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Hypnosis, more than just a magic trick

Mahvish Qureshi's picture

                “You are getting sleepy” are the last words you hear as you close your eyes and shut out the gold watch waving in front of your face. This is the classic image that is conjured when imagining a hypnotist or circus sideshow. Hypnosis is not as simple a phenomenon as circus shows make it seem. How does the brain work to override a person’s better judgment and leave them quacking like a duck on stage? What gives the suggestions spoken by a virtual stranger such power? All of these questions and more have been studied by analyzing the brain and its various regions activated at certain times.

                Hypnosis is a trance state characterized by extreme suggestibility, relaxation, and heightened imagination1. Hypnosis employs the same concentration necessary when one focuses deeply on something. Hypnosis has often been compared to sleeping and dreaming, because both create an alternate reality. The rapid eye movement (REM) observed during hypnosis is similar to that noted in sleep and while dreaming. There is however a major difference between the two, when one is sleeping they are not alert or aware of anything around them. A person who is hypnotized is fully alert and aware of their surroundings. In this sense hypnosis is much more similar to day dreaming; in which a person is alert, but extremely relaxed and focused on something. The brain gives off many types of waves that have been detected by fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans. Scans indicated the prominence of different waves which can be used to determine the physical and mental state of a person. fMRI’s detect beta brain waves when a person is awake and doing normal activity. The polar opposite of this is sleep in which the brain gives off delta waves. During hypnosis, when a person is highly relaxed alpha brain waves are detected. Another brain wave noted during extreme relaxation, such as yoga, but not during hypnotism are theta brain waves. When a person is hypnotized the brain exhibits both alpha and theta brain waves, but not delta waves. The fact that the brain does not exhibit the same waves as seen when sleeping shows that sleeping and hypnosis are not the same.

                Hypnosis was used centuries before it had been understood. Early accounts of the use of hypnotism can be seen in India as an anesthetic; patients would be able to have limb amputations with only hypnosis and no pain medication2. Hypnosis was able to seemingly cure a person’s life long phobias or addictions. The power of the simple suggestions used in hypnosis is amazing. It seems to prove that everyone can do anything they set their mind to; because the sky is the limit but conscious thought is the wall inhibiting people from achieving the endless possibilities.

                The first recorded hypnotic study was carried out in the early 18th century by Dr. Franz Mesmer. Dr. Mesmer would create a mystical environment for his patients, he would dim lights and play music on a glass harmonica, he infused his patients with an invisible, "magnetic fluid that only he was able to muster”3.  He would then attach magnets to various parts of the body. His results found that the patient would feel streams of mysterious fluid go through their body. He would move his hands along the patient’s body and stare intently into their eyes. The patients would come out of a session and claim to be healed of pain or a phobia. While this was a very interesting theory it did not impress the scientific world as it failed in its attempt to treat a blind 18-yr-old.  This unsuccessful attempt at understanding the complexities of the brain did not go without notice. This was the first time that the power of suggestion and brain manipulation over the body was studied and recorded. Dr.Mesmer would stare intensely at his patients and ‘mesmerize’ them. In his honor the English word mesmerize, holds roots in Dr. Mesmer’s name.   

                Although Mesmer’s original idea was rejected the idea of hypnosis was still played with by numerous scientists. Kossylan and Thompson, two doctors on the medical faculty at Harvard University hypnotized eight people. The participants were asked to visualize color on grey areas of a paper, and then to drain color or see grey in areas of color on the paper. They observed the participants completing this task first without having been hypnotized and then after hypnotism. Brain scans using fMRI showed that there was indeed a variation in the cerebral activity during each trial. When the participants were not hypnotized the brain scans indicated activity in only the right hemisphere of the brain. When the participant was hypnotized brain scans indicated activity in both the left and right hemisphere.4 The right hemisphere acted in patients who were not hypnotized to see a color or create an imagination of color, independent of the reality they see. When hypnotized the left hemisphere of the brain is also active, indicating that more is involved than just the imagination created by the right hemisphere. It proves that “hypnosis changes the conscious experience.”4 The participants were disillusioned or disassociated with their surroundings and that created an alternate reality.

                Another famous example of the wonders of hypnotism can be seen in a recent study conducted by Dr. Amir Raz from Columbia University. Dr. Raz worked to prove the stroop effect to be inactive when hypnotized. The stroop effect is the belief that since reading is automatic and ingrained in people the natural response would be to read a word more quickly than to note the color it is written in. For example if the word red is written in green. The brain would automatically read the word “red” which would override its ability to say what color the word is written in. The experiment involved hypnotizing patients to test how the stroop effect is altered. It was noted that participants who were hypnotized could more easily say the color the word was written in rather than read the word itself. The brain scans indicated that the visual area of the brain that decodes words was not activated in participants who were hypnotized. Also regions that were towards the front of the brain that normally detect and work out conflicts was dampened. The fact that this area was dampened allowed the hypnotic patient to say the color of the word rather than read the word, because the conflict between the color of the word and the word itself can be dampened. Hypnosis can help in overcoming the stroop effect, through the power of suggestion. This proves that suggestion can be a very powerful tool when the brain is open and susceptible to the hypnosis.  

                While it is still greatly debated as to the exact process of how hypnosis works, the effects on the brain have been seen through brain scans. As the scientists on the Harvard medical faculty and the scientists at Columbia found; different areas of the brain are activated during hypnosis and during a normal state. It has also been found that people who are more susceptible to hypnosis have a more active cingulate gyrus.  The cingulate gyrus is a portion in the middle of the brain that receives inputs from other areas of the cerebral cortex and analyzes them. This region of the brain is involved with attention, focus, and emotion. I think that if this area of the brain is more active it would heighten a person’s perceptions and analysis of sensory data since there would be an increase in focus and attention to surroundings, which to me seems as if it would impede the hypnosis effect rather than enhance it. If the analysis of sensory data is heightened then it is less likely for someone to see something that is not there. While that seems to make sense to me it turns out that this area of the brain being more active is an indication of being hypnotized on the brain scans of many people.

                One theory of how hypnosis works is based on the top-down or bottom-up method the brain uses to analyze information. In the bottom-up theory incoming sensory data travels to higher regions of the brain for more analysis, in the top-down theory the brain imagines what an outcome will be based on prior experience. Scientists have combined these two theories and hypothesized that the incoming sensory data is interpreted at higher regions in the brain and halfway will meet an output that has been generated from the brain based on previous experience, the top tends to overrule the bottom-up information.  It is as if all of reality is based on prior experience. This brings to light the question of what is reality, and is what we see real? It is amazing how our brain can create a reality based solely on experience. It is this method however that results in hypnosis. “If the top is convinced the bottom level of data will be overruled”2. If the top is convinced through suggestion then the output of what is seen as reality will be altered to fit the suggestion. This is how not only hypnosis works but how placebo pills (fake sugar pills) and other forms of psychologically suggestive medicines work. While they may have no actual chemical or biological effect on the body, the suggestion and the thought that something is there can create the reality of it being there.

                One experiment with hypnosis that was really interesting to me was a study conducted by Christina Liossi at the University of Wales in Swansea. The experiment consisted of eighty cancer patients that were undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. She had a portion of the patients hypnotized and undergo chemotherapy and radiation. It was found that the hypnotized patients experienced much less pain than those who were not hypnotized. I think this is a really interesting concept, it really shows the limitations of the conscious mind. This puts into perspective a person’s conscious ability versus their total ability, or ability shown during hypnosis. I wonder why a person’s ability to carry out something is limited when they are consciously thinking about it but when hypnotized much more can be done. This is similar to the example of how people can hold out a brick for 5 minutes normally but when hypnotized can hold out the brick for 15-20 minutes. One explanation I can come up with for why it is possible to carry out an activity longer when hypnotized is that when hypnotized one is focused on the task at hand, and since the focus is only on that task it is accomplished with much more vigor than normal. Another explanation that I thought was possible, takes the opposite view, that when hypnotized the mind is not focused on the task at hand but rather on something else, so the task at hand can subconsciously be carried out longer without being focused or paid attention to.  

                This brings me to think more about the I-function. The I-function is our consciousness, and is noted through our conscious behavior. This means that when someone is not hypnotized the I-function is in use. For example when someone is actively thinking about how they want to bend their fingers, the I-function is activated and the person is not hypnotized. When a person is driving and drives home without thinking about it or a person zones out, it is an example of self-hypnotism. As we described in class these events are something that happens when the I-function is not activated but is “taking a break”. This is the same phenomenon that occurs during hypnotism. It seems that hypnotism is a method of damping the ability of the I-function in a person, resulting in less of a conscious behavior.

                While hypnotism is still under great controversy in today’s world, it has definitely gained more importance than just a circus side show in today’s society. I think it would be an interesting topic to continue to study. I think it would help understand hypnotism better if it is possible to use a brain scan and analyze the brain as a person transitions from a normal state to one of hypnotism. This way the changes in the state of the brain can be noted clearly. I hope that further research will give way to further insight to hypnotism. Whether it is a magic trick or a mindset it has worked to ease the pain and rid the fears of many people in mysterious ways, and proves the power of suggestion over  the body.







Mentalist Scott Xavier's picture

Hypnosis is in essence someone playing along...

I'm a corporate and college mentalist by training and I have been delving more and more into hypnosis and I don't even think hypnotist so know where the realm of reality and playing along lands and begins. The more I get into the easier it is to believe but in the end i feel like they're playing along.

Even Dr. q the original hypnotic practitioner used stooges then he realized people would play along and didn't need stooges.
Check out my website for videos of this playing along at

Geryn's picture


When I was younger I use to believe hypnosis was a real thing but as I became older and a better magician I realized the key to hypnosis was picking people who are highly suggestible, kind of took the fun out of it for me.

Eliot's picture


the thing is, literally everyone is highly suggestible. the problem is discovering what suggestions will activate their focus the fastest and the most powerfully. usually, it's not necessary to work that hard to figure out since most people will quickly respond to the startle response of a rapid induction. in that blanking interval of consciousness, in between a temporary loss of a stable mental model of reality and awaiting new sensory input to reorient attention, suggestibility is at its peak and the simple command to sleep generally works like clockwork with just about everyone you meet. you have about a single second to induce hypnosis in this instance--which must be followed immediately with deepening.

why it took the fun out of it to easily be able to achieve impressive results is baffling to me--anyone with any compassion would be passionately inspired to really do some serious good for those you have a knack for putting under. even during a stage performance, you can actually help people; you can bolster their confidence, inspire them to experience greater heights of focus afterward, create in them an urge to master self-hypnosis and meditation for a richer, deeper, better life of connection with anyone in their lives.

if your goal was to have fun, but helping people wasn't fun to you, then it's good you got out of hypnosis. it's far too much power to just fuck around with people's lives.

Cal Banyan's picture

Definition of Suggestibility?

What do you think of this definition of suggestibility? The extent to which a person is able to accept suggestion, which varies according to one's state of mind. The greater the suggestibility that an individual is experiencing, the greater the effect that suggestions offered will have upon that person's perceptions of reality. In hypnosis, which is an altered state of consciousness, one can reach high levels of suggestibility. In this altered state suggestions can profoundly affect perceptions including causing amnesia, anesthesia and both positive and negative hallucinations. When one is in a heightened state of suggestibility, the individual is said to be in hypnosis, or the hypnotic state.

Your input is appreciated.

Cal Banyan

Robert Thompson CCH's picture


While it it true that some people are markedly easier to hypnotize than most, a once widespread belief that only a small percentage of the population is sufficiently receptive to hypnotic induction to reach a deep state of trance called "somnambulism" was thoroughly debunked by Dave Elman who many professional hypnotherapists consider to have brought hypnosis and hypnotherapy out of the mists of superstition and mystique and into the 20th century. Elman, the prototypical hypnotherapist was a master of both waking hypnosis and deep hypnosis and probably contributed more to the understanding and practice of hypnosis and hypnotherapy than any other person before or after his time. No study of hypnosis would be complete without including Elman and his accomplishments.

Cal Banyan's picture

Susceptibility vs Talented

I'd like to make the suggestion that when discussing and studying hypnosis we should not use the word "susceptible". This term is a negative word that implies a weakness of a sort. Rather, I'd like to suggest that we use the word "talented", or something similar.

The ability to accept hypnotic suggestion is not something that should be thought of in any negative way, but rather as an ability which can be used in positive ways.

Just a thought.

Cal Banyan, MA

Eliot's picture

Susceptibility vs Talented

i agree with you that susceptibility carries a harsh suggestion that one is vulnerable. of course, it's true. they are. hypnosis is mind control and all of us who practice it know damned well that it is. no one wants to forget a number or their name or wants to be humiliated on stage; social expectation, peer pressure, and knowing what a show usually entails have no effect once a subject is under; their awareness is fundamentally truncated; whatever they thought they were up there for, they are up there for entirely different reasons once in trance. and no one is merely playing along; as you know, playing along makes them more likely to enter trance, so all aboard! no one has volition while under--they simply obey. they obey because their critical faculties are offline thanks to hyper focus; all the general understanding they possess is now hidden behind the mentally weakening effect of that focus. they now slur speech, for example, a sure sign of impaired reasoning. their grammar simplifies. complexities smooth into simplicity. so, yeah, faykabe requires we all pretend they have volition while under. saying this puts subjects at ease. at ease, they go under more easily and once under belong to us.

so, all that said, reassuring the subject is vital.

i suggest the anodyne term "compatibility." there is no charge positive or negative to being compatible. it enhances the illusion of volition, too. makes it sound almost romantic. all for the better since change work has been shown time and time again to be amplified when a subject prefers the magic to the science.

hypnotherapy certificate's picture

I believe that hypnotherapy

I believe that hypnotherapy can be very useful if performed by an experienced and certified practicioner. Also, hypnosis is not a cure all but some of the advantages are great. It will give your sub-conscious power to overcome urges, feelings or some emotions. Further in-depth study has shown that hypnosis has even been effective as a anesthesia in surgery but generally it is used for smoking cessation, phobias (pick any), weight loss, sleeping problems, sexual problems, etc...nearly limitless.

Craig's picture

Unconscious Driving

Unconscious driving is in fact the best example of self hypnosis I have come across. The focused inward attention with no recollection of outward events is definately a trance like state, but the ability to perform mechanical tasks and respond to the outside environment is absolutely hypnosis defined.

Nice article.

Paul Grobstein's picture

hynotism and the I-function

Its an interesting idea that "unconscious" driving is similar to the hypnotic state. And both are different from sleeping? What is the I-function doing during hypnosis?
Mahvish Qureshi's picture

Unconscious driving was

Unconscious driving was classified in alot of my resources as a type of self-hypnosis but it was always stated as different from sleeping. The I-function was not specifically talked about in consideration with hypnosis, I just made my own assumptions based on class discussions etc.