What is hypnosis?

By | Saturday 22 April 2017

“What is hypnosis?” After all these decades, you’d think that this would be a straightforward question to answer.

But it’s not.

Not only does each dictionary and each country’s law give a different answer, but also I’ve found that if you ask (say) 20 experienced hypnotists to define hypnosis, whether or not they are therapists, you’ll get at least 40 different answers, some of which are incompatible with each other.

Meanings of hypnosis

Over the years, I’ve realised that there are different meanings of hypnosis, according to how each hypnotist practices the art. They range from the unhelpful to the practical. Here I give five primary categories, but bear in mind that these aren’t exhaustive.

  • “Everything is hypnosis”: In this viewpoint, hypnosis is nothing more than a change in state, meaning your current emotional state. I personally don’t find this a useful definition. It comes from an extreme (and incorrect) interpretation of NLP (neurolinguistic programming).
  • “Hypnosis is sleep or the appearance of sleep”: The Oxford English Dictionary gives this definition, which doesn’t help. Can you imagine going to a hypnotherapist who merely makes you fall asleep? Or a stage hypnosis show where all the volunteers lie asleep on stage?
  • “Hypnosis is trance”: Primarily used by hypnotherapists and NLP practitioners, the idea is that when you are in a relaxed trance, you are more receptive to suggestion. This is true of many, though not all, people.
  • “Hypnosis is where you are under the full control of the hypnotist”: Used of course by most stage hypnotists. leading to “your reality is whatever the hypnotist says.”
  • “Direct communication with the subconscious, independent the conscious person”: This is my personal favourite in therapy.

Oxford Dictionaries provides an interesting definition: “The induction of a state of consciousness in which a person apparently loses the power of voluntary action and is highly responsive to suggestion or direction.”

For ease of use, let’s use these phrases:

  • Everything-hypnosis to mean the first type
  • Trance-hypnosis to mean that it looks like sleep or a trance
  • Power-hypnosis to mean that the hypnotist is in control
  • Direct-hypnosis to mean direct communication with the subconscious

Terms can have a large overlap. For example, trance-hypnosis and power-hypnosis frequently involve direct-hypnosis. Trance-hypnosis is often jocularly called relaxotherapy.

Some hypnotherapists have defined hypnosis according to dominant brainwaves (namely changes to or from gamma, beta, alpha, theta and delta). This idea stems from trance-hypnosis theory. However, research has indicated that the dominant brainwave and hypnosis are unrelated.

Uses of different types

Naturally, stage hypnotists usually use power-hypnosis, although many begin with trance-hypnosis. Bizarrely, I’ve come across one stage hypnotist (who also practices hypnotherapy) who claims that there is no such thing as hypnosis and that it’s all mere compliance — smoke and mirrors, in other words. We might call this the nothing-hypnosis theory.

Hypnotherapists (therapists who use hypnosis as a primary tool) range over all types, so one hypnotherapist might use everything-hypnosis, another trance-hypnosis, and so forth. Some of them swap between the types according to need.

Self-hypnosis, which some people practice, only makes sense if you are thinking about trance-hypnosis.

Thinking only about power-hypnosis, it seems that not everyone can be hypnotised, at least not easily, and those who can be hypnotised sometimes do so only in limited ways. For example, a good hypnotee might be able to hallucinate and yet be unable to experience amnesia. Or to experience hand-stick but not floating arm. It also sometimes happens that a single person may respond well to one hypnotist but poorly to another. As yet, no one knows why this should be the case.

I’ve used all types of hypnosis in my therapy, because they are all useful.

Pick your favourite definition and feel free to change your mind at any time!