This shows a hypnotized man.
A deeply hypnotized person is believed to display “blind obedience,” going along automatically with whatever the hypnotist suggests. Credit: Neuroscience News

Dispelling Popular Myths About Hypnosis

Summary: A recent paper aims to dispel common misconceptions about hypnosis that are widely circulated in popular culture. Contrary to the myth that hypnotized individuals can’t resist suggestions, the authors clarify that people retain voluntary control during hypnosis.

The researchers also debunk the idea that hypnosis is a “special state,” suggesting it should be considered a procedure modulating awareness and cognition. The paper aims to correct the understanding of hypnosis to maximize its therapeutic benefits.

Key Facts:

  1. Hypnotized individuals retain control over their actions and can resist hypnotic suggestions.
  2. Hypnosis should not be misconstrued as a “special state” but is more accurately a set of procedures used to modulate awareness, perception, and cognition.
  3. Despite widespread belief, the ability to administer hypnotic methods does not require special skills beyond those required for basic social interactions and clinical procedures.

Source: Binghamton University

A strange mystic swings a pocket watch back and forth, repeating the phrase “You’re getting sleepy, very sleepy,” giving them absolute command over their subject.

That’s not how hypnotism really works, but it’s the way it’s often depicted in pop culture. Even some clinicians and hypnosis educators propagate harmful myths about hypnosis.

Steven Jay Lynn, a professor of psychology at Binghamton University, State University of New York, is an expert on hypnosis who has made major contributions to the judicial system for his insight on the practice.

Credit: Neuroscience News

Lynn believes that hypnosis has many useful clinical applications, but that myths keep it from being utilized to its full potential.

In a recent paper published in BJPsych Advances, “Reconciling myths and misconceptions about hypnosis with scientific evidence,” he and his colleagues, Madeline Stein and Devin Terhune from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College, addressed a number of errors and misconceptions regarding the characteristics and practice of hypnosis.

These are a few of the common myths that are widely believed and commonly circulated in popular culture.

Hypnotized people can’t resist suggestions

A deeply hypnotized person is believed to display “blind obedience,” going along automatically with whatever the hypnotist suggests. Yet individuals do not lose control over their actions during hypnosis – contrary to the notion the media reinforces that hypnosis is something  done to you and that hypnosis can be used to control someone.

In fact, people can resist and even  oppose hypnotic suggestions. Their experience of control during hypnosis depends on their intentions and expectations regarding whether or not  they retain voluntary control.

Hypnosis is a “special state”

Hypnosis is often mischaracterized as a “special state” where defense mechanisms are reduced and a “unique state of physical relaxation and conscious unconsciousness’ allows us to ‘enter our subconscious depths through hypnosis.

However, people can respond to hypnotic suggestions even while they are alert and on an exercise bicycle. Aside from being a contradiction in terms, ‘conscious unconsciousness’ is an inaccurate depiction, because during hypnosis even the most highly suggestible individuals remain fully conscious and cognizant of their surroundings.

It is more accurate to consider hypnosis as a set of procedures in which verbal suggestions are used to modulate awareness, perception and cognition, rather than to unnecessarily invoke ‘special states.’

People are either hypnotizable or they are not

People’s responsiveness to hypnosis can be relatively stable over time. Yet it is inaccurate to assume that people are either hypnotizable or not.

People vary greatly in their responsiveness and often respond to some suggestions but not others. Still, most people are sufficiently hypnotizable to reap substantial benefits from therapeutic suggestions. 

Responsiveness to suggestions reflects nothing more than compliance or faking

Suggested behaviors during hypnosis can seem so much a departure from the mundane that questions inevitably arise regarding whether hypnotic responses are genuine.

However, neuroimaging studies reveal that the effects of hypnotic suggestions activate brain regions (e.g, visual processing) consistent with suggested events (e.g., hallucinating an object).

These findings provide convincing evidence that hypnotic effects are represented at the neurophysiological level consistent with what people report.

Hypnotic methods require great skill to administer

One popular misconception is that of the mesmerist, or magician-like hypnotist with special powers of influence who can “hypnotize” anyone.

This widespread idea is pure myth; in actuality, administering a hypnotic induction and specific suggestions do not require any special skills or abilities beyond those required for basic social interactions and administration of experimental or clinical procedures, such as the ability to establish rapport.

However, hypnosis should be practiced only by professionals trained in the use of hypnosis. 

Hypnotic age regression can retrieve accurate memories from the distant past

TV shows and movies often feature people being able to recall extremely accurate memories from a distant past life under hypnosis. But research suggests a contrary view.

When researchers check the accuracy of memories of people who are “age regressed” to an earlier time (e.g., 10th century)  against factual information from the suggested period, they find that the information  is almost invariably incorrect.

What people report  is mostly consistent with information experimenters provide regarding their supposed past life experiences and identities (e.g., different race, culture, sex).

These findings imply that “recall” reflects participants’ expectancies, fantasies, and beliefs regarding personal characteristics and events during a given historical period.

About this hypnosis and psychology research news

Author: John Brhel
Source: Binghamton University
Contact: John Brhel – Binghamton University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Reconciling myths and misconceptions about hypnosis with scientific evidence” by Steven Jay Lynn et al. BJPsych Advances


Reconciling myths and misconceptions about hypnosis with scientific evidence

This issue of BJPsych Advances includes an article on the use of hypnotherapy in psychiatric practice. The article contains a number of errors and misconceptions regarding the characteristics and practice of hypnosis that we address in this commentary.

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  1. Although mostly true., the above summary is incomplete and therefore inaccurate. It is true for example, that if you told someone under hypnosis to steal someone else’s handbag., that they would not (unless they are that way inclined anyway). However, if you tell the same person that their handbag has been taken by someone else and they should get it back, there’s a good chance they will. So the result is the same. IE: Hypnosis is about language and people can indeed be tricked into doing something they would not normally do.
    As for regression, a person under hypnosis in some cases can accurately recall minute details (like sentences in a book from when they were a child). So regression is real. The only question then becomes are past lives real? A question which is debatable and unlikely to ever be proven.

  2. I have enjoyed this publication for a while. Today I wanted to dig further. I was asked to pay $36 to read the original. That may not be in your control. Then I looked at the references on the side and from the article….most were old, even back as far as 1976. Now this could be the author’s responsibility. But then you selected this. It made me question your criteria I’m going to need to spend more time checking out others. When it comes to science, I don’t want to select an “oldies” station.

    1. Hi Rick,

      Unfortunately, paying to read the research papers is something that is completely out of our control. That’s down to where the researchers choose to publish the research and whether that journal is paywalled (charges readers for access to a full paper) or open access.

      Our criteria is to select research that is relevant, reliable and news worthy. We have no affiliation with any journal or any of the research teams/schools. We, as an organization, prefer to provide open access research journal content, but often some of the best research is paywalled. That is beyond our control.

      More and more traditionally paywalled journals are now offering some limited open access papers, but there’s still a long way to go until all research is freely accessible to the public.

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