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What is hypnosis?

What is hypnosis?

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What is hypnosis? Well, that is a question that has been asked for as long as hypnosis has existed. Even now, there is not one single definition of hypnosis that is universally accepted. So, to answer the question, ‘what is hypnosis’, it is easier to break it down into a few different sub-questions:

  • How do you define hypnosis?
  • Is hypnosis a real, tangible ‘state’?
  • Does the state of hypnosis occur anywhere else?
  • What happens when someone is hypnotised?
  • Why does hypnosis work?

In this blog, I will answer these questions so hopefully, by the end of it, you will have a better idea about what hypnosis is. Or at least, what I believe hypnosis is.


How do you define hypnosis

My own definition of hypnosis is flexible, but fundamentally, I believe that hypnosis is a natural state of focused attention that allows a person to become more suggestible, or less consciously critical of suggested ideas and responses. This is a similar definition that you will find on the Wikipedia entry for hypnosis:

“Hypnosis is a human condition involving focused attention (the selective attention/selective inattention hypothesis), reduced peripheral awareness, and an enhanced capacity to respond to suggestion.”

Another definition comes from the American Psychological Association, and it is one that I would also agree with in part:

“A procedure during which a health professional or researcher suggests while treating someone, that he or she experience changes in sensations, perceptions, thoughts or behavior.”

However, the APA limits their definition strictly to therapy and research, whereas hypnosis can be used for many other things, such as stage hypnosis shows and street hypnosis demonstrations. Therefore, I think that description could do away with the health professional, researcher and treatment elements, in order to make it more universally acceptable.


What is hypnosis?


As mentioned above, there are many, many different definitions of hypnosis, some that include the above elements, and some that include different ideas that I agree with less. Such as,

  • “an unconscious state”
  • “a state of consciousness in which a person apparently loses the power of voluntary action”
  • “a mental state in which a person’s thoughts can be easily influenced by someone else”

Those are just three random examples, taken from definitions I found on page one of Google today, and in my opinion, they are examples of where definitions haven’t been worded quite right. I’m not saying those three defining points are untrue, just that they could have been stated in a less confusing or misleading way. For example, I would word them like this, with my changes in green:

  • “a state that gives access to the unconscious mind with a reduction of conscious input or resistance
  • “a state of consciousness in which a person can experience a reduction in voluntary action”
  • “a mental state in which a person’s thoughts can be more easily influenced by someone else, to a certain degree

So, there is no single definition of hypnosis, but I think my definition, as well as the Wikipedia entry and the APA definition are all acceptable.


What is hypnosis?


Is hypnosis a real, tangible ‘state’?

Yes, hypnosis is a measurable state. However, there has not been a lot of research on just ‘finding out what happens in the brain when hypnotised’. Most hypnosis research relates to the use of hypnosis for specific applications. That said, there has been some research on what happens in the brain during hypnosis, the key studies being conducted by Dr Spiegel and his team at Stanford University. Here is an excerpt from an article about their research:

“First, they saw a decrease in activity in an area called the dorsal anterior cingulate, part of the brain’s salience network. “In hypnosis, you’re so absorbed that you’re not worrying about anything else,” Spiegel explained.

Secondly, they saw an increase in connections between two other areas of the brain — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula. He described this as a brain-body connection that helps the brain process and control what’s going on in the body.

Finally, Spiegel’s team also observed reduced connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network, which includes the medial prefrontal and the posterior cingulate cortex. This decrease in functional connectivity likely represents a disconnect between someone’s actions and their awareness of their actions, Spiegel said. “When you’re really engaged in something, you don’t really think about doing it — you just do it,” he said. During hypnosis, this kind of disassociation between action and reflection allows the person to engage in activities either suggested by a clinician or self-suggested without devoting mental resources to being self-conscious about the activity.”

As well as this, and other studies, such as the Harvard study on hypnosis and ‘heart rate variability’, there are other, simpler methods of measuring hypnosis, such as using a ‘Galvanic skin response’ machine with people in hypnosis. Most hypnotists and hypnotherapists, however, do not use devices and ‘scientific measurement’, and instead test responsiveness to hypnosis on an individual basis using hypnotic suggestibility tests. Suggestibility tests are a very reliable indicator of how responsive to hypnotic suggestion a person is likely to be, though, when used in hypnosis, they cannot be used to categorically prove a person is in hypnosis, as the subjective experience of hypnosis and hypnotic responsiveness is different from person to person.


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Does the state of hypnosis occur anywhere else?

Yes, the state of hypnosis occurs outside of formal hypnosis demonstrations and hypnotherapy sessions, as it is a naturally occurring phenomena. There are at least two occasions each day where everyone enters a hypnotic state. These occur when someone is going to sleep (the hypnagogic state) and when someone wakes from sleep (the hypnopompic state). Though not used for hypnosis purposes, as we do not usually receive directive suggestions when going to sleep or waking up, the functions of the brain during the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states and our transition into and out of sleep, is the same as what happens in the brain during hypnosis.

Similar states occur throughout our day when our ‘subconscious mind’ (sometimes called the ‘unconscious mind’ for those Freudian folks out there) takes over a usually conscious process. For example, if you are driving a familiar route, and you consciously forget that you are driving, your subconscious mind takes over and ensures that whilst you are ‘spacing out’, you don’t crash your car off the road. In terms of mental processes, this is a very similar state to hypnosis.


What happens when someone is hypnotised?

What happens when someone is hypnotised depends on what is being asked of the hypnotised person, as well as their own innate ability to be hypnotised and to respond to hypnotic suggestions and hypnotic phenomena. Due to this individuality of responses, everyone experiences hypnosis differently. Some people become physically relaxed, pay less attention to their environment, breathing slows, mind wanders. Others have a less noticeable physical/mental response. Generally, the majority of people find that there is a quieting of conscious thoughts, and the ability to listen to and follow suggestions without as much critical conscious thought as there would be out of hypnosis.


What is hypnosis?


Why does hypnosis work?

Hypnosis works by heightening certain mental processes and responses. In hypnosis, the mind-body connection is increased, allowing suggestions for physical and psychological changes to be more easily accepted. Hypnosis also creates a state of heightened focus or ‘absorption’, meaning that the hypnotised person can be solely focused on what is being suggested by the hypnotist or hypnotherapist. This focus leads to greater retention and acceptance of suggestion. Finally, the state of hypnosis allows for subconscious change to happen. This is where the conscious mind ‘takes a back seat’, so that the subconscious can accept suggestions without consciously or critically analysing what is being suggested in too much detail.


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Learn more about hypnosis

Hopefully this blog has answered the question, what is hypnosis? If you have any questions about hypnosis, or you would like to learn how to hypnotise, do feel free to get in touch with me directly. I’m always happy to help!

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Written by
Rory Z Fulcher
Rory Z Fulcher
RZHA Trainer and Founder
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