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Home / UK Hypnosis Blog / Is hypnosis real or just imaginings?

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Hypnotic imagination

Have you ever found yourself lost in a fantastic story?

Maybe it was a well-written book, a great movie, or a powerful song.
Do you remember what it felt like?

At some point you forgot you were at home or in the cinema. The scene felt so vivid, for a moment you believed you were really there. You were aware of every detail.

And as you became immersed in the tale, your body, your mind and your emotions started reacting to events on the page or screen.

If a key character was in danger, your pulse probably quickened.

Your mood sunk, as your heroes were separated – and then lifted again, as they found happiness at the end.

It wasn’t real – but it felt like it was.

That is a great analogy for what happens in hypnotherapy.

The great social psychologist and hypnosis researcher, Ted Sarbin, called hypnosis “believed-in-imaginings”.

That’s a brilliant definition.

Because hypnosis is a special, “as-if-real” way of using your imagination, which evokes real emotions and sensations.

Just like that well-written story or screenplay, you feel as if the scenario playing out in your head is real.
(And if we measured it you'd see it wasn't just in your head… your whole body would be “covertly” acting out the scenario – your entire physiology involved in the “imagining”.)

And the experience can have as much impact on your thoughts and behaviour going forward as anything that happens in “real life”.

At a conscious level, you might know these experiences happen “in hypnosis”, but the neurological systems responsible for learning can’t tell the difference. Your brain learns from your hypnotic experience as it were the real thing.

Is hypnosis real? Or manipulation?

Now some sceptics say that the practice involves manipulation. Others fear that it takes advantage of its subjects when they aren’t in full control of their senses.

But it is not, as some people believe, a form of mind control or emotional coercion. Hypnosis cannot force you to feel or do anything, any more than a great book or movie might!

A mindset where you are open to ideas

Back in the 19th century, James Braid, lauded as “The Father of Modern Hypnotism,” used the term to describe a “special neurological state which ha[s] the potential to generate pronounced therapeutic effects.”

He made the mistake at first of thinking it was to do with a “sleep-like state” – so he called it “neurohypnosis” (after Hypnos, the Greek God of Sleep).

However, after conducting a number of experiments, he found that the key to hypnosis involved conscious, focused attention on a dominant idea.

And it could be induced by “causing the patient to fix his thoughts and sight on an object,” and relaxing their breathing.

A few years later Braid proposed to change the term “hypnosis” to “mono-ideaism” (literally “one-thoughtism”).

Mono-ideaism actually captures the true nature of hypnosis better than the word “hypnosis”
But it didn't catch on (and doesn't sound as magical and mysterious!)

Another early scientific study of hypnosis – Hippolyte Bernheim’s classic Hypnosis and Suggestion in Psychotherapy (published in 1884, before Freud!)  – defined the practice, simply, as “a state of heightened suggestibility, or hyper-suggestibility.”

In other words, it is a mindset where we become particularly open to experiencing and accepting ideas at a very deep level.

No one can by hypnotised against their will

It is well-established that hypnosis is not like sleeping, nor is it an unconscious state.

These theories have been soundly debunked by experts, such as Clark Hull (Professor of Psychology at Berkley University), Michael Heap (a leading UK psychologist) and Eva Banyai, a Professor of Psychology in Hungary, who had subjects “go into hypnosis” while cycling hard on an exercise bike.

In fact, according to Bernheim (who was Professor of Medicine in Nancy University in France), hypnosis subjects are able to “hear and understand everything, even though [they] may appear inert and passive.”

He adds that “no one [can] be hypnotised against his will.”

This conclusion was echoed in Braid’s research, which found that subjects were in full control of their faculties and could “only be affected in accordance with [their] own free will and consent.”

And the discoveries made by these early Victorian researchers are now backed up by much more recent researchers – they were pretty accurate!

Modern research backs up the findings of the early Victorian hypnotists

Lynn, Rhue, and Weekes (1990) report that subjects retain the ability to control their behaviour during hypnosis, to refuse to respond to suggestions, and to even oppose suggestions.

Likewise, a formal report conducted in 2001 by the British Psychological Society declared hypnosis a “proven therapeutic medium.”

It noted that while subjects “retain awareness of their environment and usually respond appropriately to it… afterwards, they are usually able to recall most, if not all, of what they attended to during the session.”

And more studies are added every year.

Peer-reviewed scientific research journals such as the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, The American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, and Contemporary Hypnosis continue to explore what hypnosis really involves.

Hypnosis is a serious research topic in psychology. Respected universities like Harvard, Stanford and UCL have even set up special research labs to study hypnosis.

A solid way to understand human experience

For me, exploring the evidence was crucial.

While I had degree in Psychology and Philosophy I’d also followed a journey of meditation and spiritual exploration. I had become involved in yoga and meditation, spending several years in an ashram in India – and also in the United States.

When I moved back to the UK, and started considering becoming a hypnotherapist, I was eager to supplement what I had learned with a more scientific understanding of what was involved.

It was essential to me that any therapy I offered clients was not based on hearsay, myth or anything untested.

After all the “magic and mysteries” of my journey, in some ways I had come “full circle” – and I wanted to be on solid ground.

Not only was it important to me that the practice was credible…..

And not only did I know that understanding what happens during hypnosis would make me a better practitioner….

I was looking for a solid way to understand human experience, in both a scientific and philosophical way.

3 reasons to study the evidence for hypnosis

The clarity I achieved by being able to marry these Eastern and Western traditions was joyous.

Those three factors – credibility, understanding hypnosis, understanding human experience – are the reasons why the evidence for hypnosis is a key component of our hypnotherapy diploma.

Understanding what really goes on in hypnosis informs not just our understanding of hypnosis, but our understanding of ourselves.

In fact, I am currently neck-deep teaching the first module to a wonderful group of people, right now!

It is an intensely practical, hands-on course. Over the last few days, the cohort has already had many opportunities to practice hypnotherapy themselves.

But we have also covered much scientific ground. The brief summary I provided above is just the very tip of the iceberg.

And they have discovered that our approach to hypnosis and human experience “joins the dots”,  “explains so much about myself“,  “gives me so many ideas for helping existing clients“.

As one participant said “The course surpassed all my expectations! I am more excited about my career move into the therapeutic world after the course course and highly confident in my continued personal growth. The team are a joy; personable, approachable, knowledgeable and keen to see you learn. Highly highly recommended.” – Luke West, (trainee counsellor and hypnotherapist)

If you want to understand more – much more – about the science behind hypnotherapy, check out the details of the Diploma course here.

About the author | Mark R. Davis

Mark is a therapist, trainer, meditation teacher – and a leader in developing the integration of hypnosis with cognitive behavioural psychotherapy approaches. As Director and Principal of The UK College of Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy, he is at the forefront of evidence-based hypnotherapy training – and is also very involved in the the integration of yoga and non-dual philosophy into Western Psychotherapy.