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What is Hypnosis? Attempting to Define the Undefinable

By Charles Hopkins Published 04/22/2006 | Health
If you ask 100 different hypnotists for their definition of hypnosis, you will likely get 100 different answers. Because, while most hypnotists, hypno-therapists, psychologists who use hypnosis, stage hypnotists as well as enthusiastic amateurs, know that something is happening, getting them to explain exactly what that something is, is where the problems begin. "I can't define it, but I know it when I see / feel it" is a likely response.

What is needed to be able to use this phenomenon known as hypnosis, is a working definition, something that creates some boundaries to work within and creates a target to aim at. That target being to guide someone into the state of hypnosis.

By creating a well formed definition, anyone attempting to hypnotize themselves or someone else, will be more likely to recognize the hypnotic trance state when it happens. The question that haunts all beginning hypnotists "Were they under or weren't they?" will be able to be answered.

A very useful definition of hypnosis, one that many working hypnotists have adopted is that "Hypnosis is a suspension or bypass of the critical factor (the part of us that evaluates and judges what is going on at any point in time) with an associated narrowing of awareness and a selective focusing".

If this definition is applied to the example of being hypnotized by someone (it also applies relative to self-hypnosis) then the definition simply means that when the hypnotist makes a suggestion, the subject (person being hypnotized) follows it. They do not evaluate it to see if it fits with their model of the world, they simply accept and follow the suggestion.

Now many people panic when this is suggested. This plays on some peoples fears about the hypnotist having control over them. Nothing could be further from the truth. In all hypnotic interactions, the person being hypnotized is the one in control, not the hypnotist.

The myth of the hypnotist being able to turn people into hypnotic zombies is just that, a myth. It does make a good story though, and one that hypnotists are happy enough to use. If the subject thinks that the hypnotist has some kind of mystical power that in itself becomes a powerful suggestion that the skilled hypnotist can use to help the subject into the hypnotic trance state.

A very useful analogy that describes hypnosis and the relationship between the hypnotist and the subject, is watching a movie. In fact watching a movie or any number of other activities that lead to a total absorption and narrowing of focus would satisfy the definition of hypnosis being offered here.

When someone watches a movie, they choose to put their critical faculties on hold to enjoy the movie. They suspend their judgment to have the experience they want. Their attention becomes very selective. They tune out certain things, and tune in others, to have the movie experience. They are aware of where they are and what is going on around them, it's just that they do not care enough about it, to put any attention on it.

If some emergency occurred, they would very quickly snap out of their movie induced trance and respond appropriately. But, while they remain selectively focused on the screen and what they are watching, and do not engage the critical factor, they get to have the full movie experience. They know the movie is not real, but that doesn't stop them experiencing anger, sadness, fear or laughter. When the critical factor is bypassed a world of possibilities opens.

This is exactly what happens in hypnosis. The subject willingly follows the suggestions given to them by the hypnotist, to have the full hypnotic experience and get the benefit of the hypnotic state (stop smoking, lose weight and so on).

If the suggestion is given that "Your arm is so heavy that you will not be able to lift it" and the subject chooses to follow the suggestion and imagine that their arm is so heavy they cannot lift it, they create a state where they wont be able to lift their arm. While this gives the appearance that the hypnotist is in control, it is the subject that chooses to follow the suggestion and use the power of their imagination to have the experience of their arm being too heavy to lift.

In the hypnotic state we are more open to suggestion. More impressionable to suggestion. In this hyper-suggestible state, the power of suggestion and the power of imagination come together to create change and allow personal growth to occur, free from the obstruction of the judgmental, evaluating critical factor.

Suggestions made in hypnosis, go directly to the subconscious mind, where they are acted on without judgment, fear or doubt. Many of the "feats" that can be performed while in hypnosis and the personal transformations that many people undergo when using hypnosis and hypnotherapy can sometimes be quite amazing. But really, they are simply the result of the focused use of imagination and attention on the task at hand and the suspension of all doubt that the outcome can be achieved.