How Safe is Hypnosis?

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2012
For the moment, let us accept the common belief that competently handled hypnosis is effective and relatively safe. For the qualified professional, so is high-speed racing. But there are still some risks at every turn, even for the professional. Hypnosis is like that. Even when it is safe, there are still risks and potential unknowns; a large number of variables enter into play, and these must be carefully weighed.

How Safe is Hypnosis?

A large number of organizations offer how-to instruction in hypnosis, and many, if not most of them, also have New Age, Mind Science, or psychic orientations or emphases. This underscores our concern over the modern use of hypnosis, but it is not our only concern. Before writing this, we examined the arguments for the use of hypnosis in medicine and psychotherapy. We have talked with people who have undergone hypnosis in secular and Christian psychotherapy. We agree that in some cases it appears to be helpful. We admit the possibility of a therapeutic use of hypnosis; nevertheless, we have yet to see a convincing set of arguments that answers all the questions which we feel are germane Thus, we are not willing to give an unqualified or even a tentative endorsement to hypnosis for reasons which should become clear in this chapter.

One way we can illustrate our concerns is through a rough parallel to professional racing. For the moment, let us accept the common belief that competently handled hypnosis is effective and relatively safe. For the qualified professional, so is high-speed racing. But there are still some risks at every turn, even for the professional. Hypnosis is like that. Even when it is safe, there are still risks and potential unknowns; a large number of variables enter into play, and these must be carefully weighed.

However, our concern over hypnosis is dramatically increased when we consider the nonprofessional, unregulated, and unqualified therapists, as well as New Age or other experimenters that abound in the field. But even professionals are capable of misusing hypnosis and can be deceived by the power it gives them over other people. Even professionals can become subject to its occult trappings and deceptive allurements.

If the alleged moral and safe use of hypnosis is subject to some risk, its amoral and occult use is all the more risky. And it is this segment of hypnosis that appears to dominate the marketplace. Digging for clams may be safe, fun, and perhaps even therapeutic. But no one goes digging for clams in a mine field, even if only a few mines are present. In the following material we will examine hypnosis in the light of the following topics: 1) psychotherapy, 2) science, 3) moral issues, 4) the occult (e.g., hypnosis and the development of psychic powers and spirit contact or possession), and 5) Christian psychotherapy.

Psychotherapeutic Assumptions

Hypnosis is widely employed in psychotherapy. But in many quarters it is being used under false assumptions, of which we mention three: 1) that the hypnotic state is a normal state of consciousness; 2) that it should be used merely because it works, or because hypnosis is required for effective psychotherapy; 3) that hypnosis can never be used in psychologically or spiritually harmful ways. Let’s briefly examine these assumptions.

First, many hypnotherapists, parapsychologists, and some psychotherapists would have us believe that artificially induced, abnormal mental conditions are really normal. In their minds, this premise alone justifies the practice of hypnosis. To them, the hypnotic state is actually a rather “ordinary” experience within a “normal” state of consciousness, one which all of us undergo daily in times of concentration, relaxation, or suggestion (watching TV commercials). Another assumption is that “normal” is something neutral or even good.

We believe that only superficial similarities exist between ordinary waking consciousness and hypnotic states, because the average person certainly does not perform daily activities in a state of hypnotic trance! And is it without question normal or good to allow someone else to control your mind in the dramatic manner called hypnosis? Just because hypnosis can be learned or experienced does not necessarily make it good. Life is full of learned behaviors and personal experiences that are evil or destructive. People can learn to develop psychic abilities if they join a psychic development circle or seek to become a channeler. They can also experience possession. But none of this is normal, good, or neutral because psychic abilities and spirit possession represent a defective, abnormal spirituality rife with unforeseen negative consequences. In a similar manner, we believe hypnotic states are subnormal conditions that potentially open doors to the world of the occult. Therefore, we reject the argument that the hypnotic state is necessarily a normal or natural mental condition.

Second, to accept hypnosis in psychotherapy simply because it is effective is faulty logic. A terrorist’s bomb is “effective” when it explodes and maims people, but does that make it acceptable? If hypnosis is to be accepted solely on the basis of pragmatism (it works; therefore, it is good), we must also accept virtually every form of occult and psychic methodology on the basis of pragmatism—they can be effective, therefore, they are good. But given the psychological and spiritual wreckage in the occult, who would logically argue in such a fashion?[1]

Since hypnosis is a questionable procedure, then it should not automatically be accepted merely because it “works.” Other factors and issues should be weighed up and the risks balanced against benefits. Regardless, some have questioned whether hypnosis has any necessary value to psychotherapy at all. The truth is that hypnotic methods are not necessary for results in psychotherapy. Martin and Deidre Bobgan, authors of Psychoheresy and Hypnosis and the Christian, cite Alfred Freedman and others in the Modern Synopsis of Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry II (2nd ed., 1976, p. 905) as stating, “Everything done in psychotherapy with hypnosis can also be done without hypnosis.”[2] If hypnosis is really unnecessary in psychotherapy, then the question becomes, “Are the potential risks worth the benefits?”

The third assumption—that hypnosis can never harm anyone—we will discuss in more detail in a separate article. For now we will say that psychotherapy either masks or redefines the occult phenomena that may occur during hypnosis. This is because most secular psychologists are rationalists and materialists: They use hypnosis on pragmatic grounds. They do not believe in the spiritual realm, let alone in the possibility of demonic entanglements. What is demonism to the Christian, the secularist explains by natural means. Thus, all spiritistic manifestations that may occur in hypnosis (such as occult “past-life” experiences, certain cases of multiple personalities,[3] or developing psychic powers) are seen as aspects of the subconscious mind. As a result, these spiritistic manifestations become the means for spiritual deception and harm in both the client’s and psychotherapist’s life.[4]

Because the rationalistic psychotherapists do not believe in the potential for demonic intrusion, they are unable to discern or defend against spiritual deception when it occurs in hypnosis. In light of the above, we question their “normal,” “pragmatic,” or “safe” arguments to justify their use of hypnosis.

Scientific Concerns

Clients often submit to hypnosis because of its allegedly scientific nature and medical-therapeutic benefits when in the hands of a qualified professional. The idea is that, while it may be occult or dangerous in the hands of a psychic or charlatan, it is scientific and safe in the hands of a qualified MD or a competent psychologist, Christian or otherwise.

But when does an operator ever alter the nature of what he uses? He only alters its use. Thus, the person who performs hypnosis may change only the phenomena of hypnosis, not its nature. A parapsychologist using it to explore “past lives” or to increase psychic ability finds different uses than does a materialistic MD exploring past traumas, and who is uninterested in psychic phenomena. However, the MD could use it for the same purpose as the parapsychologist. And, as we will see, psychic phenomena can occur spontaneously even when these are not being sought. So the issue is not only the operator of hypnosis but the potential problems of the hypnotic state itself.

Hypnosis does have many scientific associations. The problem is that hypnosis itself is not a scientific technique. Martin and Deidre Bobgan claim that hypnosis in the hands of a qualified psychiatrist or therapist is about as scientific as a dowsing rod in the hands of an engineer.[5] They assert: “We cannot call hypnosis a science, but we can say it has been an integral part of the occult for thousands of years.”[6] They give several illustrations of parallels between hypnosis and witchcraft:

E. Fuller Torrey, a research psychiatrist, aligns hypnotic techniques with witchcraft. He also says, “Hypnosis is one aspect of the yoga techniques of therapeutic meditation.”

Medical doctor William Kroger states, “The fundamental principles of Yoga are, in many respects, similar to those of hypnosis.”

Donald Hebb says in “Psychology Today/The State of the Science” that “hypnosis has persistently lacked satisfactory explanation.” Kroger and Fezler say, “There are as many definitions of hypnosis as there are definers.” At the present time there is no agreed-upon scientific explanation of exactly what hypnosis is. Szasz describes hypnosis as the therapy of “a fake science….”[7]

One illustration of the problems faced by the “scientific” use of hypnosis is its application to memory enhancement. Hypnosis has become popular as a method of helping uncover traumatic memories, particularly where a violent crime is involved. At one time, such testimony was accepted in courts of law, but now experts are questioning the accuracy and validity of this approach. Hypnosis may indeed produce information that helps solve a crime, but that does not make it sufficiently reliable for court testimony.

An expert in hypnosis, Dr. Bernard Diamond, professor of clinical psychiatry at UC Berkeley, wrote in the California Law Review, “I believe that once a potential witness has been hypnotized… his recollections have been so contaminated that he is rendered effectively incompetent to testify. Hypnotized persons, being extremely suggestible, graft onto their memories fantasies or suggestions… (and) then cannot differentiate between a true recollection and fantasy.”[8]

Martin Orne, coauthor of the Encyclopedia Britannica article on hypnosis and director of the Unit of Experimental Psychiatry at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital, believes, “Hypnotic memory is clearly less accurate than normal waking recall.”[9] It is simply not possible to verify the accuracy of memory that is enhanced by hypnosis.[10] Martin and Deidre Bobgan cited Diamond’s conclusions:

Bernard Diamond, a professor of law and a clinical professor of psychiatry, says that court witnesses who have been hypnotized “often develop a certitude about their memories that ordinary witnesses seldom exhibit.”… Diamond then reveals that “after hypnosis the subject cannot differentiate between a true recollection and a fantasy or a suggested detail….”

Research shows that hypnosis is just as likely to dredge up false information as true accounts of past events. In addition, studies have shown that individuals can and do lie under hypnosis. Because memory is so unreliable, any method of cure which relies upon memory is generally unreliable.[11]

The previous facts, and the fact that the subject under hypnosis is, typically, extremely sensitive to leading questions and what the hypnotist expects from him, call into question all “therapy” of the type which seeks to relate present problems to alleged “past-life” incidents, birth or childhood experiences, or subconscious material based solely on hypnotic memory:

[H]ypnotized subjects apparently are very sensitive to subtle cues coming from their therapist or experimenter. Orne (1979) has called attention to the fact that inadvertently hypnotists can transmit their expectations to their subjects, who then give back to the hypnotist the desired behavior. It is not surprising that investigators often report contradictory results. Very little seems to have been done in controlling the beliefs, theories, and expectations of researchers…. While most of the major controversies in the field have been extensively studied, to date few of them have been completely and satisfactorily resolved.[12]


  1. See the books by Kurt Koch; Merrill Unger, Demons in the World Today (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1973); Merrill Unger, The Haunting of Bishop Pike (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1971); Merrill Unger, What Demons Can Do to Saints (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1977); also, Carl A. Raschke, “Satanism and the Devolution of the ‘New Religions’,” SCP Newsletter (Fall 1985); Carl A. Raschke, The Interruption of Eternity: Modern Gnosticism and the Origins of New Religious Consciousness (Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall, 1980); John Warwick Montgomery, Principalities and Powers (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany, 1973); Gary North, Unholy Spirits: Occultism and New Age Humanism (Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion, 1986); John Ankerberg, John Weldon, The Coming Darkness, eBook; John Weldon and Zola Levitt, Psychic Healing (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1982); Johanna Michaelson, Like Lambs to the Slaughter: Your Child and the Occult (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1989); Ted Schwarz and Duane Empey, Satanism: Is Your Family Safe? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988); M. Lamar Keene, The Psychic Mafia: The True and Shocking Confessions of a Famous Medium (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1976).
  2. Martin and Deidre Bobgan, Hypnosis and the Christian (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany, 1984), p. 47.
  3. The phenomenon of multiple personality is difficult to evaluate; granting a natural explanation related to childhood abuse in many cases does not invalidate the seemingly spiritistic nature of other cases (1086).
  4. John Ankerberg, John Weldon, The Coming Darkness, eBook.
  5. See; Bobgan and Bobgan, Hypnosis, p. 46.
  6. Bobgan and Bobgan, Hypnosis, p. 43.
  7. Ibid., pp. 42-43.
  8. David Savage, “Justices to Rule on Use of Hypnosis: Refreshing the Memory of a Witness Has Troubled Courts,” Los Angeles Times, November 11, 1986, citing Bernard Diamond, “Inherent Problems in the Use of Pretrial Hypnosis on a Prospective Witness,” California Law Review, March 1980.
  9. Elizabeth Stark, “Hypnosis on Trial,” Psychology Today, February, 1984, p. 35.
  10. Savage, “Justices.”
  11. Bobgan and Bobgan, Hypnosis, pp. 24-25.
  12. Benjamin B. Wolman, Montague Ullman, eds., Handbook of States of Consciousness (NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1986), p. 135.

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