What is Hypnosis?

So, it turns out that one of the most helpful answers to the oft-asked question, What is Hypnosis?, is also one of the most vague.

I’ve said for a good few years that when clients ask that question they are usually asking something different to academics or professionals. In my experience, clients don’t tend to be enquiring as to how involved their pre-frontal cortex will be, or whether they will be experiencing alpha or theta levels.

Yet, having said that, I would still offer my answer as valid and useful to the researchers and hypnotists as well.

What exactly is happening with hypnosis? What criteria can we use to define it?

What is Art?

By way of a poor analogy, consider the question, “What is Art?”┬áThere are a number of ways to understand that question and also a number of ways to answer it.

For example:

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

I find it strange that they include the criteria ‘typically in a visual form,’ but I could be in a minority there. Nevertheless, that might be considered an academic or theoretical explanation.

Another way to answer the question might be to sit someone down, provide them with headphones and play the album Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, Sgt. Pepper by the Beatles, or Not Your Muse by Celeste. We might think of this as a practical answer to the question.

Alternatively, we might take someone to an art gallery and point at a painting and say “that is art.”

That might be considered an experiential response?

I also think there’s a possible further – though admittedly more involved – answer. To answer the question, “What is art?” we could potentially teach them how to draw, or how to play a piece on the piano.

I’m not sure how we would describe such a convoluted response though. The practical multi-sensory experiential answer?

The point of this poor analogy is that not only are there are number of different potential answers to the question, there are completely different categories of answer, or a myriad of ways to understand the question in the first place. Academics could spend years – and have! – coming up with “better” examples of the first answer (‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination…’), only to face smart Alecs like me who might suggest that a “better” answer may be to have them listen to Sgt. Pepper’s, or take them to an Art Gallery and let them peruse.

So, to answer the question, “What is art?” we first need to question, “What do you mean by, ‘What is art?'”

Anyway, to return to our question regarding hypnosis, it seems to me that very very few clients are seeking the academic answer. At least, in my experience, those who have received that answer then have a whole load of follow-ups, which would suggest that such an answer did not really adequately scratch their itch.

What is Hypnosis?

My suspicion is – and I would have to meet an Art Historian to clarify this – that even an academic feels that their answer is insufficient. They are presumably aware that they are only answering part of the question in a very specific way.

My personal opinion is that whilst teaching someone how to paint may be a rather lengthy way to answer their question about art, if you do not allow them to experience art in some way – or at least evoke feelings of such an experience – you are just not answering the heart of their question.

It would be like answering “What is humour?” with a dry description of the neurological responses involved when hearing a joke. You simply cannot answer a question like that – academically or otherwise – without at least showing a clip from Fawlty Towers, or suchlike. We can no longer allow or accept such an artificial divide between academic (or ‘real’) answers and practical ones.

And that is precisely how I feel about many of the answers provided to the question, “What is hypnosis?” They simply fail to hear the real question that is being asked.

So, by way of placing my own head on the block and opening myself up to similar claims, I would like to share the extremely simple way that I answer the question about hypnosis – and why I feel that it actually ticks a number of the category boxes we have alluded to whilst discussing Art.

Mesmerising Movies

You have probably heard me using this (apparent) analogy before. I have done for years. And I have only grown in my commitment to it over the years.

When I am asked this question about hypnosis, I almost always respond by describing a visit to the cinema. (I have been fortunate in that by far the majority of my clients could relate to this.) I describe – almost as if I am telling an engaging story – the cinema experience.

You choose somewhere to sit. Maybe somewhere near the front, looking up at the massive screen. Or perhaps somewhere half-way up, looking down at the screen. Or maybe you choose a seat towards the back, where you can look down at the screen filling your visual-field.

Either way, once the movie starts – almost always sound before you see any visuals – you are looking down (or forward) at a large screen… your focus solely placed on the events unfolding in front of you…

And no matter what sort of film you are watching, you can find yourself getting engrossed in the story (unless, of course, it is a dreadful film that is a chore to sit-through!). You find yourself believing, almost willing, that people can fly… that the weakened soldier will win the battle… that the incompatible lovers will make it work… that, despite what the vet said, their dog will pull-through.

It has often amused me that we can be watching a multi-millionaire actor, holding his multi-millionaire buddy in his arms, pretending that one of them is dying (and being paid very well to do so!) – and we are rooting for them, emotionally invested in their outcome.

Of course, that could be dismissed as an overly basic experiential answer to the question. However, if pushed, I would argue that there is quite a bit of scientific research in there, as well. We are talking about sensory deprivation, narrowing of focus, psychological engagement, physiological responses, believed-in imaginings and more.

I would argue, quite strongly as it happens, that this is precisely what we see in a hypnotic experience. Someone chooses to engage with, and thereby believe, and thereby experience, the story we are telling. If I can make you cry because Tom Cruise is being paid millions to pretend his buddy is dying, believe me – you are hypnotised!

However, let’s not leave things there.

After having given that explanation, I normally carry on by demonstrating a simple hypnotic phenomena, often magnetic hands. Having taken them through that – which in many ways mirrors the cinema experience (narrowing of focus, believed-in imaginings, physiological responses) – I will usually respond with something as vague as:

“Hypnosis is kinda like that…”

A Multi-Faceted Response

For quite some time, I have defended, excused, or even been a little bit embarrassed by my approach to this question. Bear in mind, that I am quite a geek. I read hypnosis research for pleasure. I mix with other hypnosis trainers and professionals on a regular basis and I have clients come to me specifically because I have written books on this subject.

So, my answer always felt a little like a diversion, or avoidance or the actual question. The real or serious answer was given by the likes of The Oxford Handbook of Hypnosis. I was just giving a gimmick.

Yet, something changed in the last year or so and I began to grow in confidence that I was giving something like the ‘correct’ (or at least, a helpful) answer.

After all, can you really answer the question, “What is art?” without looking at the Mona Lisa, hearing David Bowie, or at least putting pen to paper?

I now have a renewed confidence in the movie ‘explanation’ and feel that any answer to the question, “What is hypnosis?” that does not contain some element of experience, completely misses the mark.

What do you think?