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Defining Hypnosis

by Adam Eason in Hypnosis Forum · · 131 Replies · View last reply Respond
Adam Eason Administrator
Adam Eason

Hypnosis has historically been (and continues to be) difficult to find agreement on the definition.

I wonder why? Is it because of the very nature of the subject? Is it because attempting to make tangible something that many find to be intangible is such a tough ask?

So what is your favourite definition of hypnosis? is there a definition that you disagree with? And why do we think there is so much disagreement?

Ok, lets discuss....

Adam Eason Administrator
Adam Eason

Though Braid's theory on hypnosis was much more sophisticated, here is his definition as concisely as I can get it, as stated in "The Discovery of Hypnosis: The Complete Writings of James Braid" by Donald Robertson...

A state of focused attention and nervous sleep induced by i) supressed respiration, and ii) fixation of the eyes, or the mind, upon some unexciting object. Psychologically the opposite of normal sleep, insofar as it consists of a fixed attention upon an unexciting point, e.g. the tip of a lancet case, the top of a bottle, or a cork bound ot the forehead.


Helen Johnstone
Helen Johnstone

Interesting definition by D Robertson, clearly  believing hypnosis as a state.  I certainly  not understand or agree with the idea of fixation on an unexciting object/point or nervous sleep in my definition of what hynosis means to me.  Fixation should be on a static object; but it can be beautiful or exciting, surely?  The idea of nervous sleep is not relaxing at all to my mind, rather one in which I am distracted and on edge.

I would rather think of hypnosis as an inner focus, where you select what you want ot be aware of, such as concentrating on solving a problem, controlling pain or just enjoying the relaxtion.

Adam Eason Administrator
Adam Eason

Hi Helen, this is not Donald's definition, it is a concise version of James Braid's. Braid wrote in the 1800s remember, so when he refers to nervous sleep, he is not referring to nervousness as in 'pre-exam' nerves, merely that there is more stimulation than usual sleep.

Also, the notion of non-excited objects is more focused on the notion that the object ought not stimulate too many other thoughts or feelings which may distract from the induction or from the absorption.

I think you'll find that your own preference is actually very similar to what Braid stated. I'll have to add some more Braidism when I have time.

Adam Eason Administrator
Adam Eason

Taken from Michael Heap's paper here, I offer you all some of his discussion on definition:

.... a modern definition of hypnosis. Here is the first part:

    Hypnosis is a process in which one person, designated the hypnotist, offers suggestions to another person, designated  the subject, for imaginative experiences entailing alterations in perception, memory and action (J.F. Kihlström, page 21).

Let me give some examples of suggestions.

- Suggestions of movement: the subject’s arm is rising in the air or being pulled down to her lap.
- Suggestions of inhibition: the subject cannot move his arm or close his eyes (catalepsy); the subject will not remember some information until the hypnotist has given a signal (amnesia).
- Alterations in perception and experience: anaesthesia and analgesia; positive and negative hallucinations (e.g. in the latter case, the subject cannot see a chair in front of her).
- More ambitious effects – being a baby again or changing sex.
- Post-hypnotic suggestions (the suggestion is to acted upon after the hypnosis session has been concluded).

So far the definition only describes the activity of the hypnotist, but how different from that of Mesmer! Now consider the response of the hypnotic subject:

    (T)hese experiences are associated with a degree of subjective conviction bordering on delusion, and an experienced involuntariness bordering on compulsion (op. cit.).

That is, the subject’s experience is characterised by a sense of involuntariness (e.g. in the case of suggestions of movement or inhibition of movement) and reality, in the case of suggested perceptual experiences. But no histrionics, no falling about, no stupor.

How the practice of hypnosis today and the theories that try to explain it evolved from the methodology and theory of mesmerism is a fascinating and instructive story. This evolution is summarised in an overview of the history of hypnosis in Heap & Kirsch (2006), xxiv-xxv:

This overview reveals stages in the evolution of modern hypnosis that reflect the cultural and scientific attitudes and practices that prevailed at various times.

‘Firstly, we have its origins as a healing practice, namely mesmerism, rather than a normal psychological process or phenomenon. The setting for this is eighteenth century France in the Age of Enlightenment and, although Mesmer explained his procedures by reference to an imaginary entity, namely an invisible fluid that he called ‘animal magnetism’, he endeavoured to relate this to ideas and discoveries from the natural sciences of that time.

‘Next we see the application of more critical thinking and the shedding of superfluous practices such as mesmeric passes and crises. Along with this we have the development of psychological, rather than physical, explanations for the observed phenomena. Hypnosis then emerges not primarily as a treatment but as a psychological phenomenon for scientific study in the laboratory with normal individuals. Theorising accordingly becomes grounded in existing mainstream psychology and its related disciplines. Correspondingly, we have the more systematic investigation of the therapeutic effectiveness of hypnosis in the form of controlled clinical trials rather than anecdotal evidence.

‘This process continues to evolve with, for example, the application of theories and research grounded in current neurocognitive approaches, and neurophysiological models that are investigated by brain imaging techniques.’


Helen Johnstone
Helen Johnstone

This shows how language over the ages means different things, hence how we interpret definitions from 1800 to those of now.  They may be similar but to an individual reader mean quite different things; showing great similarities to hypnosis itself, being entireky subjective and meaning different things and different experinces to all.

Hypnosis is a process in which one person, designated the hypnotist, offers suggestions to another person, designated  the subject, for imaginative experiences entailing alterations in perception, memory and action (J.F. Kihlström, page 21).

I agree with the above definition, it is clear and defined.  However, the other definition relating to the subject are bordering on ridiculous in my belief:

T)hese experiences are associated with a degree of subjective conviction bordering on delusion, and an experienced involuntariness bordering on compulsion (op. cit.).

Conviction bordering on delusion?  Do we need delusion for hypnosis?  I think not, see definition for delusion:

"A delusion is a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary. Unlike hallucinations, delusions are always pathological (the result of an illness or illness process). As a pathology, it is distinct from a belief based on false or incomplete information, confabulation, dogma, illusion, or other effects of perception.
Delusions typically occur in the context of neurological or mental illness, although they are not tied to any particular disease and have been found to occur in the context of many pathological states (both physical and mental). However, they are of particular diagnostic importance in psychotic disorders including schizophrenia, paraphrenia, manic episodes of bipolar disorder, and psychotic depression."

The second part of that definition relating to 'involuntariness,' is inclear, I suppose it could relate to phenomena, but again, surely our subjects are allowing and volunteering to the process fo hypnosis rather than it being involuntary?


PS - anyone reading this, please join in the debate!  Everyone has their own opinion, it is neither right nor wrong being that it is an opinion and not a fact.



Gareth Lee Morgan
Gareth Lee Morgan

OK, in all honesty with no influence from anyone else, hypnosis to me is just word, another word in our language that we use to describe a number of different things that we also don't have a definite definition for.

When someone appears to be in a trance like state, when they are acting out given suggestions, when someone recalls so called memories from the past they had previously hidden, when someone becomes fixed on a book, the television, something they are listening to and nothing else matters. These are just a few of the things that someone, somewhere has labeled as hypnosis or being in a hypnotic state because they don't know what else to call it. I agree, I am the same.

Now if you were to ask what hypnosis means to me personally, that's a different answer.

When I focus inwards and visualise my outcome for whatever I am working on at that time, using my imagination to turn my thoughts into images thus allowing me to edit those images, which in turn changes my thoughts and so puts me in the right direction or mindset, that to me is self hypnosis because thats the label I give that process for myself.

When I am working with another person and I use guided imagery with them, whether for therapeutic purposes or to achieve phenomena, no matter what language pattern or techniques I am using, to me I simply call that hypnosis, I have no other word for it, I don't need one. I'm happy with hypnosis.

OK, so what about the people on stage doing funny things, well, if they are inwardly focused on their thoughts, a suggestion is given and their mind wants to play as it often does, then it's back to that old quote that Adam has recently mentioned in his blogs, You Are What You Think. That's my take on it anyway.

Now, when I use a rapid or shock induction on someone, I'm happy to believe the theory of pattern interrupts, I don't really understand it, although I have explained many times.

Overall, to me hypnosis is all about focusing inwards, becoming fully engaged with our thoughts rather than letting them run wild in that thing we call the mind.

All of the above, is just a thought, a belief, one that works for me. It may or may not work for you, you decide.

p.s Look out for my upcoming video where I will be out on the streets asking this very question to members of the general public. :)

Steve Baxter
Steve Baxter

Hypnosis is

Helen Johnstone
Helen Johnstone



Steve Baxter
Steve Baxter

what happened just after you read the word 'is'

The Human Givens movement call that 'firing the orientation response' meaning that moment when your mind goes 'huh', followed up by engaging the dreaming brain - or leading the imagination.

I personally describe hypnosis in terms of moving the focus of your attention inwards, a somewhat more digestible version of Milton Erickson's definition - 'All hypnosis is, is a loss of the multiplicity of the foci of attention'. The occurrence of trance is more a lack of externally focussed attention. It is about becoming engaged with your imagination to the point where you become absorbed and are no longer consciously aware of any effort or intention to do this.

Speaking of Erickson, Ericksonian language is all about getting the client to 'go inside' to fill in the gaps you have deliberately left like traps, you are deliberately vague, ambiguous and use language in unexpected ways – to generate those huh moments.




Steve Baxter
Steve Baxter

Lol loved Stuart's comment. Reminded me of my favourite line from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (which to be clear that I'm not going way off topic here is absolutely about hypnosis imo)

'Tell me one last thing,' said Harry. 'Is this real? Or has this been happening in my head?'

Dumbledore replied 'Of course this is happening in your head, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?' 

Helen Johnstone
Helen Johnstone

Steve, I am currently looking for quotes to punctuate my new website; I'm using the Potter/Dumbledore one now for sure, much less technical and wordy and far more real - suits me very well I think.

Adam Eason Administrator
Adam Eason

I thought Steve was getting into some deep existential philosophocial perspective of hypnosis... It just is.

What about the dictionary definition? Does anyone notice that the dictionary does not differ widely from the following:

Dictionary Definition(s)

Hypnosis. 1) Hypnotic trance; an altered state of awareness ('trance') in which unconscious or dissociated responses to suggestion are enhanced in quality and increased in degree ('hyper-suggestibility'). 2) Hypnotic induction ('hypnogenesis'); the process by which hypnotic trance is induced in the operator ('auto-' or 'self-hypnosis') or in others ('hetero-hypnosis'). 3) Hypnotism; the field of study which encompasses, among other things, hypnotic trance; its induction, management, and application; and related subjects such as the phenomena of 'waking suggestion' and naturally occurring ('hypnoidal') trance states. (Abbrv. of 'neuro-hypnotism' meaning 'sleep of the nervous system.')

I know that some highly respected hypnosis professionals actually use the dictionary definition as a measure of accuracy, whilst others show nothing but flagrant disregard for it.

Adam Eason Administrator
Adam Eason

Great post Stu.

However, for the sake of clients, we may not seem to require a working definition of hypnosis - however, whatever our working definition of hpnosis is, and what we believe it to be, is going to influence how we work with our clients and thus in turn effect them via the choices we make in therapy.

Not only that, we all know how very important many academics, researchers and therapists (I am one such) believe that expectancy and education is of such great importance to the client deriving the greatest gain from the hypnotherapy sessions - if we believe hypnosis is a particular thing, we have expectations formed around that working model and if those expectations are not met, we may not believe we were hypnotised or that the therapy will be effective.

If we take Dave Elman and his definition of hypnosis, for example. Many refer to his book "Hypnotherapy" as a must-have for any hypnotherapist and he pioneered the use of rapid induction techniques and was a great advocate of the hypno-analytic approach to therapy. His work is characterised by an astute, common sense approach:

"Hypnosis is a state of mind in which the critical faculty of the human is bypassed, and selective thinking established." [Dave Elman, Hypnotherapy, 1964: 26]

Now lets contrast that with some of Erickson's definitions.

In “The Collected Papers of Milton H. Erickson, Volume I" page 113, Erickson is quoted
as stating:

The hypnotic state is an experience that belongs to the subject, derives from the subject’s own accumulated learning's and memories, not necessarily consciously recognized, but possible of manifestations in a special state of non waking awareness”.

And one of my favourite explanations can be found within The Collected Papers of Milton H. Erickson, Volume IV of the same series, page 224,

It is a state of consciousness – not unconsciousness or sleep – a state of consciousness or awareness in which there is a marked receptiveness to ideas and understandings and an increased willingness to respond either positively or negatively to those ideas. It derives from processes and functioning within the subject. And is not some mystical procedure, but rather a systematic utilization of experiential learning's– that is, the extensive learning's acquired through the process of living itself.”

For those preferring something very easy to remember, from “Experiencing Hypnosis”, pg. 187, 1981, Erickson so eloquently states:

All hypnosis is, is a loss of the multiplicity of the foci of attention.”

WHereas Erickson and Elman may or may not appear to agree or disagree, the working model you present to your client for them to understand the process is likely to influence and effect the clients perception and response, no?


Gareth Lee Morgan
Gareth Lee Morgan

I've just posted this on a picture I posted of an article written in the Washington Times 1908 and feel it also belongs here.

In the article, the writer gives his definition of hypnosis.

Hypnosis is the sleep which may be induced in one person by another person. It is the slumber that the brain of a person induces in the body of another person through brain domination. And while in hypnosis or under hypnotism a person's brain can be so manipulated, as it were, by the hypnotist's brain that only good results will follow.

Melanie Rivera
Melanie Rivera

In my mind hypnosis is inducing a trance like state in another; I see it as almost like a form of art...

During the consultation phase I talk to my clients as I would a friend and build good rapport.  I become acuitly aware of the clients responses, Their expressions, voice tonality, skin colour etc..

I keep a mental note of what appears to make them light up and the things they seem particulary at peace talking about. Of course there will be responses from them that show discomfort and displeasure and they can be used as a guide as to what needs to be reveresed - In other words they could be clues as to what needs to be shifted in their subconcious.

I tend to play up the positive stuff and adapt it into hypnosis; this has an effect of lowering their defences and they tend to surrender to a peaceful relaxed state. I then build on this and deepen it.

Hypnosis to me is that state of surrender when you feel safe enough to completely let go.. It's like a warm and hazy feeling that feels trusted and safe. Any words or sounds are like music to the ears and seem deeply meaningful, penetrating and inspiring....

And thats when big changes can take place as the mind is receptive and more creative.

Mel :-)