One of the most contentious issues in the field of hypnosis is actually attempting to define what hypnosis actually is.

I have publicly and privately debated this … I have at times lost the will to live with this debate and then got back on one and gone for it again… My hypnotherapy students get asked to evaluate the variety of offerings and seeming difficulty in defining hypnosis… What actually is it? How do we go about telling other people what it is?

It has been argued about, fought over, discussed, debated and still no-one really has created a wholly ‘agreeable-upon’ definition of hypnosis – some might argue that it is virtually impossible to define such an intangible subject matter. Here is an attempt to distinguish between various different meanings of the word ‘hypnosis’ and related concepts according to many varying people within and related to this field of hypnosis:

Dictionary Definition(s)

Hypnosis. 1) Hypnotic trance; an altered state of awareness (‘trance’) in which unconscious or dissociated responses to suggestion are enhanced in quality and increased in degree (‘hyper-suggestibility’). 2) Hypnotic induction (‘hypnogenesis’); the process by which hypnotic trance is induced in the operator (‘auto-‘ or ‘self-hypnosis’) or in others (‘hetero-hypnosis’). 3) Hypnotism; the field of study which encompasses, among other things, hypnotic trance; its induction, management, and application; and related subjects such as the phenomena of ‘waking suggestion’ and naturally occurring (‘hypnoidal’) trance states. (Abbrv. of ‘neuro-hypnotism’ meaning ‘sleep of the nervous system.’)

Dictionary Definition of Hypnosis

Then subsequently the term ‘Hypnotherapy’ gets described as the use of therapeutic techniques or principles in conjunction with hypnosis.

I’d say it is important for anyone to make sure they distinguish between hypnosis and hypnotherapy as well as the role of hypnotist and hypnotherapist.

I must be honest, I find the dictionary definition somewhat lacking in understanding and depth, but heck, they have one or two other words to attend to too, don’t they? They can be forgiven.

So here goes with a load of definitions and discussions for what hypnosis actually is… First up, the man himself, Scottish common sense hypnosis man, James Braid: (If you want to explore his life works, go and seek out the book recently edited and written by Donald Robertson ‘The Discovery of Hypnosis‘)

He is the man who first coined the term ‘hypnotism’ so he has some big authority and credibility in this debate, in my opinion. Though I have seen people on hypnosis discussion forums argue against even that notion!

Despite being introduced to the field by watching a Mesmerist perform a show, James Braid wanted to replace the supernatural theory of those mesemerists. Braid offered up a genuine scientific, medical account based on measurement and observation, thereby pioneering the early medical acceptance of hypnosis. Braid actually coined the term ‘Neuro-Hypnotism,’ which he himself abbreviated to ‘Hypnotism’:

“…a peculiar state of the nervous system, induced by a fixed and abstracted attention of the mental and visual eye, on one object, not of an exciting nature.”[Braid, Neurypnology, 1843]

Braid later reviewed his idea that hypnosis was a specific neurological state and replaced it with the theory that hypnosis was ‘monoideism,’ the fixation of consciousness on a single idea or object (and we got the eye fixation induction as a result):

The real origin and essence of the hypnotic condition is the induction of a habit of abstraction or mental concentration, in which, as in reverie or spontaneous abstraction, the powers of the mind are so much engrossed with a single idea or train of thought, as, for the nonce, to render the individual unconscious of, or indifferently conscious to, all other ideas, impressions, or trains of thought.” [Braid, 1852: 53-54]

Hippolyte Bernheim: One of the great, early pioneers of hypnosis. Professor Bernheim not only had a very cool christian name, he was also an important figure in the history of French psychology and is credited with popularising the view that hypnosis is fundamentally both a state of heightened suggestibility and induced by means of suggestion. He also refuted the connection people made between hypnosis and sleep:

To define hypnotism as induced sleep, is to give a too narrow meaning to the word, to overlook the many phenomena which suggestion can bring about independently of sleep. I define hypnotism as the induction of a peculiar psychical condition which increases the susceptibility to suggestion. Often, it is true, the sleep that may be induced facilitates suggestion, but it is not the necessary preliminary. It is suggestion that rules hypnotism.

I have tried to show that suggested sleep differs in no respect from natural sleep. The same phenomena of suggestion can be obtained in natural sleep, if one succeeds in putting one’s self into relationship [rapport] with the sleeping person without waking him.

This new idea which I propose concerning the hypnotic influence, this wider definition given to the word hypnotism, permits us to include in the same class of phenomena all the various methods which, acting upon imagination, induce the psychical condition of exalted susceptibility to suggestion [hyper-suggestibility] with or without sleep.” [Hippolyte Bernheim, Hypnosis & Suggestion in Psychotherapy, 1884: 15-16]

Ormond McGill may have been a wiley stage hypnotist, but remained very influential and well-loved in the hypnosis world until his fairly recent death. He stated:  “

“Basically, hypnosis can be regarded as a state of mind produced by the transference from one level of consciousness to another; a state with capacities for mental activities distinctly its own directly keyed to the automatic nervous system rather than the sympathetic (central nervous system) productive of the state of mind of somnambulism, i.e. subconscious behavior.” [The New Encyclopedia of Stage Hypnotism, 1996: p.12]

You’ll have to excuse his spelling, he is American! 😉

The UK Book of Statues: Now here is one of those things that is sure to fire me up…. This is the official legal definition of “hypnotism” provided by the Hypnotism Act 1952, however, I would like to point out what utter nonsense and garbage I think this is, what’s more I think it is incredibly misleading in that it implies hypnosis is a state of ‘sleep.’

This is a step backwards, and did not examine findings of medical researchers such as Bernheim and even Freud. Very annoying way of marrying up mesmerism, hypnosis and likening it to phenomena which has very little to do with hypnosis. This definition, as stated in the Hypnotism Act, still stands in British law:

“Hypnotism” includes hypnotism, mesmerism and any similar act or process which produces or is intended to produce in any person any form of induced sleep or trance in which the susceptibility of the mind of that person to suggestion or direction is increased or intended to be increased but does not include hypnotism, mesmerism or any similar act or process which is self-induced. [The Hypnotism Act, 1952]


The British Medical Association (BMA): Conscious of the uselessness of the previous definition, the British Medical Association wisely decided to offer up their own definition in response to the Hypnotism Act.

This definition concentrates on the measurable psychological and physiological changes in hypnosis. Note well that it deliberately substitutes ‘altered attention’ for the misleading expression ‘induced sleep’ used by the Book of Statues. Although phrased in medical jargon, this is a considerable improvement in my opinion:

A temporary condition of altered attention in the subject which may be induced by another person and in which a variety of phenomena may appear spontaneously or in response to verbal or other stimuli. These phenomena include alterations in consciousness and memory, increased susceptibility to suggestion, and the production in the subject of responses and ideas unfamiliar to him in his usual state of mind. Further, phenomena such as anaesthesia, paralysis and rigidity of muscles, and vasomotor changes can be produced and removed in the hypnotic state.” [BMA, ‘Medical use of Hypnotism’, 1955]

If you ever explore this further, you could examine the American Medical Association’s definition which is seemingly pages long!

Dave Elman: Mr Elman (or ‘Big Dave’ as I like to refer to him) is one of the most highly respected figures in the history of clinical hypnotherapy. Many refer to his book “Hypnotherapy” as a must-have for any hypnotherapist – I am not one of those many, as it happens.

He pioneered the use of rapid induction techniques and was a great advocate of the hypno-analytic approach to therapy. His work is characterised by a common sense approach. He did believe that only medical professionals should use hypnosis and much of his work was aimed at the medical community:

Hypnosis is a state of mind in which the critical faculty of the human is bypassed, and selective thinking established.” [Dave Elman, Hypnotherapy, 1964: 26]

A man whose work I really rather like, Stephen Gilligan, states:

“Hypnosis is conceptualized as an experientially absorbing interactional sequence that produces an altered state of consciousness wherein self-expressions begin to happen automatically, without conscious mediation.” (Gilligan, Stephen, G., Therapeutic Trances, 1987)

Finally then, I’ll offer up this little lot from Dr. Milton H. Erickson himself…

In “The Collected Papers of Milton H. Erickson, Volume I” page 113, Erickson is quoted as stating:

“The hypnotic state is an experience that belongs to the subject, derives from the subject’s own accumulated learning’s and memories, not necessarily consciously recognized, but possible of manifestations in a special state of non waking awareness”.

And one of my favourite explanations can be found within The Collected Papers of Milton H. Erickson, Volume IV of the same series, page 224,

“It is a state of consciousness – not unconsciousness or sleep – a state of consciousness or awareness in which there is a marked receptiveness to ideas and understandings and an increased willingness to respond either positively or negatively to those ideas. It derives from processes and functioning within the subject. And is not some mystical procedure, but rather a systematic utilization of experiential learning’s– that is, the extensive learning’s acquired through the process of living itself.”
For those preferring something very easy to remember, from “Experiencing Hypnosis”, pg. 187, 1981, Erickson so eloquently states:

“All hypnosis is, is a loss of the multiplicity of the foci of attention.”

Check that out! I think that is the most hypnotic definition of hypnosis that exists!  There are many, many more definitions, ideas, notions and so on… These are some that stand out for me….