Robert W. Habbick spoke of his research on the use of hypnosis in enhancing learning and reducing anxiety. Dr. Habbick explained the use of a triad of suggestions: "(a) enhancing confidence, while (b) strengthening focused interest in the work and (c) improving energy to do the studying necessary." The results of his controlled research pointed the way toward the need to apply hypnosis especially with students who have difficulty studying. In a more recent lecture, Dr. Habbick spoke in Boston to ASCH of the positive effects of using his suggested hypnosis triad with students at the Bureau of Study Council at Harvard University.


Hypnodermatology is the practice of treating skin diseases with hypnosis.


A study done at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine looked at two groups of patients facing surgery for breast cancer. The group that received hypnosis prior to surgery reported less pain, nausea, and anxiety after surgery than did the control group. There was a cost benefit as well, as the average hypnosis patient reduced the cost of treatment by an average of $772.00.
In April 2008 a professional hypnotist, Alex Lenkei, successfully hypnotised himself before having surgery on his hand and was in no pain throughout the 80 minute operation. His blood pressure and heart rate were also monitored and remained normal, indicating that he truly did not experience any pain. An anaesthetist who remained on hand believes Mr Lenkei's body may have released chemicals which blocked pain.

Other uses

Michael R. Nash writes, in a 2001 article for Scientific American titled "The Truth and the Hype of Hypnosis", "using hypnosis, scientists have temporarily created hallucinations, compulsions, certain types of memory loss, false memories, and delusions in the laboratory so that these phenomena can be studied in a controlled environment."
Hypnotism has also received publicity about its use in Forensics, Sports, Education, and physical therapy and rehabilitation.


Though various conjectures are made about hypnosis, the field has received significant support from the science-oriented psychology community due to research into hypnotic phenomena conducted by practitioners and theorists (Sala 1999). Both Heap and Dryden (1991) and Ambrose and Newbold (1980) consider that the theoretical debates on hypnotherapy have been productive, and that hypnosis has benefited from the attentions of those involved in the controversies, and conversely, that the developments of neurolinguistic programming and neo-Ericksonian hypnosis has been characterized by gullibility and fraudulence.

Social constructionism

Social constructionism and role-playing theory of hypnosis, discovered by Jun Zhou in the early 18th century, suggests that individuals are playing a role and that really there is no such thing as hypnosis. A relationship is built depending on how much rapport has been established between the "hypnotist" and the subject (see Hawthorne effect, Pygmalion effect, and placebo effect).
Some psychologists, such as Robert Baker and Graham Wagstaff, claim that what we call hypnosis is actually a form of learned social behavior, a complex hybrid of social compliance, relaxation, and suggestibility that can account for many esoteric behavioral manifestations.
Nicholas Spanos states, "hypnotic procedures influence behavior indirectly by altering subjects' motivations, expectations and interpretations."


Pierre Janet originally developed the idea of dissociation of consciousness as a result of his work with hysterical patients. He believed that hypnosis was an example of dissociation whereby areas of an individual's behavioral control are split off from ordinary awareness. Hypnosis would remove some control from the conscious mind and the individual would respond with autonomic, reflexive behavior. Weitzenhoffer describes hypnosis via this theory as "dissociation of awareness from the majority of sensory and even strictly neural events taking place."


Anna Gosline says in a article:
"Gruzelier and his colleagues studied brain activity using an fMRI while subjects completed a standard cognitive exercise, called the Stroop task.
The team screened subjects before the study and chose 12 that were highly susceptible to hypnosis and 12 with low susceptibility. They all completed the task in the fMRI under normal conditions and then again under hypnosis.
Throughout the study, both groups were consistent in their task results, achieving similar scores regardless of their mental state. During their first task session, before hypnosis, there were no significant differences in brain activity between the groups.
But under hypnosis, Gruzelier found that the highly susceptible subjects showed significantly more brain activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus than the weakly susceptible subjects. This area of the brain has been shown to respond to errors and evaluate emotional outcomes.
The highly susceptible group also showed much greater brain activity on the left side of the prefrontal cortex than the weakly susceptible group. This is an area involved with higher level cognitive processing and behaviour."

Conditioned process

Ivan Pavlov believed that hypnosis was a "partial sleep". He observed that the various degrees of hypnosis did not significantly differ physiologically from the waking state and hypnosis depended on insignificant changes of environmental stimuli. Pavlov also suggested that lower-brain-stem mechanisms were involved in hypnotic conditioning.


Currently a more popular "hyper-suggestibility theory" states that the subject focuses attention by responding to the hypnotist's suggestion. As attention is focused and magnified, the hypnotist's words are gradually accepted without the subject conducting any conscious censorship of what is being said. This is not unlike the athlete listening to the coach's last pieces of advice minutes before an important sport event; concentration filters out all that is unimportant and magnifies what is said about what really matters to the subject.


An approach loosely based on Information theory uses a brain-as-computer model. In adaptive systems, a system may use feedback to increase the signal-to-noise ratio, which may converge towards a steady state. Increasing the signal-to-noise ratio enables messages to be more clearly received from a source. The hypnotist's object is to use techniques to reduce the interference and increase the receptability of specific messages (suggestions).


Systems theory, in this context, may be regarded as an extension of James Braid's original conceptualization of hypnosis as involving a process of enhancing or depressing the activity of the nervous system. Systems theory considers the nervous system's organization into interacting subsystems. Hypnotic phenomena thus involve not only increased or decreased activity of particular subsystems, but also their interaction. A central phenomenon in this regard is that of feedback loops, familiar to systems theory, which suggest a mechanism for creating the more extreme hypnotic phenomena.


A peer-reviewed article on the University of Maryland Medical Center's web site says: "Although studies on hypnosis as a treatment for obesity are not conclusive, most research suggests that hypnotherapy (when used in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise, and a low-fat diet) may help overweight or obese individuals lose weight."

Clinical studies

In 1996, the National Institutes of Health technology assessment panel judged hypnosis to be an effective intervention for alleviating pain from cancer and other chronic conditions. A large number of clinical studies also indicate that hypnosis can reduce the acute pain experienced by patients undergoing burn-wound debridement, enduring bone marrow aspirations, and childbirth. An analysis published in a recent issue the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, for example, found that hypnotic suggestions relieved the pain of 75% of 933 subjects participating in 27 different experiments.

Brain imaging

One controlled scientific experiment postulates that hypnosis may alter our perception of conscious experience in a way not possible when people are not "hypnotized", at least in "highly hypnotizable" people. In this experiment, color perception was changed by hypnosis in "highly hypnotizable" people as determined by (PET) scans (Kosslyn et al., 2000).
Another research example, employing event-related functional MRI (fMRI) and EEG coherence measures, compared certain specific neural activity "...during Stroop task performance between participants of low and high hypnotic susceptibility, at baseline and after hypnotic induction". According to its authors, "the fMRI data revealed that conflict-related ACC activity interacted with hypnosis and hypnotic susceptibility, in that highly susceptible participants displayed increased conflict-related neural activity in the hypnosis condition compared to baseline, as well as with respect to subjects with low susceptibility." (Egner et al., 2005)
Michael Nash said in a Scientific American article: "In 1998 Henry Szechtman of McMaster University in Ontario and his co-workers used PET to image the brain activity of hypnotized subjects who were invited to imagine a scenario and who then experienced a hallucination ... By monitoring regional blood flow in areas activated during both hearing and auditory hallucination but not during simple imagining, the investigators sought to determine where in the brain a hallucinated sound is mistakenly "tagged" as authentic and originating in the outside world. Szechtman and his colleagues imaged the brain activity of eight very hypnotizable subjects who had been prescreened for their ability to hallucinate under hypnosis ... The tests showed that a region of the brain called the right anterior cingulate cortex was just as active while the volunteers were hallucinating as it was while they were actually hearing the stimulus. In contrast, that brain area was not active while the subjects were imagining that they heard the stimulus."

Indirect application

In addition to direct application of hypnosis (that is, treatment of conditions by means of hypnosis), there is also indirect application, wherein hypnosis is used to facilitate another procedure. Some people seem more able to display "enhanced functioning", such as the suppression of pain, while utilizing hypnosis.

Post-hypnotic suggestion

Robin Waterfield writes, in his 2002 book Hidden Depths: The Story of Hypnosis, "a person can act, some time later, on a suggestion seeded during the hypnotic session. Post-hypnotic suggestions can last for a long time. A hypnotherapist told one of his patients, who was also a friend: 'When I touch you on the finger you will immediately be hypnotized.' Fourteen years later, at a dinner party, he touched him deliberately on the finger and his head fell back against the chair."

Potential dangers

Pratt et al., write, in their 1988 book A Clinical Hypnosis Primer, "A hypnotized patient will respond to a suggestion literally. A suggestion that requires conscious interpretation can have undesirable effects." They give the following report taken from Hartland, 1971, p.37: "A patient who was terrified to go into the street because of the traffic was once told by a hypnotist that when she left his room, she would no longer bother about the traffic and would be able to cross the road without the slightest fear. She obeyed his instructions so literally that she ended up in a hospital."
They also mention:
From Kleinhauz and Beran, 1984:
In one case, a woman had experienced 10 years of fatigue, irritability, and periods of childish behavior during which her perceptions were distorted. The source of the problem was traced back to a stage performance 10 years earlier, when she was regressed to a traumatic period of her life.
From Kleinhauz and Eli, 1987:
In one case, a dentist using hypnorelaxation with a patient complied with her request to provide direction suggestions to stop smoking. The patient's underlying psychological conflicts, which the dentist was not qualified to assess, led to the development of an anxiety/depressive reaction.
From Machovec, 1987:
A woman undergoing psychotherapy facilitated by hypnosis attempted to use the procedures she had learned to relieve her husband's dental pain. During the deepening technique of arm levitation, her husband's fingertips 'stuck' to his head, and a therapist had to intervene to end the trance state."

Extreme reactions

Subjects have been known to cry or suffer a mental breakdown after extended periods of being in a trance like state of mind.

False memory

False memory obtained via hypnosis has figured prominently in many investigations and court cases, including cases of alleged sexual abuse. There is no scientific way to prove that any of these recollections are completely accurate.
The American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association have both cautioned against the use of repressed memory therapy in dealing with cases of alleged childhood trauma, stating that "it is impossible, without other corroborative evidence, to distinguish a true memory from a false one",

Unconscious state

From the mental standpoint, a hypnotic subject is relaxed yet alert and always aware at some level. Some choose to think of this as a state of mind called "trance".


Due to the popular but incorrect notion of hypnosis as mind control, some people believe that the ability to experience hypnosis is related to strength and soundness of mind. However, scientists note that personality traits such as gullibility or submissiveness or factors such as low intelligence are not related to hypnotize-ability. Research studies suggest that none of intelligence, gender, or personality traits (ref: below ...overactive imagination...) affect responsiveness to hypnosis and that hypnotize-ability may in fact be hereditary or genetic in nature.

The subject

In a stage hypnosis situation the hypnotist chooses his participants carefully. First he gives the entire audience a few exercises to perform and plants ideas in their minds, such as, only intelligent people can be hypnotized and only those wanting to have fun will play along. These suggestions are designed to overcome the natural fear of trusting a stranger with the greater fear of being seen as unintelligent, unsociable, and joyless by the rest of the audience. Out of the crowd he will spot people who appear trusting, extroverted and willing to put on a show. Often these people are looking for an excuse to do something they otherwise would not do sober. The hypnotist starts them off by having them imagine ordinary situations that they have likely encountered, like being cold or hot, hungry or thirsty then gradually builds to giving them a suggestion that is totally out of character, such as sing like Elvis. The desire to be the center of attention, having an excuse to violate their own inner fear suppressors and the pressure to please, plus the expectation of the audience wanting them to provide some entertainment is usually enough to persuade an extrovert to do almost anything. In other words the participants are persuaded to 'play along'. This gives the impression that the hypnotist has total control over them.

Hypnosis in popular media

Hypnosis and hypnotherapy are common themes in literature, films and television. Frequently hypnotists are shown in a negative or sinister light. In The Manchurian Candidate and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, for example, characters are compelled to commit crimes while under a hypnotic trance.



In 2002 UK Department for Education and Skills developed The National Occupational Standards for hypnotherapy based on National Qualifications Framework of The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and started conferring optional certificates and diplomas in international level through National Awarding Bodies by assessing learning outcomes of training /accrediting prior experiential learning.


The United States Department of Labor, Directory of Occupational Titles (D.O.T. 079.157.010) supplies the following definition: Hypnotherapist – Induces hypnotic state in client to increase motivation or alter behavior pattern through hypnosis. Consults with client to determine the nature of problem. Prepares client to enter hypnotic states by explaining how hypnosis works and what client will experience. Tests subject to determine degrees of physical and emotional suggestibility. Induces hypnotic state in client using individualized methods and techniques of hypnosis based on interpretation of test results and analysis of client's problem. May train client in self-hypnosis conditioning.


The Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of India, vide its letter no.R.14015/25/96-U&H(R) (Pt.) dated 25 November 2003, has very categorically stated that hypnotherapy is a recognized mode of therapy in India to be practiced by only appropriately trained Personnel.
Maharaja Sayajirao University (M.S.University - 4 star) at Vadodara is conducting one year Post Graduate Diploma Course in Clinical Applied Hypnosis (P.G.D.C.A.H.) from 2000. ( Various Indian universities have included clinical hypnosis as a syllabus subject in their graduate, post-graduate, pre-doctoral courses of psychology, journalism, nursing and yoga.


A law in effect since 1984 limits the practice of hypnosis solely to licensed psychologists, dentists and physicians.


Professional hypnotherapy and use of the occupational titles hypnotherapist or clinical hypnotherapist is not government-regulated in Australia.
In 1996, as a result of a three-year research project led by Lindsay B. Yeates, the Australian Hypnotherapists' Association (founded in 1949), the oldest hypnotism-oriented professional organization in Australia, instituted a peer-group accreditation system for full-time Australian professional hypnotherapists, the first of its kind in the world. The system was further revised in 1999. The Australian Hypnotherapists Association is a member of the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA) which represents many counselling and psychotherapy associations in Australia as well as many other professions.
However, many clinical hypnotherapists and Hypnotherapy Associations do not wish to be represented by PACFA simply because the organization is obviously not specifically devoted to representating the interests of hypnotherapy and hypnotherapists.
Australian hypnotism/hypnotherapy organizations (including the Australian Hypnotherapists Association) are seeking government regulation similar to other mental health professions. However, the various tiers of Australian government have shown consistently over they last two decades that they are opposed to government legislation and in favour of self regulation by industry groups.
With this in mind in 2007 a majority of professional hypnosis groups — including professional organizations, private teaching organizations, and other hypntotism-associated professional bodies — have agreed to work toward creating a new national body to be known as Hypnotherapy Council of Australia. The Council of Clinical Hypnotherapists (CCH) will represent the Hypnosis Associations from the Southern Region of Australia, i.e. the States of Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia.


Further reading

  • Handbook of Medical Hypnosis
  • Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions about the Mind and Brain

External links

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Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Arica movement, Erhard Seminars Training, New Consciousness, Pentothal interview, SAT, T-group, animal hypnosis, assertiveness training, autohypnosis, autosuggestion, behavior modification, behavior therapy, bioenergetics, biofeedback, cataleptic hypnosis, confrontation therapy, conjoint therapy, consciousness raising, counseling, dharana, dhyana, directive therapy, ecstasis, ecstasy, encounter therapy, est, family training, feminist therapy, gestalt therapy, group psychotherapy, group relations training, group sensitivity training, group therapy, humanistic therapy, hypnoanalysis, hypnotherapy, hypnotic sleep, hypnotic suggestion, hypnotism, lethargic hypnosis, marathon, marriage encounter, mind cure, narcoanalysis, narcohypnosis, narcosynthesis, narcotherapy, nondirective therapy, occupational therapy, pastoral counseling, play therapy, posthypnotic suggestion, power of suggestion, primal therapy, prolonged narcosis, psychodrama, psychological counseling, psychosurgery, psychosynthesis, psychotherapeutics, psychotherapy, radical therapy, rapture, rational-emotive therapy, reality therapy, recreational therapy, regression therapy, release therapy, samadhi, scream therapy, self-hypnosis, self-suggestion, sensitivity training, sensory awareness training, sleep treatment, somnambulistic hypnosis, somnipathy, suggestibility, suggestion therapy, suggestionism, supportive therapy, training group, trance, transactional analysis, transcendental meditation, transpersonal therapy, vocational therapy, yoga trance
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