The Phenomena of Hypnosis

The following is a summary of the basic hypnotic phenomena, as described in Dr. William S. Kroger’s classic text Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis (1963).

Suggestion Phenomena
Suggestibility is probably the most well known phenomenon of hypnosis. One of the most basic ideas in hypnotherapy is that suggestibility is heightened under hypnosis. But there is more to verbal suggestion than the idea that the subconscious mind hears and accepts words literally. While much of the hypnotherapy field focuses on the precise phrasing of verbal suggestions, semantics, and “neurolinguistic programming,” suggestions can also take the following forms:
- Preverbal (sounds)
- Nonverbal (gestures)
- Intraverbal (modulation of the voice)
- Extraverbal (meanings and implications of words and phrases)

Beyond these modes of suggestion given by Kroger, I have also found that the musical tone, rhythm and resonance of words – and of the spaces in between them – can have powerful effects.

Not all suggestibility relies on trance. Suggestibility heightened without hypnosis is “waking suggestion.” Other methods that heighten suggestibility are reflex conditioning, abstract conditioning (the compounding of suggestion), repetitive sensory stimulation (I often use repetitive ocean waves in the background of my sessions), rapport, the use of imagination, and misdirection of attention (in a similar sense to how magicians use misdirection, thus some hypnosis could be called “mental magic”). Mass suggestion, subliminal projection, brainwashing, propaganda, and, of course, advertising all depend on such methods of suggestion that do not rely on trance. Much of suggestibility can depend on the character, intention, ability of the hypnotherapist to express an idea meaningfully.

A posthypnotic suggestion is a suggestion delivered in hypnosis that is carried out afterward. Some theories see the carrying out of a posthypnotic suggestion as a self-induced miniature replica of the original hypnotic situation, different only in the depth of trance. Some subjects carry out the posthypnotic suggestion as a conscious act, and others do so automatically. Some subjects have amnesia of the posthypnotic act, or remember it only after it is carried out. Posthypnotic suggestions usually do not rely on the depth of hypnosis. A person in a light or medium state of hypnosis can receive and then carry out posthypnotic suggestions. Periodic reinforcement increases the effectiveness of posthypnotic suggestions.

Sensory Phenomena
The brain under hypnosis has the capacity to experience or block sensory activity, referred to as ideosensory responses. People often use the term “imagery” to refer to a visual ideosensory response with the eyes closed, and “hallucination” to describe a more vivid visual ideosensory response, but not all ideosensory responses and hallucinations are visual. They can also be tactile/kinesthetic (feeling), olfactory (smelling), auditory (hearing), or gustatory (tasting). A positive ideosensory response and positive hallucination occurs when you experience something that it not there. A negative ideosensory response and negative hallucination occurs when you do not experience something that is there.

Hypnotic analgesia (reduction of pain) and anesthesia (complete elimination of pain) are negative ideosensory responses, or negative hallucinations. The opposite is hyperesthesia, or increased sensitivity to touch.

Motor Phenomena
Like ideosensory responses refer to sensory experiences in response to hypnosis, ideomotor responses refer to motor phenomena (i.e. actions and behaviors). With an ideomotor response the muscles respond instantaneously to thoughts and feelings. The responses are involuntary reflexes mediated by the subcortical structures of the brain (the unconscious, autonomic control center). A striking example of an ideomotor response is when the pupils contract in response to hallucinated light.

Automatic Writing. “Doodling” while talking or listening is the most common manifestation of automatic writing. On a more advanced level, a hypnotized subject can be told that the writing hand is dissociated from the rest of their body, and engage in a normal conversation while the hand is writing about something completely different. Some techniques then take the subject back into hypnosis to interpret what was written.

Somnabmbulism. Somnambulism is one of the deepest stages of hypnosis. It is what sleepwalkers experience. Generally, after the experience the person has no recollection of it. Hypnotic suggestions that are given in this state become convictions automatically because the subject does not remember them. Somnambulism is not sleep and does not resemble sleep. The subject appears awake, but is hypnotized and will follow directions just as if he or she was awake.

Catalepsy. Catalepsy is one of the most interesting of all hypnotic phenomena. It is the involuntary tonicity of the muscles. The limbs remain in almost any position in which they are placed. During eyeball catalepsy, if you turn the head slowly, the eyes will remain fixed. Catelepsy is possible even in light and medium states of hypnosis.

Memory Phenomena
Amnesia. Many people think that the indication of whether they were under hypnosis is whether they “blank out” and have amnesia. However, amnesia may or may not occur spontaneously during hypnosis. When amnesia does occur spontaneously, it usually indicates the deep state of hypnosis known as somnambulism. Most of the time, amnesia is the result of specific hypnotic suggestions to have amnesia, and is only temporary.
Can hypnosis make you forget someone?

Hypermnesia (Memory Recall). Hypnosis enables memory recall greater than at nonhypnotic levels. However, the material can be inaccurate or false.
Can you lie under hypnosis?

Age Regression (Pseudorevivification). Age regression is a form of hypermnesia. The subject experiences events as past, but identifies with them in the first person. Recall is improved greatly when a memory has a strong emotional component.

Pseudo-regression. This is similar to age regression in that recall is improved, but instead of identifying with the experiences as directly, it is as if the subject is watching the events from another perspective (as if on a television or movie screen). Much of our everyday experience of memory is like this.

Revivification. Revivification is the reliving of an incident at the time at which it occurred, in the present tense. In a true revivification, the memories after the age to which the subject is regressed are eliminated. Under hypnosis a subject may even demonstrate the personality traits or handwriting of the earlier age.

Retrogression (Dynamic Regression). Retrogression is a spontaneous age regression with some element of revivification mixed in.

Age Progression. During age progression the subject hallucinates living in the future. Interestingly, he or she still retains the present chronologic age. Age progression can be a great tool in hypnotherapy to understand how a person might react to a situation in the future.

Perception Phenomena
Dissociation. Dissociation is the inherent ability of a subject to detach from the immediate environment. Dissociation is used frequently for hypnoanesthesia, to separate the subject from the portion of the body that is the source of pain.

Depersonalization. In hypnosis a subject can experience depersonalization, forget his own identity, and even assume that he is another person. Using depersonalization in hypnotherapy a person can see things from a new perspective, which can have a profound effect on thoughts, feelings, or behaviors afterward.

Time distortion. Time Expansion/Lengthening is when time seems longer (2 minutes seems like 20 minutes). An everyday example of time expansion is when a boring lecture or wait seems much longer than it actually was. Time Contraction is the opposite (making 20 minutes seems like 2 minutes), just like the old saying goes that “time flies when you’re having fun.”

By considering the phenomena of hypnosis, we observe that hypnotism and hypnotherapy are much more than helping a person to relax while repeating verbal suggestions countless times. Hypnosis involves many complex aspects of human experience, including the senses, thoughts, actions, memories, sleep, emotions, and even the perception of time and space. Hypnosis truly utilizes and demonstrates the power and mystery of the human mind.


Board Certification, “Dr. Zomb,” and Rachmaninoff’s Hypnotherapist

I am very pleased to announce that in August I was named a Board Certified Hypnotist of the National Guild of Hypnotists, the oldest and largest professional association of hypnotists. I had been a Certified Hypnotist since 2004, and this change in my title represents advancement in my field. NGH Board Certification is the highest and most prestigious certification in hypnotism, and recognizes professional standing as a highly qualified, expert, and ethical practitioner. Only about 500 of 14,000 NGH members (less than 4%) are Board Certified.

Part of the board certification process was an interview and examination at the NGH Convention. It reminded me of my first NGH Convention years ago when, at the opening session, a small 91-year-old gentleman sat next to me and struck up a conversation. When I told him that it was my first hypnosis convention, he encouraged my becoming more involved in hypnotism. I then recognized him as Ormond McGill, the world famous hypnotist and magician who performed under the stage name “Dr. Zomb” in the 1940s and 1950s. He was known as the “Dean of American Hypnotists” and wrote the Encyclopedia of Genuine Stage Hypnotism, the authoritative book on the subject.

Ormond McGill, far right, performing stage hypnotism.

McGill wrote that with mastery of hypnotism “you will have at your command the greatest magic in the world, for beyond question there is no greater magic than the magic of the human mind.” Originally, before I made hypnosis my profession, I had learned traditional hypnotism by studying McGill’s books and recordings and performed stage demonstrations following his instructions For anyone seeking to learn genuine hypnotism, whether for the stage or for hypnotherapy, McGill’s work is foundational. Meeting “Dr. Zomb” was exciting, and to hear his supportive words as I was entering the hypnosis profession was inspiring, to say the least.

At the end of my first convention I experienced a synchronicity that made a lasting impression. During the last session I attended, the presenter played a recording of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. and said that the composer overcame fits of depression and apathy about composing with the help of Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a prominent hypnotherapist in Russia. In fact, Rachmaninoff dedicated the concerto to Dr. Dahl. I took interest in the story, being a pianist and having my master’s degree in music. On the hour-long drive to the home of friends, I thought about the use of hypnosis with musicians and artists. That evening my friends took me to visit a local couple, Dr. and Mrs. Maurice Kouguell. Dr. Kouguell was a hypnotherapist who had served on the faculties of Columbia University and the City College of New York, and he was also a certified instructor of the NGH. He took interest in my background in music because he was a viola player, and because the person who aroused his own curiosity in hypnosis as a child was also a hypnotherapist and musician. Dr. Kouguell then brought out an old photograph of an orchestra conducted by his father, and he pointed to a man in the viola section. It was Rachmaninoff’s hypnotherapist! Dr. Dahl was a close friend of Dr. Kouguell’s parents and gave Dr. Kouguell his first toy violin. We then had a conversation about using hypnosis with artists and musicians, which has influenced my work in several ways.

Dahl Hypnosis
Dr. Nikolai Dahl, 1917.

Reflecting on these experiences surrounding my first hypnosis convention years ago, and also on my recent experience with board certification, I can say that members of the NGH are some of the most accomplished, interesting, and encouraging professionals one could ever hope to meet. I feel honored to be recognized as an NGH Board Certified Hypnotist, and I am grateful to the Examining Committee and to my clients, family, and friends for their support.