Hollywood’s portrayal of hypnosis—where the therapist waves a pocket watch in front of the patient and says, “You’re feeling very sleepy”—is far removed from the real thing.

In fairness, though, Hollywood script writers aren’t the only ones who struggle to understand hypnosis. The medical and mental health–care community has been studying hypnosis for centuries, yet some major questions remain unanswered. In fact, even definitions of hypnosis within health-care communities can be varied and inaccurate.

Hypnosis often is described as an altered state of consciousness in which people experience focused attention and become more suggestible. Reality: Not all people undergoing hypnosis experience an altered state of consciousness. Some experience poorer attention and cognitive control rather than focused attention…and while many people do become more suggestible under hypnosis, according to one study, more than one-third become less suggestible.

More accurate definition: Hypnosis is a set of procedures where verbal suggestions are used to modulate awareness, perception and cognition.

Bottom Line Personal asked Devin B. Terhune, PhD, and Madeline V. Stein, MA, both from King’s College London, to separate hypnosis reality from myth and explain what hypnosis can—and cannot—truly do for patients…


The effectiveness of hypnosis as a pain-management strategy is well-established. You probably are wondering, Does hypnosis actually work? The best proof that it does comes from pain-management research. Numerous studies have found that hypnosis can reduce many different forms of pain, including chronic pain and surgical pain. One meta-analysis of 42 earlier studies by researchers at University of Hartford concluded that hypnosis is a “very efficacious intervention for alleviating clinical pain.” A separate review of 13 earlier studies by researchers at Texas A&M concluded that “the efficacy of hypnosis in reducing pain was consistently confirmed for a variety of different chronic-pain conditions,” including cancer-related pain, lower-back pain and arthritis pain.


The effectiveness of hypnosis as a treatment for other medical and mental health conditions is less clear—but it still might be worth trying. Studies investigating whether hypnosis can help people quit smoking…lose weight…overcome stress, anxiety, insomnia or phobias…or cope with post-traumatic stress syndrome and other issues have produced mixed and often modest results. Example: One study by researchers at University of California, San Francisco, found that 20% of smokers who tried hypnosis were able to quit for at least 12 months versus 14% of smokers who received only behavioral counseling. That’s a positive effect, but it still means that hypnosis is ineffective for four of every five ­smokers who try it as a way to quit. In other words, it’s often comparable to other treatment approaches.

Still, mixed results don’t mean hypnosis isn’t worth trying. There is significant evidence that hypnosis treatments can be beneficial for some percentage of people. Anecdotally, it’s not uncommon to encounter people who’ve tried many times to quit smoking but succeeded only after hypnosis. And unlike many health-care treatments, hypnosis has no side effects, so it may be worth trying.


Hypnosis is not a reliable memory-recovery tool. There is some evidence that hypnosis can enhance memory under very specific circumstances. Examples: One study conducted by researchers at ­Aalborg University in Denmark found that hypnosis can boost the working memory of people whose memory has been affected by traumatic brain injuries. In another study, participants were able to recall events that occurred while they were experiencing a type of seizure that ordinarily leaves them with no recall of what has occurred.

But: There is abundant evidence that hypnosis can accidentally implant false memories. What’s more, people who “recover” memories under hypnosis often have unjustified confidence that these memories are real, even though there is the potential that they are not. A study by researchers at The Ohio State University found that participants were significantly less likely to doubt their memories about when certain events occurred if they recalled those dates while hypnotized than if they recalled them when not hypnotized—even when the dates they identified were incorrect.

No memory “recovered” during hypnosis should be trusted unless it can be independently verified—regardless of how certain the hypnotized individual is that it occurred.


Trait responsiveness to verbal suggestions is the key to hypnosis success—but not ordinary suggestibility. The effectiveness of hypnotism depends in no small part on the individual. Some people are much more responsive to hypnotic suggestions than others and thus much more likely to find hypnosis effective. By some measures, perhaps 10% to 15% of people are highly susceptible to hypnosis…15% to 20% are not particularly responsive…and the rest fall somewhere in between. Those in the highly hypnotizable range are sometimes referred to as “highly suggestible”—but whether someone is highly suggestible under hypnosis is unrelated to how prone he/she is to being talked into believing incorrect information in everyday life, the more familiar usage of the term “suggestible.”

Hypnotic suggestibility is a cognitive trait that is highly stable over time and is the primary factor that shapes and influences how people respond to hypnosis. But as in all treatment contexts, other factors also play some role, most notably motivation. Example: We would typically expect someone who is highly motivated and excited to try hypnosis to have better treatment outcomes than someone who is reluctant to try hypnosis.


People under hypnosis do not lose control or become blindly obedient. Contrary to popular perception, there is no solid evidence that people under hypnosis are under the control of the hypnotist. They actually remain able to resist verbal suggestions…they’re not unconscious, asleep or unaware of their surroundings…and they can later recall what occurred during hypnosis.

But people who are highly receptive to hypnosis do become more likely to accept suggestions made during hypnosis as true.

If you’re wondering about those stage shows where hypnotized audience members cluck like chickens and do other embarrassing things when the hypnotist tells them to, those people are not under the hypnotists’ control. These entertainer hypnotists inevitably ask for volunteers from the audience—and they know that anyone who volunteers for such a performance is probably someone who is excited to try hypnosis and perfectly happy to do silly things on stage. It’s also probable that some of the “hypnotized” audience members clucking like chickens on stage are only pretending to be hypnotized.


Do not seek treatment from anyone who presents hypnosis as a cure-all. If you wish to pursue hypnosis for pain management or some other purpose, select a clinician with advanced qualifications who specializes in the treatment of the specific condition that you wish to treat and who offers hypnosis as one of multiple treatment options. In the US, the best place to find such clinicians is through the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis (SCEH.us).

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