Does hypnosis work? And how does it work?

If you're just  starting on a hypnotherapy journey, these two questions are probably at  the top of  your  mind. Hypnosis seems to be prescribed for just about everything: From quitting smoking, to weight loss.

Here's a short answer: Research suggests that hypnosis is a powerful tool for self-improvement. And there's a fairly simple explanation.

Hypnotherapy works by empowering people to change and update subconscious beliefs. Through hypnosis, we can reframe and update old beliefs – that quitting smoking, for instance, will be difficult and painful – and replace them with new, more helpful assumptions. 

How Hypnosis Works to Reshape Our Assumptions?

Here’s a quick way to understand hypnotherapy: Hypnosis is a highly relaxed mental state, in which we bypass the critical mind. In other words, the mind is relaxed and ready to learn; the mind becomes much more susceptible to suggestion.

In deeply relaxed hypnosis, we can override these automatic thoughts, and update this thinking with new suggestions. Hypnosis works by allowing us to alter our unconscious thought processes to help us achieve specific goals.

Here’s an example: Suppose you want to use hypnosis for weight loss.

Your subconscious mind has many beliefs about losing weight. You might automatically think: Losing weight is impossible, that you don’t want to give up your favorite foods, or that you don’t have time for exercise. These unconscious thoughts – which are shaped by memories, experiences and expectations – ultimately drive our conscious actions, and we don't even realize this is happening.

In short, our subconscious sets us up to fail. And that’s true about many of our bad habits – negative self-talk, smoking, overeating – they’re all deeply rooted in unconscious thought.

Through hypnotherapy, though, we can begin to alter and update these negative assumptions. And that might explain why the research strongly suggests hypnosis works for conditions like chronic pain, substance abuse and weight loss.

By training our minds to think differently about challenges and goals, we can eliminate the negative thoughts that so frequently lead to self-sabotage.

Simply stated, hypnosis empowers you to change your unconscious thoughts. And that, in a nutshell, is  how hypnotherapy works.

But we’re going to dive a little deeper – and show you why people think the mind is so suggestible under hypnosis, as well as why our subconscious assumptions are so powerful.

Theorizing Why Hypnosis Works 

Hypnosis has fascinated us for centuries. In fact, beginning in the 1770s an Austrian physician named Frances Mesmer – for whom the verb mesmerize is named – first experimented with putting patients into a trance-like state. Mesmer would play ethereal music, dim the lights, and use relaxation techniques.

But Mesmer had some eccentric thoughts about what was happening while in trance, i.e. that he was infusing patients with invisible magnetic fluids. Even though Mesmer was wrong in his assumptions, he did spark our collective curiosity in the field of hypnosis.

Today, there are two main schools of thought regarding what’s going on in the mind while in a state of hypnosis.

State Theory of Hypnosis

The state theory proposes that subjects under hypnosis enter an altered state of consciousness. In this altered state, subjects can disassociate behavioral control from awareness. Subjects can bypass critical conscious thoughts, and focus on what they’re doing without asking why.

In an early hypnosis experiment, for example, Ernst Hilgard had subjects hold their hands in a bucket of cold water. Compared to non-hypnotized subjects, those under hypnosis were able to hold their hands in the water for much longer; but ultimately, once the pain became too great, they exited the trance state and removed their hands.

What Hilgard’s experiment showed is that while under hypnosis, the patients were able to bypass that critical thought – “this water is cold.” And that’s what the state theory proposes: That we reach a state of deep relaxation, when normal brain processes are altered. 

Non-State Theory of Hypnosis

The non-state theory, on the other hand, suggests that hypnotized subjects are playing the role of a person under hypnosis. We have certain conclusions and assumptions of how we’re supposed to act in this role, and that influences our behavior during and after a hypnotherapy session. Therefore, positive responses to hypnosis are formed because that’s how subjects expect or assume they should act afterwards.

Which Theory Is Correct?

Recent research suggests that the state theory may, in fact, be correct. Thanks to modern brain imaging technology, research has shown that brain behavior changes when acting on hypnotic suggestions.

And the research has been very compelling. Here’s an example:

In 2005, Dr. Amir Raz, a Columbia professor, asked patients to complete a simple task. Four words were written in block letters – GREEN, BLUE, RED, and YELLOW. But the color of ink used for each was incongruent from the word written. For example, BLUE would have been in red ink.

When asked what color the word BLUE is written in, our brains automatically want to say blue, even though the correct answer is red. This is known as the Stroop Effect; i.e. the incongruent ideas get crossed and it takes us longer to answer.

Raz then hypnotized subjects and told them they would see words in gibberish on a screen, and their task would be to identify the color of the ink. Not only did the hypnotized subjects complete the task without delay, but using brain imaging, the area of the brain that decodes written words was not activate.

In other studies, patients have seen color images as black-and-white, with a similar effect of the brain’s area that notices color being inactive. These and other studies suggest that, in fact, hypnotherapy  works by altering our state of consciousness. 

Habitual Patterns vs. Reality: What Our Minds Believe

What Raz’s study shows is that habitual patterns influence our perception. His subjects expected to read gibberish words, and therefore, the area of the brain that would have normally recognized the word BLUE did not activate.

That idea forms one main reason of how hypnosis works so effectively.

Our minds have deeply embedded habitual patterning. And these thought patterns are developed over lifetimes. Memories, assumptions, negative experiences, positive experiences – they all help to form and reinforce these patterns and beliefs.

In other words, what we hear, feel, see and assume to be true, isn’t always correct. Instead, our conscious thoughts – what we think is true – are shaped by continually evolving brain networks that interpret sensory data.

This is called top-down processing. In top-down processing, the information flowing from the top overrides and informs lower-level processes.

Here’s an example: Say you see a red car. Visually, your eye captures sensory data about the car. This data is sent to higher brain processing levels, where the shape and color are deciphered. Then, this information goes to higher functioning levels where the color and shape help us discern the car’s make and model.

The data flows up, but at the same time about 10 times the amount of feedback flows down. This top-down feedback – which is determined by our unconscious thoughts – tells the brain how to interpret sensory data.

And this explains why hypnosis works. By overriding the top-down processes with new, more helpful suggestions, subjects are able to perceive the world through new eyes.

Just look at the Stroop Effect. It’s difficult to say “red” when looking at the word BLUE, because our brains automatically read the word blue before we encode the color of the ink. But when we perceive the words to be gibberish, we’re able to bypass the critical and answer the question without delay.

That’s the key to overcoming bad habits and achieving self-improvement. We must get down to the root cause – our negative assumptions that are keeping the bad habit in place – and override them with better, more helpful information. Therefore, you can overcome your brain’s learned top-down processes – i.e. when you feel stress, you crave sugar – and replace this thinking with a more helpful response.

Reframing Our Preconditioned Beliefs through Hypnosis

Here’s a great example of the power of our preconditioned beliefs. A group of participants were asked to take a wine taste test. They were given two choices: A glass of “expensive” wine and another of moderately priced wine.

The truth was: Both glasses were the same wine. But participants expected the expensive wine to taste better, and therefore, they gave it much higher marks for taste.

The suggestion was subtle – one was more expensive – but it clearly shows how easily a suggestion is used to construct our perception.

Unfortunately, the critical mind isn't as receptive to suggestion. You hear a suggestion, and then you analyze and critique it.

But with  hypnosis we empower the mind to better accept suggestions? In the deeply  relaxed state of hypnosis, our minds are more susceptible to suggestion.

We’re able to reframe our thinking patterns thanks to two principles: Suggestion and disassociation.  

  • Disassociation: While in a state of hypnosis, the theory is that the mind splits into two states – the hypnotized mind and a hidden observer. In other words, we can block out our surroundings and bypass existing top-down thinking (the hidden observer). This empowers us to take suggestion without questioning if the suggestion matches our existing thoughts. And recent brain imaging research suggests that hypnosis can create brain connections that make this possible.
  • Suggestion: During hypnosis, the hypnotized person is directed to focus on a single idea, or suggestion. And since you’ve reached the hypnotized state, you can bypass your critical thoughts regarding the suggestions. That’s one theory  of how hypnosis works; we reach a state in which the mind is able to take suggestions without questioning them. Just look at Dr. Raz’s experiment: The hypnotized subjects read highly recognizable words – BLUE, GREEN, etc. – as gibberish. That happened because the mind was free to act on suggestion without questioning why.

Ultimately, the majority of the time, sensory data matches our top-down processing. We see a red car, and our memories tell us how to interpret and decipher what the car is.

But hypnosis works by creating a mismatch between bottom-up and top-down thinking.

Through hypnosis, we use suggestion to train the mind to respond differently – to create a new reality, in which, healthier, more helpful responses are triggered by sensory data. Therefore, when you experience stress, your existing top-down thoughts might urge you to reach for a cigarette, or binge on sugary foods, or stay awake at night – hypnosis allows us to update and reframe these top-down responses.

What the Research Says About Hypnosis

In recent years, hypnotherapy has regained popularity in medical fields. In fact, hypnosis is now a common complementary medical service in a number of world-renowned healthcare facilities.

For example, the Mayo Clinic offers hypnosis as a therapy for pain management, addiction and anxiety.

To date, the research paints a compelling picture of hypnosis for a variety of conditions – from addiction, to anxiety and overeating. Here’s a look at some research in a variety of categories:

Insomnia and Sleep Disorders.  A 2010 study found that hypnosis was effective for inducing and increasing slow-wave REM sleep. In the study, subjects who listened to a short sleep hypnosis tape prior to taking a nap achieved 80 percent more slow-wave sleep. (Take a look at our insomnia hypnosis guide for more information.)

Weight Loss. A 1986 study examined how well group hypnosis worked for weight loss. The results: The group that underwent hypnosis lost 17 pounds, while the non-hypnotized group lost just .5 pounds. (Read more about hypnosis for weight  loss.)

Smoking Cessation. A 2008 randomized trial found that smokers who underwent hypnosis were more likely to quit and stay quit than those who received counseling and nicotine replacement therapy. A study in 1994 found that 80% of participants who underwent hypnosis and aversion therapy abstained from smoking after 6 months.

Substance Abuse.  A study of methadone patients found that those who received hypnosis were much more likely to stay drug-free. Of those receiving hypnosis, 94 percent were narcotic-free at 6 months.

Anxiety and Depression. A 2010 review of research showed six studies that suggested hypnosis helped with anxiety. A 2009 meta-analysis also found that hypnosis was significantly effective for treating depression.

A Review: How Hypnosis Helps You Reframe Your Unconscious

We threw a lot of information at you regarding how hypnosis works. But really, the idea is simple.

Reality is formed by our preconditioned beliefs. We expect a glass of wine to taste better because it’s more expensive – and bam, we perceive a difference in taste. Our minds interpret words as gibberish, and we’re able to decipher the color of the ink without delay.

Hypnosis provides a means for overriding our existing beliefs, assumptions and memories. This is achieved by following a hypnotic induction, in which we reach a hypnotized state.

According to the state theory of hypnosis, when we reach hypnosis, we’re able to disassociate our behavioral controls and critical thoughts. In other words, we can hear suggestions and follow them without questioning why we’re following them. Ultimately, it’s the power of suggestion that enables us to reshape and reframe our perceptions.

In other words, our brains have a complex network for interpreting the world around us. Over time, negative and unhelpful automatic thoughts have worked its way into that network. Thusly, when we experience stress, we feel an overwhelming urge to indulge in sweets, or smoke, or turn to drugs or alcohol. These unconscious urges are uncontrolled. They happen automatically.

But hypnosis enables us to overcome and dampen these uncontrolled thoughts. And that’s where the power lies: Hypnosis empowers us to believe suggestions that best serve us to be true. This, in turn, enables us to alter our behavior.

Ready to start your self-hypnosis journey? Join Grace Space for unlimited access to guided self-hypnosis sessions for a variety of conditions. Or browse our selection of hypnosis recordings and try it today.