What is hypnosis? In the centuries people have given different definitions of this phenomenon; the word hypnosis is commonly used:

  1. to indicate a series of different communication techniques for the induction of a state characterised normally by a physical relaxation.


  2. to indicate one of the possible results of the utilisation of these techniques, which is defined in other words as “trance”.

This terminological confusion is in reality linked to the fact that in the last century and in the first part of this century, people did not make distinction between the two concepts and the word “trance” was considered synonymous of the word “hypnosis”.

A lot of contemporary theories (and we too) doubt on the usefulness of the utilisation of the word “hypnosis” in these old meanings; in the next pages we will examine this problem.

Types of paradigms

In the study of the hypnosis, theorists are divided on which paradigm could provide the more complete and efficient comprehension of the so called hypnotic phenomena.

Some very important questions that are asked about hypnosis are:

  1. Is hypnosis a modified state of consciousness?
  2. Is hypnotic behaviour involuntary?
  3. Is it impossible to modify the “hypnotisability” of a person?

The data gathered have not yet eliminated all theoretical discussions and disagreements in this areas. Nevertheless we can observe, in the last years, a strong development of the sociological perspectives. From a sociological point of view, the answers to all this questions is “no”.

The existence of the “hypnotic state”

Theorists of hypnosis are divided on the usefulness of evoking the concept of

“hypnotic state” or “hypnotic condition”.

There are at least three different viewpoints:

  1. The first viewpoint is that hypnosis produces typical changes in the state and in the conditions of a person. These changes could play a very important role in responses of subjects to suggestions; Edmonston, for example, believes that the existence of a particular state is necessary to explain some hypnotic phenomena. He links strictly hypnosis and relaxation. A problem in this point of view is that there are no criteria to find a difference between relaxation and hypnosis (posing terminological problems) and that most hypnotic phenomena can happen without relaxation.

  2. A second viewpoint is that hypnosis produces a change in the state and condition of the person; nevertheless, this modified condition is perceived in an explanatory rather than descriptive manner. That means: we cannot say that the change of the condition of the person produces automatically the hypnotic phenomena. It is also the position of Hilgard and others. Zeig and Rennick assert that the concept of trance is not useful, and that it is preferable not to use it; we can study better hypnosis as an inter-human process.

    Hypnosis is seen as a situation, or a context, activating or increasing processes that are active in some daily moments. These processes, together with the hypnotic induction, are responsible of the modifications of behaviour and consciousness that accompany the hypnotic induction.

  3. A third viewpoint is that the concept of trance has not usefulness, and it risk to be source of errors. It is entirely recognised that, sometimes, hypnotic subjects experiment a relaxation, with large variety of sensations and modifications in the perception of the atmosphere surrounding them (Brentar 1990). The sociocognitive theories does’nt look at these modifications in the behaviour of subjects as an explanation of the hypnotic phenomenon.

    They look to the changes that we can observe in the subjective experience as products of the beliefs, expectancies, actions of subjects -- in other words, a function of their prehypnotic expectancies and of their desires to experiment what is implied in the hypnotic communication.

    For example: a subject that expects that after having been hypnotised he will not remember anything (because he/she has read stories in which hypnotised subjects had a complete amnesia), will develop amnesia very easily, while a subject that expects to remember everything normally will tend to remember everything. An interesting experimentation has been conducted by Spanos on two groups: the first of American students, the other of Malaysia.

    This experimentation has shown that each groups answered to the hypnotic inductions in a different manner, although homogeneous in each groups; for example, some of Americans showed signs of amnesia, while none of the students of Malaysia showed signs of amnesia.

    In addition, ideas that subjects use to evaluate their behaviour and their experience can also condition their experience of the hypnosis. For this reason, the socio-cognitivist theorists affirm that there is not a unique state of trance; instead, we can have different somatic changes and different perceptions, following the cognitive and social factors existing in the hypnotic context.

    In these theories, it is the hypnotic induction that gives information and elements that serve to shape the hypnotic experience.

    The hypnotic induction helps the persons to “find their roles” (Coe & Sarbin); it serves also to establish expectancies on the type of state that will be lived (Kirsh, Wagstaff); it contains words and sentences commonly associated with passive states or with receptivity. For example, the hypnotist can tell to the subject the word “sleep“; by making that he suggests already a precise behaviour (to remain relaxed, to let himself go etc.).

    If we tell somebody to imagine to sleep, and after that he tells us that he has imagined to have slept, there is no need to suspect a state with characteristics similar to those of sleep, that means only that he has done what we have asked him to do.

Sociological theories

There are several sociological (and non physiological) theories. Each of them bring attention on some of the specific phenomena that can be observed during the hypnosis induction for producing the state refered-to as “trance”.

We can say that in our daily practice in Nice, this is the kind of theories that we find more explanatory of what we observe.

1. Hypnosis As A Subjective Experience

There is a substantial evidence that the hypnotic state is very different from a modified consciousness state such as the result of drugs or sleeping. The fact is that hypnosis is not, objectively, a distinct state, although it could be felt nevertheless by some subjects as a “Special State”.

The fact itself to see an experience as a “special state” could lead the subject to the conviction that unusual things could arrive, and as a result of its expectancies, these things can happen.

A subject that is convinced to be in a “Special State” , will react well to suggestions. But this will not happen because he is really in a special state under the physiological viewpoint, but because he believes in this kind of experience, arriving to a responsivity similar to what we can observe in the “placebo effect”.

SUTCLIFFE calls this point of view as “skeptic”.

SUTCLIFFE reports some experiences to demonstrate that. For example, a subject feels a change of sensitivity, while the physical analysis shows that this change is not linked to the level of the physiological elements, but rather to the level of expectancies. This viewpoint does not deny that physical changes can be brought through the use of hypnosis. It asserts only that changes are indirect or similar to physical changes that could have been caused by other techniques. Learning hypnosis means therefore learning particular strategies that can produce the “hypnotic phenomena”.


In our practice we see often the hypnotist is “a director of expectancies”; he creates expectancies, and he directs them. The more he will create expectancies, the best will be the results. People practicing self-hypnosis understand that are using a method for changing their expectancies, and self-hypnosis is, in reality, just a ritualisation of a natural process.

2. Hypnosis as a product of the situation

T.X. Barber asserts that it is not usefull to try to understand the internal state of the hypnotised subject, since we can not observe directly internal events. He asserts that it is far more significant to examine the factors of the environment of the hypnotic subject. More specifically, the question is:

which factors in the hypnotic situation lead the subject to reply to suggestions or to not reply? One of the results of the researches of T.X. Barber is that in reality all hypnotic effects can be reproduced by a subject that is not-hypnotised, provided that the subject is correctly motivated and that the situation is coherent to the performance. T.X. Barber’s research is directed toward the induction of modifications in perceptible experiences, such anaesthesia and hallucinations, to show the needlessness of the presupposition of hypnotic state.

T.X. Barber (1969) criticises the concept of a “hypnotic state” for two reasons:

  1. On the basis of a circularity logic (the hypnotic phenomena should indicate the existence of a hypnotic state but the affirmation: (a) “somebody is hypnotised because it shows hypnotic responses”, is explained by the former (b) “it has hypnotic responses because it is hypnotized”)
  2. Because hypnotic inductions are not necessary for the production of a large quantity of hypnotic phenomena (some people shows age-regressions spontaneously, or some people can have anesthesia without hypnosis).

Recently, Kirsch, Mobayed, Council and Kenny (1991) have gathered data supporting the following affirmations:

  1. there are not identified physiological indicators of the “hypnotic state”;
  2. all phenomena produced by suggestions after hypnotic inductions can be also produced without hypnotic inductions
  3. the apparent increase of the “suggestibility”, met in some subjects after hypnotic induction is weak and can be reproduced by a lot of other methods (imagination, placebo etc. ).

Altough the supporters of the absence of a particular state deny the specificity of the hypnotic state, the majority of them does not deny the subjective reality of the hypnotic experience, and does not believe that the subjects fake the phenomena.

(That means: subjects believe in good faith to experiment a particular situation simply because this situation is characterised by sensations that FOR THEM are new, but that in reality are natural).


The immediate environment is seen as crucial in obtaining the hypnotic phenomena. In our practice we observe that attention to small things is important. The hypnotist tries to establish within the subject a positive attitude toward hypnosis. That can be made by describing the hypnotic experience reasonably but enthusiastically to a new subject. In the normal practice, the motivation of a client to be hypnotised is normally connected to particular purposes, such as stopping to smoke, loosing weight, overcoming a fear or improving his/her sport performances.

Tipically, in such cases the motivation is already high. Positive expectations could be increased by a confident and competent way of doing from the hypnotist's side.

On a more trivial level, perhaps, some environmental factors would be considered as important. The former would include the general atmosphere of the office, the walls' coulours, comfortable seats, maybe a soft music, and an image of professionality through placing in view diplomas and certificates.

All these factors will influence behaviour, but the most important factor is the hypnotist. Nothing can replace the skill of the hypnotist to maintain the control of the hypnotic situation from beginning to end.

In the practice of self-hypnosis we give much importance to imagining surrounding people reacting positively to what we do.

3. Hypnosis As A Role-Game

Since more than 40 years, the biggest question on hypnosis has been what Fellows (1990) called the controversy “particular state” / “not particular state”.

Sarbin (1950) attacked the traditional idea of hypnosis as a modified state of consciousness (“hypnotic trance”, “hypnotic state” ) produced by hypnotic induction.

SARBIN looks to hypnosis as a Role Game, but when you play a role game it is not necessary “to fake”. He describes it as an automatic entrance in a certain classified behaviour.

SARBIN brings to attention an analogy with theatre. He says that an actor could become so absorbed in its role to literally forget who he really is. People who are familiar with recitation are aware of this phenomenon.

From this point of view, hypnosis is the result of an imagination totally coherent with the hypnotic role until the moment where the subject loses contact with reality thus becoming capable to feel himself and the world as suggested by the hypnotist, in a similar way the actor feels the world created by the writer.


The permissive method of induction is connected to this theory. That means: it is important to obtain an active cooperation from the subject, and to encourage his imagination. Expressions such , “feel that your arms are heavier,” or “imagine to be on a tropical beach with the sun heating your face” are appropriate examples. Encouraging subjects in what we can call the “behaviour as if” is a sort of invitation to follow the role suggested by the hypnotist. In this theory, the responsibility is placed on the subject himself.

The subject is asked to employ his/her imagination to transform his/her experience. The hypnotist is seen as an assistance or a guide, or, as some people say: “It is you that make the hypnosis. I am just a guide for you” .


Certainly there is not an unanimous opinion among researchers and theorists concerning the essential nature of hypnosis.

Kuhn (1962) asserts that the real work of the science begins when researchers adopt a common paradigm.

All these different viewpoints on the same thing are derivated from the different manners employed to think and to shape the reality of the researchers. Each of them brings attention to a different point, and to fully understand the phenomenon of hypnosis is absolutely necessary to put them together. In the same manner, to practice hypnosis in an efficient way, we have to put together the implications of all of them.

Beyond the apparent variety, the sociological perspectives seem to offer a complete explanation of all the hypnotic phenomena, giving very good suggestions for an efficient practice.

These theories show us too that is possible to observe the hypnotic phenomena from a totally not-physiological point of view, and cast doubt on the utility of using medical (and psychoanalitical) models in this area that seems to be better covered from a sociological perspective.


  • Barber, Spanos, Chaves: “Hypnosis, Imagination and Human Potentialities”. Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press
  • Barber, T.X.: “Hypnosis: A scientific approach”. New York: Van Nostrand Press
  • Bandler, Grinder: “Trance-Formation”. Meta-publications
  • Godin, J.: “La nouvelle hypnose”. Bibliothèque Albin Michel Idées
  • Lynn, Rhue et alii: “Theories of hypnosis”. Guilford Press
  • Michaux, D.: “La Transe et l’Hypnose”. Imago
  • NGH: Annual Convention 1995. Merrimack NH: National Guild of Hypnotists

this article was taken from ISI-CNV:



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