If you stopped passers-by on the street and asked them what they thought of hypnosis, you may get a myriad of answers ranging from ignorance to disbelief, to outright unease. Hypnotherapy is a misunderstood practise with a supposed power that transcends the mundane and enters the realm of myth and fantasy, with a nefarious villain commanding an unwitting victim to cluck like a chicken or fall in love with their neighbour. At best, these myths are a hindrance, and at worst, fuel for fearful theories about mind control and abuse.
Myths are born and thrive on essentially three conditions: personal and interpersonal experiences, large events, and historical/mythical culture (Mayerson, 2014). When making up our minds about something, we rely on cues from our culture and surroundings. Many people have heard of an uncle or aunt that quit smoking through hypnosis, or of their friend who was made a fool of by a stage hypnotist. Cultural opinions and beliefs are often expressed in various forms, such as books, songs, pictures, films, and television. Certainly, western media portrayals of hypnosis are often inaccurate, sometimes with harmless antics such as Chandler from Friends thinking that he’s a ‘strong, independent woman who has no need to smoke’. The media can also however fuel fearful stereotypes of powerful individuals controlling or seducing those around them (Barrett, 2006), like Kaa the snake hypnotising Mowgli in the Jungle Book with swirling, hypnotic eyes.
These archaic and inaccurate beliefs are entrenched in our surrounding world, so the effort to root them out and reveal the truth can be a challenge. Within this article, we shall take a look at common myths surrounding hypnosis and discuss how to dispel them.
You won’t know what happened
Hypnosis is based on the Greek ‘hypnos’ which essentially means ‘sleep.’ The ancient origins of hypnotherapy taking place in sleep temples thousands of years ago can also lead one to make the seemingly logical conclusion that you may fall asleep under hypnosis, or simply not know what happened.
This is untrue.
When under hypnosis, you are helped into a state of deep focus and relaxation. You are very likely to have experienced something like this before, perhaps when watching a film, driving along a familiar route, or reading a good book. During this state, outside noise and thoughts are filtered out, and your mind has a more singular focus. When under hypnosis with your hypnotherapist, you will be awake and aware the entire time, and be able to recall the entire session with ease if you wish.
They will control your mind
This particular belief is common within America, despite the population having a largely positive or neutral view of hypnosis in general (Palsson, Twist & Walker, 2019). There are sometimes stories floating around of stage hypnotists performing silly shows with unwitting volunteers who act strangely or embarrass themselves. Recently, there has even a new American show introduced called “Hyprov” wherein volunteers are hypnotised before performing in improv comedy. Perhaps there are even some darker tales of people being hypnotised against their knowledge or consent to act or behave in ways that are not in their best interests, be it instantaneously or with long-term consequences.
This is untrue.
It is simply not possible to be made to act against your will during or after hypnosis. A vegetarian cannot be convinced to eat meat, an unruly child cannot be hypnotised to tidy their room each night, and a person cannot be made to do anything that goes against their morals. As we discussed above, you are aware at all times during hypnosis. You are fully in control of your actions, and if you ever felt uncomfortable with something then you can simply stand up and leave the room. It is that straightforward. Where confusion surfaces, is that you are more open to suggestion under hypnosis. Whilst this is a fundamental part of the benefits that can be reaped from hypnotherapy, it is also what can create misinterpretations of free will. With a stage hypnotist, the audience will arrive with an expectation of what will happen. A volunteer will already have in their mind an idea of what will happen, so when they are under hypnosis, the suggestions are easily acted upon.
You may not wake up
Some people may have fears of being put in a trance and never being free, and sometimes you hear of wild theories from a concerned family member when their relative finds a new partner and starts acting differently all of a sudden. This particular belief is more popular in Israel than other myths, likely due to a well-known case of a stage hypnotist who struggled to dehypnotise a subject during a show (Kleinhauz et al., 1979). From an untrained and fearful eye, influenced by myths and common media portrayals, it is understandable why someone may have this fear.
It is also untrue.
Building on what was covered with the previous myths, under hypnosis you are aware, and you have control over what is going on. Granted, if a hypnotherapy session were to suddenly end without assisting you to awaken, it’s going to be a bit jarring. However, any hypnotherapist worth their salt will have an induction in place to end your hypnosis pleasantly and peacefully. If there was an emergency or you suddenly decided that you no longer wanted to be under hypnosis, there is nothing there to stop you.
With the more common myths covered, it is time to discuss some strategies that can be used by hypnotherapists with clients to dispel misinformation and increase their confidence in the process.
Some may avoid using the word “hypnosis” and replace it with more neutrally perceived words, such as “guided imagery”, “visualisation” or “deep relaxation”. With this technique, one can achieve the same therapeutic results without the social stigma attached. This technique may not be for everybody, however, as some argue that the word “hypnosis” can add to therapeutic results due to its implications of being a special therapeutic situation.
This involves removing the perceptions of mystery and myth that are often connected to hypnosis, as well as distinguishing the difference between hypnotherapy and stage hypnosis. This can be achieved by learning about specific cultural influences that relate to yourself and your client, and providing explanations using everyday terms, objects, experiences, and metaphors.
A hypnotherapist can tailor the amelioration of a client’s perception of hypnosis by understanding and working with their individual needs and goals. If a client was seeking more control of their behaviour or an aspect of their lives, it may be suitable to frame hypnosis as an empowering tool for enhancing self-control. A person experiencing anxiety may be reassured by an emphasis on the calming and peaceful elements of the hypnosis. A person who is fearful of the mythical perception of hypnosis may benefit from a more biologically focussed explanation of the process.
Emphasising scientific findings
Although our knowledge of hypnosis and hypnotherapy is far from conclusive, the recent advancements in technology have allowed for a clearer picture than ever before of what goes on in the brain during hypnosis in neurocognitive research. Numerous clinical trials have also been conducted on the efficacy of hypnotherapy on a variety of things such as anxiety, pain management, smoking and IBS. Clients may find comfort in the knowledge gained by researchers and explanations of what changes our brains go through during the process. This method is particularly favoured by those in a clinical setting such as practitioners in hospitals.
There are some who argue there is however a purpose to be served for the mysterious nature of hypnosis. Meyerson (2014) states that one of the powerful elements of hypnotherapy is that there is a dissociation from everyday function and the outside world and that an element of hypnosis being somewhat separate from the mundane world can strengthen this dissociation. They also argue that expectation is a powerful element of hypnosis. Even for stage hypnotists, the expectation of their subjects making a spectacle of themselves is a powerful factor of their success in a performance. If a client seeking hypnotherapy has a belief that hypnosis has a mysterious element to it, it may strengthen the effectiveness of their treatment.
All in all, hypnosis has been a widely misunderstood concept for many years, with myths being perpetuated by our peers, our cultures, and our histories. As we are advancing as a species, as well as our technology, the mystery of hypnosis is slowly but surely being unravelled and brought into the light. Long gone are the days of Mesmer and his magnetism, although the media and public perception still has a way to go before meaningful changes are made to common perception and opinion. As we are uncovering more and more of the truth about how the world works, we should also perhaps pause for thought for a moment and wonder. Is retaining a just little bit of intrigue in the art of hypnosis not entirely a bad thing?
Barrett, D. (2006). Hypnosis in film and television. The American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 49(1), 13–30.
Chant, D., Clohessy, D., Cowling, T., Gow, K., Mackie, C., & Moloney, R. (2006). Attitudes and opinions about hypnosis in an Australian city. Australian Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 34, 162–186.
Kleinhauz, M., Dreyfuss, D. A., Beran, B., Goldberg, T., & Azikri, D. (1979). Some after-effects of stage hypnosis: A case study of psychopathological manifestations. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 27, 219–226.
Meyerson, J. (2014). The myth of hypnosis: the need for remythification. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 62(3), 378-393.
Palsson, O., Twist, S., Walker, M. (2019). A national survey of clinical hypnosis views and experiences of the adult population in the United States. Journal of clinical and experimental hypnosis, 67(4), 428-448.The myths surrounding Hypnosis