7 Hypnosis Myths Busted

The practice of hypnosis has been around for a long time. Unfortunately – over the years, hypnosis has picked up all sorts of weird associations from stage hypnotists, the media and superstition. Let’s take a look at 7 of the biggest hypnosis myths, and learn the truth about them.

Myth #1

Hypnosis is a form of mind control, exerted by the hypnotist on a weak minded subject.

It’s been said many times, and it needs to be said once more: all hypnosis is ultimately self hypnosis. Unless you are willing to be hypnotized, unless you agree to allow a hypnotist to help you achieve a hypnotic trance state, and unless your subconscious mind agrees with the suggestions the hypnotist may make – it just doesn’t happen. You are always in full control of your mind.

What about the assertion that the subject must be weak minded? In fact, the reality is quite the opposite. A weak minded person doesn’t have the capacity for concentration that is required for hypnosis, or the strength of motivation, either. The January/February 2001 issue of Psychology Today carried an article by Dr. Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D.*, titled “The Power of Hypnosis.” Barrett notes, “modern research shows that hypnotizability is correlated with intelligence, concentration and focus.” Successful subjects often show high creativity, are cooperative, and usually have less fear and suspicion of the process. Actually, about 95% of all people are susceptible to hypnosis, to one degree or another.

Myth #2

Hypnosis is like being put to sleep: you lose consciousness, you’re not aware of your surroundings, and afterwards you can’t remember what happened while you were hypnotized.

There is no loss of consciousness in hypnosis. Often, people who have been hypnotized report being totally aware of what was going on. The hypnotic state is very much like meditation, but differs in that with hypnosis, there is a stronger internal focus.

“People who are hypnotized for the first time,” says Barrett, “are frequently disappointed to find that they experience nothing overwhelming. They feel mildly relaxed but they remain in touch with reality and in control of their thoughts” (Psychology Today).

Very often, when a person goes deeper into hypnotic trance, the eyes are closed. This may seem to be sleep, but it is completely different. Although you are very deeply relaxed, it is unusual to remember nothing that happened while you were hypnotized – unless, of course, your subconscious mind decides not to recall the details of the session.

Myth #3

It’s possible to become permanently stuck in hypnosis, and not be able to come out of it.

You can’t be permanently stuck in hypnosis any more than you could be permanently stuck in a waking daydream. You’re “in a trance” many times every day; every time you shift your focus just a little, to become absorbed in a book, a television program, or even driving on the highway. The trance state is natural to us as human beings; we pass in and out of it constantly, without even noticing the transitions.

In a 1981 article, "The Phenomena and Characteristics of Self-Hypnosis", Erika Fromm and several colleagues described the state that is part of both hypnosis and self hypnosis. They said that it exhibits absorption, or the complete focus and occupation of the mind, as well as a fading of the usual orientation to general reality. Doesn’t that sound like the way you feel when you are reading a fascinating book, praying or listening to music? Don’t you narrow your focus to the book, or your prayer, or the music surrounding you? And don’t you feel aware of – but not at all focused upon – “general reality,” or everything else around you? Therefore, you’ll never get stuck permanently in hypnosis.

Suppose that you were being hypnotized, and the hypnotist stopped in mid-sentence and walked out of the room. What would happen to you? One of two things: either you would realize immediately that the hypnotist’s voice had stopped speaking, and you would open your eyes and wake up normally, feeling fine; or else you would drift off into a few minutes of normal sleep, and then open your eyes and wake up, feeling fine. Remember, hypnosis puts you in a state that is normal and natural to all of us!

Myth #4

Hypnotists have special powers, possibly psychic or related to the occult.

The only “special power” some hypnotists have is the power of observation, and a knowledge of human beings. Keep in mind that all hypnosis is ultimately self hypnosis: in the end, it’s you yourself who decide to be hypnotized, or not to be hypnotized.

The idea that hypnosis is related to the occult is pure Hollywood. The producers of films are not always as interested in truth about their subjects as they are in drama; and rightly so, that’s their job – to keep the public entertained. It does hypnosis a great disservice, however, to portray it as somehow evil or manipulative, a kind of brainwashing or mind control.

It is worthwhile noting that in 1955, the British Medical Association approved hypnosis as a viable treatment option. Three years later, the American Medical Association also approved hypnosis as a valid therapeutic method. The previous year, 1957, saw approval by the Roman Catholic Church of hypnosis as an option for therapy. Hypnotherapy is coded as a profession by the U.S. Department of Labor, with “hypnotherapist” listed as code number 079.157.010 in the Federal Government Titles of Legitimate Occupations.

Myth #5

Hypnosis is dangerous, and could damage my mind.

Electrical activity in the human brain is measured as brain waves by an electroencephalogram (EEG). The measurement is described in terms of “cycles per minute” or hertz. Here is a brief explanation of how brain waves are related to hypnosis, as well as to the conscious, subconscious, and unconscious mind.

  • Beta brain waves (14-30 hz) = conscious, waking, alert. The “filters” of your beliefs, ethics, values, and all your past experience and conditioning are too active in the Beta state to allow you to accept hypnosis.

  • Alpha brain waves (8-13 hz) = creativity, inspiration, daydreaming. The conscious mind is no longer dominant, and the subconscious is becoming active. Your brain waves register in the Alpha region when you are in a light trance state. Hypnotic suggestions are readily accepted in the Alpha state.

  • Theta brain waves (4-7 hz) = subconscious, dreaming, hypnosis, meditation, “in the zone” with sports. Here the subconscious mind is dominant. The Theta level is where past experiences and emotions can be relived. It is also the level at which hypnoanesthesia occurs: for example, dental or surgical procedures can be carried out without pain, and childbirth can take place painlessly, with the assistance of hypnoanesthesia instead of physical anesthesia.

  • Delta brain waves (0.5-6 hz) = unconscious, asleep, deep sleep. Your brain waves would register as Delta if you fell asleep during hypnosis.

Hypnosis is no more dangerous than sleep-dreaming, meditation, or being “in the zone”.

Myth #6

Hypnosis is not effective for changing your health or your life.

Hypnosis was approved for medical use in 1958 by the American Medical Association. Hospitals now commonly use some form of hypnosis in preparing patients for surgery and in helping them recover more rapidly. In fact, many of our best hospitals now have Departments of Integrative Medicine, where hypnosis is recognized and used along with other types of alternative medicine, such as healing touch and chiropractic, in support of traditional medical procedures.

A comparative research study done by American Health Magazine on Psychoanalysis, Behavior Therapy, and Hypnosis as treatments for mental health issues reported the following results:

  • Psychoanalysis = 38% recovery after 600 sessions
  • Behavior Therapy = 73% recovery after 22 sessions
  • Hypnosis = 93% recovery after 6 sessions.

Here are just a few examples of results published in medical journals:

  1. Hypnosis during surgical radiology reduced patients’ anxiety and pain, as well as shortening time required for surgery and reducing complications. (Lancet, 2000).

  2. Many cancer patients experience vomiting and nausea before chemotherapy, as well as after treatment. A study of 16 subjects who usually showed these symptoms revealed that hypnosis prevented pre-chemotherapy nausea in all 16. (Oncology, 2000).

  3. A single session of group hypnotherapy was sponsored by the American Lung Association, to see if it would help smokers to kick the habit. Of nearly 3,000 participants in one session, 22% reported not smoking for a month after the session. (The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 2000).

  4. Hypnosis is shown by research to be as effective as Ritalin in treating Attention Deficit Disorder ( ADD) in children. (Presented at the American Psychological Association Meeting, 1999).

Myth #7

It’s only safe to be hypnotized if the hypnotist is a psychologist.

All hypnosis is ultimately self hypnosis. Only you can decide to allow yourself to be hypnotized; without your consent, it simply cannot happen.

It is interesting to note that hypnosis is not a regular part of most training programs for psychologists. The exception would be if the training took place at one of the few universities where a department is engaged in active research in the field of hypnosis. The subject is not part of the regular curriculum for psychologists-in-training. (Remember that the American Medical Association approved hypnosis in 1958!)

The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH), founded by Milton H. Erickson, MD, in 1957, requires only 40 hours of training in hypnosis for psychologists who wish to become members. In comparison, the National Guild of Hypnotists, Inc. (NGH), founded by Dr. Rexford L. North in 1950, requires a minimum basic course of 100 hours in hypnosis (most basic courses are actually 150 hours), as well as a minimum of 15 additional hours of training each year to renew annual membership. The NGH considers this level of training to be the minimum requisite for safe practice in hypnosis.

There is no reason to believe that expertise in psychology would be transferrable as expertise in hypnotherapy. No psychotherapy is involved in the practice of hypnosis.


Over the years, probably due in part to Hollywood’s colorful dramas about mind control and brainwashing, the word ‘hypnosis’ created the illusion that you lose control in hypnosis. In fact, the real truth is that hypnosis is a perfectly natural occurring state of mind and when hypnotized, you are relaxed and focused – and able to choose to get up and walk away at any time. If you have been fearful of hypnosis in the past, hopefully you now understand the truth about these hypnosis myths.


* Dr. Barrett is a psychologist specializing in Behavioral Medicine at Harvard Medical School


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