Hypnosis is a psychological state whose existence and effects are strongly debated. Some believe that it is a state under which the subject's mind becomes so suggestible that the hypnotist, the one who induces the state, can command behavior that the subject would not choose to perform in a conscious state (even behavior to be performed after the subject has left the hypnotic state, through post-hypnotic suggestion) or even behavior they would be incapable of in a conscious state, such as not feeling pain, manifesting skin blisters as if they had been burned, or recalling things their conscious memory does not retain. However, there is strong dispute and skepticism about what behavior and effects hypnosis can induce; some believe that the state does not actually exist, and that all effects of 'hypnotism' that have been observed are in actuality a combination of a subject's expectations (based on their beliefs of hypnotism's effects) and their desire to please the hypnotist (see Hawthorne Effect).

Not surprisingly, given the disagreements described above, there is also wide disagreement about whether it has uses in fields such as mental health, medicine and law enforcement. Some promote hypnotism as a powerful tool for therapists to treat patients, claiming that it can bring up to consciousness painful repressed memories. Some even claim that it can retrieve repressed memories of alien abductions, Satanic ritual abuse, or memories from past lives. Others point to this very fact, that subjects under hypnosis can develop and come to wholly believe in "memories" that are implausible (or even proven false by existing evidence), as proof that hypnosis is, if it even exists, a tool proved too unreliable to be safely used in any important undertaking.



Early efforts

Scientists first became involved in hypnosis around 1770, when Dr. Franz Mesmer started investigating an effect he called "animal magnetism" or "mesmerism" (the latter name still remaining popular today).

In the early 19th century, Abbé Faria continued the scientific study of hypnosis. Unlike Mesmer, who claimed that hypnosis was mediated by "animal magnetism", Faria claimed that it worked purely by the power of suggestion.

In the 1840s and 1850s, Carl Reichenbach began experiments to find any scientific validity to "mesmeric" energy, which he termed Odic force. Although his conclusions were quickly rejected in the scientific community, they did undermine Mesmer's claims of mind control.

James Braid

The evolution of Mesmer's ideas and practices led James Braid (17951860) to coin the term and develop the procedure known as hypnosis in 1842. He rejected Mesmer's misleading idea of magnetism inducing hypnosis, and ascribed the creation of the 'mesmeric trance' to a physiological process — the prolonged attention on a bright moving object or similar object of fixation. He postulated that "protracted ocular fixation" fatigued certain parts of the brain and caused the trance, "nervous sleep." At first he called the procedure neurhypnotism but the current word soon emerged. Braid developed his ideas over time, down-playing his early idea of nervous sleep and increasing the role of psychological factors rather than fatigue. He came to recognize the role of intense, focused concentration by the participant on the hypnotist, a condition he called monoideism.

Braid attempted to use hypnotism to treat various psychological and physical conditions. He had little success, notably in his attempts to treat organic conditions. Other doctors had better results, especially in the use of hypnosis in pain control, a report in 1842 described an amputation performed on a hypnotized participant without pain. The report was widely dismissed and there was strong resistance in the medical profession to hypnotism, but other successful reports followed. Dr. James Esdaile (18051859) performed over 300 operations using hypnosis as pain control. The development of chemical anesthetics soon saw the replacement of hypnotism in this role.

The deaths of Braid and Esdaile curbed the interest in hypnotism. Experimentation was revived into the 1880s, mainly in continental Europe where new translations of Braid's work were circulated. The neurologist Jean Martin Charcot (18251893) endorsed hypnotism for the treatment of hysteria. La méthode numérique, still more popular on the continent than in England, led to a number of systematic experimental examinations of hypnosis in France, Germany, and Switzerland. The process of post-hypnotic suggestion was first described in this period. Exaggerated claims were still made, extraordinary improvements in sensory acuity and memory were reported under hypnosis.

1880s on

From the 1880s the examination of hypnosis passed from medical doctors to psychologists. Charcot had led the way and his study was continued by his pupil, Pierre Janet. Janet described the theory of dissociation, the splitting of mental aspects under hypnosis (or hysteria) so skills and memory could be made inaccessible or recovered. Janet provoked interest in the subconscious and laid the framework for reintegration therapy for dissociated personalities.

Also in this period Ambroise-Auguste Liébault first wrote of the necessity for cooperation between the hypnotizer and the participant, for rapport. He also emphasized, with Bernheim, the importance of suggestibility. Sigmund Freud met with Charcot and also Bernheim. Back in Vienna he developed abreaction therapy using hypnosis with Josef Breuer.

Modern studies

After this spate of interest the study again fell into abeyance. The modern study of hypnotism is usually considered to have begun in the 1930s with Clark Leonard Hull at Yale. An experimental psychologist, his work Hypnosis and Suggestibility (1933) was a rigorous study of the phenomenon, using statistical and experimental analysis. The main result of Hull's study was to rein in the extravagant claims of hypnotists, especially regarding extraordinary improvements in cognition or the senses under hypnosis. Hull's experiments did show the reality of some classical phenomena such as hypnotic anaesthesia and post-hypnotic amnesia. Hypnosis could also induce moderate increases in certain physical capacities and change the threshold of sensory stimulation; attenuation effects could be especially dramatic.

Studies continued after the Second World War. Barber, Hilgard, Orne and Sarbin also produced substantial studies. Ernest Hilgard and André Weitzenhoffer created the Stanford scales in 1961, a standardized scale for susceptibility to hypnosis, and properly examined susceptibility across age-groups and sex. Hilgard went on to study sensory deception (1965) and induced anesthesia and analgesia (1975).


A precise scientific definition of hypnosis is difficult to produce at this point, largely because there is still much controversy and skepticism on the subject among psychologists.

While many of the attributes of hypnosis may be well grounded in science, many other claims are commonly thought to be pseudoscience. Furthermore, as with most forms of therapy, there is always the risk of the Hawthorne Effect, the desire for a client to please the therapist or justify the expense of therapy, or hopeful thinking.

Among psychologists that accept hypnosis, some view hypnosis as an altered state of consciousness, others as a type of focused attention. The states invoked by clinical practitioners of these methods are very similar, implying that they are, in fact, describing the same phenomenon. The methods employed and the underlying methodologies have still not converged to the point where there is consensus on a single definition of hypnosis.

Altered state of consciousness

Hypnosis is commonly viewed as a natural, altered state of consciousness, where the conscious (analytical) mind is bypassed, and the subconscious (creative) mind is accessed. This allows the client to use the power of visualization and suggestion, given by oneself or another, to change and improve behavior patterns.

Hypnosis, in itself, is just a state of mental and physical relaxation, along with a more focused sense of concentration. Hypnosis is not sleep (as is often popularly assumed), and most people find that they are more aware of smells, sounds, and feelings than usual. This concentrated awareness is what allows the hypnotherapist to plant positive suggestions and images in the mind of the client to bring about lasting changes.

Focused attention

This school of thought holds that hypnosis as a state is very similar to other states of extreme concentration, where a person becomes oblivious to his or her surroundings while lost in thought. Often suggested as an example is when a driver suddenly finds oneself much further down the road without any memory of driving the intervening distance, or when a person is watching television and focuses so intently on the program that he or she ceases to be aware of the sides of the screen.

The act of hypnotizing, is, in effect, the act of manually inducing a similar state. See, for example, [1] (http://www.asch.net/genpubinfo.htm).


Psychologists have produced controversial studies that seem to show a strong correlation between the ease of putting someone in a state of hypnosis and their level of suggestibility (see Stanford scales).

Hypnosis has further been described as "The suspension of the critical factor" which expands on the idea of "increased suggestibility". A person who claims to be hypnotized may accept statements as true that he or she would normally reject.

For example, when told "you have forgotten your name," the subject in a normal state would react with disbelief, but under hypnosis people have claimed that they have, indeed, forgotten their own names.

It often appears as if the hypnotized participant accepts the authority of the hypnotist over his or her own experience. When asked after the conclusion of such a session, some participants appear to be genuinely unable to recall the incident, while others say that they had known the hypnotist was wrong but at the time it had seemed easier just to go along with his instructions. Some hypnotists would claim that this showed the difference between a deep and a shallow hypnotic trance while skeptics would question the validity of the demonstration.


There are many individuals and organizations which have integrated hypnotism into systems of treatment.


Hypnosis generally induces a feeling of relaxation, inspiring some scientists to develop a therapy out of it — hypnotherapy — although some of the treatments practiced, such as regression, have been viewed with skepticism. It has been claimed that when participants undergo regression, they may invent false memories due to the social expectation placed on them. These memories cannot therefore be held to be reliable.

Psychological hypnosis

The American Psychological Association's Divison 30, the Division of Psychological Hypnosis [2] (http://www.apa.org/divisions/div30/), "brings together psychologists and other professionals interested in scientific and applied hypnosis".

In 1993, they defined hypnosis as "a procedure during which a health professional or researcher suggests that a client, patient, or experimental participant experience changes in sensations, perceptions, thoughts, or behavior." (Executive Committee of the American Psychological Association Division of Psychological Hypnosis [1993, Fall]. Psychological Hypnosis: A Bulletin of Division 30, 2, p. 7.), citation culled from [3] (http://www.hypnosis-research.org/hypnosis/serious.html).

This definition has been revised, and as of March, 2005, it reads "Hypnosis typically involves an introduction to the procedure during which the subject is told that suggestions for imaginative experiences will be presented" [4] (http://www.apa.org/divisions/div30/hypnosis.html).

Clinical hypnosis

The American Society of Clinical Hypnotism [5] (http://www.asch.net/) is an organization that "promotes greater acceptance of hypnosis as a clinical tool with broad applications". Hypnosis is applied to a great range of both physical and psychological ailments, rather than being restricted to purely psychological phenomena. The society was founded by Milton Erickson, a doctor who attempted to put hypnosis on a firm therapeutic backing in the 1950s.


Self-hypnosis — hypnosis in which a person hypnotizes himself without the assistance of another person to serve as the hypnotist — is a staple of hypnotherapy-related self-help programs. It is most often used to help the self-hypnotist stay on a diet, overcome smoking or some other addiction, or to generally boost the hypnotized person's self-esteem. It is rarely used for the more complex or controversial uses of hypnotism, which require the hypnotist to monitor the hypnotized person's reactions and responses and respond accordingly. Most people who practice self-hypnosis require a focus for their attention in order to become fully hypnotized; there are many computer programs on the market that can ostensibly help in this area.

Indirect application

In addition to direct application of hypnosis (that is, treatment of conditions by means of hypnosis), there is also indirect application, wherein hypnosis is used to facilitate another procedure. Some people seem more able to display 'enhanced functioning', such as the suppression of pain, under hypnosis.

One of the major initial applications of hypnotism was the suppression of pain during medical procedures; this was supplanted (in the late 19th century) by the development of more reliable chemical anesthetics.

Some studies suggest that while hypnosis may possess these qualities, they are not exclusive to hypnosis, that it is often the drama and fantasizing that produces the behavior.


The act of inducing a hypnotic state is referred to as an induction procedure. There is no current consensus on what the requirements are for an induction procedure to be effective; while some practitioners use simple calming verbal techniques, others use complex triggers, including mechanical devices. [6] (http://hypnosistreatmentcenter.com/page45.html)

Many experienced hypnotists claim that they can hypnotize almost anyone. They also claim it is a myth that people with strong will power cannot be hypnotized, as they claim these generally make the best participants. On the other hand, there is a common claim that no one can really be hypnotized against his or her will (Liébault, Le sommeil provoqué (Paris, 1889)).

Many religious and cultural rituals contain many similarities with techniques used for hypnotic induction and induce similar states in their participants.


Research into the state of hypnosis has been widely covered with varying results.

However, one controlled scientific experiment postulates that hypnosis may change conscious experience in a way not possible when people are not 'hypnotized', at least in "highly hypnotizable" people. In this experiment, color perception was changed by hypnosis in "highly hypnotizable" people as determined by positron emission tomography (PET) scans (Kosslyn et al., 2000). Nonetheless, this research does not compare the effects of hypnosis on less hypnotizable people and could therefore show little causal effect due to the lack of a control group.

Other claims that hypnosis has been used with variable success for hundreds of applications, including entertainment, analgesia and psychoanalysis are widespread and well-documented.

Skeptical views of hypnotism

Hypnotism as a social construct

Generally, under hypnosis people become more receptive to suggestion, causing changes in the way they feel, think, and behave. This suggestibility has led some psychologists to believe that hypnosis does not actually correspond to any underlying mechanism of the human mind, but is merely a social construct so well-known that strong social expectations are played out by subjects, who believe they are in a state of hypnosis, behaving in a way that they imagine a hypnotized person would behave. This would tend to denigrate hypnosis to the status of a purely social phenomenon.

Popular culture

The notion of hypnotism has elicited many presentations in popular culture. Intrinsically, the notion that people are succeptible to commands outside their conscious control can be an effective way of representing the notion of the fallible narrator.


The typical uses of hypnotism in fiction concentrate on one of the major abilities of hypnotism. As mentioned in the introduction, hypnotism can be used to

  • Recollect knowledge
  • Take command of a subject
  • Implant suggestions that the subject will obey while free of the hypnotic trance.

The recollection of knowledge has inspired use in detective fiction, as a tool for witnesses to examine details (such as license plate numbers) that could not be recalled while fully conscious. This appears in many television series, such as Law & Order or Homicide: Life on the Street. In addition, it has been expanded to the notion of remembering "past lives", that is, previous reincarnations of the subject, in such movies as Dead Again. In real life cases, recollection of knowledge via hypnosis has helped solve many cases, oftentimes corroborating with physical evidence which would have been impossible to obtain otherwise. However, its use on victims of rape or attempted murder to help them jog their memory in identifying an accused has caused controversies including sentences doled out to the wrong person. This is because the hypnotist might make suggestions that are more likely to be remembered as "truth". Much like a lie detector it is used to glean more information rather than as the smoking gun.

The notion of implanting suggestions is probably the most thoroughly explored; ranging from comedies such as The Naked Gun to dramas such as The Manchurian Candidate. These films usually center around the concept of brainwashing or mind control. A couple of cases have been recorded where the defence arguing the accused had committed the murder under hypnosis. It was later used as the plot in movies.

Stage hypnotism

Stage hypnotists will put on a show, usually comedic in nature, that centers around the use of hypnotism. Typically, they will select a subject from the audience and have him or her perform acts that he or she would normally be very reluctant to perform in public, usually slightly humiliating or embarassing acts, such as dancing, singing, or pretending to be someone else. Very often, the subject will not remember having performed these acts.

The response to these acts from people who consider themselves legitimate practitioners of clinical hypnotism as well as skeptics of hypnotism is that the performer will select those from the audience that he or she feels already have exhibitionist tendencies, and use hypnotism to relax the inhibitions away or to give the person an unconscious excuse to violate his or her own inhibitions.

Related topics


  • Mind control, Research by G. Wagstaff, Dept. of Psychology, University of Liverpool
  • Hypnosis, Compliance and Belief by G. Wagstaff, (1981).
  • The Highly Hypnotizable Person, Michael Heap, Richard J. Brown & David A. Oakley, (2004), Routledge
  • Better and Better Every Day, Emile Coue, (1960).
  • Uncommon Therapy, Jay Haley (about the psychotherapeutic intervention techniques of Milton Erickson)
  • Advanced Self Hypnosis, Melvin Powers, Thorsons Publishers, 1973, ISBN-0-7225-0058-0
  • Molly Moon's Incredible Book of Hypnotism, Georgia Byng
  • Open to suggestion. The uses and abuses of hypnosis. Robert Temple, 1989, ISBN 1-85030-710-4

External links

es:Hipnosis fr:Hypnose he:היפנוזה lt:Hipnozė nl:Hypnose ja:催眠 ru:Гипноз fi:Hypnoosi sv:Hypnos pt:Hipnose


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