What Is Hypnosis?

  • Hypnosis is…a state of deep relaxation
  • Hypnosis is…a state of concentration
  • Hypnosis is…a natural state of mind
  • Hypnosis is not…sleep
  • Hypnosis is not…loss of consciousness
  • Hypnosis is not…surrender of will
  • Hypnosis is not…loss of self-control

Hypnosis is a natural trance-like state located between sleep and waking consciousness and we all dip in and out of this state quite frequently, for example when we are watching a beautiful sunset, or are engrossed in a film or reading a good book and filtering out everything else. We also go into this state every night when we’re just about to drift off to sleep but we’re not asleep and in the morning when we’re just about to wake up but are not awake. In this state we are accessing alpha and theta (even deeper) brain wave states measurable by ECG, and the most powerful part of our creative potential – our imagination – can be tapped. In trance we are deeply relaxed physically, yet mentally many times more alert than in a normal state of awareness.

We are also much more open to suggestion as we have dropped what is known as the critical factor which acts as a barrier between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. To make changes in our lives we need to access our unconscious mind where our memories, behaviours, habits and feelings originate: we are all that the programming in the unconscious mind perceives us to be. In hypnotherapy we help clients to access their unconscious computer and reprogamme it. In the relaxed hypnotic state of mind we can give carefully chosen therapeutic suggestions to enable clients to make changes and move beyond the limitations that they might normally have. So it is a very powerful technique as well as being a very calming, healing experience. However, it is the client not the therapist who is in control and so it can be said that all hypnosis is self-hypnosis. Some describe it as a form of guided meditation. So you see, it is a far cry from the idea of it being some sort of mind control as portrayed in Stage Hypnosis and Hollywood. Stage Hypnotists create this illusion but it is only because they are very good at spotting suitable volunteers who are keen (consciously or unconsciously) to be exhibitionists and willing to do all sorts of things on stage.

A Brief History Of Hypnosis

The history of hypnosis is a rich and fascinating one and I include it here on my website because it helps to gain more understanding of what is often viewed by many people, even in this the 21st century, as a form of occult power. First of all, the very term hypnosis is rather misleading as the Greek word ‘hypnos’ from which it is derived actually means sleep and of course it isn’t, as I have already explained above. Throughout history, trance states have been used by shamans and ancient peoples in rituals and religious ceremonies. The Ancient Egyptians and the Greeks had Sleep Temples where people went to be healed using hypnotic techniques. For centuries what seems occult was in fact the scientific establishment of its day with exactly the same purpose as modern science – curing human ills and increasing knowledge.

The last flourish of this ancient ‘occult’ hypnosis and the first flourish of ‘scientific’ hypnosis as we know it today occurred in the 1700‘s with the work of a physician called Franz Anton Mesmer from whose name we get the term ‘mesmerism.’ Mesmer believed that illnesses were caused by magnetic fluids in the body getting out of balance. He used magnets and hypnotic techniques to treat people but unfortunately he was a bit of a showman and made the mistake of conducting his sessions accompanied by all sorts of ritualistic and magic trappings, dressing up in a cloak and playing ethereal music on a glass harmonica! The popular image of the hypnotist as a charismatic and mystical figure can be dated to this time. The medical community was not convinced and Mesmer was accused of fraud. This was most unfortunate as hypnosis was then more or less relegated to side shows and the stage.

Nevertheless, although hypnosis had gone underground, in the 19th century surgeons like James Esdaille pioneered its use in the medical field, carrying out over 300 major and 1000 minor operations in India using only hypnosis. Despite the success of hypnotic anaesthesia, mainstream medicine began using chemical anaesthetics such as ether and chloroform in surgical operations and hypnosis was sidelined yet again, apart from the efforts of individual researchers. who carried on studying it. James Braid was one of those researchers and he is notable for coining the term “hypnosis” which he later regretted when he realised that hypnosis was NOT a type of sleep.

The study of hypnosis was then focused mainly in France where there were two main rivals – the Nancy School established by Liebeault, later joined by Bernheim, who looked into the power of suggestion and the other was Charcot who attempted to demonstrate that hypnosis was a pathological state similar to hysteria. Charcot was discredited but two of his pupils Breuer and Freud went on to use hypnosis in their work. Freud later left it aside, some say because he was not a particularly good hypnotist, and he went on to use “free association” and develop what became psychoanalysis. His rejection did much to delay the development of hypnotherapy, turning the focus of psychology away from hypnosis and towards psychoanalysis.

Hypnosis was used in both World Wars to treat shell shock or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as it is called nowadays, and post 1945 there was a rise in the acceptance of hypnosis due mainly to the work of one man, Milton Erickson, a successful psychiatrist who used hypnosis in his practice. He changed the style of hypnosis from the direct authoritarian approach which was a legacy of the charismatic mesmerist to a more indirect permissive style of trance induction based on the subtle use of language patterns. Erickson’s work was the model for modern NLP techniques. From the 1950’s onwards the Medical and Psychological world began to slowly recognise hypnotherapy as a valid medical procedure and hypnosis also became more popular and more available outside the laboratory or clinic. Advances in neurological science and brain imaging, together with the ground-breaking work of British psychologists Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell who linked hypnosis to the Rapid Eye Movement (REM), have helped to explain more clearly that hypnosis and the trance state are natural everyday experiences and that the nature of “ordinary” consciousness is better understood as a series of trance states that we go into and out of all the time.

The history of hypnosis, then, is like the search for something that was in plain view all along, and we can now see it for what it is – a universal phenomenon that is as natural as breathing. The future of hypnosis will be to fully realise the incredible potential of our natural hypnotic abilities.