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Home / Experts define hypnosis

Hypnotism has always been surrounded by misconception.  Unfortunately, the internet is a very unreliable source of information and many websites contain extremely misleading information.  This page provides quotations from various organisations and established authors which help to clarify the way hypnosis is normally defined by more credible sources.  The first definition here is the original one given by James Braid, the Scottish physician and surgeon who first discovered hypnosis in 1841 and founded hypnotherapy. Then we have the official definitions of ‘hypnosis' given by the Book of Statutes and the British Medical Association.

James Braid

Contrary to popular misconception hypnotism and Mesmerism are not the same thing.  Franz Mesmer never hypnotised anyone and his supernatural theory of animal magnetism bears no relationship to the psychological theory upon which hypnotism is based.  After observing a famous Mesmerist's demonstrations James Braid concluded that although he was producing genuine physiological responses in his subjects, these were not due to any supernatural or magnetic force, as claimed, but the result of ordinary psychological and physiological processes such as relaxation, focused attention, and suggestion. To contrast his more “common sense” explanation with Mesmerism, Braid coined the term ‘Neuro-Hypnotism' (meaning a partial sleep or inhibition of the nervous system) which he himself abbreviated to ‘Hypnotism':

By the term “Neuro-Hypnotism,” then, is to be understood “nervous sleep,” […] a peculiar state of the nervous system, induced by a fixed and abstracted attention of the mental and visual eye, on one object, not of an exciting nature. [Braid, Neurypnology, 1843]

However, Braid later reviewed his idea that hypnosis was a specific neurological state and replaced it with the theory that hypnosis was ‘monoideation,' the fixation of consciousness on a single idea or object:

The real origin and essence of the hypnotic condition is the induction of a habit of abstraction or mental concentration, in which, as in reverie or spontaneous abstraction, the powers of the mind are so much engrossed with a single idea or train of thought, as, for the nonce, to render the individual unconscious of, or indifferently conscious to, all other ideas, impressions, or trains of thought. [Braid, 1852: 53-54]

Hippolyte Bernheim

Following Braid, Bernheim is often referred to as the father of modern hypnotherapy, or certainly the most influential pioneer of hypnotherapy beside its founder.  Professor Bernheim was credited with popularising the view, largely taken for granted today, that hypnosis is fundamentally a state of heightened suggestibility itself induced by means of suggestion.

To define hypnotism as induced sleep, is to give a too narrow meaning to the word, to overlook the many phenomena which suggestion can bring about independently of sleep. I define hypnotism as the induction of a peculiar psychical condition which increases the susceptibility to suggestion. Often, it is true, the sleep that may be induced facilitates suggestion, but it is not the necessary preliminary.

It is suggestion that rules hypnotism. I have tried to show that suggested sleep differs in no respect from natural sleep. The same phenomena of suggestion can be obtained in natural sleep, if one succeeds in putting one's self into relationship [rapport] with the sleeping person without waking him.

This new idea which I propose concerning the hypnotic influence, this wider definition given to the word hypnotism, permits us to include in the same class of phenomena all the various methods which, acting upon imagination, induce the psychical condition of exalted susceptibility to suggestion [hyper-suggestibility] with or without sleep. [Hippolyte Bernheim, Hypnosis & Suggestion in Psychotherapy, 1884: 15-16]

Sigmund Freud

After studying briefly with Bernheim, Freud pioneered the use of hypnosis as a vehicle for regression and catharsis between about 1885 and 1905. However, he abandoned it in order to develop his own technique of psychoanalysis. Nevertheless in an article published late in his career Freud returned to the subject of hypnotherapy once again, suggesting that it might be necessary to somehow combine the findings of psychoanalysis with the methods of hypnotherapy in order to produce a briefer and more powerful form of treatment. This notion was subsequently developed by other psychotherapists and led to the school of hypnosis which we now call “hypnoanalysis.” Freud's comments here are more in the manner of a brief descriptions, rather than a definition per se, nevertheless they reveal something of his views on the nature of hypnosis.

It has long been known, though it has only been established beyond all doubt during the last few decades, that it is possible, by certain gentle means, to put people into a quite peculiar mental state very similar to sleep and on that account described as ‘hypnosis.' […] The hypnotic state exhibits a great variety of gradations. In its lightest degree the hypnotic subject is aware only of something like a slight insensibility, while the most extreme degree, which is marked by special peculiarities, is known as ‘somnambulism', on account of its resemblance to the natural phenomena of sleep-walking. But hypnosis is in no sense a sleep like our nocturnal sleep or like the sleep produced by drugs. Changes occur in it and mental functions are retained during it which are absent in normal sleep. [Freud, On Psychical Treatment, 1905]

Clark L. Hull

Hull was the first major scientific researcher to specialise in the study of hypnotism. He was a Professor of Psychology at the universities of Wisconsin and Yale. Hull’s orientation was behaviourist and he discusses in detail the functional definition of hypnosis in terms of hyper-suggestibility,

The only thing which seems to characterise hypnosis as such and which gives any justification for the practice of calling it a “state” is its generalised hypersuggestibility. [Hull, Hypnosis & Suggestibility, 1933]

After reviewing the comments of previous experts on hypnosis, Hull concludes,

However, different may be the theoretical bias of the various writers, and however varying may be their interpretation of the phenomenon, there appears to be no disagreement regarding the fundamental fact that whatever else it may be, the hypnotic trance is a state of heightened susceptibility to suggestion. [Hull, Hypnosis & Suggestibility, 1933]

Milton Erickson

Erickson is probably the most influential hypnotherapist of the 20th century and the originator of a novel and distinctive style of hypnotism, referred to as “Ericksonian.”

The hypnotic trance may be defined, for purposes of conceptualisation, as a state of increased awareness and responsiveness to ideas. [Collected Papers, vol. IV, 174]

Suggestibility is, of course, a primary feature of hypnosis, and is necessarily present. [The Wisdom of Milton Erickson, vol. I, 19]

It [hypnosis] is a state of consciousness –not unconsciousness or sleep– a state of consciousness or awareness in which there is a marked receptiveness to ideas and understandings and an increased willingness to respond either positively or negatively to those ideas. [Collected Papers, vol. IV, 224]

The UK Book of Statues

This is the official legal definition of “hypnotism” provided by the Hypnotism Act 1952, however, I would like to emphasise that it is a very poor definition and very misleading in that it falsely implies that hypnosis is a state of ‘sleep.' This was a step backwards, in ignorance of the findings of medical researchers such as Bernheim and Freud, as you can see from their statements above. Conscious of this, the British Medical Association subsequently offered their own definition in response to the obvious deficiencies of the Hypnotism Act, which nevertheless still stands in British law:

“Hypnotism” includes hypnotism, mesmerism and any similar act or process which produces or is intended to produce in any person any form of induced sleep or trance in which the susceptibility of the mind of that person to suggestion or direction is increased or intended to be increased but does not include hypnotism, mesmerism or any similar act or process which is self-induced. [The Hypnotism Act, 1952]

The British Medical Association (BMA)

This definition concentrates on the measurable psychological and physiological changes in hypnosis. Note well that it deliberately substitutes ‘altered attention' for the misleading expression ‘induced sleep' used by the Book of Statues. Although phrased in medical jargon, this is a considerable improvement on previous definitions.

A temporary condition of altered attention in the subject which may be induced by another person and in which a variety of phenomena may appear spontaneously or in response to verbal or other stimuli. These phenomena include alterations in consciousness and memory, increased susceptibility to suggestion, and the production in the subject of responses and ideas unfamiliar to him in his usual state of mind. Further, phenomena such as anaesthesia, paralysis and rigidity of muscles, and vasomotor changes can be produced and removed in the hypnotic state. [BMA, ‘Medical use of Hypnotism', 1955]

Dave Elman

Mr Elman's techniques are very popular with many hypnotherapists. He pioneered the use of rapid induction techniques and was a great advocate of the hypno-analytic approach to therapy.

Hypnosis is a state of mind in which the critical faculty of the human is bypassed, and selective thinking established. [Dave Elman, Hypnotherapy, 1964: 26]

Gil Boyne

Gil is a well-known hypnotherapist, who has been in practice for about fifty years, he's also a trainer of hypnotherapists and founder of the American Council of Hypnotist Examiners.

Hypnosis is a natural state of mind with special identifying characteristics:1. An extraordinary quality of relaxation.
2. An emotionalized desire to satisfy the suggested behaviour: The person feels like doing what the hypnotist suggests, provided that what is suggested does not generate conflict with his belief system.
3. The organism becomes self-regulating and produces normalization of the central nervous system.
4. Heightened and selective sensitivity to stimuli perceived by the five senses and four basic perceptions.
5. Immediate softening of psychic defences. [Gil Boyne, Transforming Therapy, 1985: 380-381]

The American Psychological Association (APA)

This is a scientific definition of hypnosis published by Division 30 of the APA, the division for psychological hypnosis,

Hypnosis typically involves an introduction to the procedure during which the subject is told that suggestions for imaginative experiences will be presented. The hypnotic induction is an extended initial suggestion for using one's imagination, and may contain further elaborations of the introduction. A hypnotic procedure is used to encourage and evaluate responses to suggestions. When using hypnosis, one person (the subject) is guided by another (the hypnotist) to respond to suggestions for changes in subjective experience, alterations in perception, sensation, emotion, thought or behavior. Persons can also learn self-hypnosis, which is the act of administering hypnotic procedures on one's own. If the subject responds to hypnotic suggestions, it is generally inferred that hypnosis has been induced. Many believe that hypnotic responses and experiences are characteristic of a hypnotic state. While some think that it is not necessary to use the word “hypnosis” as part of the hypnotic induction, others view it as essential.

Details of hypnotic procedures and suggestions will differ depending on the goals of the practitioner and the purposes of the clinical or research endeavor. Procedures traditionally involve suggestions to relax, though relaxation is not necessary for hypnosis and a wide variety of suggestions can be used including those to become more alert. Suggestions that permit the extent of hypnosis to be assessed by comparing responses to standardized scales can be used in both clinical and research settings. While the majority of individuals are responsive to at least some suggestions, scores on standardized scales range from high to negligible. Traditionally, scores are grouped into low, medium, and high categories. As is the case with other positively-scaled measures of psychological constructs such as attention and awareness, the salience of evidence for having achieved hypnosis increases with the individual's score.

(This definition and description of hypnosis was prepared by the Executive Committee of the American Psychological Association, Division of Psychological Hypnosis. Permission to reproduce this document is freely granted.)