Hypnosis Fact & Fiction: Revisisted

This blog post is an updated version of the original Fact and Fiction blog post made more than 10 years ago!

“Very few topics in the whole history of mankind can have given rise to so many absurdities, misunderstandings, and misconceptions.”
– Hans Eysenck, Sense & Nonsense in Psychology (1957)

The above statement from Hans Eysenck about hypnosis continues to ring true, even half a century later. Perhaps even more so in an internet-led era! 

Hypnosis has always been associated with the mystical and murky… and in recent years has also become incorporated into hyped-up personal development training (“Learn to influence others”, “the power of conversational hypnosis”, “rapid transformation in one session” etc).

My experience is that it’s really helpful to debunk these misconceptions and communicate that hypnosis is a non-nonsense, very accessible and useable, effective evidence-based therapeutic method.

And I want to assure you that stripping away the myths and fictions around hypnosis is a fascinating journey that takes away none of its power – indeed, it actually helps us use hypnosis more powerfully and more effectively.

Here are some of the most commonly held ideas about hypnosis, and let’s see if they are FACT or FICTION!!

If you’re already practising hypnotherapy, this is a good tool to use with clients – and if you’re yet to train in hypnotherapy, this should hopefully help to cut through some confusion and bring clarity. 

“I am under someone else’s “power” or control in hypnosis”…FICTION!

No. This idea comes from comic books, cartoons, and movies. 

People who believe this happens in stage hypnosis are misinterpreting the experience. In hypnosis you are fundamentally in control of everything that happens. 

You choose to be in hypnosis, you choose how deeply you go into hypnosis, and you choose whether to allow yourself to respond to suggestions or not. You cannot be forced into hypnosis against your will nor compelled to do anything embarrassing or objectionable while in hypnosis.

Within every fiction there is often a kernel of truth. The essence of hypnosis is a sense of involuntariness – that you aren’t doing it, it is happening all by itself.
So it does feel as if you are responding to ideas automatically and involuntarily.

BUT this experience of involuntariness is under your control.
It’s a bit like relaxing and letting your body “move to the music” – that moving to the music is involuntary but under voluntary control.

But by learning how to let go and let yourself respond to the music, or in this case the hypnotic suggestions, you are actually gaining control rather than losing control.

It isn’t just a misconception about being under someone else’s power; it is often a deliberate 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!

Clearly it may even preclude them looking at hypnotherapy as a solution to their problems.

However, if you look at the research, the idea of hypnotic subject ‘losing control of their mind’ is not supported anywhere, at all!

You can read more about the research in relation to this misconception in our blog post here.

“Anyone be hypnotised”…FACT!

Yes, absolutely anyone, if they want to!

Going into hypnosis is simply a matter of quieting the mind and focusing your attention on the ideas being suggested, and then becoming more and more absorbed in the idea and the way you are responding to the idea.

When we consider hypnosis as being fundamentally self-hypnosis it can become clear that there is a knack or skill to hypnosis. Some people get that straight away, and everyone else can learn.

The key is that everyone responds to suggestions (ideas) at some level or other.
If I say the word “Ferrari” – it creates some sort of response (images, feelings, memories, other thoughts).

So everyone does respond to ideas…. And everyone can learn how to respond to ideas in a very focused and powerful way.

However, you do have to believe that you can do it!

If you keep telling yourself “I can’t do it. This isn’t working.” Then obviously the results will be less than ideal.

As the great American industrialist Henry Ford famously said: “Whether you say you can or you can’t, either way you’re right.” The poet Virgil wrote: “They can because they believe they can.” That is especially true of hypnotism.

And indeed this is the motto of the College!

“Some people easier to hypnotise”…FACT!

Of course. Some people are exceptionally good at going into hypnosis – they have the knack or they have figured it out through practice and experimentation. 

However, anyone can do it and everyone can learn how to improve their ability with a little practice and basic instruction. 

Only around 5% of people are particularly unresponsive to suggestions in hypnosis, and most of these appear to be able to learn to respond at least moderately well with practice, advice, and reassurance. 

“I can get stuck in hypnosis”…FICTION!

No. Just as you cannot get stuck in a daydream, in your imagination, or in meditation. 

Given time you will either rouse yourself naturally or drift off to natural sleep; hypnosis is a temporary state of mind. 

Otherwise we would have special hospital wards full of people who are “stuck in hypnosis”! It has never happened. 

“Only the weak-willed or gullible can be hypnotized”…FICTION! 

Definitely not; if anything, good hypnotic subjects tend to be more intelligent and less gullible than average.

‘Gullibility’ is a weakness of the conscious intellect. Research demonstrates that it is not correlated with hypnotic suggestibility.

Hypnotic suggestibility, by contrast, is your intentional conscious ability to respond to positive ideas at an experiential, emotional, or “automatic” level.

Good suggestibility (or ‘hypnotic responsiveness’) is a valuable asset.

Indeed real ‘self-control’ fundamentally requires good suggestibility. For example, if a person can say “I can do this!”, and believe himself so deeply that he feels it to be true, then he is both highly suggestible and highly self- disciplined. 

Hence, many hypnotists find that highly self-disciplined people make particularly good hypnotic subjects, e.g., soldiers, successful businessmen, athletes, martial artists, etc. 

“Hypnosis is a sleep-like state”…FICTION! 

No, hypnosis does not feel like being asleep. 

In hypnosis you are mentally awake, not unconscious, and usually aware of everything that is said or done. The body may be very relaxed, the mind is quiet and calm – but you are not asleep: actually you are completely focused on and absorbed with the ideas being suggested.

You can tune into the room around you if you want – but the essential component of hypnosis is being focused on the suggestions given.

Even Bernheim, one of the great pioneers of 19th century hypnosis emphasises, “in all degrees of hypnosis the subject hears and understands everything even though he may appear inert and passive.”

This sleep-like appearance of patients led to a confusion between sleep and hypnosis which is quite unhelpful.

Some of the confusion arises because the word “hypnosis” comes from the Greek word for “sleep” (hypnos). It was introduced by the great James Braid back in 1842 but it is actually an abbreviation for “neuro-hypnotism”, meaning specifically “sleep of the nervous system.” 

In Braid’s use of the word sleep is only metaphorical, not literal. His main idea was that of focused attention combined with softening of the breathing. The active busy-ness of the body and mind are quieted – and the attention then focused.

(Thus Braid’s ideas on hypnosis as a metaphorical “sleep” of the mind and body are very similar to states of meditation where the body is relaxed and the mind is still – and ready to focus with one-pointed attention.)

In later publications James Braid dropped the idea of sleep and focused much on what he called “mono-ideaism”: the mind being fixed, dominated by one idea. 

After Braid, what became clear from Bernheim onwards was that responsiveness to suggestions was the essence of hypnosis.

As researchers focused on increased suggestibility, it became apparent that this increase in suggestibility has little to do with relaxation or sleep.

Later researchers discovered that people could “go into hypnosis” (become hyper-responsive to suggestions) – even while exercising hard on a bike!

So, although hypnosis often resembles sleep externally, it is fundamentally different from normal sleep internally.

“Hypnosis isn’t recognised by any authorities in psychology or medicine”…FICTION!

This is one of the most important misconceptions to debunk: the reality of hypnosis and benefits of hypnotherapy have been recognised in reports by the British Medical Association (BMA)American Medical Association (AMA), American Psychological Association (APA), and British Psychological Society (BPS).

There is a lot of nonsense published in popular books about hypnosis, and myths propagated in hypnosis shows and training schools teaching misleading and outdated ideas. However, on the other side there is a huge wealth of serious research into the topic of hypnosis and its therapeutic application in hypnotherapy.

Hypnosis is a major research topic in academic psychology with leading universities such as Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley having special hypnosis research labs in their Psychology Departments.

Thousands of books and articles have been published on the effects of hypnosis, containing reference to research projects and case studies, which confirm the characteristics of hypnosis and its therapeutic benefits. 

The following resources on our website will point you directly to clinical and experimental research findings:

You can also get in touch with us directly for more research-related resources or advice on how to find research for specific topics.

I hope you found this helpful, and can see that by being somewhat sceptical of ideas and concepts that are presented around hypnosis, and by drawing on the research, we can have great confidence in the credibility of hypnosis. 

Indeed, we can learn how to explain to others in ways that make it much more acceptable AND accessible.

About the author

Principal and Director of The UK College of Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy. Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapist - with practices in Central and North London. Personal website at www.inspiredhypnosis.co.uk

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