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Does Hypnosis Work?

Gold pocket watch blurred while swinging back and forth
Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

From magic shows to reality TV programs, hypnosis is a popular topic around the world. Although it is commonly portrayed as an almost mystical way to control people, many critics have spoken against its usefulness and deem it as a pseudoscience. Does hypnosis actually work? Let’s look into it.

Definition & History

According to the Mayo Clinic, hypnosis is a “trance-like state in which you have heightened focus and concentration.” For years, it has been used as a way to help people overcome certain undesired behaviors by making them more open to the suggestion of change.

Since ancient times, hypnosis has been thought of as almost interchangeable with magic and sorcery. Ancient Egyptians often used a form of meditation called “temple sleep” to help them “connect with the gods.” Also, oracles (seers) in ancient Egypt and Greece would prepare special drinks and lead ceremonies intended to heighten the mind.

In the early 18th century, a German physician named Franz Mesmer began using hypnosis to treat his patients in Europe. He believed that “animal magnetism” connected everything on earth, and harnessed this supposed energy to put people in a trance to restore their “natural flow.” However, his opinion was discredited due to a lack of research to support it. Nevertheless, the term “mesmerize” continued to be used in homage to his name.

For many years, physicians continued to use this method to treat their patients without fully understanding how it worked or how best to use it. Exactly how much it actually helped their patients is unknown.

In the middle of the 18th century, an English physician named James Braid studied hypnosis and came up with the terms “hypnosis” and “hypnotism” based on the Greek god of sleep, Hypnos. These new words sparked the interest of the scientific community, with Sigmund Freud even adding his opinion into the mix. (Freud was impressed with hypnosis’ potential but eventually pronounced his system of psychoanalysis to be superior.)

Since the 1800s, hypnosis has been used to treat PTSD in World War I and II soldiers, as a substitute for anesthesia in emergency surgeries, and to address various ailments of the body and mind. Hypnosis is also a popular magic trick at carnivals and in the circus, although it’s almost always part of an act with a pre-selected participant. Today it’s frequently marketed as a way to overcome addiction, encourage weight loss, and beat mental illness.

Does It Work?

Well, yes and no. Pop culture clichés—such as a swinging pocket watch causing someone to perform an involuntary dance—show a theatrical side of hypnosis that has no basis in science. However, when a trained behavioral therapist uses it in a controlled setting, it can be a powerful tool.

During a typical hypnotherapy treatment session, a therapist will use verbal cues and repetition to put a patient into a trance-like state. (While this may sound like an intense process, it’s fairly common for people to enter similar states in their everyday lives via mediation or even TV watching.) In fact, some people may look and act as though they are actually sleeping; however, they are actually completely aware of their surroundings and maintain a strong focus on their therapist.

Because the mind is hyper-focused in this state, the therapist will make gentle suggestions to the patient related to the problem to be overcome. This is often where the method treads the line of quackery and genuine therapy. For example, a therapist can’t simply put someone into a trance, say “You will stop smoking forever,” and snap their fingers to ensure that their patient will never again smoke a cigarette.

The subtle cues and suggestions end up stored in the brain to be revisited later. The phrase “planting a seed” fits this situation to the letter. For instance, if someone is trying to break their smoking habit, their therapist may suggest that they cut down on the number of cigarettes smoked per day or that they look into the long-term health effects of smoking.

After the therapy session, the patient may find themselves thinking more about their health than usual during a smoke, and they might take the time to research all the negative effects of smoking, which may in turn motivate them to break the bad habit.

Hypnosis has been found to work best on highly pliable people. This is why the answer to the question “Does hypnosis work?” is both yes and no. Someone who is naturally distrustful, opinionated, and stubborn may not have any luck changing bad behavior through hypnosis. But for those who have an open mind and care about outside opinions, hypnosis could be the perfect solution to their problem.

While this type of treatment doesn’t work for everyone, many positive studies have indicated its potential. A 2009 study review found that hypnosis could be helpful in reducing procedure-related pain in children and a review from 2011 discussed its effectiveness in relieving labor and delivery pain.

Many types of behavioral therapy exist, and hypnosis is just one of them. If it doesn’t work for you, it may work for someone else. Just don’t fall for the stage trick, no matter how convincing it looks.

Anne Taylor Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor is a writer with a BA in Journalism and a passion for storytelling. Her work has been published on a variety of websites including Listverse and Introvert, Dear, and she is currently working on her first novel. When she's not breaking down complex topics into readable material, she loves to stay on the lighter side and blog about Disney and Universal parks on . Read Full Bio »