It seems like a simple question. What is hypnosis? The answer is quite complicated and people, including experts in the field, cannot agree on a definition. Hypnosis involves a shift in the thinking pattern. To my patients I define hypnosis as “using your imagination to help yourself.” However, that describes what we can do with hypnosis, rather than what it is.
Hypnosis involves a state of focused attention. Thus, learning how to focus your attention on a swinging watch, or by imagining a favorite place, or staring at a spot on the wall can all lead someone into a hypnotic state.
In the state of hypnosis people are more receptive to suggestions. This occurs because the conscious mind is focused on a task, and therefore is less likely to interfere with incoming suggestions by expressing doubt or resistance to change.
Hypnosis also has been described as a trance state, in which people are half-conscious, and experience more difficulty with acting voluntarily than in a usual state.
An Official Definition
In 2014, the American Psychological Association (APA) convened a panel of experts to provide a concise definition of hypnosis. They ended up offering four associated definitions:
- Hypnosis: “A state of consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterized by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion.”
- Hypnotic Induction:“A procedure designed to induce hypnosis.”
- Hypnotizability: “An individual’s ability to experience suggested alterations in physiology, sensations, emotions, thoughts, or behavior during hypnosis.”
- Hypnotherapy: “The use of hypnosis in the treatment of a medical or psychological disorder or concern.”
The Magic Show Experience
The concise definitions of hypnosis provided by the APA panel give us a good framework from which to understand hypnosis as clearly as possible. Contrast this definition with what might be implied at a magic show demonstration of hypnosis.
First of all, the magician might say, “I will now perform some hypnosis,” which blurs the line between a state of hypnosis and the act of inducing hypnosis.
The magician will say, “When I clap my hands you will fall into a deep sleep.” This implies that the magician will exert some control over the volunteers in the show. Note that the magician always selects volunteers who appear gifted in hypnosis (as some people are more hypnotizable than others.) Such highly hypnotizable people accept suggestions very easily, which is why they might appear to fall asleep when it is suggested they do so. However, it is important to underscore that people can be in control of whether to accept suggestions. Thus, the magician does not have control over them!
Finally, remember that the magician is interested in the entertainment value of hypnosis, rather than the well-being of the volunteer. I think that leaving the impression in a volunteer that he or she can be controlled by a magician is not good from a psychological perspective, because the volunteer might conclude that he or she is weak-willed or has little power over their life. To be perfectly clear: This is not true.
Take Home Message
In contrast to the magic show experience, one of the wonderful features of hypnotherapy is that patients can be taught to induce a state of hypnosis in themselves, which is termed self-hypnosis. Thus, patients can learn to harness many powers of their minds using hypnosis. The knowledge of how to do this can be dramatically empowering.
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