Is Hypnosis Real? Here’s What Science Says

I just finished reading through this article (Read Full Article Here) on whether hypnosis is real or not, and I want to share some thoughts on what author Markham Heid had to say.

Look into my eyes. The phrase calls to mind images of a psychotherapist swinging a pocket watch. Or maybe you picture Catherine Keener in the film Get Out, tapping her teacup and sending an unwilling man into a state of hypnotic limbo.

I will start with what might be the least important point either the author or myself are likely to make. If a hypnotist has a pocket watch in his(her) hands, he(she) probably wouldn’t tell you to look in his(her) eyes. (S)he is more likely to say, “Look at the watch.”

“There are many myths about hypnosis, mostly coming from media presentations,” like fictional films and novels, says Irving Kirsch, a lecturer and director of the Program in Placebo Studies at Harvard Medical School. But setting aside pop culture clichés, Kirsch says hypnosis is a well-studied and legitimate form of adjunct treatment for conditions ranging from obesity and pain after surgery to anxiety and stress.

Did you ever see The Flying Nun, on TV? It was a series back in the late 1960s. I don’t remember thinking that nuns could fly. I don’t even remember hearing that anyone else thought that nuns could fly. Yes, nuns exist. Yes, birds can fly. But it doesn’t mean that just because they were put together in a fictional setting, that it becomes true that nuns can fly. 

Yes, hypnosis is real. Yes, there are people who try to get other people to murder for them. You may have seen a movie or a show where a hypnotist gets someone else to commit murder. But that doesn’t mean that all hypnotists will try to get someone to commit murder.

I have known many hypnotists since I got into the “business.” Not one of them has tried to get me to commit murder. Not one of them has even asked me to slap anyone. Why, not one of them has even asked me to grab them an extra roll from the buffet!

Very few people believe in Superman, Wonder Woman, talking dogs, or any other fictional character just because it exists in fiction. I wonder how many people really believe in “the evil hypnotist.”

In terms of weight loss, some of Kirsch’s research has found that, compared to people undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—one of the most evidence-backed non-drug treatments for weight loss, depression and many other conditions—those who undergo cognitive behavior therapy coupled with hypnosis tend to lose significantly more weight. After four to six months, those undergoing CBT+hypnosis dropped more than 20 pounds, while those who just did CBT lost about half that amount. The hypnosis group also maintained that weight loss during an 18-month follow-up period, while the CBT-only group tended to regain some weight.

To me, hypnosis is a way to maximize your inner strength. It means that you can be a stronger you. And that means that whatever you do, you might just be better at doing it. If you do CBT, you might be better at doing that. If you take medication, it means that your body may be better able to use the chemicals you ingest to do the work they are designed to do. If you play sports, or a musical instrument, it may mean that you can play better. If you are falling asleep, it means that you might be able to fall asleep faster, easier, and deeper. What else do you do that you’d like to do with more ease, strength, and efficacy?

Apart from aiding weight loss, there is “substantial research evidence” that hypnosis can effectively reduce physical pain, says Len Milling, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Hartford.

One of Milling’s review articles found that hypnosis could help reduce kids’ post-surgical pain or pain related to other medical procedures. Another of his review articles found that when it comes to labor and delivery-related pain, hypnosis can in some cases significantly add to the benefits of standard medical care—including epidurals and drugs.

Yes, hypnosis can help lessen or eliminate pain. I will simply point out here that people have been using hypnosis to relieve pain long before the studies came out. People haven’t been using hypnosis to ease pain because the studies showed that it can. People have been using hypnosis to ease pain because it works.

“It is very helpful for smoking cessation,” adds Dr. David Spiegel, a hypnosis expert and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. “Half the people I see once stop [smoking], half of them won’t touch a cigarette for two years.” A 2007 randomized trial of 286 smokers found that 20% of people who received hypnosis managed to quit, compared to 14% of those receiving standard behavioral counseling. The smoking cessation benefits were even more pronounced among smokers with a history of depression—hinting at an additional potential benefit of hypnosis.

Hypnosis can also be “very helpful” in treating stress, anxiety and PTSD, Spiegel says. Research has found hypnosis can even alter a person’s immune function in ways that offset stress and reduce susceptibility to viral infections.

No argument from me! I will sum up and say that whenever a person is struggling with any problem, be it physical, mental, behavioral, or emotional, that person is under increased stress. In some cases, the stress may have caused the problem in the first place, but in most cases, there is more stress simply because they have the problem! So, maybe stress causes the problem, but certainly the problem will cause stress. Either way, if hypnosis can lower stress, the problem will change – maybe disappear, or maybe simply change into a problem that is more easily solved.

But what exactly does hypnosis entail, and how does it provide these benefits? That’s where things get a little murky. “If you asked 10 hypnosis experts how hypnosis works, you would probably get 10 different explanations,” Milling says.

You might even get more than 10 different explanations. I am only one hypnotherapist, and I have 5 or 6 explanations I can use. And as I learn more, I will probably come up with a few more. 

I don’t usually ask for explanations about how things work, especially when they are working. If I get a prescription from my doctor, I usually don’t ask how it works. I don’t know how my car works, and don’t care as long as it does. And even when my car breaks down, I don’t ask the mechanic, “How are you going to make it work?” I ask my mechanic two much more important questions: “How much will it cost to fix?” and “When can I have it back?”

Almost everyone in the field agrees that the practice of hypnosis involves two stages, which are usually referred to as “induction” and “suggestion.”

Almost is the correct term here. I am in the field, and I don’t agree that there are two stages that can be labeled induction and suggestion. More on this later…

“During the induction, the subject is typically told to relax, focus his or her attention, and that he or she is going into hypnosis,” Milling says. This stage could last anywhere from a few seconds to 10 minutes or longer, and the goal of induction is to quiet the mind and focus its attention on the therapist or counselor’s voice and guidance.

I never tell a client to relax. Most clients aren’t very good at relaxing, and they know it. That’s why they come to me! That’s the first reason I don’t tell you to relax. Asking you to do something you know you have been struggling with causes more stress, and makes it harder to relax. 

The other reason that I don’t tell people to relax, is because the word itself is an alarm word. Just think if right now, as you are reading this page, someone comes into the room and says, “Relax!” You would automatically assume that something was wrong! They wouldn’t tell you to relax if there wasn’t a reason to be stressed!

The process described is certainly one way of doing it, but there are others.

The “suggestion” phase involves talking the hypnotized person through hypothetical events and scenarios intended to help him or her address or counteract unhelpful behaviors and emotions. Patients are invited to experience imaginary events as if they were real, Milling says. The type of suggestions used depend on the patient and his or her unique challenges.

In the last sentence, I might substitute “methods” for “suggestions.” And the methods will vary depending on the client and the issues, and also depending on the hypnotist. 

I consider myself one of the oldest living adolescents (age 66). That means that I hate being told what to do. (I know a lot of people who don’t like being told what to do.) For this reason, I don’t like to tell others what to do. So “suggestion” in the usual sense is not a very big part of my hypnotic process. 

For instance, I never tell a smoker not to smoke, or a weight loss client what to eat or not eat. I use the hypnotic process to help people better able to make those decisions for themselves. I want people to stop smoking (for instance) not because I told them to, but because they now have the inner strength to make that choice, and follow through. 

I don’t care if they leave the office thinking, “Wow, Alan’s a great hypnotherapist.” I’d rather have them leaving my office and living the rest of their lives thinking, “Wow, I didn’t realize until now how strong I am.”

In some ways, hypnosis can be compared to guided meditation or mindfulness; the idea is to set aside normal judgments and sensory reactions, and to enter a deeper state of concentration and receptiveness. Both Milling and Spiegel compare hypnosis to losing oneself in a book or movie—those times when the outside world fades away and a person’s mind is completely absorbed in what she’s reading or watching. Research has also referred to hypnosis as the temporary “obliteration” of the ego.

Just as there are many names for states of consciousness as well as names for methods to achieve them, the same name can be used to describe different states and methods. As we’ve seen with the word “hypnosis,” not all people who meditate are doing the same thing. 

If someone tells you, “I meditate,” that doesn’t tell you any more about what he does than someone who says, “I play sports.” That doesn’t tell you much. He could be a multi-millionaire professional basketball player, a semi-pro baseball player, a race car driver, or someone who plays ping-pong once a month at his Elk’s lodge. 

I was a professional musician for 30 years, and I cannot tell you how many times someone said to me, “I love music!” That, by itself, doesn’t mean much to me. Does she like rap, classical (Medieval, Baroque, Romantic, Twelve Tone, etc.), country, Broadway, jazz (Dixieland, Ragtime, Boogie Woogie, Be Bop, Swing, Cool, Avant Garde, Smooth, etc.), pop, traditional African drumming, barbershop quartet, vocal, instrumental? Does she play music, listen to it, dance to it, practice music therapy, sing music? Do you see how using the term “music” doesn’t tell you much?

The same can be said of hypnosis, meditation, mindfulness, imagery, healing, and even words like counseling, therapy, and the like. The word itself leaves plenty of room for very different experiences. 

One other thing about this paragraph – there are often comparisons made between being in hypnosis and watching a movie. Once again, there is validity to this. However, there is a very big difference between the two experiences. When watching a movie, you focus on something that is happening outside of you. In hypnosis, the focus is on something that is happening inside of you. 

It is the difference between internalizing an outer experience, and using an internal experience to help you when you “return” to the outside world. 

“While most people fear losing control in hypnosis, it is in fact a means of enhancing mind-body control,” Spiegel says. Instead of allowing pain, anxiety or other unhelpful states to run the show, hypnosis helps people to exert more control over their thoughts and perceptions.

A hypnotist working a comedy hypnosis show wants to create the illusion that he has control over the people on stage. It is like a magician creating an illusion. The goal is to amuse, amaze, and entertain. 

In therapy, however, we do not need these illusions. We have different goals. They are to help you, the client, lower stress, end struggle, and to enjoy yourself and your experiences in new and better ways. It is a process of altering perception, maybe even removing the illusions that don’t work for you.

How does hypnosis do this? Spiegel’s research has shown it can act on multiple brain regions, including some linked to pain perception and regulation. Hypnosis has also been found to quiet parts of the brain involved in sensory processing and emotional response.

Once again, I don’t want to wait for science to explain what people have been using successfully for decades, centuries, and maybe even millennia. When I have a headache and take aspirin, I don’t ask how it works. I just enjoy the result if the headache goes away. To my knowledge, science hasn’t yet come up with a mechanism of action for aspirin. I don’t want to wait for the explanation. I want to feel better!

However, there’s a lot of controversy over how hypnosis works, Milling says. “Originally, Freud theorized that hypnosis weakens the barrier between the conscious and subconscious,” he says, adding that this theory has largely been abandoned. While some attribute the power of hypnosis to the placebo effect, another theory is that “hypnosis causes people to enter an altered state of consciousness, which makes them very responsive to hypnotic suggestions,” he says. While talk about “altered states of consciousness” sounds a little spooky, there’s no loss of consciousness or amnesia.

Hypnosis is as much a natural state of consciousness as waking, sleeping and dreaming. There are mysteries about all of these states (and more) that we are still exploring. Sleep research continues. There is no consensus about exactly what dreams are. But the mysteries of sleep and dreaming aren’t usually called “controversies.” So we don’t know exactly what hypnosis is, the mechanism of action, or what happens in our brain when we are in that state. That doesn’t make it controversial; it makes it exactly the same as every other state of consciousness.

Not everyone benefits equally from hypnosis. Milling says that about 20% of people show a “large” response to it, while the same percentage of people don’t respond much at all. The remaining 50% to 60% of people land somewhere in between. “Children tend to be more hypnotizable,” Spiegel says.

When I read that “not everyone benefits from hypnosis,” I realize that the sentence could be true of many, many things. Just fill in the blank.

Not everyone benefits equally from __________.

Possible answers: Surgery, medications, apples, relaxation techniques, watching movies, meditation, anger management classes, school classes, graduate school, playing a musical instrument, prayer, to-do lists, playing on a sports team, speed-reading courses, exercise, a particular diet. 

That doesn’t mean that these things can’t be a benefit to thousands of people. The averages described in the above paragraph are a perfect example of the “bell curve.” In almost any activity, there are roughly the same percentages of success. 

But even people who score low on measures of hypnotic suggestibility can still benefit from it, Kirsch adds. He also says it’s important to view hypnosis as a supplement to other forms of therapy—something to be tried only in conjunction with CBT, psychotherapy or other types of treatment.

Milling reiterates this point. He compares practitioners who are trained only in hypnosis to carpenters who only know how to use one tool. “To be an effective carpenter, it takes more than knowing how to use a saw,” he says. “Seek help from licensed psychologists, licensed psychiatrists and licensed clinical social workers who are trained in hypnosis as well as a range of other psychotherapeutic techniques.” (A benefit of seeing a licensed clinician, as opposed to someone who only practices hypnosis, is that the treatment is more likely to be covered by insurance.)

A person who is a clinician might be trained in hypnosis, but – at least in the state of Arizona –  (s)he is not licensed as a hypnotherapist. (S)he might have a license as a counselor, or a psychologist, or a social worker, but Arizona doesn’t license hypnotists. And someone who is trained in many different areas isn’t necessarily equally proficient in all areas. Doctors receive very little training in nutrition, psychology, counseling, acupuncture, hypnosis, etc. You may want to consider seeing someone who excels at the healing modality that you need or want. 

It isn’t always easy to find the best person for your needs at the moment, but it is well worth the effort. 

True, insurance will cover some things but not others. However, that shouldn’t be the only consideration. When you buy a car, you never buy the absolute cheapest car you can find. You probably buy a car that is the best you can get for the money you have available. And sometimes, you spend more than you planned, because you see something that will make your life better, and say, “I’m worth it.” And it is true. You are worth it, even if it is a few hundred dollars more. 

So if you want to quit smoking, improve your health, lose weight, sleep better, be less stressed, perform better in school, at work, in bed, or on stage, think about this. You are worth it, even if it costs you more than you might have planned. It is not an expense; it is an investment. In yourself.

Finally, don’t expect hypnosis to work after a single session. Some experts say one shot can be effective. But Milling argues that “in general, a single treatment session involving hypnosis is unlikely to be beneficial.”

I tell clients that the process takes longer than one session. Sometimes a client will agree with me, and then cancel the second session, saying that it doesn’t seem to be working. To me, that is like being on the operating table, opening your eyes, and saying to the surgeon, “Doc, I don’t think this operation is working; I don’t feel any better!” 

If you do need surgery you don’t want that surgeon to be one who was trained the quickest, you want a surgeon who was trained the best. 

The quickest solution to a problem isn’t always the best. The best solution is the one that works best. If you work with a hypnotherapist, give it some time. Give the therapist time. Give the process time. And most importantly, give yourself time. After all, you are worth it.

Correction: August 31

The original version of this story misstated the findings of two of Milling’s review articles. Hypnosis was found to significantly add to the benefits of standard medical care, not outperform it. Hypnosis was also found to reduce kids’ post-surgical pain, not to eliminate it. It also mischaracterized Milling’s view of the “suggestion” phase of hypnosis. Suggestions are a tailored invitation to experience imaginary events as if they were real. They are not dependent on the individual and they are not like asking a psychologist what they will say during psychotherapy.

I got very good grades all through school, up to and including a Masters degree. My SATs were in the top 1% of my class. My vocabulary is above average. I am generally considered very smart by long time friends, and people who I have recently met. My opinion is considered valuable in many circles. 

But I have to admit, I don’t understand the last paragraph with the corrections. 

You can contact me at: or 602-478-8346.