Hypnosis Unit UK definition of hypnosis

The term 'hypnosis' denotes an interaction between one person, the 'hypnotist', and another person or people, the 'subject' or 'subjects'. In this interaction the hypnotist attempts to influence the subjects' perceptions, feelings, thinking and behaviour by asking them to concentrate on ideas and images that may evoke the intended effects. The verbal communications that the hypnotist uses to achieve these effects are termed "suggestions". Suggestions differ from everyday kinds of instructions in that a "successful" response is experienced by the subject as having an quality of involuntariness or effortlessness.

(From Draft BPS Statement prepared by BSECH, September 2000)

Hypnosis has often been carved into two separate elements - Trance and Suggestion. This distinction has led to some useful research, and is particularly important when considering the results of neuroimaging research.


Hypnosis can be thought of as a mix of 'trance' and 'suggestion'



A central issue in the history of hypnosis has been whether we need to hypothesise a special state of mind, or even a special altered state of brain functioning, in order to explain the phenomena we observe in hypnosis; the so-called 'state' vs. 'non-state' debate.

Without taking sides in the theoretical debate, the term 'trance' can still be helpful when thinking about hypnosis if we use it in its 'weaker' version. That is, if we use the term in the way we might in everyday language to denote a 'state of mind', such as being happy or sad, interested or bored, attentive or disinterested. To be useful though, we need an operational definition of the term 'trance' and one we find helpful is as follows:

Trance is a particular frame of mind characterised by:
i) Focused attention
ii) Disattention to extraneous stimuli
iii) Absorption in some activity, image, thought or feeling

Put this way, the 'state' in everyday terms is one of being 'entranced' and people can, and do, enter this 'entranced' state spontaneously. Common examples of 'everday hypnosis' are:
• being 'lost in thought' or day dreaming
• absorption in sport, reading, listening to music etc
• driving for long distances and not recalling the route taken
• being absorbed in meditation / relaxation procedures.

Hypnotic procedures formalise this process of 'entrancement' and intensify it. Potential hypnosis subjects are given a series of instructions which, if they follow them, are intended to assist them in achieving a trance state. Hypnotic procedures are intended to encourage:
• Focussed attention
• Disattention to surroundings
• Absorption in innter mental world

(Note that this list does not include relaxation - this is a suggested effect - see below)

Some people, high hypnotisables, are able to enter the desired state quickly, either spontaneously or through a hypnotic procedure. Hypnotic procedures are generally facilitated by:
i) encouraging the subject to be non-analytical in their thinking
ii) increasing the subjects motivation and willingness to actively involve themselves with the procedures
iii) raising subjects expectancies of a positive outcome


It is important to remember that a number of different types of suggestibility have been described. The most common ones are hypnotic suggestibility, ideomotor suggestibility, primary suggestibility, secondary suggestibility, interrogative suggestibility and placebo suggestibility.

Here we will consider only hypnotic suggestibility, as measured by hypnotisability scales, and the types of suggestions which typically appear on these scales. The definition above which refers to suggestion reads as follows:

The verbal communications that the hypnotist uses to achieve these effects are termed "suggestions". Suggestion differ from everyday kinds of instructions in that a "successful" response is experienced by the subject as having a quality of involuntariness or effortlessness.

One widely held belief is that achieving this 'hypnotic state' facilitates responsiveness to suggestion. It is important to remember though that while this might be the case people do respond to suggestions of the sort given in hypnosis without being taken through a hypnotic procedure first..

It is also important to note that the well-known phenomena of hypnosis are not "spontaneous". They are produced by suggestion and are experienced as being involuntary.

The 'trance state' as defined above is produced through instructions - which the subject follows voluntarily. The induction of a hypnotic state without the introduction of suggestions (except possibly relaxation) is sometimes called 'neutral hypnosis'.

Suggestions are often accompanied by appropriate imagery but the following effects can be produced by direct suggestion without imagery:
• Relaxation
• Arm levitation
• Analgesia
• Amnesia
• Post hypnotic suggestion


American Psychological Association (2003) definition of hypnosis

Hypnosis typically involves an introduction to the procedure during which the subject is told that suggestions for imaginative experiences will be presented. The hypnotic induction is an extended initial suggestion for using one's imagination, and may contain further elaborations of the introduction. A hypnotic procedure is used to encourage and evaluate responses to suggestions. When using hypnosis, one person (the subject) is guided by another (the hypnotist) to respond to suggestions for changes in subjective experience, alterations in perception, sensation, emotion, thought or behavior. Persons can also learn self-hypnosis, which is the act of administering hypnotic procedures on one's own. If the subject responds to hypnotic suggestions, it is generally inferred that hypnosis has been induced. Many believe that hypnotic responses and experiences are characteristic of a hypnotic state. While some think that it is not necessary to use the word "hypnosis" as part of the hypnotic induction, others view it as essential.

Details of hypnotic procedures and suggestions will differ depending on the goals of the practitioner and the purposes of the clinical or research endeavor. Procedures traditionally involve suggestions to relax, though relaxation is not necessary for hypnosis and a wide variety of suggestions can be used including those to become more alert. Suggestions that permit the extent of hypnosis to be assessed by comparing responses to standardized scales can be used in both clinical and research settings. While the majority of individuals are responsive to at least some suggestions, scores on standardized scales range from high to negligible. Traditionally, scores are grouped into low, medium, and high categories. As is the case with other positively-scaled measures of psychological constructs such as attention and awareness, the salience of evidence for having achieved hypnosis increases with the individual's score.


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