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What is hypnosis, and what is it not?

Updated: Nov 16, 2022


There are many misconceptions about hypnosis often perpetuated by popular culture and show business. Many of these ideas can be traced back to the pseudo-science of 17th Century Austrian, Franz Anton Mesmer (from whom we get the term 'mesmerism'.) Mesmer developed his ideas at a time when modern science was in its infancy and there was an exploration of ideas about different invisible forces at work in the world.

It took an 18th Century Scottish physician, James Braid, to begin the modern scientific understanding of hypnosis. In fact, it was Braid himself who coined the term 'hypnosis' by borrowing the Greek word 'hypnos', meaning sleep. Later on, Braid realised that the phenomenon he had discovered had little to do with actual sleep and he wanted to change this term to 'mono-ideasim' (i.e. fixing one's mind on a single idea) but the word 'hypnosis' had already entered into the public lexicon.

Modern evidence-based hypnotherapy has a solid foundation based on thousands of clinical research studies. Its effectiveness has long been acknowledged by the British Medical Association and has been the subject of two extensive reports in 1892 and 1955. The modern evidence-based understanding of hypnosis is entirely compatible with current theories of psychology and is very similar to the everyday phenomena of being engrossed in an idea, a daydream, a novel or a movie. In therapy, hypnosis allows us to rehearse alternative responses to situations and to break unhelpful patterns of behaviour.

Some key facts on hypnosis:

  • Hypnosis is essentially focused attention plus a willingness to allow suggestibility.

  • There is no evidence of a special ‘state’, ‘trance’ or ‘sleep’.

  • A hypnotised person will be in control and will usually be aware of everything they do.

  • Hypnosis is a collaborative process between the client and therapist.

  • A client's motivation and commitment are key to the success of hypnotherapy.

  • Ultimately, all hypnosis is self-hypnosis and is therefore a skill that can be learnt and improved through practice.

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