Hypnosis as a loss of control
Welcome to the second in our 5 Myths of Hypnosis series!
Here I’m aiming to provide some clarity amongst the muddy marketplace of hypnosis courses – to try to cut through the hype, get the pop out of the psychology, separate the science from the superstition, and see what the research says.
So join me as we dive into the second myth: hypnosis as a loss of control.
As a concept, this actually underpins a lot of the widely-held misconceptions about hypnosis: hypnosis as trance, as sleep, as amnesia, as mind control, etc.
For most people, the idea that a powerful hypnotist can ‘take control’ of your mind, implant ideas deep in your unconscious and make you do what they want is both very scary, and perhaps secretly very appealing for some… I mean, when did you last feel in control of your mind? ;)
This myth is about power play. Bigging up the power of the therapist and utterly reducing the power and agency of the subject or client.
Some people do come for hypnotherapy because they hold the idea “I want my mind to be taken over and reprogrammed!”. In my experience, many of these clients do not do well in therapy, even if the therapist is willing to play along with this idea.
For the majority of potential clients, however, the idea that someone will take over the mind is distinctly worrying, and may even preclude them looking at hypnotherapy as a solution to their problems.
But, if you look at the research, the idea of hypnotic subject ‘losing control of their mind’ is not supported anywhere, at all!
So, let’s look at the reasons why this myth exists, and how it impacts what happens in the therapy room.
‘Losing control’: hypnosis on stage
Stage hypnosis has been a popular form of entertainment for centuries – and is founded on the very idea that the subject loses control of their will at the hands of the ‘powerful hypnotist’.
Since the early 19th Century, the hypnotist showmen (or conmen!) claimed to hold the ‘telepathic powers’ to control the strange behaviour and stunts of the hypnotic subject.
But this idea of the hypnotic subject as a passive recipient of the powerful suggestions of the hypnotist finds its roots in the early predecessor of hypnosis: Mesmerism. Franz Mesmer believed he was channelling real magnet energy into his patients, which brought about a “healing crisis” from which they arose seeming “healed”.
As Mesmerism gave way to Hypnosis the appearance and underlying notion of the power of “the healer” (the hypnotist) remained, transferring not magnet energy but willpower and ideas.
This idea still lingers and fascinates today – evident with entertainers like Derren Brown captivating Channel 4 audiences with his ‘stunts’.
Although Derren Brown often shares accurate information on psychology and hypnosis, it often gets lost in the mix, because Brown isn’t primarily an educator – he’s an entertainer.
The concept of hypnosis as a loss of control is fantastic for the facade of a stage show, but fundamentally inaccurate in reality off-stage.
Experimental research debunks this ‘entertaining’ idea completely, with research showing that…
Subjects keep the ability to control their behaviour during hypnosis, to refuse to respond to suggestions, and to even oppose them. (1)
People can respond to suggestions with or without hypnosis: a formal hypnotic ‘induction’ is primarily to increase suggestibility to a small degree. (2, 3)
Hypnosis depends more on the efforts and abilities of the subject than on the ‘skills’ of the hypnotist. (3)
Not to mention that often stage hypnotists are happy to confess the deception of their shows. The famous stage hypnotist and magician from the 70s, The Amazing Kreskin, has written several books spilling the secret methods behind his stunts. (4)
So, there is clearly a huge difference between the education, discussion and research into hypnosis, and it’s entertainment value on stage or on-screen!
Perhaps the most important concept contradicting this loss of control idea is self-hypnosis.
It fundamentally goes against the myth that the ‘power’ lies in the skill of the hypnotist – as the hypnotist is removed from the equation completely!
As you learn to focus your attention, give yourself positive suggestions and find yourself responding powerfully to them – and perhaps even discover that you can “learn” to do self-hypnosis and improve your response over time – you begin to see that hypnosis is more about the focus, motivation and abilities of the subject than “the master hypnotist”.
The self-hypnotising subject has complete control over their experience.
And can use that control to make positive, lasting change both inside and outside the therapy room.
Moreover, the transfer of the power, what we call “the locus of control”, from the powerful therapist to the empowered client is deeply therapeutic and enabling.
What follows from this, and is demonstrated in research, is that a subject’s hypnotisability – in terms of both hypnosis and self-hypnosis – is improved through the subject’s own choice to behave and think differently.
Research in at least five laboratories has shown that more than half of participants who are originally test as ‘low hypnotisability’ can – after positive attitudes about hypnosis are imagined and accepted – become ‘highly hypnotisable’. (4)
These positive attitudes include understanding hypnosis as a collaborative or self-directed psychological process.
So, ultimately, your hypnotisability can change when you reconsider misconceptions such as the loss of control – not to mention the others we’re discussing in this series!
This principle of collaboration – naturally opposed to any ‘loss of control’ principle – positions hypnotherapy within the field of legitimate psychotherapies.
So, if a person wants to engage in hypnosis, learns about it, and confidently participates in it – it will happen!
And it’s happening is entirely due to the control the subject hold in doing all of these things.
Hypnosis is therefore fundamentally NOT a loss of the subject’s control.
Unlike hypnotic ‘performances’ on stage – or screen – it isn’t induced by a powerful hypnotist, beholder of magic telepathic abilities to remove a person’s will…
Hypnosis ‘happens’ as the result of a collaborative or self-driven effort to relax and focus on suggested ideas. And imagine, experience, think-along-with with those ideas.
Now…. it’s not quite as simple as that.
There is an aspect of ‘loss of control’ that is true!
The fundamental experience of hypnosis is that it seems involuntary, that you don’t seem to be doing it.
We willingly focus our attention on the ideas suggested by the hypnotist and imagine them being true – and then begin to experience them happening all by themselves. Our eyelids close involuntarily, our arms get very heavy automatically, the other arm seems to get lighter and lighter and begin to float up…what is going on?!!
Here we are not under the control of the hypnotist – rather we are responding to our imagination. Suggestions in hypnosis can be considered as “invitations to imagine” – as you focus and then imagine your body responding to those ideas (since every idea is actually a physiological event in the body.)
And with positive motivation, trust, the expectancy of the hypnotic situation and our focused attention and imagination – those responses to imaginings can become extraordinarily and surprisingly powerful.
It is true that we are allowing ourselves to flow along with the suggestions being given by the hypnotist – but we can stop that at any moment – so are not under their control.
As a client responds to the suggested ideas we, as a good hypnotherapist, begin to immediately suggest that they can now respond to their own, self-given suggestions – and so we immediately help develop a self-hypnosis responsive mindset.
So the partnership of giving and then responding to ideas are turned into an internal process the client can do with themselves.
It’s a bit like dancing. You have to let go and feel the music to dance well. You can’t control each movement voluntarily (or your dancing will develop the sort of notoriety that is not desirable!)
In the same way, you let go and let yourself and feel and imagine and respond to the ideas being given.
And of course, just like with dancing, over control is a problem. If you are too self-controlling you can neither dance nor respond to hypnosis.
But if you expect the music or the hypnotist to do all the work then nothing happens!
So, I hope I’ve explained the balance between exerting and losing control in hypnosis well to you.
And hopefully debunked another popular myth!
In a similar way, YOU also have control: to learn about hypnosis, engage with the research, move against commonly-held misassumptions. And help others do the same.
- Lynne S. J., Rhue J. W., & Weekes. J. R. (1990). Hypnotic involuntariness: A social-cognitive analysis. Psychological Review, 97, 169-184
- Barber, T. X. (1969). Hypnosis: A Scientific Approach. South Orange, NJ: Power Publishers
- Hilgard, E. R. (1965). Hypnotic Susceptibility. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.
- See most famously: Kreskin (1991). Secrets of the Amazing Kreskin: The World’s Foremost Mentalist Reveals How You Can Expand Your Powers. 1st ed. Prometheus.
- Spanos, N. P. (1991). A sociocognitive approach to hypnosis. In S. J. Lynn and J. W. Rhue (Eds), Theories of hypnosis: Current models and perspectives (pp. 324-361). New York. Guildford Press
Photo by Youssef Naddam (Unsplash)