Hypnosis in Popular Psychology

Phrases like “you are getting very sleepy” are central to the popular image of hypnosis as an altered state of consciousness, in which the subject falls into a sleeplike trance. The popular image also includes a charismatic hypnotist with a powerful yet soothing voice, who may make mysterious motions in the air while producing the trance. Some parts of this image certainly date back to late eighteenth-century Vienna, where physician Franz Anton Mesmer first discovered the hypnotic treatment of various ailments via mesmerism. His induction procedure was very elaborate, involving magnetized rods extending from tubs filled with iron filings, but the key element was his own physical touch. He believed that he possessed a high degree of what he called animal magnetism, which could influence the magnetic fluid that flows through all human beings. Upon receiving his touch after relaxing, his patients would fall into a trance, and upon coming out they would be cured. In modern hypnosis, the induction ritual is usually much simpler, involving staring at an object—a swinging pocket watch is in fact sometimes used—while receiving instructions to relax.

Under hypnosis, the subject will experience a loss of volition and become very willing to follow suggestions, along with becoming highly susceptible to hallucinations and delusions. While in the hypnotic state, a person may be able to remember things that were not remembered prior to hypnosis. Memory of what went on during the session may be gone afterwards as well, along with memories and physical urges that the subject wished to be rid of. After the hypnotic session, if the person has been given a post-hypnotic suggestion, he or she may still respond to the suggestion of the hypnotist.

Academic Writing, Editing, Proofreading, And Problem Solving Services

Get 10% OFF with 24START discount code

The foregoing view of hypnosis is still widely accepted by the general public, but the academic and clinical communities have distanced themselves from it over the last several decades. Although some psychologists still refer to hypnosis as an altered state of consciousness, others view the hypnotic state as simply the enactment of a social role. This is often referred to as the state/non-state debate. The most popular state theory, which insists that hypnosis involves an altered state of consciousness, is Ernest Hilgard’s “neodissociation” theory. According to Hilgard, the mind contains multiple parts that are not all conscious at the same time, and which are ordinarily influenced by a centralized control structure. Under hypnosis, a dissociation, or split in consciousness, occurs in which subjects surrender to the hypnotist some of their usual control over voluntary actions, while gaining some control over normally involuntary processes, such as sensitivity to pain.

In a classic study intended to demonstrate dissociation, Hilgard had hypnotized subjects immerse one hand in ice water following a hypnotic suggestion that they would feel no pain. They were asked to press a key with the other hand if they felt any pain. Verbally, subjects typically reported almost no pain, but their key pressing indicated a substantial amount of pain. Hilgard explains that a “hidden observer” was reporting on the pain, while no pain was experienced by the part of the mind that had conscious awareness. Whether a hidden observer is involved or not, there is little question that hypnosis is sometimes useful in reducing pain, and it has been used successfully in surgery, amputations, and childbirth, as well as with chronic pain such as arthritis, nerve damage, migraines, and cancer. Some researchers have even claimed success with reduction of post-surgical bleeding.

Hilgard’s state theory, however, is rapidly being eclipsed by a non-state view variously called role theory, the cognitive-behavioral view, or the sociocognitive view. According to non-state advocates, the view of hypnosis as an altered state is simply unnecessary and somewhat misleading. Role theory maintains that hypnotic phenomena can be explained in terms of compliance with social demands and acting in accordance with a special social role. The hypnotized person does behave differently from non-hypnotized people, but this is because he or she has agreed to act out an established role, with certain expectations and rules. The hypnotized person does feel less in control and becomes far more suggestible, but it is done voluntarily, as part of a social ritual. Furthermore, there is no evidence of any changes in neurophysiological responses during hypnosis, unlike what is seen in actual altered states of consciousness, such as sleep or the effects of psychedelic drugs. Indeed, in studies where some people are hypnotized and given suggestions and other, non-hypnotized people are asked to do the same things, a typical finding is that motivated but unhypnotized volunteers can duplicate most classic hypnotic effects, including such things as limb rigidity and pain insensitivity. Non-state theorists maintain that hypnotic behaviors and experiences represent no change in cognitive processes but merely reflect normal cognitive processes in a special social situation.

Within psychology, the myth about hypnosis most in need of debunking is certainly the idea that it is helpful in recovering lost memories. Sometimes, for example, age-regression is used to help people recover lost memories by having the hypnotized subject return to a childhood mentality and think and behave like a child. Such age-regression is often quite dramatic, with the adult subject adopting a childlike voice and demeanor and producing childlike drawings. On closer examination, however, the drawings typically resemble what adults expect a child’s drawing to look like rather than actual children’s drawings, and the adults tend to use that childlike voice to say things in a way that an actual child wouldn’t. Furthermore, memories produced under hypnosis are less accurate than those produced by the same subjects without hypnosis; a key component of hypnosis is an increased susceptibility to suggestion and fantasy, thus making it an inappropriate tool for recovering accurate memories. Unfortunately, people who have recalled an incident under hypnosis tend to be more confident about that memory than about ordinary memories. This combination of factors has led to a huge scandal in the therapeutic world, involving a large number of criminal cases in which people have been accused of child sexual abuse solely on the basis of memories “recovered” under hypnosis.


  1. Wagstaff, G. F. “Hypnosis.” In Della Sala, S., ed. Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions about the Brain and the Mind. New York: Wiley, 1999.