Hypnosis, the Power of Suggestion, and the Science of Hypnotherapy

Ryo Mac
Ryo Mac
Jan 28, 2012 · 12 min read

You are getting very sleepy… As I count to three, you will fall into a deep trance. 1… Your eyes are scanning the words across the page, getting ready to read the rest of this post. You’re preparing for the amazing two BBC documentaries below that will together answer virtually every question about hypnosis of which you have ever conceived. 2… You’re going to understand what hypnosis really entails; including how it works, and its strengths and limitations. You will finish this article, say “Wow, that was amazing,” and write a fabulous comment below. …3!

All right, it’s not easy to hypnotize someone via text. But if we were face to face I might just have you dancing like a chicken or calling your friend by shoe-phone in no time. Nevertheless, the following documentaries are honestly, truly, really fascinating. They teach so much about psychology that calling them “hypnosis documentaries” doesn’t nearly do justice to their breadth. And if you take the time to watch these phenomenal videos, you can skip the bullet-points beneath, which are just my personal notes.

Supernatural Science — Open to Suggestion

This is a fantastically educational documentary, showing incredible stories from hypnosis gone wrong to actually saving a man’s liberty. This video explains why we act the way we do under hypnosis.


  • The documentary starts with the common phobia of spiders. Hypnotherapist Robert Farago hypnotizes patients to help them get over this fear. This launches into the basics of how hypnotism works.
  • Hypnotized people are not passive in hypnosis. , a neuroscientist from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute notes that popular culture (e.g., movies and novels) portrays hypnosis as a zombie-like state of compliance; but research shows that the hypnotizes individuals essentially make the decision to be absorbed in some experiences while ignoring others. There is conscious activity in the brain, as they follow the hypnotist’s suggestions.
  • They then go to the question of “why do people allow themselves to do peculiar things in hypnosis?” According to of the Imperial College School of Medicine, people inhibit their critical faculties, making them simply more open to suggestion.
  • One anecdote from surgeon is quite amazing. They show one woman (though this is not Escudero’s first such patient) who takes no painkiller drugs during an operation on her legs, instead opting to use hypnosis to have her ignore the pain. Having a conscious patient in such an important procedure is extremely useful. In one clip, she is on her stomach, chatting and laughing with the doctors operating on her. In another clip, when she’s on her back, she’s asked to concentrate on something to occupy her body — in this case, it’s the constant generation of saliva.
  • They then discuss that pain is a complex mental phenomenon, and the relationship between pain and hypnosis. For example, they show a hypnotizes person submerging has hand in water filled with ice cubes (a very painful act). He lasts only a short time. But when he’s hypnotized, he can remain there with no feeling of discomfort. They also note that the patient doesn’t necessarily need to have his eyes closed. He can open is eyes and interact with the world, even in a hypnotic state.
  • The documentary then moves on to talking about how Japanese kamikaze pilots (suicide pilots) in WWII were the last military to have their militia “trance out” in order to fight effectively, until the current army. Though I’m not sure if they’re referring to the American or the British army, because the interviewee who gives this information is America. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced that we can really credit hypnosis for Kamikaze pilots… but I suppose that may depend on the definition of “trance out.”
  • Then they move to cult psychology, which gets very interesting. They say that cults use powerful suggestive techniques to get people to comply to things they wouldn’t normally do. For example, they talk to one victim, , who says he was brainwashed into giving them all the money he had, resigned from his job, and pledged his life to the cult within 4 days.
  • You can tell by the way he talks, though, he’s not an idiot. He was just deceived. One of the things they did, for example, was hypnosis disguised as meditation, a common thing done in cults. But as from the University Connecticut points out, there is no evidence that hypnosis can cause someone to do something they don’t already want to do. Of course, he notes that this is not an easy thing to study, for ethical purposes.
  • Haworth makes an interesting case for the notion that this idea is only a half-truth. His example is that a hypnotist would not get compliance for saying “shoot your mother,” even if under a very deep trance; but, he says, if the hypnotist changes the person’s reality, all bets are off. For example, what if the person’s mother is suggested to be the devil who must be vanquished? Obviously, for ethical reasons, this would never be able to be tested; so we just don’t know the answer.
  • Then they get into the Milgram shock-experiments, one of the most prominent experiments in social psychology. But I’m a little surprised at their lack of accuracy. They say that the original footage was not shown because the original participants were not willing to have them released. Well I’m pretty sure I’ve seen plenty of original footage (which you probably won’t find it on YouTube), so I don’t know what they’re talking about. When most people talk about the experiments, they neglect to mention that the briefing afterwards always involved the confederate walking into the room with a big smile, and shaking hands with the participant, indicating that not only are they okay, but they’re pleased with the individual’s participation. They also say that 50% of people complied until the end of the dial, but it was 2/3 of participants that complied. Isn’t that an important fact to check…? Regardless, their point is that the same feeling of complying with authority is the reason why participants comply on stage-hypnosis acts. Instead of an experimenter in a white lab-coat, the authority is the hypnotist with a microphone.
  • Then they get into the topic of memory, and the incredible story of . Because of forensic hypnosis, Leaster was acquitted for a crime in 1983 that he did not commit. After being sentenced to prison, he learnt from other inmates the names of the real culprits, but there was one problem… he forgot their names. If he could only remember, he would be able to get out of jail. …but he couldn’t. He just couldn’t remember. Until he was brought to a hypnotist, that is. The amazing thing about this case it that it shows how powerful hypnosis can truly be. After being able to recall the names, the case was reopened, and he was eventually set free.
  • One reason I love this documentary is because it also responsibly gets into the dark side of hypnosis in terms of memory. That is, false memories. Ever since the idea of “repressed memories” surfaced in psychology circles, some therapists used this in their sessions. While the case of Bobby Joe Leaster shows that memories can be brought back through hypnosis, they can also be created. The documentary shows how researchers can create false memories without any hypnosis at all. It just takes time.
  • Then they get to the victims of this false-memory implantation. A case they mention involves a man who was accused of raping his daughter and forcing her to have an adoption. This not only didn’t happen, but it was totally impossible, because he had a vasectomy when she was about 2, and she was a virgin. Victims of Memory author was also accused of sexually molesting his other daughter, after she too consulted a hypnotherapist who falsely believed that most clinical problems (such as depression or anxiety) are caused by repressed memories of sexual abuse.
  • Then they moved into the medical setting, talking about placebos. The experiment they mention (though there are thousands of them) is using an ultrasound machine as a pain-reliever, and switching it off so that it’s not actually doing anything. The results showed that the placebo group also did very well.
  • Some athletes, they say, also perform in trance-like states. For example, weight-lifters don’t realize that they’re performing at their best while they’re doing it. They even record their brain activity, showing that they are not aware of what’s happening around them.

I should mention: The definition of hypnosis is a big issue. I think most people would disagree that victims in abusive relationships are hypnotized, but probably most would agree that they are the victims of suggestive techniques. As the documentary explains, “Hypnosis is just one suggestive technique, among many.”

Domestic violence victims have, for example, been known to say things like “He hits me because he loves me.” This is, for example, to police, after she refused to file a complaint for suffering injuries to her face and arm a few months ago. Does it seem like she is using her critical faculties? No. But whatever you call it (“in a trance state,” “being brain-washed,” etc.), she’s not thinking clearly. People don’t just wake up one day and say “I’ll just go on and accept this abuse.” It’s a gradual thing, as any compliance professional knows.

So how, then, do we define hypnosis? Maybe a better question is… should we even bother trying to define it?

Alternative Therapies — Hypnotherapy

This documentary is of a totally different style. Physicist and broadcaster goes from entertainer to therapist to see what people promise and how well they deliver. It’s a much more personal documentary, and easier to get into. Take the time and check it out, it’s worth it


  • Sykes starts at a stage-hypnosis show — strictly entertainment — and talks to the hypnotist to get his take on how it all works.
  • She then meets up with a policeman, Richard, who is going to a hypnotherapist to get rid of his smoking addiction. They also show a weight-loss hypnotherapist, who hypnotized one woman, Nikola, to dislike chocolate. By the end of both sessions, they didn’t want cigarettes or chocolate (respectively), but the real question is how long that would last. The answers come later in the documentary.
  • Next, Sykes asks the very obvious question of “just what is a trance?” And furthermore, is a trance-like state even necessary for suggestion? Some psychologists believe that it is necessary, while others say all that’s needed is suggestion, and trance is irrelevant. So she speaks to Irving Kirsch, who was also in the first documentary above, and asks about this. Kirsch notes that being highly suggestible is essentially a skill. He takes her to a session, and you get to see what’s going on in his brain, as he goes through some interesting tasks.
  • Kirsch brought highly-suggestible participants into a trance (though they only showed one participant, Pellam), and had them look at a very basic black and white picture of blocks. He then had them imagine colour, as if the picture was completely colourized. Then they were brought out of hypnosis and asked to do the same thing, colourizing the picture again. Participants were indeed able to see colour in their black and white pictures, which seems to give evidence that trances are not necessary. But then came the neuroscience, which even surprised Kirsch.
  • The part of the brain called the (if you feel the bump on the back of your head, it’s around there) activates when it sees colour. It turns out that when the participants were hypnotized, a part of the visual cortex activated. That means that, despite the fact that the picture was black and white, the brain said “this is in colour.” In contrast, when they were not hypnotized, the visual cortex did not activate, but other parts of the brain did. But as Sykes points out, participants reported seeing colour, so what was going on? Kirsch suggests that without the hypnosis, “they might be imagining colour, as opposed to actually seeing it.” Kirsch notes that he only had so far run 6 participants, so the data was still preliminary; but it sure sounded like there was indeed something profound going on in this hypnotic state.
  • Sykes then visits of McGill University, who is both a neuroscientist and a magician. I agree largely with Raz, who says that science hasn’t really defined the term “trance” or “hypnosis,” so it’s not helpful to use. He continues, “Attention and hypnosis are literally the same thing,” he says; “it’s an attentional manipulation.” He then attempted to hypnotize Sykes in a more private setting. However, it seems as though Sykes is not one of the “highly suggestible” types that hypnosis works well on, so it didn’t work. I suspect that there’s a certain point at which you learn enough about hypnosis that it doesn’t work well anymore, which may explain why Sykes could not be put into that state.
  • Then the documentary flashes forward three months to Richard, the heavy-smoking police officer, to see how he was doing. He lasted three weeks without wanting a cigarette, but found himself going back because of social outings. On the other hand, he did certainly cut down on the amount of smoking, which is progress… but not the promise of stopping completely.
  • Then Sykes goes to visit Nikola, the chocolate-eater, four months after her session. It so happened to be the day of a birthday party, so lots of chocolate was around. I was actually very surprised about her results, because she was liberated by the fact that her chocolate cravings had gone. She had still eaten chocolate, but she did not feel as good eating it as she used to, and she reduced her chocolate-eating dramatically.
  • That’s impressive. But as Sykes reminds us, this is just anecdotal. She notes that there are people who say they can do just about anything with hypnosis, from curing chronic lying to breast enlargement. Reviewing the research literature, she says that experts find that there is no evidence to support hypnosis for smoking cessation. Hypnosis does not clearly effect weight loss, but evidence suggests that there might be an effect when hypnosis is combined with other psychological treatments.
  • Then she met , who treats IBS. Whorwell used to be skeptical of hypnosis, until he learnt how effectively it can be used in treatment. He employs hypnosis in a way that surely relies on the placebo effect as well as suggestion. He has patients think themselves to health. Whorwell shows what it looks like by working on one of his colleagues. It’s very interesting to hear Whorwell’s take on hypnosis, as he describes the paradox of control. That is, the patient must trust the hypnotist, and it looks very much as though the hypnotist is in control; but the hypnotist tells the patient that it is really the patient who is in control. And the point, he says, is that the patient actually does take control; in their body and their health.
  • Then Sykes went to Scotland, to witness a dentist who uses hypnotherapy in dental treatment. The procedure she witnessed was a tooth extraction (ouch!), and there would be no pain medication, no anesthetic, just hypnosis. She was to have her two front teeth removed and two implants put in. Seriously, you have to see it to believe it. As Sykes says, she was way more squeamish than the patient. Clearly, trance has its benefits.
  • Sykes then investigates the placebo effect, in order to explain what she just saw. She witnessed an experiment where participants were given mildly painful shocks. First, participants were shocked after receiving a “pain-numbing cream” (it actually did nothing), and then shocked after receiving given hypnotic suggestions. They knew that both would be somewhat effective in pain relief, but what they were trying to figure out — which is why the participants were in a fMRI machine — was whether or not the same exact part of the brain was activated. As it turns out, they do not activate the same parts of the brain; there are some parts in the placebo group that are not as active in the hypnosis group and vice versa. All though the details are not so clear because they simplified the explanation like crazy (on purpose, I presume).
  • Sykes wraps up the documentary nicely, showing that she should have given hypnosis a shot without the cameras on her, so she visits Raz again, and the rest is up to our imagination.

As Raz said, it may not be beneficial to scientifically deal with hypnosis by defining hypnosis. The problem lies in the fact that there are so many varieties of it — everyone has their own way of bringing people into a trance. But regardless of what you call it, we should acknowledge that it’s real. Hypnosis is real.

However, assuming you watched the videos, or at least read the notes above, you’ll know that when I say “hypnosis is real,” I don’t mean that people can be induced into zombie-like trance-states where they are brainwashed to . That would be missing the point. Hypnosis is real, but the word “real” can be confusing. I don’t mean that it’s necessarily powerful or good; I just mean that we should not write it off as a bogus pseudoscience.

Unfortunately, most people have a bad impression of what hypnosis is and isn’t, the extremes of which are “totally fake,” and “completely taking control of someone’s mind.” So I hope, with this insight, you can educate the next misinformed layperson on what this altered state of consciousness really is.

…Just a suggestion.


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Ryo Mac

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