What is hypnotherapy?

Hypnosis and Hypnotism

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Hypnosis is a state of awareness, not a parlor game.

What is Hypnosis?

Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness. It happens when a state of mind is achieved in which suggestions alter someone's awareness, memory, or thinking in a way that the hypnotized person responds to the alteration as if it were reality. It's supposed to be done with a specific, clear short-term aim -- to get to the bottom of something that the patient is not able to bring to mind or to consciously stop doing.

Hypnosis is not a form of sleep, but of concentration that bypasses the usual critical or evaluative activities of the mind to get to underlying matters. The patient becomes much more open to suggestion and guidance -- not so much a loss of control as an openness, agreeing to what someone else is suggesting.

Most studies suggest that about 25% of people can be easily hypnotized, while about 20% just won't allow it. You can't tell if someone is easily hypnotizable by how easily suckered they are, or how quickly they go along with whatever someone tells them to do. The hypnotizable person is more often the one who gets totally caught up in a movie or TV show -- they can block off what's happening around them, suspend their disbelief, and enter into the story as if it were real and happening in their presence. Those who practice Hindu meditation techniques also find it easier to enter hypnosis -- they're more familiar with being in a relaxed concentrative state. Also, children are usually easy to hypnotize, since their imaginative minds find it easier to fully enter into what the hypnotist is leading them to. Children also have not yet developed a large web of experience that matches what they see or feel to what they think, so it's easier for them to simply follow the pattern the hypnotist suggests to them. There might even be a genetic component to it, since identical twins tend to have roughly similar depth and ease in going into a hypnotic state. Also, emotional involvement in a matter makes a person much more open to suggestion on that matter.

Critical thinking is present within the hypnotic state, but it's 'bracketed out', not acted upon. We do such bracketing without hypnotism, for instance, while having fun, in sports, in worship, on retreats. But those forms of bracketing are done with safety nets: science, the Scriptures, feedback from others, use of means of discernment, and hard thinking beforehand. Hypnotism sets the nets aside for a while.

An effect much like bracketing is 'trance logic', where real and hallucination coexist as equals. If asked to say which object is real, the hypnotized person can usually tell the difference. But the difference doesn't matter to them; under a trance, they'll deal with the real and the unreal in the same way. (There are some who fear that modern life is starting to resemble trance logic. To many others, the difference doesn't matter.)

Those who were in very deep states of hypnosis sometimes report that they can't remember anything that happened, even when given simple reminders. But this is rare, and only in the deepest of hypnotic states. Other than in those deep cases, the patient remembers what happened once reminded, even if told not to remember. (Occasionally, memories can be distorted by severe emotion, strong fantasy images, or drug abuse.) The patient's remembering often becomes an important part of treating their mental disorders. Hypnotherapy helps them to know what they otherwise would not consciously know, so they can come to terms with it. The focus it takes to stay in a hypnotic state can be harnessed for recovery from certain behaviors from mental illness or addiction.


How long has it been around?

The ancients of many lands used hypnosis, especially in India, Persia and Mesopotamia. They usually used it on themselves, and usually without mysterious window-dressing. Some popular legends covered it in terms of the (already-familiar) image of the magic spell. (The common element there is that hypnotism, like the supposed spell, typically involves spoken words which then influence someone's behavior.)

Hypnotism was introduced to popular culture by Austrian pseudo-scientist Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). Mesmer's field, that of magnetism and electricity, was the alchemy of his day. He believed that the hypnotic state was an effect of magnetism on the fluids of the body, and set up some fairly hokey demonstrations that for a while seemed to have trendy Paris... well... mesmerized. Mesmer's demonstrations were quickly picked up by "magnetizers", mostly occultists and entertainment magicians, because people found it so interesting. Stage hypnotists are still popular today, often wrapping it in the still-hokey trappings of magic. Though Mesmer's theories were soon disproved (by, among others, US Founding Father Benjamin Franklin), his fame caused scientists to study the phenomenon of hypnosis he was pointing to. In 1842, English eye scientist James Braid gave it the name 'hypnosis', from a Greek word for 'sleep'. Jean-Martin Charcot brought it to modern investigative scientific study, and Yale professor Clark Hull's work in the 1930s did much to develop a scientific understanding of it. Today, the study of hypnosis is closely tied into brain science. Since the hypnotic state changes the way the brain processes information, it teaches scientists about the patterns of certain activities in the brain, when matched to the modern technologies for brain scans. Most noteworthy are the changes in the way the anterior cingulate cortex operates under hypnosis. Specifics about this are still unclear.


What is it useful for?

Hypnosis is used medically for many things. Studies say that it works well for:

  1. Treating nausea and stress-related bodily symptoms.
  2. Managing some aspects of addictive behavior.
  3. Treating pain from small incisions, burns, or breakage, and pain from cancers or ulcers.
  4. Immediate or short-term relief from the pain of migraine headaches.
  5. Reducing the dose of pain-relief drug use for cases of chronic pain (like, say, pains of the back or of misaligned hand or jaw joints).
  6. Treating those who regress or go back to behaviors from their childhood.
  7. Short-term concentration on one specific thing.
  8. Accessing repressed or hidden memories.

Hypnosis' impact is mild, on-and-off, or on only a small proportion of people, for:

Some people claim that hypnotism works for these, but most evidence says otherwise:


Please remember that on these kinds of subjects, reports in the popular press, entertainment media, word-of-mouth, paranormal blogs, and promotional materials are almost always untruthful in some way. Hype abounds, especially with claims that hypnosis (or the regular use of a hypnotic state) is the secret to losing weight or quitting smoking. Even press reports on solid medical tests are often written by those who have little understanding of testing or the subject tested, and thus they give a surface interpretation of the tests.

Hypnotic Therapy and Memory

Hypnotic therapy's most controversial use is on repressed memory. Hypnotherapy works, and works well, by bypassing the methods we use on ourselves for stifling a painful or traumatic incident or accident (like a rape, or a car accident where a loved one died). Once the incident comes out, both patient and therapist can work on it. But those inner controls are there for good reasons, and often hypnosis simply bypasses these reasons when it bypasses the controls. In the hands of careless or unscrupulous therapists, or untrained self-appointed hypnotists (and there are many of each), false memories are created, or existing fantasies are mistaken for reality. These can be as weird as UFO abductions and body-snatching spirits, or as serious as false accusations of sodomy and sexual attack (as happened with the accuser of Cardinal Bernardin). In such cases the false memories add yet another trauma to the pile the patient already has. The most risky situation is when someone who thinks they know about hypnotism says something which triggers an hypnotic subject's active phobia (an extreme, irrational fear of a particular thing).

Self-Hypnosis

There are forms of altered consciousness that are called 'self-hypnosis', and it has its uses too, though it is not as useful as its proponents sell it to be. In a way, nearly all hypnosis is really self-done, just that it is usually done with someone's guidance. "Self-hypnosis" is the version that uses your own guidance; you are your own hypnotist. The hypnotic state takes away many kinds of self-generated distractions, and improves concentration. It can also help as a self-therapy for recurring pains. It can be downright dangerous for use by those prone to self-deception, phobias, delusion, self-mutilation, fantasies, or denial -- a part of the population that's larger than you think, and might include you. When used with other means of self-convincement, hypnotism can be part of a self-brainwash, the act of talking ourselves into something we ought to know better than to do. Some 'self-help' speakers even suggest using self-hypnosis to create a form of 'happiness', though real life generally intrudes rather quickly on that. Some religious neo-devotionalists are actually attracted to the idea of 'brainwashing toward God', but that's not the way the God of Hebrew or Christian Scriptures calls on us to think, and not the way the Spirit chooses to work. In the Bible, the constant refrain is for us to choose what is good freely in each moment, and be responsible for that choice.

Hypnotism as Suggestion

The clinical use of hypnosis is as a means of hypnotic suggestion. Some people love to give orders, but most of us communicate what we want done by suggesting and asking. Jesus sometimes gave orders, but he also suggested. So did your mother. The devil is said to work through twisted suggestions and nagging whispers. Advertisers also make suggestions; by using repetition and cleverness, they can sometimes get their way. This suggests a subtle but evil potential in anything that enhances suggestion. That's why hypnotic suggestion is used by those who want to build for themselves a cult following. But the truth is that hypnotism by itself is not of much use as a mind control tool. It would have to be one of a wide range of measures to control what is happening to the person, done together to gain some level of control or leverage.

Direct commands tend to be resisted, so hypnotists usually use indirect suggestion techniques to communicate what they seek from the patient. This allows more space for the patient to enter the process themselves, and so they can trust it more. Indirect suggestion includes use of embedded questions ('I'd like to know what you're thinking about.'), unspecified words (for example, process verbs like 'think', 'ponder', or 'generate'), negative commands (the classic 'don't think of a polar bear', which usually causes the person to think of a polar bear), and tag questions ('let's eat, shall we?'). This helps the process, but is often not enough. Sometimes the idea must be presented to the patient in the form of a brief story, or by guiding the thought processes through a chain of logic (three or more steps, mixed with reasons, all leading to the desired conclusion). Even when done this light-handed way, hypnosis is still a strongly-guided process.


Does the Bible Speak of Hypnosis?

Prophets and apostles entered into trances (for instance, Daniel 2:19 and Acts 11:15), but a prophetic trance is not the same as hypnosis. Hypnosis is something we put ourselves or each other into. The prophetic trance is something that overtakes the prophet or apostle, imposed on them from God, whether or not they want it at that moment.

Deuteronomy 18:10-11 speaks against a lot of ways to get altered states of consciousness: sorcery, charmers, mediums, magic spells, and such. But none of these words translate to hypnosis. The passage is talking about practices that assign power and value to pagan gods and occultic practitioners. Hypnotism was clearly used that way by some of its practitioners back then, and is being used that way even today. But because it works through the brain's natural ways of working, hypnotism is not itself occultic. In that way, it is like acupuncture, yoga, or tai chi, something that happens in the natural physical world which the ancients discovered or developed and then used their non-Christian culture's resources to explain. If so, then it is fair game to look at the physical-world phenomenon of hypnosis through a Christian lens.

Why did the traditions object?

So why do most Christian, Moslem, and Jewish sources (unlike Hindu sources) get so troubled by hypnotism? The main historical reason is that these living religions encountered hypnotism by way of the ancient religions they most despised: Mesopotamians, European pagans, early Arab polytheists, and Canaanites. For those ancient opponent religions, hypnotism and trances were tools (among many other tools) for opening up their minds and spirits to the kind of activities that today's faiths strongly opposed, such as sexual obsession, prostitution, war, vengeance, betrayal, and child sacrifice. It was often done under the cover of casting spells to exercise influence over others, sometimes with the help of herbal drugs. When some early Christian devotionalists tried what amounted to self-hypnosis, it produced little spiritual light or worthwhile action for the time spent with it.

The other reason is that in dealing with us, God chooses not to bypass the normal mental mechanisms that are bypassed by the hypnotic state. There are partial exceptions to that (prophetic trances, momentary conversion experiences, and such), but all of those exceptions are partial and fleeting, are done for a specific purpose, and happen more to body controls than to the mind. Normal mental operations are soon restored. The Spirit is not a hypnotist. The Spirit does not skip over our will, our conscience, or our sense of moral or practical limit, or even talk around them. Instead, the Spirit works to transform them, transcend them, and work through them. God loves and respects each of us too much to do it differently. If God so rarely does even slight bypasses of these self-control systems, why should we do it as a spiritual practice? Are we out to trick ourselves? Don't we value our freedom? Isn't there a God-given reason behind our having the capacity to think? Why would we do what God won't do, and then claim we're doing it to better follow God?

Then, there's the question of those who want to learn hypnotism in order to seek to control over someone else. In a Christian context, such seeking for power is the precise opposite of the example and teaching of Jesus, who taught His followers to serve and love other people. The very thought of using hypnotism for influence or control also fits poorly with Buddhist, Sikh, and Jewish core beliefs, not to mention the beliefs of many atheists and agnostics who are well aware of what power does to the one who wields it or lusts after it. If you want to directly control or influence peoples' minds by hypnosis, trance states, or anything else, understand that it is evil to even want that. Turn away from that idea, quickly and completely.

Both these objections speak to core matters of faith and practice, and either one would be cause for a Christian to reject hypnotism as a spiritual practice, even just to try it out. (That's why this page doesn't show you how to hypnotize.) Yet, its use as medical therapy or for scientific research of the brain is a very different matter. The Christian is free to utilize hypnotic therapy for treatment purposes, where it would do some good. However, if you do go that route, go to someone who is trained, experienced, and credentialed. Don't just read it off of a web site about hypnosis and think you can do it well. Hypnosis is not a game.


If this make you drowsy, it's from boredom not hypnosis.

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ver.: 08 January 2012
Hypnosis and Hypnotism. Copyright © 2000-2012 by Robert Longman.