Is Hypnosis Real?

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I have never understood hypnosis. Its use in numerous TV shows and movies over the years hasn’t really explained to me what actually happens. So a recent article entitled “Is Hypnosis Real? Here’s What Science Says” by Markham Heid caught my eye (

“There are many myths about hypnosis, mostly coming from media presentations,” says Irving Kirsch, a lecturer and director of the Program in Placebo Studies at Harvard Medical School. Yet hypnosis is considered a well-studied supplementary treatment for conditions like obesity, pain after surgery, and stress.

Merriam-Webster defines hypnosis as “a trancelike state that resembles sleep but is induced by a person whose suggestions are readily accepted by the subject” (

But what exactly does hypnosis do, and how does it provide benefits? That’s what is hard to pin down.  Len Milling, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Hartford, says “If you asked 10 hypnosis experts how hypnosis works, you would probably get 10 different explanations.”

What most experts do agree on is there are two stages, usually referred to as “induction” and “suggestion.”

“During the induction, the subject is typically told to relax, focus his or her attention, and that he or she is going into hypnosis,” Milling says. This stage can last anywhere from a few seconds to 10 or more minutes, with the goal of quieting the mind and focusing its attention on the therapist or counselor’s voice and guidance.

The “suggestion” phase involves talking the hypnotized person through hypothetical events and scenarios to help address or counteract unhelpful behaviors and emotions. Patients are asked to experience imaginary events as if they were real, explains Milling. The suggestion types depend on the patient and his or her unique challenges needing attention.

If this sounds like guided meditation or mindfulness, there is commonality. In some ways, hypnosis is like setting aside normal judgments and sensory reactions and entering a deeper state of concentration and receptiveness. The outside world fades away, the same as getting lost in a book or movie.  Research has also referred to hypnosis as the temporary “obliteration” of the ego.

So what’s going on inside the brain? The research of Dr. David Spiegel, a hypnosis expert and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, has shown hypnosis can act on multiple brain regions, including some linked to pain perception and regulation. It has also been found to quiet parts of the brain involved in sensory processing and emotional response.

Of course, there’s controversy over how hypnosis works. “Originally, Freud theorized that hypnosis weakens the barrier between the conscious and subconscious,” Milling says, adding that this theory has largely been abandoned. While some think hypnosis is simply another example of the placebo effect, an alternate theory is “hypnosis causes people to enter an altered state of consciousness, which makes them very responsive to hypnotic suggestions,” he says. But there’s no loss of consciousness or amnesia.

Besides, not everyone benefits equally from hypnosis. Milling says about 20% of people show a “large” response to it, while an equal number don’t respond much at all. The remaining 50% to 60% of people land somewhere in between. “Children tend to be more hypnotizable,” Spiegel says.

But, according to Irving Kirsch, a lecturer and director of the Program in Placebo Studies at Harvard Medical School, even people who score low on measures of hypnotic suggestibility can still benefit from it; it’s important to consider hypnosis as a supplement to other therapies.

Finally, if you want to try hypnosis, don’t expect miracles after a single session. Some think one treatment can be effective, but Milling argues that “in general, a single treatment session involving hypnosis is unlikely to be beneficial.”

Just like life in general, it’s complicated.

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