What is Hypnosis?

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©1999
What is hypnosis? One encyclopedia defines it simply as “an artificially induced mental state characterized by an individual’s loss of critical powers and his consequent openness of suggestion.”


What is Hypnosis?

Introduction and Influence

Hypnosis seems to be one of those subjects that everyone knows about but few know what to do with. Although many articles have appeared in the popular press, from Time and Newsweek to women’s magazines and self-help publications, many people don’t know what to think about hypnosis. The term itself conjures up images of everything from stage entertainment to dangerous Svengali types. Most people seem to assume that because it is so widely used, it must generally be safe. This may not be a wise assumption.

What is hypnosis? One encyclopedia defines it simply as “an artificially induced mental state characterized by an individual’s loss of critical powers and his consequent openness of suggestion.”[1] The term itself comes from Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, and was coined by physician James Braid,[2] an early investigator and promoter of “mesmerism,” or “animal magnetism,” which were earlier terms for hypnosis.

In attempting to determine the basic characteristics of hypnosis, researchers have used a variety of terms: “partial sleep,” “atavistic regression,” “hypersuggestibility,” “lowered criticality,” and even “a primitive psychophysiological state in which consciousness was eliminated”![3] But researchers are still puzzled.

Gerald Jampolsky, MD, states the common problem: “No agreement has been reached on what constitutes a hypnotic state.”[4] Psychologist and associate editor of Psychology Today, Daniel Goleman, who has a PhD in clinical psychology from Harvard University, observes, “After 200 years of use, we still cannot say with certainty what hypnosis is nor exactly how it works. But somehow it does.”[5]A modern encyclopedia on psychology states that “divergent psychological and physiological theories exist to explain [hypnotic] phenomena.”[6] Nevertheless,

Hypnosis has historically been considered an altered state of consciousness, often called “trance.” [It is] initiated by a set of procedures called “induction techniques.” When this altered state has been achieved, then various therapeutic maneuvers in the form of suggestions or other psychological interventions are performed and are called the practice of “hypnotherapy.” This altered state is characterized by increased suggestibility and enhanced imagery and imagination, including the availability of visual memories from the past. There is also a lowering of the planning function and a reduction in reality testing.[7]

According to psychologist and parapsychologist Dr. Charles Tart,[8] about 10 percent of people do not react at all to attempts to hypnotize them, 20 percent respond to almost any attempt, and the remaining 70 percent vary in their degree of susceptibility.[9] One physiological psychologist gives similar but not identical statistics when she writes that “only about 5 percent of the population can be deeply hypnotized: about 20 percent or so can scarcely be hypnotized at all. Everyone else falls somewhere between these two extremes.”[10] Nevertheless, the level of trance, at least in many cases, is apparently unrelated to efficacy: “Most practitioners of hypnotherapy have felt that the deeper this depth, the more likely it is that suggestions will be acted upon…. [But] excellent results can often be achieved when patients are only in a light or relaxed state.”[11]

What we can say is that hypnosis, in large part, involves a deliberately induced heightened state of suggestibility that produces an extremely flexible state of consciousness, often giving the hypnotist dramatic power over the person hypnotized.

Historically in the United States, the practice of hypnosis appears to occur in periodic cycles from acceptance to rejection. First, it is “discovered” and heralded as a panacea, then it is debunked when its failings are realized, and it passes from favor; later it is rediscovered, and the process begins all over. Rediscovery tends to occur in periods of occult revival, which may help to explain why we are currently in the phase of rediscovery and fascination.

Hypnosis has now almost come “of age” in the United States, and it appears to be with us for the foreseeable future. It is widely utilized in the New Age Movement, where autohypnosis is among the most popular forms of self-treatment or spiritual growth. Hypnosis is also the principal means for uncovering alleged UFO abductions, a practice whose dangers are clearly outlined in Philip J. Klass’ UFO Abductions: A Dangerous Game. And Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience points out, “Hypnosis is the most popular means of past-life recall. Self-hypnosis is used in behavior modification, and by mediums and channelers to communicate with spirits.”[12]

The application of hypnosis to many other fields, including education, holistic health, psychotherapy, and medicine has been established. For example, in Modern Scientific Hypnosis, Richard N. Shrout, president of the International Institute of Hypnosis Studies in Miami, Florida, justifies the relevance of hypnosis for modern education:

Hypnosis is of value to educators in the same way it can be of value to psychologists; in both experimental and applied ways. Enough hypnotic experimentation in perception and memory has been done to demonstrate its potential usefulness in applied education. Certain findings in hypnotic research, such as the time-distortion phenomenon could have a revolutionary impact on the learning process….

Since teachers and lecturers are faced with such problems as stimulating students to learn, overcoming their mental blocks about certain subjects, rapid learning of increased amounts of material, instilling studious habits, etc., as well as developing situations in which the curriculum can be mastered and creativity fostered, it should be obvious that they cannot afford to ignore the possibilities of scientifically applied hypnosis….

Of course, it would require teachers especially trained in proper [hypnotic] techniques, and various types of “learning laboratories” would be ideal for educational hypnosis, whether it is called hypnosis or something else…. There is no real reason why hypnological principles could not be applied effectively with beneficial results in all phases of education, even if some other name were used for them….

Experimental and clinical hypnotics have also proven the feasibility of “automated hypnosis” with technological aids….

Every student, beginning at the first year of schooling, should be taught self-hypnosis as a method of self-involvement in goal-seeking activities…. Research that has been done with hypnosis and students indicates that the most dramatic effects are with the “underachievers.” In other words, although all students benefit to some degree, the degree of improvement is most noticeable, most measurable, and most astounding in those who have the most room for improvement.[13]

According to psychiatrist Dr. George Twente, who was interviewed on “The John Ankerberg Show,” September 1992, hypnotic techniques are used in the widely distributed “Pumsy” and DUSO programs, which are curricula in use in thousands of school systems.[14] Interviewed on the same program, Dr. William Coulson said, “The Michigan Model of Comprehensive Health Education” employs hypnotic methods to place seventh graders into a trance state. Project SOAR is another educational program that uses hypnosis; it is being based upon a book by psychic William Hewitt, Beyond Hypnosis: A Program for Developing Your Psychic and Healing Power. In The New Age Masquerade: The Hidden Agenda in Your Child’s Classroom, Eric Buehrer devotes a chapter to exposing the hypnotic methods and blatant spiritism of this program.

Holistic health care is another avenue for potential exposure to hypnotic methods. Writing in The Holistic Health Handbook, psychic Freda Morris, director of the Hypnosis Clearing House in Berkeley and former assistant professor of medical psychology at the UCLA Medical School, stresses the importance of hypnosis for New Age medicine when she writes, “Hypnosis, practiced in many societies for millennia by shamans and priests,… holds great promise as a holistic-health technique….”[15] She states its application to what is often termed “inner work.” “Your consciousness is your own and you have a right to do anything you want with it. By going into hypnosis… you get in touch with a wiser, deeper part of yourself from which you can gain information.”[16]

Hypnosis and hypnotic regression also play an important role in modern medicine and psychotherapy. Since the American Medical Association approved hypnosis as a legitimate form of treatment in 1958, hypnosis has been increasingly accepted by the medical community. Today, courses in hypnosis are often taught in medical schools, and the practice is used in conjunction with most medical fields.

In Exploring Hypnosis, Donald S. Connery observes the impact of modern hypnosis in the medical field:

… There is greater interest in and employment of medical hypnosis than ever before in history…. More than ten thousand physicians, dentists, psychologists, and psychiatrists in the United States employ hypnosis as a clinical tool. Thousands of other doctors, while not identified with hypnosis, use relaxation techniques and other hypnotic-like methods.

The courses and workshops for clinicians conducted by the major hypnosis professional societies are more popular than ever, and there has been a steady rise in the number of medical and dental schools teaching hypnosis. More and more hospital administrators are recognizing the value of doctors and nurses being proficient in activating the trance capacity of their patients.[17]

Hypnosis is used to help treat cancer patients who are in pain,[18] to assist patients in dying, and to treat a wide variety of ailments in children. It is also used in anesthesiology, in dentistry and surgery, in the treatment of drug and alcohol abuse, for numerous psychosomatic conditions, and for hypnotic regression where an individual is taken back to his childhood (or to a supposed past life) to relive traumatic events that are presumably causing present problems. These are only several of its contemporary applications.

The role that hypnosis plays in the field of modern health is also noted by Dr. Gerald Jampolsky,[19] a New Age physician who uses a spiritistic writing (A Course in Miracles) in his professional treatment of children:

Originally limited to [treating] phobic and hysterical states, it [hypnosis] has since been used in conjunction with virtually every medical specialty. With increased enlightenment regarding the role that the mind plays in all illnesses, whether functional or organic, it became clear that hypnosis could assist in the treatment of all illnesses.

[Furthermore] the growing trend toward using hypnosis is explained by the fact it can serve as a shortcut to other, more standard psychotherapeutic techniques. Moreover, by teaching autohypnosis, professionals have been able to assist patients to play a more active role in their own healing process, while gaining a more wholistic viewpoint of the relationship of mind, body, and psychological and spiritual self-concepts. Through hypnotherapy patients can participate in a positive health profile.ref name=”ftn20″> Jampolsky, “Hypnosis,” pp. 257-58.


An estimated 20,000 medical and psychological specialists use hypnosis with their patients. Several thousand police officers have been trained to use it in their profession. Numerous professional societies exist to investigate the phenomenon, such as the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. A wide variety of self-help or personal growth seminars instruct people in the techniques of self-hypnosis to achieve their desired goals. And, of course, stage hypnosis has been a popular entertainment for millions of people. This means that in modern America millions of people have been hypnotized in varying depths.

Many of the popular claims made for hypnosis are similar to those made for most New Age therapies: 1) Proponents claim it can cure almost anything; 2) it has wide occult application; 3) it has alleged potential to uncover one’s so-called “divine mind” or “higher consciousness.” Potentials Unlimited of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and their “World Congress of Professional Hypnotists” offer dozens of how-to tapes on hypnosis that illustrate these claims. The following is a small sampling of claimed benefits:

  • how to develop psychic abilities
  • past-life (reincarnation) regression therapy
  • discovering parallel lives or separate lives
  • astral projection or travel
  • mind projection
  • chakra meditation
  • psychic healing
  • visualization or guided imagery
  • reading auras
  • losing weight
  • freedom from allergies, acne, or migraines
  • calming hyperactive children
  • attracting love
  • freedom from sexual guilt of any kind
  • how to divorce yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically
  • how to prepare for death
  • generating higher consciousness
  • preparing to enter new worlds after death
  • subconscious sales power
  • money and prosperity
  • birth control or conception
  • how to be better at sports
  • meditating for world peace
  • triggering out-of-body experiences.[20]

This list is not exhaustive, but it gives us an idea of the wide variety of uses claimed for hypnosis. Furthermore, the “World Congress of Professional Hypnotists” conventions have keynote speakers such as reincarnation therapist Helen Wambach, parapsychologists, instructors in Silva Mind Control and related New Age seminars, as well as authorities on consciousness research and the exploration of “mind power” in general.


  1. The New American Desk Encyclopedia, Third Edition (NY: Signet, 1993), p. 600.
  2. See http://www.historyofhypnosis.org/james-braid/.
  3. Benjamin B. Wolman, Montague Ullman, eds., Handbook of States of Consciousness (NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1986), p. 136.
  4. Gerald G. Jampolsky, “Hypnosis/Active Imagination,” in Leslie J. Kaslof, Wholistic Dimensions in Healing: A Resource Guide (Garden City, NY: Dolphin/Doubleday, 1978), p. 257.
  5. Daniel Goleman, “Hypnosis Comes of Age,” Psychology Today, February, 1977, p. 60.
  6. B. Van Dragt “Psychic Healing,” in David G. Brenner, ed., Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985), p. 545; e.g., “Viewed phenomenologically, the ability to heal psychically is just another human capacity, on a par with sensation, locomotion, and thought. It is not, therefore, the paranormal phenomena themselves [i.e., psychic healing] but rather the healer’s philosophy that a Christian evaluation would address…. Both Christianity and psychic healing view human beings as related to a transcendent source, from which comes the power for healing. However, whereas a particular healer may equate this source with the personal God of the Bible, she may also see it as, among other things, a “loving energy field” or even some aspect of her own self. While this may seem problematic theologically, from an experiential standpoint the process is the same for both Christian and psychic healer alike. What is essential is that one surrender to some higher power than one’s own ego or conscious self” (p. 889).
  7. Wolman and Ullman, Handbook, p. 133.
  8. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Tart.
  9. Charles Tart, “Transpersonal Potentialities of Deep Hypnosis,” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, No. 1, Vol. 2, 1970, p. 30. Perhaps this varies by culture. For example, since mediumism is known to heighten the psychic potential of hypnosis, countries where spiritism is predominant could exhibit different percentages: The more occult oriented a culture, the higher percentage of more easily hypnotizable subjects.
  10. Elizabeth L. Hillstrom, Testing the Spirits (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), p. 64.
  11. Wolman and Ullman, Handbook, p. 134.
  12. Rosemary Ellen Guiley, Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1991), p. 276.
  13. Richard N. Shrout, Modern Scientific Hypnosis (Wellingsborough, Northamptonshire: Thorsons, 1985), oo. 104-07.
  14. cf. John Ankerberg, John Weldon, Craig Branch, Thieves of Innocence: Protecting Our Children from New Age Teaching and Occult Practices, eBook.
  15. Berkeley Holistic Health Center, The Holistic Health Handbook: A Tool for Attaining Wholeness of Body, Mind, and Spirit (Berkeley, CA: And/Or Press, 1978), p. 241.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Donald S. Connery, The Inner Source: Exploring Hypnosis with Dr. Herbert Spiegel (NY: Holt Reinhart & Winston, 1984), p. 31.
  18. See an example at http://alchemyinstitute.com/cancer.htm.
  19. http://jerryjampolsky.com/.
  20. e.g., “Self Hypnosis Tapes…for the Change in Your Life” (Grand Rapids, MI: Potentials Unlimited, Inc., 1980), 4-14, 29.

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