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Steven N Gold, PhD & Michael A Quiñones, PhD

Five common myths about hypnosis

9 minutes read

August 05,2021

We are both psychotherapists in the U.S. who specialize in treating individuals with serious psychological problems, including severe and constant anxiety, insomnia, impaired concentration, terrifying nightmares, drug addiction, and suicidal depression. Although we do not see it as appropriate for everyone we treat or for all the difficulties we try to help people overcome, in many instances, we find hypnosis to be an invaluable asset. But, unfortunately, despite the tremendous impact hypnosis can provide in addressing many of the most daunting challenges our therapy clients bring to us, there is a great deal of skepticism and wariness due to a lack of familiarity with the science behind it.

Many people view hypnosis from one of two extremes: they either see it as something that doesn’t really exist or as being so powerful that it can be dangerous. For this reason, when the two of us use hypnosis in therapy, we first take our time explaining to the person we’re working with what it is and how it works. Then, once they understand it better, they’re usually much more open to including it in their treatment. So here we address five common misconceptions about hypnosis.

1. "Hypnosis is nothing more than a fancy term for imagination."

The history of hypnosis in modern science dates back almost 200 years. However, even among professionals who are trained in and make use of hypnosis, there was little agreement about how to define it. With the availability of fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery) equipment that measures brain activity, we now have solid scientific confirmation that there are specific patterns when someone is in a hypnotic state. Compared to the brain activity present in our everyday waking state of consciousness, hypnosis promotes variations in activity across the brain’s constituent structures.

Changes in patterns of brain activity depend on the type of hypnotic phenomena cultivated during hypnosis. Deepening bodily relaxation, fostering alterations in attention and self-awareness, reducing awareness of the external environment, and increasing absorption with internal imagery, sensations, and emotions correspond to specific brain activity changes. For example, hypnotically cultivated relaxation can reduce situational awareness and facilitate increased internal awareness of images and sensations. This corresponds to reduced activity in the prefrontal (areas related to focus and attention) and sensorimotor (areas related to bodily movement and coordination) regions of the brain and increased activity in the occipital (visual area of the brain) and midbrain (experiencing sensations and emotions) regions. Therefore, hypnotic states change activity patterns in the brain that correspond to specific alterations in consciousness.

Hypnosis is a state of mind in which the conscious and logical mental activity we are mostly aware of (literally residing in the front of the brain, the prefrontal cortex) reduces in intensity. This shift makes way for the more intuitive and fundamental brain activity of which we are largely unaware. Although always active, it is obscured by conscious activity in the front of the brain, which tends to be more salient.

Hypnosis is also a naturally occurring state of mind that everyone has experienced at one time or another. Examples of a hypnotic state include periods when you are unaware of the stretch of road for 10 minutes while driving long distances or when you are so absorbed in watching a TV program that you don’t hear someone in the same room talking to you. These examples reflect that hypnosis is commonplace and naturally occurring mode of experience that individuals may encounter routinely without conscious awareness of them . The primary difference with formal hypnosis, whether self-induced or guided by someone who is trained in hypnosis, is that these examples occur spontaneously, while hypnosis is the intentional evocation of this mental state.

2. "Being hypnotized involves letting the person doing the hypnosis control your mind."

This is one of the most common and troublesome misunderstandings about hypnosis. One of the main sources of this misconception is the dramatic and misleading ways in which it is depicted in movies and television. No one controls your mind but you. The psychotherapist or medical professional leading the hypnosis simply guides you toward experiencing the state of hypnosis, usually by talking to you in a way that reduces the activity of the front of the mind and un-obscuring what is occurring in “the back of the mind.”

Experiences and behaviors under the direction of the front of the mind feel under our control. However, those executed in the back of the mind are also under our control, but they feel as if they are occurring “by themselves”. If we assume that someone must be in charge of our experience and behavior, and it does not feel as if it is us, we are prone to believe that it must be the person guiding us into the hypnotic state who is in control. But this is not the case any more than thinking someone else is in charge of our breathing or heartbeat.

It is well established in the research literature that someone in a hypnotic state cannot be directed to do anything they would not do in a standard waking state. Our way of thinking about hypnosis is that it is a joint effort. Guiding a client into a hypnotic state is most effective when we, to some degree, enter that state ourselves. Our state of mind, then, becomes discernable to the person we are working with and helps them “follow” us into a hypnotic disposition. Although we use hypnosis to achieve treatment goals during therapy sessions, our ultimate aim is to teach the client how to experience hypnosis on their own, outside of our meetings, so that it becomes a tool they can use independently of us.

3. "Hypnosis is amusing when demonstrated at parties or nightclub performances, but it is of no practical value."

We often use hypnosis in our psychotherapy practice because it helps people accomplish things that cannot be done as easily or, in many cases, cannot be done at all in a standard waking state of consciousness. In other words, it allows access to mental abilities and capacities that lie outside the logical and conscious awareness that corresponds to activity in the frontal area of the brain.

For example, it is not unusual for people to learn how to lower their blood pressure under hypnosis. That is a function “behind” the conscious, front part of the brain. Some individuals who are especially adept hypnotic responders can turn off the experience of physical pain to the extent that they can undergo major surgery without a chemical anesthetic. Again, this is a process that resides in the areas situated behind the front part of the brain. We are in the habit of assuming that if we don’t consciously decide and choose to do something, it will not happen. But, our heartbeat is controlled by the brain. Awareness of physical pain is controlled by the brain. And these are just some of the activities constantly occurring outside of the prefrontal region of conscious awareness.

Scientific research supports the utilization and efficacy of therapeutic hypnosis to promote improvements in managing stress, chronic pain, and its application in medical settings. Recent neuroscience research validates that hypnosis is associated with modulation of activity in the areas of the brain related to bodily awareness, sensations, and mental perceptions of pain. This suggests that while reducing a sense of effortful control typically associated with the front of the brain, hypnosis can improve an individual’s capacity to promote beneficial changes in activities related to other regions of the brain. 

A person in a hypnotic state, therefore, has access to functions outside of conscious awareness. There is nothing magical about this as it is the nature of the human brain and corresponding human abilities and experiences.

4. "Hypnosis is dangerous."

Many things have the potential to be dangerous if not properly used; a kitchen knife, a match, or medication. Like these, hypnosis can be tremendously valuable in the right hands but useless or even dangerous if used by someone unfamiliar with the subject. As alluded to in our answer to question 3), hypnosis can be a powerful asset in treating a range of psychological and medical problems. Various health professionals have effectively applied its use in many fields, including medicine, dentistry, and mental health. However, some people aren’t trained in the medical or helping professions but purport to use hypnosis to help solve people’s psychological or even medical ailments. These people not only lack training in the helping professions but they also often lack organized and structured training in hypnosis itself. In the hands of such people, hypnosis can be detrimental. It is never a good idea to seek treatment from someone who is not a fully trained and licensed professional, with or without hypnosis. Professionals should only perform hypnosis with formal training in both the specialty they are licensed in and also in the use of hypnosis as an adjunct to their professional expertise.

5. "Hypnotic treatment only takes one session."

One of the more common misconceptions about hypnosis is that it resolves difficulties in a single visit. Self-described “hypnotists” without professional training and licenses have been known to advertise that they can help people lose weight, overcome cigarette smoking and other addictions, or even cure medical illnesses in just one session. Whether they are capable of being helpful is questionable, but it is extremely unlikely that these claims of single-session “cures” are accurate. However, many people in our psychological practice with whom we use hypnosis can achieve a clinically beneficial level of responsiveness the first time we work with them hypnotically. For some, this accomplishment alone takes several sessions of practice. Building on the hypnotic state to work on problem-solving usually takes additional visits. Thus, promises of single-session resolution of difficulties are generally a clear sign that the person making those claims is not to be trusted.

We’ve reviewed some of the common myths attributed to hypnosis. Dispelling these myths has provided an opportunity to describe the various ways hypnosis can benefit and improve quality of life. As described earlier, substantial research and case studies on the practical applications of hypnosis continue to support its relevance as a treatment for a wide range of psychological, behavioral, and health-related challenges. Recent trends in neuroscience also support that hypnosis is a discrete state of consciousness with potential benefits accompanied by various changes in brain activity. Although discretion is highly recommended when seeking therapeutic hypnosis, empirical and clinical research provides a solid foundation for the healing potential of hypnosis and its’ holistic benefits for the body, brain, and mind.

Co-written By
Steven N Gold, PhD

Steven N Gold, PhD is Professor Emeritus at Nova Southeastern University (NSU) College of Psychology, and in private psychology practice in Plantation, Florida. In 2004 Dr. Gold served as President of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD). He was President of the American Psychological Association (APA) Division of Trauma Psychology (56) in 2009, and inaugural editor of the Division’s scientific journal, Psychological Trauma, from 2008 through 2014. He is author of Contextual Trauma Therapy for Complex Traumatization and Editor in Chief of the APA Handbook of Trauma Psychology.

Michael A Quiñones, PhD

Michael A Quiñones, PhD is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Plantation, FL, US and a member of both the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD) and the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH). His research and clinical interests include the application of attachment and developmental theory to a range of topics, including trauma and dissociation, substance use, forensic settings, and contextual-based models of treatment. His research is currently focused on the neurobiological and phenomenological correlates of various forms of altered states of consciousness and their implications for therapeutic treatment of trauma and dissociation.

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