Short answer: You can see the hypnotic state on a brain scan, so yes, hypnosis is real. Long answer … read on!
Hypnosis is Real: It Shows Up on Brain Scans
As you can see in the picture, the normal waking state, hypnosis, and faking the result all use different parts of the brain, and this can be picked up on a brain scan. Even without a brain scan, you can usually tell a hypnotized person from someone who isn’t.
Is That Other Person Hypnotized?
Since most of us don’t have a brain scanner handy, we rely on other ways of telling if someone is hypnotized.
The hypnotist who does a stage show at the Benton County Fair, Tammy Harris Barton, is good, and you can learn the difference between someone who is really hypnotized and someone who is not just by watching her. During the first part of the show, she does things that deepen the hypnosis of the volunteers, and excuses the ones who aren’t going as deep as she’d like, until she’s left with the ones who are deeply hypnotized.
So the way to get calibrated is to watch such a show and guess who she’s going to keep and who she isn’t. The ones she’s excusing are often looking around, trying not to laugh, and enjoying the antics of the other subjects. The ones she keeps are focused on her and the task she’s given them. They are pretty unresponsive to the other subjects or the audience unless they hypnotist requests otherwise.
There’s a difference between the people she keeps and the ones she doesn’t, and “willingness to fake it” doesn’t keep people on the stage. Those people get ejected along with the ones who are simply unresponsive. While just about all the volunteers could be brought into a deep state of hypnosis with a couple of minutes of one-on-one attention, a stage show doesn’t have that kind of time, and stage hypnotists rely on keeping the handful of people who get there without that attention.
Signs of hypnosis are hard to fake, anyway. Typical signs of hypnosis include:
- Lethargy. The subject stops making unnecessary movements. This extends to facial expression, which tends to become a bit blank, and even eye movements, leaving objects in peripheral vision.
- Slight temporary reddening of the eyes.
- Less hesitation, doubts, arguing. Someone who is hypnotized tends to simply follow the hypnotist’s request, or simply ignore it, but without fuss either way.
- Calmness. Hypnosis tends to bring people into a calm and centered state.
- Focus. A fire alarm can go off a few feet away, and if the subject feels that someone else will deal with it, they may not react at all. They know it’s happening, but they’re busy. I know this because there’s a fire alarm right outside my office, and it went off in the middle of a session once, and my client didn’t move a muscle. (If they think dealing with the alarm might be up to them, they’ll emerge from hypnosis and deal with it.)
None of these signs are sure-fire, but the more the person shows, the more likely they’re in a reasonably deep state of hypnosis.
Was I Hypnotized?
Look at the list above. If some of those matched up with you, you were likely hypnotized.
Subjectively, hypnosis might feel like almost anything. Some people feel like they’re just pretending. That’s fine. Some people feel like it’s a dream. That’s fine, too. Some people feel perfectly normal. Excellent.
Usually, hypnosis isn’t about how the session feels to you. Stage hypnosis is about giving the audience a show. Usually the volunteers enjoy it quite a bit, but how their enjoyable experience feels, exactly, differs from person to person.
Hypnotherapy is about making changes in your life that extend beyond the session. Usually the session itself is enjoyable and sometimes it feels deeply meaningful. But if someone comes to see me to stop smoking, feels great during the sessions, and still smokes as much as ever, that’s not so good. I’d rather they felt grumpy about the sessions themselves while thoroughly enjoying that they’re now a nonsmoker.
That said, people worry about whether they were hypnotized, so it’s traditional to add a couple of “convincers” to the first session, things that aren’t directly useful to the client but which show them that they entered hypnosis and it has an effect on them, so they can set their mind at rest.
When I do self-hypnosis, I sometimes do it while doing other things, such as walking on a treadmill. With eyes-open self-hypnosis, I tend to notice two things as I start entering the hypnotic state: an involuntary deep breath, and a willingness to let my eyes go still, leaving objects in my peripheral vision rather than looking at them the instant they draw my attention. I still notice them, but my eyes don’t automatically move to them. (It turns out it’s amazing how much you can pick up out of the corner of your eye.)
There are some other sensations I don’t know how to describe. Certainly the rush of my thoughts slows way down, and it’s easier to focus on one thing at a time, and also to think about worrisome or exciting things calmly, without getting revved up.
Is the Reality of Hypnosis News?
Brain scans make hypnosis research easier, but hypnosis has been the subject of scientific research for a long time … back when hypnosis was called “mesmerism” and people knew almost nothing about it. In 1784, the French Academy of Sciences took a look at this “mesmerism” stuff. Mesmer claimed that he had discovered a “magnetic fluid” that could be used for healing. The scientists, including Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin, did a series of elegant experiments. They determined that the “magnetic fluid” was nonsense, and the results were clearly the result of the power of the imagination: “Imagination does everything, magnetism is worthless.” You can read their report (translated into English) here.
The commissioners were impressed by the power of the patients’ responses to suggestion, but didn’t go down the road of using this phenomenon deliberately for therapeutic effect. It was more than fifty years before the value of hypnosis in painless surgery was developed (for example, by Scottish surgeon James Esdaile), and a hundred years before its use in therapy was developed (for example, by French neurologist Hippolyte Bernheim.)
How Real is Hypnosis?
Franklin and the other members of the French Academy witnessed mesmerized patients fainting, going into hysterics, and even going into convulsions.They were alarmed by the power of these demonstrations! The Academy recognized that the results were real—far more real than Mesmer’s magnetic fluid. Not just real, but powerful.
What’s changed over the last 232 years is that we actually know something about hypnosis these days, and we’ve figured out that things like convulsions and hysterics are good theater but bad therapy.
Modern hypnosis builds in multiple layers of safety. Because there is no longer an expectation that subjects will go into hysterics or convulsions, they never do. Instead, modern hypnosis uses a series of verbal suggestions to lead the subject in the right direction, which makes sessions predictable and reliable.
Demonstrating that hypnosis is real, and figuring out how it works, relies on good experimental design, useful instruments, and at least a ballpark understanding of what’s going on. Franklin and company were basically disproving the existence of the magical magnetic fluid, which they did beautifully. They didn’t tackle the much more difficult issue of what was really going on, and how to control it and use it for healing.
A key insight came from Scottish surgeon James Braid, who became interested in mesmerism and noticed that all the characteristics of the hypnotic state are things that any experienced physician has seen in patients many times, under different circumstances. Some singly, some together. Braid concluded that the mesmeric states occur spontaneously, and that they can also be evoked on purpose. Braid coined the term “hypnosis” when describing this, and his work moved hypnosis out of the realm of mystical pseudo-science.
In terms of scientific experiments, they occurred off an on from the 1780’s to this day. One example is Ernest Hilgard’s work at Stanford in the 1960’s. To achieve better consistency, a hypnosis recording was used instead of live hypnotist, and the recording took the subject through entering hypnosis, deepening, and a series of tasks. For most people, a recording is weak compared to working interactively with a live hypnotist, but some subjects achieved dramatic results, such as “negative hallucination,” when you can no longer see something that is in fact there. Such work was hampered by the lack of an objective measure of the depth of hypnosis that a brain scan now provides, but a lot was learned, too.
Is hypnosis real? Yes. There’s no longer any doubt about that. But does it work? Will it help you stop smoking or stop worrying or improve your golf game? It can. There’s research on that, too. But that’s a topic for another day.