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Controlling Behavior Through Hypnosis

michelle's picture

My high school history teacher claimed that his wife was only able to conceive their daughter after seeing a hypnotist. Doctors deemed her infertile after years of trying everything from fertility drugs to acupuncture. I was always skeptical about his claim, until my cousin ended her thirteen-year-long, pack-a-day smoking habit cold turkey through hypnosis. I began to wonder if it is really possible to convince our brains and nervous systems to yield to our desires simply by focusing our attention and obeying the suggestions of a hypnotist.

The media has not spared hypnotism in its inaccurate portrayal of the world. The idea of some man in a magicians outfit swinging a pocket watch back and forth probably comes to mind when one thinks of hypnotism. Such depictions cause many to question this widely accepted form of therapy and treatment. Despite such exaggerations, the scientific community has shown hypnosis to be effective in helping surgical patients recover [1], coping with pain [2], and alleviating psychosomatic illnesses [3]. Its uses have also been claimed to enhance the treatment of skin diseases, weight loss, and addictive and compulsive behavior [1]. Although hypnosis is sometimes used to help key witnesses recall specific details from a crime, the linking of hypnosis to amnesia or hypermnesia has been debated extensively. Some researchers feel that pressure from investigators can result in false memories. Moreover, recent studies have shown hypnosis to have no affects on memory [3]. Other studies have shown that the hypnotized can realistically experience certain sensations upon suggestion without an actual stimulus (determined by PET scans, fMRI, and EEG measurements) [4]. Therefore, researchers are now using highly susceptible hypnotic patients to uncover the functioning parts of the brain during such sensations. For example, one study used hypnotized patients who were experiencing pain without an actual stimulus to uncover the areas of the brain actively involved in the process of pain generation. Their neurophysiological activity matched that of non-hypnotized patients actually experiencing the pain due to a stimulus. Understanding such pain pathways may provide insight into how to combat such issues as chronic lower back pain and fibromyalgia [5].

Although there is indisputable evidence supporting the physiological and psychological benefits of hypnosis, the actual phenomenon of hypnosis has only been described through theories. Terms like “altered state of consciousness”, “high susceptibility”, “trance”, “extreme relaxation”, “and the suspension of the critical factor” have all been used to describe hypnosis [6, 7, 3]. Some studies have shown neurophysiological changes during and following hypnosis, but there is still some debate over whether these changes are solely the result of hypnosis or if other factors contribute to the changes in brain activity [2, 3]. The alpha and theta state theories use EEG measurements to distinguish different forms of hypnosis and the types of therapies administrable at each state [2]. For example, the alpha state is a relaxed and reflecting state with EEG measurements of 7-14 CPS, and correlate with hypnosis treatments dealing with weight management, addictive behavior, enhanced performance in sports, sex, etc [6] . The theta state or drowsy state show EEG readings of 4-7 CPS and is required for therapy involving anesthesia [6]. Other EEG experiments claim hypnosis results from a shift of brain activity from the frontal portion to the posterior portion of the brain. [6].

Psychologists Robert Baker and Nicholas Spanos feel that hypnotism is a learned social behavior where the person being hypnotized behaves the way a hypnotized person ought to act following the instruction of the hypnotist. He deems hypnotism analogous to exorcism and the placebo effect in that all require the participants to behave in a way that they believe they should behave based on what they have learned in their social setting [7]. G.F. Wagstaff applies this theory of social construct to stage hypnotism noting that the most enthusiastic volunteers were chosen to be hypnotized because they showed the most enthusiasm to take on the role of hypnotized [6].

Pierre Jane attributed hypnosis to a dissociation of consciousness and sensory inputs, therefore leading to reflexive behavior and increased suggestibility of the hypnotized subject [6]. Similarly, hyper-suggestibility theory claims that hypnotized subjects focus attention with guidance from the hypnotist. With extreme concentration, the subject no longer questions the suggestions made by the hypnotists [6]. The conformational theory also relates to these aforementioned theories in that the hypnotized subject is drowning out all other sensory input in order to concentrate on the suggestions made to him/her by the hypnotists. Therefore, hypnosis can occur on a daily basis when one gets lost in a book, or while watching a movie, etc [6, 8]. The systems theory, suggested by physician James Braid, involves the increasing and decreasing of nervous system activity via feed-back loops and explains how different hypnotic phenomena result stimulating different feed-back loops within the nervous system [6, 9].

Weighing out all of the theories, I have come to the conclusion that hypnosis is a state of deep concentration where the nervous system is too preoccupied in focusing that suggestions made to the subject tend to be accepted more freely. Whether there is neurophysiological explanation crediting the phenomenon or not, it is certain that a significant number of people benefit from hypnosis. I am still unsure of whether I believe hypnosis is an everyday occurrence as suggested by the dissociation, hyper-suggestibility and conformational theories. I remember as a child thinking that the best time to ask my mom for permission to do anything that I thought she might object to was while she was preparing dinner. Her preoccupation and focus in cooking led to the same response, “Yeah, sure. Go outside and play.” Was she then hypnotized or just focused? Where is the line between concentration and hypnotism? If hypnotism is just extreme concentration, why can’t we achieve the same results in our everyday lives by just concentrating hard enough? Or can we? We are taught that with enough focus and drive, we can accomplish anything. Therefore, is hypnotism just a tool that aids people in focusing in this world full of distractions? Questions like mine have furthered hypnotism research within the last couple decades as more and more licensed professionals incorporate the clinical form, hypnotherapy, into their practice. Whether we will be able to understand the phenomenon or not, we are increasingly reaping the benefits of it.

It will never be fully understood why humans behave the way they do. It appears to be a constant struggle between what people want to do, what people know they should do, and what the nervous system mandates people to do. Our inability to fully explain the phenomenon of hypnosis further supports our lack of understanding of human behavior. However, through hypnosis, we are at least one step closer to controlling undesired behavior that was originally thought to be out of our control.


[1] David, D., et al. (2002) The Effectiveness of Adjunctive Hypnosis with Surgical Patients: A Meta-Analysis. Anesth Analg. 94:1639 –45

[2] Crawford, H. Knebel, T. & Vendemia, M.C. (1998). The nature of hypnotic analgesia: Neurophysiological foundation and evidence. Contemporary Hypnosis, 47: 117-143.

[3] British Psychological Society. The Nature of Hypnosis. (2001)

[4] Kosslyn, S.M., et al. (2002)Hypnotic visual illusion alters coloring process in the brain. Am J Psychiatry. 157:8.

[5] Derbyshire, S.W.G, et al. (2004) Cerebral activation during hypnotically induced and imagined pain. NeuroImage, 23: 392-401.

[6] Wikipedia Article on Hypnosis.

[7] Carroll, R.T. The Skeptics Dictionary.

[8] How Hypnosis Works from How Stuff Works Website

[9] Dr. Dylan A. Morgan. Leeds Hypnotherapist.


hypnosis stories's picture

I think hypnosis for

I think hypnosis for controlling behaviour is a valid tehcnique that is much better to use than stuffing chemicals into people,

But hypnosis doesnt effect all people the same and some people are not able to be hypnotized.

Sean's picture


Hi Michelle,

This is a great essay, very interesting. Did you ever find any proof or any further detail about your high school history teacher and his wife? I think it would make an excellent case study.
Also, the poster above gives an excellent definition of what hypnosis is.

Hypnosis's picture


Hello Michelle,

"Where is the line between concentration and hypnotism?" Now there is a very simple difference: Concentration makes your mind narrow, helps you to focus on one thing. Hypnosis can do that too, but is not limited to just that. Hypnosis is to broaden and expand your possibilities. Hope that helps. Best wishes.