Can You Have Hypnosis Without Hypnosis?


There is a long standing argument in the world of hypnosis about what hypnosis really is.

Some people believe that hypnosis is a state of mind - a uniquely altered state in which people are more suggestible.

Others make the distinction that hypnosis is nothing more than the force of suggestion. They point to a phenomenon know as waking hypnosis to discredit the “hypnotic state” theory.

In waking hypnosis you can put a person’s hand on the table and tell them that it is now stuck tightly to the table, they cannot remove it. And as if by magic, the hand gets stuck. This is interesting because the subject responded to a hypnotic suggestion without ever going through a formal hypnotic trance induction.

So how can we have hypnosis without hypnosis?

When you look at the phenomena of waking suggestion, at first glance there is a lot to be said for the idea that there is nothing special about the hypnotic state. But when we examine it a bit closer, we begin to see that there is a lot more hypnosis happening in waking hypnosis than at first appears.

Lets look at one of the most obvious examples of waking suggestion: a hypnotic stage show (also know as “stage hypnosis”)

In stage hypnosis the hypnotist typically starts the show off with some music and lights to set the mood as the audience waits in nervous anticipation of the show. the people in the audience have seen posters and adverts about “the greatest hypnotist of all time” that has come to town, so naturally they are excited. But they are also nervous because the whole idea of hypnosis can seem a little spooky or mysterious to them.

After the audience has stewed in its own preconceptions about the power of hypnosis for a time, the hypnotist makes his (or her) entrance and gives everyone a little talk about hypnosis and the power of the mind. To demonstrate this power of the mind he invites people to take part in a few hypnotic games - sometimes called hypnotic tests or hypnotic experiments.

When people lock their hands together and cannot separate them until the hypnotist gives them the hypnotic command to release them, it appears that the force of suggestion has taken effect without even the whiff of a hypnotic induction.

But is that really the case?

Consider the idea that the hypnotic state is brought about by the impact of an ideaon the subject’s nervous system. In traditional hypnosis that idea tends to be “sleep” or “relax” or even “go into hypnosis”. Now in more indirect schools, particularly the Ericksonian school of hypnosis, the hypnotic state is brought about by the absorption of attention on a hypnotic situation: a pleasant memory, a confusion release cycle, or engaging with an unconscious process.

Here we have a key that can explain the phenomenon of so called waking hypnosis. In waking hypnosis a hypnotic induction is taking place, only in this instance it is the situation that creates the conditions of a hypnotic trance.

Remember that various forms of hypnotic trances can be indistinguishable from the ordinary waking state to the untrained eye. CAT scans have confirmed that different parts of the brain seem to be operating even under conditions of light hypnosis - not just deep hypnosis. So if a situation carries the idea of hypnosis or sets the context for a hypnotic trance to occur spontaneously - then a person will manifest a hypnotic state without any explicit instructions to do so.

You only need to look at the work of Milton Erickson to know that this is indeed the case. In our example of the stage show, there are many implicit instructions that hypnosis is occurring: the poster with the mesmerizing, hypnotic gaze, the trancy music and low lighting before the show, the nervous chatter of the audience as they begin to imagine (out loud) what they will see, the eloquent talk before the hypnosis show begins… these all set the conditions for a hypnotic trance to occur spontaneously in the audience.

And if you study the people responding to waking suggestion closely, you will spot the subtle signs that a hypnotic trance (albeit often a light one) have set in. Slight changes in pupil dilation, eye movement patterns, skin tone or breathing rate can be detected (in fact these are some of the things a stage hypnotist will look for when assessing which volunteers to keep on stage).

It appears that there is hypnosis, i.e. a hypnotic state, present during the operation of suggestions in waking hypnosis after all.

This understanding that hypnosis can exist without hypnosis (in the form of a formal trance induction or the requirement for the subject to have a passive attitude, eye closure etc) has some tremendously important implications. It means that people are hypnotists in each others lives on a normal day to day basis without ever realizing it:

A doctor tells his patients the prognosis - a life of pain or early death. Could this turn into a hypnotic suggestion? Is there really that much difference between this and a voodoo death curse?

After all in both situations a person of authority, with the perceived power over life and death, has made a prediction about your future (sadly a rather short one). Structurally they appear to be the same.

What about an angry parent telling their son that he’ll never amount to much? Could that situation ever be considered hypnotic?

What about hearing the person that you love telling you that you are worthwhile? Have you ever noticed that at a vulnerable moment a kind or unkind word can make a tremendous impact.

Think about what we actually mean when we say “he was vulnerable” at a given moment in time. Perhaps we’re better at recognizing informal hypnotic situations than we thought!