Is hypnosis for real or just a lot of hocus pocus? Here's a detailed look at the science behind how hypnosis works, and what it can (and can't) do.
There are a lot of myths, mysteries, and misunderstandings surrounding hypnosis. But does hypnosis work? Can it really help you feel better or change your habits? Let's take a look at the science behind it.
How pop culture views hypnosis
You may remember the scene from Jordan Peele’s 2017 movie Get Out where Chris, the main character, gets hypnotized by his girlfriend’s mom. All she does is swirl a spoon around her teacup and Chris falls into the Sunken Place, where his consciousness becomes a viewer of his own life but he has no control over his body. The hypnosis apparently cures him of smoking!
In case you haven't seen Get Out, I won’t spoil the movie by telling you the more sinister things that happen the next time Chris is hypnotized. Let's just to say that I became a little wary of spoons and teacups after seeing it.
In our popular imagination, hypnosis runs wild. In the 1800’s, Edgar Alan Poe wrote a story in which a mesmerist kept a dying person alive through hypnosis Many thought the fictional story was an actual medical case study. More recently, movies plots involving hypnosis have ranged from the horrific, like in The Exorcist, to the hilarious, like in Zoolander, where Derek Zoolander is programmed through hypnosis to assassinate a prime minister at a fashion show.
Hypnosis myths versus facts
Is hypnosis actually possible? Can you put someone into an altered state of consciousness and get them to do things they would otherwise not do?
Let's take a look at some questions about hypnosis. I'll share the science and psychology behind what hypnosis can and cannot do. We’ll see that:
- Hypnosis is a very real phenomenon in the brain
- Hypnosis could be a useful form of therapy for decreasing pain and stress, but you should be wary of hypnosis that aims to recover “repressed” memories
- Hypnosis is not “brainwashing,” and it can’t get you to do things that are completely against your will
- Some people are more hypnotizable than others, which may depend on our childhood experiences
Question # 1: Is hypnosis real?
First, let’s define what we mean by hypnosis. As we understand it, hypnosis is a state of mind where:
- your attention is hyper-focused
- your awareness is detached from your surroundings and parts of yourself
- you’re highly suggestible (i.e. prone to believe what you’re told)
- You’re more prone than usual to respond to instructions
It is not:
- Brainwashing that permanently makes you change your personality or beliefs
- A way for your consciousness to enter another place outside of yourself
- An episode of complete amnesia, or a way to "wipe" your memory
- A state where you can have superhuman strength or abilities that you don’t otherwise have
In other words, hypnosis doesn’t give you anything you didn’t already have, and it does not take anything concrete away. It’s simply a state of highly focused attention that makes you seem zoned out even though you are extremely tuned in.
Hypnosis is a state of highly focused attention that makes you seem zoned out even though you're extremely tuned in.
This state is associated with real changes in the brain. Researchers have identified three major brain networks that are involved in hypnosis, and they all have something to do with attention.
For example, a functional MRI study found that during hypnosis, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex activity is muted. This area of the brain is part of what scientists call the salience network. It's critical for attention control, and specifically for vigilance about what we should pay attention to versus what we should ignore based on the overall context of the situation.
The fact that its activity in this area is decreased during hypnosis means that the brain is not scanning for possible alternatives for our attention. Rather, it's letting us tune out everything except the one thing we’re hyper-focused on.
There are other brain changes during hypnosis too, such as less connectivity between the executive network (akin to the CEO of the brain) and the default mode network (the part of the brain that wanders when there's no specific task to do). They all painting a picture of hypnosis as a state of mind that's very different from sleeping, resting, or going about our daily business.
So the short answer is yes, hypnosis is real. But don’t worry, it’s not the Sunken Place.
Question #2: Can hypnosis be used for good?
In a 2015 episode of America’s Got Talent, a hypnotist puts judge Howie Mandel in a trance in front of a live audience, and gets Howie, who had a phobia of shaking hands, to shake hands with all the other judges. Even an audience member falls under the hypnotist’s spell when he says, “Sleep.”
Is this just a cool party trick? Or did this performer open the door to treating someone’s phobia?
“Medical hypnosis” is used in a therapeutic context for a range of clinical purposes, from easing pain to decreasing anxiety, and sometimes as a way to minimize side effects from other medical treatments.
For example, a large review study found that medical hypnosis can help to ease pain, fatigue, and emotional distress for women undergoing or recovering from breast cancer treatment. It has also been shown to help with chronic pain, particularly for those with chronic migraines. It can even help reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, a chronic gastrointestinal condition that causes frequent and sometimes unpredictable diarrhea, abdominal pain, and other GI symptoms.
Hypnosis is a complementary therapy—it can be helpful in addition to regular treatments, and it doesn't hurt to try, but it should not replace standard treatment for a physical illness.
However, hypnotherapy’s effects are not big and not consistent in all situations. In studies of hypnosis for easing pain, for example, there are no reliable effects when it comes to childbirth pain, other than somewhat reducing the use of pain medications during labor. The good news is that medical hypnosis does not seem to have any dangerous side effects. This is why researchers generally refer to medical hypnosis as a complementary therapy, meaning that it can be helpful in addition to regular treatments, and it doesn't hurt to try, but it should not replace standard treatment for a physical illness.
Authorities like the Mayo Clinic warn that using hypnosis to work through trauma may do more harm than good because it can create false memories.
For psychological problems, there are even less consistent and less impressive results, and the quality of the studies I could find did not live up to my sniff test. Even more importantly, authorities like the Mayo Clinic warn that using hypnosis to work through trauma may do more harm than good because it can create false memories.
The take-home message is this: Hypnosis may be helpful as a tool to decrease pain and stress in the moment, but we should not rely on it for treating physical or psychological problems. Usually, treatment requires the hard work of changing behaviors, taking medications, or building true self-awareness. Being put into an altered attention state is a shortcut that probably won't be enough to help a patient long-term.
Question #3: Can hypnosis get me to do things I don’t want to do?
If a stage performer can get Howie Mandel to go against his phobia and shake everyone’s hand, does that mean you or I can be hypnotized on TV and made to squawk like a chicken in front of millions?
Most experts agree that someone who does not want to be hypnotized cannot be hypnotized against their will. Because hypnosis isn't “brainwashing,” but rather, a state of hyper-focus, it’s unlikely that a hypnotist can get you to do something completely outside of your normal range of behaviors even if you are more open to suggestion.
For example, Howie Mandel was hypnotized to shake hands with someone, an action he had done many times before but at some point learned to associate with anxiety. Planting a hypnotic suggestion to get Howie to behave in a way that's counter to his anxious feelings is not the same thing as if he was made to suddenly perform an act of violence that he had never done before, like in Zoolander.
Question #4: Can hypnosis help me change my behaviors?
So what about using hypnosis for changing unhelpful behaviors? Instead of getting someone to do embarrassing or unethical things, can we harness hypnosis to promote good behaviors? I wouldn’t hold my breath.
For example, have you ever heard of anyone swearing up and down that one session of hypnosis got them to quit smoking cold turkey? I have … at a quit smoking treatment group.
The group member who shared that hypnosis was the one thing that has worked for him was, in fact, at the group session because he was smoking again. He said that his experience with hypnosis was almost magical—they made him throw out all of his cigarettes, lighters, and ashtrays before going into the hypnosis treatment room, then they conducted hypnosis on him, and—voila! He didn’t even feel any urge to smoke anymore.
Until he did, of course. Someone else in the group said, “Wait a minute—they made you throw out all your smoking-related stuff? Maybe that’s what actually worked, because I know that if I even allow myself to have half an ‘emergency’ pack lying around, I’ll give in to temptation for sure.”
As of 2019, the best conclusion we have is that even if hypnosis has any benefit for quitting smoking, it’s a tiny one.
I think this second person was onto something. For some, hypnosis for quitting smoking does feel like a magical moment, but when we zoom out from anecdotal data, we see from large-scale studies that there is no good evidence showing hypnosis to be better than other methods for quitting smoking.
The research on this topic is mostly not of high quality, so the jury may still be out, but as of 2019, the best conclusion we have is that even if hypnosis has any benefit for quitting smoking, it’s a tiny one. So, unfortunately, there is no easy way to quitting smoking besides hard work and social support.
Question #5: Can anyone be hypnotized?
Some people are more hypnotizable than others. Scientists have developed several tests to assess a person’s susceptibility to hypnosis. Two of the most well-known ones are the Stanford Scales and the Harvard Group Scale. In these tests, a trained professional conducts a “hypnotic induction” on you and then suggests increasingly difficult tasks from closing your eyes to hallucinating that you’re flying, until the most difficult—experiencing temporary amnesia. How many of these tasks you do under hypnosis generates a score for how hypnotizable you are.
How do you think you would do on this test? Some characteristics tend to set highly susceptible individuals apart.
For example, people with dissociative disorders are more hypnotizable than people with other types of psychological disorders and people without any disorders. This makes sense because part of the hypnosis experience is (temporary) dissociation from your normal experience of attention to your surroundings. But for those with dissociative disorders, feeling detached from reality, from themselves, and in extreme and rare cases, having multiple “identities” is a frequent experience even when they’re not hypnotized. These disorders are often related to having a history of trauma, particularly complex childhood trauma.
But those with dissociative disorders are not the only ones who are susceptible to hypnosis. If you are prone to fantasizing, like losing yourself in a vivid daydream, having physical responses to imagery, and having been particularly imaginative in childhood, you may also be very hypnotizable.
Have you had experiences with hypnosis? I'd love to hear about them! Check out the links below to chat with me on social media, or leave me a message on the Savvy Psychologist listener line.