Hypnosis is a mental state of highly focused concentration, diminished peripheral awareness, and heightened suggestibility. There are numerous techniques that experts employ for inducing such a state. Capitalizing on the power of suggestion, hypnosis is often used to help people relax, to diminish the sensation of pain, or to facilitate some desired behavioral change.
Therapists bring about hypnosis (also referred to as hypnotherapy or hypnotic suggestion) with the help of mental imagery and soothing verbal repetition that ease the patient into a trance-like state. Once relaxed, patients’ minds are more open to transformative messages.
Not everyone is equally hypnotizable. Using brain imaging techniques, researchers have found differences in patterns of brain connectivity between those who respond to hypnotic induction and those who do not. The distinction shows up in the hypnotizable as heightened co-activation between the executive control center in the prefrontal cortex and another part of the prefrontal cortex that flags the importance, or salience, of events.
Contrary to popular belief, humans stay completely awake during hypnosis and generally recall their experiences. Under the guidance of a trained health care professional, hypnosis can be used to ease pain, treat autoimmune disease, combat phobias, and break bad habits, such as smoking and overeating. Hypnosis can also help people cope with negative emotional states, like stress and anxiety, as well as pain, fatigue, insomnia, mood disorders, and more.
Hypnosis has been used instead of anesthetics to decrease pain and anxiety before and after surgery. It also seems to boost healing from many conditions, including epilepsy, neuralgia, rheumatism, and skin conditions. The physiological and neurological changes that occur under hypnosis are similar to the self-healing placebo effect—a case of mind over matter.
Contrary to stereotypes, hypnosis works best when a person is a willing participant. Some people are more open to hypnotic suggestion than others. Experts call this trait “hypnotizability” and recognize that it can vary greatly among individuals. Even people with high levels of hypnotizability may require multiple hypnosis sessions to see progress.
Hypnosis under the supervision of a trained therapist is generally considered a safe alternative or supplement to medication. Adverse effects are rare but can include headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, and feelings of anxiety or distress. In some cases, hypnosis can induce false memories.
Many people wonder whether a hypnotist will be able to control their mind, a feat that is not possible. Individuals who are hypnotized still have free will, and while they’re more open to suggestion, they won’t act in ways they would ordinarily find morally repugnant. However, the nature of hypnosis and the way it affects the subconscious raises a number of ethical questions about its use.
About 25 percent of the population is thought to not be hypnotizable at all. These individuals tend to be highly skeptical of the benefits of hypnosis and unlikely to willingly participate in it.
Self-hypnosis is possible. While some may consider it cheating or immoral, it’s actually a safe way to establish control and begin changing unwanted or harmful behaviors. All it takes is a quiet place, open attitude, and practice for a person to learn the techniques they need to plant healthy hypnotic suggestions in their own mind.