So What Is Hypnosis?

You are getting verrrrry sleeepy. Maybe because you're reading this blog...

So what is hypnosis? This post is a bit longer, to do the topic justice.

The more serious analytical people debate the state versus non-state theories. And you will notice if you do any reading about hypnosis, in books or online, that it attracts the regular retinue of defenders of Reason, from the usual inquisitorial sceptic associations all the way through to Mythbusters. (I'll devote the next post to the Knights of Rationality and Reason.) As well as plenty of other loons of all persuasions.

Derren Brown in his Tricks of the Mind (below) makes the good point that one of the problems in talking about hypnosis is that it's like 'magic' - it's an overarching term that actually refers to a whole set of quite specific, practical and often separate activities. So just as a magician might work with cards or escapology or rabbits and hats, and each of those has its own set of distinct and often unrelated skills, which then get lumped under a generic term 'magic', so too hypnotism practically is a whole range of activities, many of which have no necessary connection. The reverse proof here is that Brown is always accused by the various adherents of NLP, magic, hypnotism etc. of "just doing X", where X is something from NLP, magic or hypnotism. Whereas, and as he points out at the beginning of his documentaries, he does a blend of all of these things, depending on his purpose at the time. And more broadly he believes that they all tap into something much more simple about just being human, which is the main background theme of his shows.

[Incidentally if you've never seen one of Brown's shows, get hold of one. They're easily some of the most intelligent and compelling programs on TV today. Just as a taste, he did a special called The Heist where he managed to persuade a group of conservative middle managers to rob an armoured car (under controlled conditions which they weren't aware of), without once telling them this was what he was doing. Or his recent The System, where he showed people a foolproof way to win on the horses, and if that intrigues and causes disbelief in you, watch it - you won't get rich, but the claim is true. Then his Trick or Treat shows where ordinary people get extraordinary tricks or treats applied to them, such as grandmothers learning how to play poker well enough in a week to compete for a national title. And there are many more.]

So the various phenomena which get lumped under the heading hypnosis are sometimes just distinct phenomena. Having clarified that though, there is to me still a unifying thread to all of them.

Hypnosis is life experienced at the 'wrong' scale.

Practical examples will explain this better than any theory.

If we think about arm levitation for example, the wow sort of experience comes from our arm raising without us needing to 'do' it. But this happens all the time, every day - if you're hanging out washing, are you often conscious of holding your arms up, or are you instead watching the clothes and the pegs and maybe the birds above etc.? The arms just come up, without you thinking about or necessarily registering it as a discreet act. Just as at the same time you're not normally aware of what your heart, tendons, bones, and thousands of other body parts are doing while you hang out the clothes.

It's only in the highly artificial situation of you sitting there with a hypnotist where you may think about raising the arm as an activity at all. And what does the hypnotist do to bring this about? They get you to focus very closely on something else, such as their voice. And this is where the apparent magic happens - because you're focused on this other thing while being asked to raise your arm, you can't 'do' the raising because you're already doing something else i.e. focusing on the hypnotist. In fact they could also get you to focus on your arm, on the various feelings in it and on it rising, because you're then also prevented from trying to do the raising, because you're already doing these other things. This is why a while back here I suggested people try this by focusing on a rubbing of the hand of the opposite arm on some surface, so that their attention or what they were doing was kept away from them trying to do the arm-raising. So the arm raises 'itself' because it's just like hanging out the washing again, it's responding to your intention, even if your attention is somewhere else.

[I call this life at the 'wrong scale' because as you can see above, it relies upon our body's innate ability to coordinate itself automatically, but in a situation which is contrived and narrowed. Normally we wouldn't sit down and fiddle with ourselves like this, trying to make various bits and pieces of ourselves move or do things. Our various bits and pieces know what to do all by themselves, in most healthy activity we're not aware of them in the slightest. But if we carve one of these bits out of a wider, more meanignful pattern in our lives, such as hanging out washing, and then add back in even the tiniest purposeful action, like listening to a hypnotist, the automatic movement returns and appears miraculous.]

Or take the standard stage hypnotism fare of somebody suddenly becoming Elvis when a song is played, or eating an onion and thinking it tastes like an apple etc. If you've ever shared a bed with somebody, you'll know that you can say something like "roll over, you're snoring", and the snoring person will usually do that, and have no recollection or consciousness of it then or the next day. If a person is disconnected from the events around them, such as in sleeping or in a 'trance' courtesy of the stage hypnotist, then actions can proceed directly from words/orders. You don't need all of the usual physical surroundings for them to respond physically, as if they were really 'there', or tasting an apple instead of an onion etc.

Trance is a fancy word for an experience of being cut off or withdrawn from your physical surroundings, and again it's something you do when you daydream or sleep - a hypnotist similarly removes you from your actual surroundings using any number of focusing or de-focusing techniques, for the same effect. Similarly when you dream you can experience what seems to be the full reality of the dream situation, with sounds and sights and smells and even touches. And sounds you hear while asleep can even enter your dreams and shape their content. The hypnotist taps into these inherent possibilities of your system, and uses them in different ways. Like making you think it's an apple you're eating rather than the actual physical onion in your hand. I often have dreams where I need to run away and can't because my legs are tied, or I'm paralysed etc. - this is just the fact that my actual legs are immobilised, because I'm asleep, filtering up into the dream. And images from a TV or film screen can make you laugh, cry or jump in your seat.

If you scale these everyday experiences down to the highly artificial and controlled environment of you and the hypnotist, you can produce effects that seem astonishing simply because you've taken an ordinary function and channelled it through a restricted situation, in which it then appears extraordinary.

Brown and many other serious students of hypnosis believe that it's all about people wanting to believe things, which they succeed in varying degrees in doing. (Although to be fair to Brown he keeps an open mind on it, and is prepared to accept there may be more going on.) So there's a continuum of belief and also compliance for this interpretation of what's going on, with some just pretending they're 'in a trance' so as not to offend the hypnotists, while others really 'deluding' themselves that there's a rhinoceros in the room. In both cases the pheonomenon is simply play-acting in various degrees. (It's not surprising that Knights of Reason always revert to belief to explain anything that makes no sense to them - they claim to know how reality works or how to discover how it works, and everything else is just unsubstantiated belief. More on that in the next post.) Some of that no doubt happens, sometimes, but as I've tried to show above, there's no need to assume it's all some sort of fraud or self-delusion. These pheonmena are also real and just part of how we function. It's only the change of scale that makes them appear anomalous, and in every case I bet you can find an everyday scaled-up version of what's going on that is considered unremarkable.

This doesn't invalidate hypnotic phenomena or make them not useful. On the contrary, scaling anything can allow you to do all sorts of useful and powerful things. Scaling life itself is about as good as it gets, and once you understand how to do it, the possibilities are almost limitless.


  1. Hi Nick, very interesting stuff. Trance is always the wrong word, however you cut it, because of the wrong associations it arouses, just as 'somnambulistic' triggers all the wrong cues and takes us back to Dr. Caligari.

    But if you ever conduct experiments with a person capable of the level of a somnambule, you'll never doubt the reality of hypnosis (nor am I completely sceptical about the ability to conduct a kind of societal level of hypnosis, or at least to play around with it and produce discernible effects).

    I think at the deepest levels your idea of scale is okay but not the whole story as you can go beyond the reverse end of the telescope to the point where no telescope is apparent. At that point you experience distraction and as Erickson put it, loss of the multiplicity of the foci of attention and direct wiring to an alternate consciousness in some part of the brain that allows conscious behavior to be by-passed or even completely unhooked - much like the chook sent into another state by a simple trick. I think a lot of animals are hard wired to the activity, and its maybe connected to survival skills, but humans can have the pleasure of playing with it. Anyhoo, keep the thoughts flowing, great break from the loons.

  2. Hi Dorothy. Just to be clear, I completely believe that hypnosis exists, I just don't think it's what people say it is. Maybe understanding why it works doesn't make a lot of difference to using it, although over time it could lead to new approaches etc.

    Absolutely about the reverse end of the telescope. But the example I used of the snoring partner being asked to turn over in bed is really just a somnambulist state. I think there's a complete continuity between everyday phenomena and what happens under hypnosis, it's just that hypnotism creates a scaled model of the real life functionality of our systems and uses it for other purposes.

    My own take on this is also shaped by the work some biologists and others do with tensegity, as the fundamental organising principle of the entire body. (This is revolutionary stuff and not widely known yet.) If you study the body as a tensegrity system, there is no 'effort' to do movement for example, and hey presto that's what something like arm levitation exhibits. Tensegrity systems have no centres, no controlling central point. Which is also why a person's intention then flows automatically into action, yet another thing hypnosis has played with forever. The old body-as-separate-bits-and-pieces ideas made all this seem miraculous, and thus the need to invent a trance 'state' to explain these goings on. But once you shift the model to a tensegrity model, it all just opens up as clearly as the nose on your face.

    I also draw upon Bergson's work late in the 19th century on the nature of mind, matter and memory. The implications of what he did are still only slowly being figured out. But once you read something like his Matter and Memory, so much of this stuff just falls into place. And is still joyous and amazing, but stripped of the mysticism. The current work in neuroscience in 'embodied cognition' is mining this same vein.


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