Is it a myth of hypnosis or is it really the case that people treat suggestions they receive, when hypnotised, very literally?

What I am referring to here is the school of thought that many hypnotists and hypnotherapists believe in that states that when an individual is hypnotised they tend to respond in a very literal sense to the suggestions they are given. Therefore we need to be very careful with our wording and ensure it cannot be interpreted in a problematic or ineffective way.

In his 2000 book The practice of hypnotism,  Andre Weitzenhoffer, stated this literal response as follows:

The term literal and its derivatives has at least a half dozen different but related dictionary         meanings that focus on the fact that all words have a primary, basic, habitual, literal meaning, as contrasted to a figurative metaphoric one acquired over time. Some people are more prone to act in terms of this literal meaning even when a figurative one is clearly intended. Applied to the hypnosis situation, a subject who would respond to the statement about someone present as being “bright,” meaning “intelligent,” by seeing the person as           surrounded by light, would correctly be considered to have responded literally to the term      bright.

Today, the biggest supporters of this notion of literalism tend to be those that are firm advocates of Milton Erickson and his work. In 1980 a paper entitled Literalness: An experimental study was published within Ernest Rossi’s Collected papers of Milton H Erickson whereby Erickson reported on his own personal interpretation and assessment of 1,800 hypnotised and 3,000 non-hypnotised individuals in relation to this notion of literalism.

Erickson asked the question to his clients “do you mind telling me your name?” and interpreted and yes/no response as being literal and those offering their actual name to the question were considered to be offering the non-literal response. As a result of this, Erickson stated that when hypnotised, the vast majority of his clients responded literally to suggestions while 95% of those that were not hypnotised did not respond in the literal way.

As a side issue, that kind of question being responded to with an action became known within NLP’s Milton model as a conversational postulate.

Some of the more evidence based hypnotherapists and hypnosis professionals may not think that Ericksons study is conclusive enough, what with it being so subjective. To those people, you can look at the 1990 study by Green et al. entitled Literalism as a marker of hypnotic “trance”: Disconfirming evidence featured in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, though the title may give away the findings! There was another 1990 study by Lynn et al featured in the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis entitled Literalism and hypnosis: Hypnotic versus task motivated subjects which shared similar results to the Green study.

Both studies used more controlled research to explore this notion of literalism being present in hypnotised individuals. Both studies showed that though literalism existed in a small number number of hypnotised individuals, it was only a very small number.

They suggested that Ericksons summations may have been inflated because of compliance. others may think that the very nature of the way Erickson conducted his study may have affected the way his results were interpreted and achieved.

As of today, there is no real solid evidence to suggest that literal responses to suggestion in hypnosied individuals is actually characteristic of being hypnotised.

I have found that in the early years of my exploration with self-hypnosis, my own teacher would tell us that the subconscious mind was very literal and we found many people having humourous results which I attribute to the fact we were told that the mind was literal rather than it actually being so?

One lady hypnotised herself to sleep better and used the words with herself “when I get out of bed, I feel awake and ready for the day ahead, full of energy” which sounds harmless and well-intentioned, yet she claimed that she got up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet and the effect of the hypnosis suggestions were that she then felt totally awake and alert and had to go about her business, despite it being 3am!

There are accounts of people telling themselves over and over again that they need a break from work, and finding that when an accident occurred and a limb broke, for example, they attributed this to their mind translating the notion of a break literally – they still got plenty of time off work.

As hypnotherapists and hypnosis professionals, I think it responsible to choose words carefully and leave little room for potentially problematic misinterpretation, though that would likely wrangle with those that use ambiguous language patterns on purpose to hypnotise.

There seems to be little more than subjective evidence for the notion that hypnotised people respond in a literal fashion to suggestion, but the subjective evidence can still help us to be sure that we are considerate and thoughtful with our words.