Hypnosis: Does It Work?
all information

Hypnosis: Does It Work?

image for eye movement articleThe word hypnosis conjures up visions of mind control, past life regression, entertainment, even habit control. Although there are several theories regarding the basis of hypnosis and how it works, not all theories agree with each other. But despite differences in beliefs about how hypnosis works, there is a general consensus that in many cases, it can be a powerful tool.

Hypnosis has been practiced for centuries.

The Origins of Hypnosis

One of the first, and possibly the most famous, individuals to study hypnotic experience was Anton Mesmer. He worked in France in the late 1700s. He believed trances and their effects were caused by animal magnetism generated by the individual inducing the trance.

Mesmer was discredited by 1784 by all the major French scientific and medical societies (including a commission headed by Benjamin Franklin) who found no basis for his theory. But Mesmer was so popular in French society and his clinical successes were so undeniable that the effect—later known as hypnotism—was first dubbed "mesmerism" in his honor.

In the late 1800s, doctors Charcot and Binet (who taught and influenced Freud) at the famous Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris studied hypnosis. They decided it was the result of neurological disease, which caused a dissociation within the subject.

The disease portion of this view was challenged and discarded fairly quickly based upon the clinical experience of many other investigators. However, the concept of dissociation between the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind continues to be a cornerstone of some contemporary models of hypnosis.

The term "hypnosis" (actually "neurohypnosis") was coined in 1843 by James Braid. Noting the typical drowsiness of many hypnotic subjects, Braid thought that hypnosis was a peculiar subtype of sleep. He later came to support the more accurate and modern understanding that the effects of hypnosis have far more to do with psychological responsiveness on the part of the subject rather than any power of the hypnotist to induce sleep.

As this modern understanding took hold in scientific thinking, the term hypnosis replaced the term mesmerism. But since sleep is actually quite distinct from hypnosis, the term "hypnosis" itself is not really accurate either.

Theories of Hypnosis

With the elimination of magnetic forces, neurological disease and the powers of the hypnotist as possible theoretical models, what's left?

The psychodynamic view of hypnosis is based upon both the ability of the unconscious and the conscious parts of the mind to work separately (the "dissociation" cited above) and the suggestibility of the subject. You must be able to surrender a degree of ego control and allow the hypnotist to guide you into a hypnotic state (trance) via the power of suggestion. Because of this overt manipulation of consciousness, hypnotic trance is viewed as an altered state of consciousness.

But not all hypnotic states are hypnotist-induced. Natural "trance" phenomena occur to people all the time. Have you ever been so absorbed in reading a book that you didn't notice someone entering the room until they startled you by speaking? Have you ever been driving somewhere, and been so lost in thought that when you finally arrived you couldn't remember much about your journey?

These are essentially trance experiences, and they happen to people naturally on a regular basis. We don't usually refer to this as hypnosis, however. That term is usually limited to the deliberate manipulation of consciousness, which capitalizes on these naturally occurring experiences.

A second theory—the behavioral model—presents hypnosis as a conditioned response. You bring certain expectations to the hypnotic session regarding what the hypnotist will do and the responses expected of you. The activities of the hypnotist create the stimulus and your hypnotized behavior is the conditioned response.

The social-behavioral theory of hypnotic behavior lies in the context of interpersonal influence. These are primarily academic research models, and it is somewhat rare to find a hypnotist who operates under these assumptions. These models emphasize the power and influence of social settings and interpersonal motivations (for example, to please the hypnotist) in creating hypnotic effects.

How Does It Work?

The process is called induction. Very few practitioners actually swing the gold watch popularized by movies and television. Instead, the hypnotist just talks to you. In the older style of induction, you would close your eyes and concentrate on the sound of the practitioner's voice. The hypnotist would slowly and repetitively suggest that you relax or sleep. Eventually you get to a state where you ignore any thought or idea other than that suggested by the hypnotist.

A more contemporary approach involves a more collaborative, permissive style that empowers you to participate actively in achieving the hypnotic state. The hypnotist might tell metaphorical stories, for example, designed to evoke memories, ideas, and feelings. Your conscious mind hears the surface or superficial meaning of the stories, while the deeper suggestions and meaning are "heard" by the unconscious mind, where the hypnotic effect largely takes place.

Most contemporary practitioners acknowledge the importance of individual abilities and differences within the person being hypnotized. Being hypnotized is affected by your capacity to:

  • Focus attention and concentration
  • Become absorbed in an activity
  • Engage your imagination
  • Play a role
  • Respond to suggestion
  • Trust the hypnotist
  • Divide the consciousness into conscious awareness and unconscious awareness

Some people are more susceptible to hypnosis than others. The combination of a skillful hypnotist and a subject that is easily hypnotized can produce some amazing results.

In general, most people can experience hypnosis to at least some degree. Even a not-so-good hypnotist can evoke startling results from a person who is easily hypnotized. But if you are not easily hypnotized or reject to being hypnotized, it doesn't matter how good the hypnotist is. It just won't happen. In other words, you—the subject—are in control. While not always under direct conscious control, the fact remains that you are the primary influence as to whether hypnosis will happen or not and the extent to which it will occur.

Who Should Perform Hypnosis?

As with any healthcare professional, choose your hypnotherapist carefully. Hypnosis is not regulated in most states. However, when talking to a therapist inquire about their background. Clinical hypnotherapists have background in psychology, medicine, or other medical professions. Also, check for membership in a professional organizations, such as the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis.

Can Hypnosis Really Help Me?

Very possibly. Like surgery, the success of hypnosis is dependent on several factors. There will most likely be a successful outcome if a person can be hypnotized easily, has reasonable goals, and has a good hypnotist.

If you are not easily hypnotized, are afraid of hypnosis, or have unrealistic notions, your odds for success decrease. In this case, the skill and confidence of the hypnotist are extremely important.

Hypnosis can be successful in treating a wide variety of problems, including:

  • Anxiety disorders, including anxiety about surgery
  • Stress and worrying
  • Habit-control problems, like smoking and weight loss.
  • Fears and phobias
  • Poor self- esteem
  • Insomnia
  • Emotional trauma
  • Anger
  • Psychologically-based memory problems
  • Interpersonal and relationship difficulties
  • Coping with physical pain and chronic illness
  • Certain types of warts

Hypnosis can be a treatment unto itself, or an addition to regular counseling or psychotherapy. The more specific the problem or goal, the better.

Hypnosis is not helpful for the following conditions:

  • Depression, although it can be a part of the treatment to address specific problems related to the depression
  • Neurologically-based problems, like seizure disorders, memory loss from Alzheimer's disease, or personality changes due to brain injury

Hypnosis is a complex phenomenon and can be an effective tool for treatment of some conditions. Despite disagreement about how it works, few will deny that something powerful can happen under hypnosis.



New England Society for Clinical Hypnosis


Canadian Society for Clinical Hypnosis

Mental Health Canada


Cases of the New England society. New England Society for Clinical Hypnosis. Available at: http://www.nesch.org. Published March 1998. Accessed June 16, 2008.

Hypnosis today. American Psychological Association website. Available at: http://www.apa.org/releases/hypnosis.html. Published 2008. Accessed June 16, 2008

Hypnotherapy. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/thisTopic.php?marketID=15topicID=114. Updated April 2008. Accessed June 17, 2008.

International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis website. Available at: http://ijceh.educ.wsu.edu/ .

Last reviewed May 2008 by Ryan Estévez, MD, PhD, MPH

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Your Health and Happiness