Hypnosis as ‘trance’
Welcome to the first in our Cutting through the Five Myths of Hypnosis series!
I want to share with you the most common myths and misconceptions about hypnosis – and why it’s so important to question them, look to the science and use more research-informed ways of talking about hypnosis.
I’m going to try and cut through the confusion in the field and bring some clarity.
Back in 2006 when I was trying to figure out what to do in terms of my career, someone suggested that training in hypnotherapy was the perfect solution.
A short, concise training (not a 4-year psychotherapy course) – quickly providing me with the ability to start working with people helping them change.
However, I was horrified! Hypnosis?! Hypnotherapy?!!
You’ve got to be kidding!!
At that point, for me, hypnosis and hypnotherapy seemed mystical and murky and too much of a magic show.
I associated it with stage hypnosis and people selling hyped-up personal development training (“Learn to influence others”, “the power of conversational hypnosis”, “rapid transformation in one session” etc).
However – when I looked into it a bit deeper, I saw there was a whole world of knowledge, discussion and research into hypnosis.
In fact, it is astonishing to me that these two “worlds” of hypnosis exist – the magical (credulous) vs the scientific (reasonable).
Although, I want to assure you that stripping away the myths is a fascinating journey that takes away none of the power of hypnosis – indeed, it actually helps us use it more powerfully and effectively.
I’m also greatly interested in our need for magic, mystery and wonder. It is a deep part of our human condition. Too often, however, we direct this at the wrong things and end up with unhelpful, superstitious beliefs.
So, I want to dispel the myths in order to uncover some wonderful truths about hypnosis!
You’ll probably agree that the marketplace for hypnotherapy training is a really confusing mix of grandiose claims, an incredible number of “world-famous” celebrity hypnotherapists and lots of people claiming to teach “the secrets” or to have studied with the “greatest hypnotherapist who ever lived”.
I’m passionate about cutting through the pop psychology and pseudoscience and educating people – both therapists and clients – in our research-based approach to hypnotherapy.
As the famous psychologist Professor Hans Eysenck stated, “Very few topics in the whole history of mankind can have given rise to so many absurdities, misunderstandings, and misconceptions” (1).
Over half a century later, this statement continues to ring true – perhaps even more so in an Internet-led era!
Let’s distill the truth from the hype, the science from the superstition.
We’re kicking the series off with a discussion of perhaps the most misleading term within hypnotherapy discourses – TRANCE.
The meaning of the term ‘trance’
Although not a ‘myth’ as such, the way it is used within popular psychology, stage hypnosis and many hypnotherapy schools and practitioners adds a sense of ‘mystery’ to hypnosis – and an aura of power and prestige to the hypnotist.
However, this clashes with the research evidence – and causes problems and confusion for both clients and therapists.
It’s interesting to see that the meaning of trance has changed over the decades. When hypnosis first started, with the work of James Braid around 1860, a ‘trance’ referred to a death-like coma state!
Whereas nowadays we might say “Oh, you can’t talk to Mark right now he’s in a trance watching Wimbledon.”
But this weakened use of the term, typically related to being deeply absorbed in a book or task, conflicts with the idea of being “put into a trance” by a hypnotist – an idea that tends to scare people away!
So which are we doing? Focusing their attention or putting them in a trance?
See the confusion?!!
I never talk about trance when I’m introducing clients to hypnosis. I don’t think it is at all helpful in a therapy setting.
I’ve trained over 1000 students in hypnosis – both in the UK and in China. I can tell you that those who cling to the idea of trance get stuck and confused.
If I start talking about trance, my clients will get nervous and questioning of their experience:
“Am in hypnosis yet?”
“Am I in a trance? Am I doing it right?”
“If I cough will I break the trance?”
“What if I get stuck in a trance!?”
Can you see that the very idea of inducing a trance can generate a whole series of fears and thoughts – that prevent hypnosis from happening!
Every single student who had previously trained in a trance-based approach to hypnosis has come up and thanked me for showing them how hypnosis works, how simple and straightforward it actually is.
So if we don’t put clients into a trance – what is it that we do?
I think hypnosis has a really simple definition: focused attention on a dominant idea.
And I tend to expand on that: focused “thinking-along-with” (feeling, imagining, experiencing) a series of ideas given by the therapist (or by themselves in self-hypnosis).
Let me try to explain and I hope you’ll see it really is very straightforward.
- As hypnotherapists, we help clients focus their attention on ideas and suggestions which they wish to experience and which will benefit them.
- As they get absorbed and pulled into that experience of focusing and thinking-along-with those ideas, they forget about the external world and get more and more absorbed.
- As they get focused and absorbed into those ideas and experiences in a way that daily life doesn’t usually allow them, this becomes a very vivid and completely undistracted experience.
- This unusually undistracted, concentrated experience leaves a significant impression, a latent trace, on their thinking, feeling and behaving… like new grooves in their mind.
So, in hypnosis, you are highly focused on the ideas being given by the hypnotherapist and you are thinking-along-with those ideas… and therefore having new vivid experiences which change the way you feel, think and behave after hypnosis.
(Notice we didn’t use the word ‘trance’ once!)
What does the research say about ‘trance’?
Firstly – in research hypnotised subjects do not describe their experience as ‘trance’ but as focused attention on suggested events (2). That’s pretty useful to know!
Secondly – Professor Clark Hull, the first scientific researcher to study hypnosis back in 1933, quickly discovered that when you gave the same suggestions (to relax and experience things) but did NOT “induce hypnosis” – the results were pretty similar.
Putting people into a “hypnotic trance” didn’t seem to really make much difference. It was the instructions and suggestions to experience things that made the difference. Not the “trance”. So, the whole idea of “hypnotic trance” lost the power explain the extraordinary experiences people had (3).
Thirdly – despite huge amounts of effort to try to find a physiological or neurological indicator of “the trance” – a way of measuring it – none has been found.
“Special state” researchers (who think hypnosis is a special state of consciousness) have never been able to find any physiological indicators of hypnosis (4).
Intense research continues to this day.
And NO-ONE has yet found the state of hypnosis.
That’s just a fact. Period.
So when a hypnotherapy training school tells you that they know the secrets to inducing a trance and how to tell if the client is in a trance… take those claims with a huge dose of salt!
But here’s the most important thing.
When we drop the idea of trance from hypnosis we make hypnosis less scary and much more accessible and acceptable.
Without ‘trance-y’ connotations, everyone becomes much more willing to try hypnosis, and include it in self-development programmes and stress management courses.
The second big win here is that when we get rid of the idea of trance and start talking about focused attention, motivation, imagination – we can integrate hypnosis into scientifically informed psychotherapies like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
And that is hugely important. Because there is research showing that adding hypnosis to CBT actually improves the CBT (5). And that is exactly the approach you will learn on 21-day Diploma in Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy.
The idea of trance is just one misconception enshrouding hypnosis and hypnotherapy.
I hope you see that by being a bit skeptical of ideas and concepts that are presented around hypnosis, by drawing on some of the research and being a little less “credulous”, we can have great confidence in the credibility of hypnosis. And be able to explain it to others easily and acceptably.
I hope you found this helpful.
And watch out for the next in the series, Myth no.2: Hypnosis as loss of control.
You can read more about trance in our other blog articles linked below:
- The Original Meaning of “Hypnotic Trance”
- Towards an Evidence-Based Hypnosis: Research Findings
- Essential Hypnosis & Hypnotherapy Information
- Eysenck, H (1957) Sense and Nonsense in Psychology.
- McConkey, K. M. (1986). Opinions about hypnosis and self-hypnosis before and after hypnotic testing. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 34.
- Nash, M., & Barnier, A. (2012). Oxford Handbook of Hypnosis (1st ed.).
- Steven Jay Lynn, Jean-Roch Laurence & Irving Kirsch (2015) Hypnosis, Suggestion, and Suggestibility: An Integrative Model, American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 57:3, 314-329, DOI: 10.1080/00029157.2014.976783
- Kirsch I, Montgomery G, Sapirstein G. Hypnosis as an adjunct to cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy: a meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 1995; 63(2): 214-220.