Beyond Suggestion Hypnosis Facilitates Unconscious Processes

Hypnotic suggestion is ancient. At least as early as 1550 B.C., Egyptian priest-physicians repeated positive suggestions to their patients in trance. In modern times, the theory that the effect of hypnosis is the result of suggestion became prominent with the work of Ambroise-Auguste Liebeault (Sleep and its Analogous States, 1866) and Hippolyte Bernheim (Suggestive Therapeutics, 1889). In the twentieth century, the verbal techniques of “Ericksonian” hypnosis and neurolinguistic programming (NLP) came to dominate clinical hypnosis. Consequently, the popular conception of hypnotherapy today is that the hypnotist induces trance, then repeats carefully constructed verbal suggestions to influence the unconscious.

Suggestion does have an effect. The well-documented placebo effect is a form of suggestion. The hypnotic trance heightens suggestibility by relaxing the critical faculty of the conscious mind, allowing suggestions to make a greater impression upon the unconscious. However, hypnosis is more than a state in which the patient receives suggestions passively. Hypnosis also facilitates the patient’s own unconscious processes. The purpose of trance is not only to increase suggestibility. Hypnotic trance creates an opportunity for the unconscious to fulfill the motive that urged the patient to schedule the appointment, show up, and participate.

Outside of sleep and dreaming, the unconscious mind has important work to do. Overemphasis on the linguistic dynamics of hypnotism (i.e.; the phrasing and delivery of verbal suggestions) diminishes the role of the unconscious. Modern culture has a highly rationalistic belief system that tends to downgrade the unconscious. We like to think we are in control, that our conscious minds have all of the answers, and that we are pretty well aware of our unconscious motives and beliefs. However, the conscious mind is actually very limited and unaware of unconscious processes. Not everything mental can be accomplished on a conscious level. In fact, conscious efforts frequently get in the way of unconscious processes, and people often have problems because the conscious mind is trying to solve a problem that the unconscious can solve better. The unconscious is smarter than the conscious mind, and often has a much better solution to the problem than the patient or the hypnotist. In certain states of hypnosis and meditation, the patient gains greater access to unconscious resources.

The conscious and unconscious processes may influence each other, but they are independent. Consider how sometimes when you are trying to remember something unsuccessfully it comes to you spontaneously after you stop trying. The fact that the unconscious search for the information continues after the conscious mind has moved on demonstrates that the conscious mind and the unconscious can be involved in two independent tasks. While the patient’s attention is fixed on the words of the hypnotist (or in meditation, while one’s conscious attention is fixed on a mantra or a breathing pattern), the usual patterns of awareness are interrupted, and the unconscious automatically searches for a solution to the problem.

Some people have a sudden insight about their problem while in hypnosis, but patients are not always aware of the work of their own unconscious, and do not have to be in order to obtain successful outcomes. Normally, the creative processes of the unconscious take time to become conscious. This can mean that the patient subjectively feels different, but is unable to explain how or why.

We often hear about the positive physical effects of hypnosis and meditation, but these are not the most important reasons to use hypnosis, self-hypnosis, or meditation. Hypnotic trance offers the opportunity for the unconscious to develop what is authentic to the individual, free from the usual limitations and interference of the conscious mind. The role of the hypnotist is not only to induce trance and deliver suggestions, but to facilitate the expression of the patient’s unconscious processes. Hypnosis is more than restorative relaxation or a state of increased suggestibility. Ideally, hypnosis facilitates the valuable work of the unconscious.

Erickson, M. H., Rossi, E. L., & Rossi, S. I. (1976). Hypnotic realities: The induction of clinical hypnosis and forms of indirect suggestion. New York: Irvington.


Hypnosis and the Eight Limbs of Yoga

As a hypnotist, I often teach workshops on self-hypnosis and meditation at yoga centers, and some participants have asked if there are similarities and relationships between hypnosis and yoga. Usually, someone in the group points out that hypnosis seems similar to “yoga nidra,” the deep, trance-like state that yogis experience during meditation. In both yoga nidra and hypnosis, the body is intensely relaxed and the mind highly focused. The comparison doesn’t end there; in his landmark book Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis in Medicine, Dentistry, and Psychology, Dr. William Kroger points out that there are great similarities between hypnosis and the eight “limbs” of yoga that are set forth in the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. This brief comparison explores the relationship between Yoga and hypnosis.             

There are many ideas about the precise meaning of the word “yoga.” Literally, it means to join, bind, attach, or unite. In popular use “yoga” has come to mean, as Webster defines it, “a Hindu philosophy that teaches a person to experience inner peace by controlling the body and mind.” That sure sounds a lot like hypnosis! The Yoga Sūtras, dating back to approximately 200 BCE, are 196 aphorisms that form the basis of Yoga. The sutras are divided into eight “limbs,” sometimes called the “eightfold path.” They are summarized here, with their analogies to hypnosis.  My interpretations differ somewhat from Dr. Kroger’s, but credit must go to the master for making the initial comparison:

1st Limb: Yama is restraint, self-control, discipline, ethics, and integrity. 

2nd Limb: Niyama is the regular and faithful observance of rules and practices.

These first two limbs of yoga are analogous to the ideal mindset for someone approaching hypnosis. As with most methods of mental healing, success depends partially on the positive expectancy that any person who has a sincere intention and dedication to the process can achieve results.

3rd Limb: Asana is placement of the body in the correct posture and sitting still.

4th Limb: Prānāyāma is control of the breathing. 

In hypnosis, posture and breathing exercises facilitate the deep relaxation that is often associated with, though not always necessary for, the induction of hypnosis. Posture and breathing also serve to misdirect the attention. In hypnosis, when attention is diverted by mental focus on automatic motor movements (like breathing or muscular twitches) or automatic sensations (like tingling or floating), the conscious mind is kept busy and out of the way, allowing beneficial suggestions and imagery to imprint upon the subconscious mind.

5th Limb: Pratyahara is withdrawing thoughts from the outer world.

Pratyahara resembles the “depersonalization” that occurs in hypnosis and allows one to experience thoughts, feelings, and actions from a new perspective. Depersonalization takes place to some extent when you feel like you are outside of yourself, or like you are watching yourself act, without control over your actions. It happens to some extent when you are daydreaming and suddenly feel as if you could not move, even if you tried, though you don’t care to try. Depersonalization can be positive. In some situations it brings a burst of insight, a sudden expansion of mental perspective (“Eureka! I never seen it that way before!”), or an emotional shift (“Suddenly I just feel great, and I can’t explain it!”) that seems to fix the problem automatically and permanently. Depersonalization can be spiritual. Kroger points out that the goal of nirvana, the state of complete liberation, is strikingly similar to the depersonalization and other dissociated states that characterize hypnosis.

On the other hand, depersonalization can be negative, as when it is the result of trauma or prolonged stress. To some extent, a person who has automatic bad habits or compulsive worries experiences some degree of depersonalization by not having conscious control of their behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. In such cases, the goal of hypnosis is to orient the person to their own identity in a balanced and positive way.

Hypnosis can be a powerful tool to achieve depersonalization when needed, or to stop it when undesirable. Hypnosis influences this aspect of the mind so effectively that many well-known phenomena of stage hypnosis rely on it. For example, it is the epitome of depersonalization and disassociation when a subject is made to forget his own identity and assume he is another person, or is made to lose control or feeling in part of the body.

Kroger writes that the first five limbs of yoga involve the creation of a favorable mental attitude of expectancy, which is necessary to approach and induce hypnosis. In summary of these five: First we take account of our personal motivation (yama) and commit to the process (niyama). Next we focus on postures (asana) and breathing (pranayama), which facilitate the trance state. The misdirection of attention resulting from mental focus on posture and breathing facilitates withdrawal from the outer world and focus on inner thoughts and sensations (pratyahara). 

Kroger compares the last three limbs of yoga (dhāranā, dhyāna, and samādhi) to the responses that occur during hypnosis:

6th Limb: Dhāranā is concentration. For example, a person might focus attention on particular parts of the body (kinesthetic), a mantra (auditory), or an image (visual).

7th Limb: Dhyāna is to hold stillness in the mind, without the willful effort of single-pointed attention that characterizes the previous limb of dhāranā.

During the induction and deepening phases of hypnosis, posture and breathing (like limbs 3 and 4) serve to misdirect the attention and facilitate trance. Now, with the subject in hypnosis, concentration on certain tactile, auditory, or visual stimuli again keeps the conscious mind busy so that positive suggestions can influence the subconscious mind.

Like the single-pointed concentration that characterizes dhāranā, constantly pulling the mind back to focus on a certain thought, image or feeling, repetition is an elementary principle of hypnosis. The mind chooses its subjects of thought automatically, and redundancy (repetition) gives it more bits of positive information from which to choose. When positive information outnumbers negative information (like worries and negative self-talk, for example), it becomes more likely that the positive thought or emotion will become chosen automatically and unconsciously. In hypnosis the positive information that is repeated with concentration and effort at first (like dhāranā) eventually becomes automatic and effortless (like dhyāna).

8th Limb: Samādhi is a profound state of ecstasy and peace that comes from feeling at one with higher consciousness.

Yoga is more than stretches, poses, or exercise; it is a path by which an individual may achieve overall physical healing and balance. There are different types of yoga, but they all achieve their effects by helping the person to achieve union with a higher state of consciousness. Likewise, the real magic of hypnosis takes place when the mind is lifted from its previous state to a higher plane of thought. When a problem is seen from a new perspective, a paradigm shift from the previous state to a new state can be achieved, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Many people approach their problems by struggling against them. For example, the smoker feels engaged in a mortal battle (literally) with cigarettes, or the overeater has a love-hate relationship with sweets (they love the sweets, and hate themselves for giving in to them). However, the Law of Reversed Effect asserts that the harder you try to do something, the less chance you have of success, because the unconscious mind that the thing against which you struggle actually has power. In both Yoga and hypnosis, healing is not achieved by focusing on the suffering, or by empowering one to struggle harder, but instead by raising the mind to a higher plane. In practical terms this means leading the subject to experience the thoughts and feelings that will accompany the goal once it is achieved. For example, to stop smoking it is usually far more effective to think about how good it feels to have energy, lung capacity, peace of mind, and self control than to focus on the damage caused by smoke and nicotine, or the shame of addiction. My point is not to equate samādhi to overcoming, but to illustrate that in both hypnosis and yoga, the ultimate goal is achieved when the subject is lifted to a higher state of consciousness.

This is only a summary comparison of two very complicated subjects, but I hope that it can in some way benefit those who are involved in the practices of yoga and hypnosis. When we consider the parallels between ancient systems of healing such as these, it reminds us that we are one human family, all with the same goal of human health and happiness. If we follow these universal prescriptions for balance and healing, we are bound to think, feel, and do better.

Kroger, William S. Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1963.

© 2014, John Mongiovi, CH – All Rights Reserved.


10 Characteristics of Hypnotic Speakers

Within the field of hypnotism some claim to teach hypnotic speech techniques that bestow the power to influence and control others secretly. These methods of indirect suggestion, sometimes referred to as covert hypnosis, aim to influence a person’s unconscious without their knowing. A few forms of indirect suggestion are:

Embedded command: This is a technique of placing a command (“Feel more relaxed.”) into a larger sentence or phrase (ex: “You may feel more relaxed if you change positions.”).

Analog marking: This is the process of using verbal cues (ex: pausing or altering intonation) or physical gestures (ex: facial expressions or body language) to mark certain words. In the example above, the embedded command “feel more relaxed” would be marked. The basic idea of analog marking is that the unconscious notices and is influenced by the words that are marked.

Implication: “I wonder how deeply this article will influence you.” The implication is that the article will influence you to at least some extent, and potentially deeply. There is also an embedded command in this example: “…this article will influence you.”

Implied directive: “As soon as you get comfortable you will take a few deep breaths.” The implied directive has three parts: 1) A time-binding introduction (“As soon as…”); 2) the implied suggestion (“…you get comfortable…”); and 3) a behavioral response (“…you will take a few deep breaths.”).

Bind: A bind is when two choices are stated, both of which satisfy the outcome. For example: “Would you rather enter hypnosis rapidly or gradually?” In this case, either choice assumes that the subject will enter hypnosis. Binds can be classified further into many subtypes.

Other techniques of indirect suggestion include confusion, shock, questioning, and use of analogies, puns, and metaphors.

Many of these methods of indirect suggestion were developed from the work of the psychologist Milton Erickson (1901-1980).[1] Erickson believed that normal conversation could influence the unconscious, regardless of whether the subject experienced hypnotic trance. Suggestion that has an effect without the presence of hypnosis is known sometimes as waking suggestion. Neurolinguistic programming (NLP), created in the 1970s, is an attempt to classify the natural language patterns used in Erickson's own recorded therapeutic sessions. Empirical validation of NLP’s effectiveness is controversial, however scientific evidence does support the idea that people respond to suggestion without the presence of hypnosis.[2]

Indirect suggestion does have some effect, but one can not influence others significantly simply by employing these techniques. The “hypnotic effect” of hypnotist or a powerful speaker is not solely, or even primarily, due to any verbal techniques they may employ, but because of their whole personalities. Before the advent of clinical (i.e. Ericksonian) hypnosis, it was long recognized that the influence of a hypnotist resides within certain personal qualities,[3] which may be natural or developed over time. These characteristics are the basis of hypnotic influence in traditional hypnotism, both in stage hypnotism and hypnotherapy, and can increase one’s influence in practically any field of endeavor, especially in speaking, presentation, and performance:

Confidence is the most important quality for a hypnotist. A hypnotist must have absolute confidence that his suggestions will have the desired effect. His certainty gives the words force. Likewise, a speaker must have total confidence that his message will be received positively by his audience.

Authentic confidence comes from success, which is the result of hard work. You can “fake it ‘til you make it” for a while, but people can detect false confidence. Eventually a person who does not obtain actual successes will lose confidence in himself as well as the confidence of others. 

Thoughts have power, psychologically and metaphysically. Psychologically, the sincere will and intent of the hypnotist or speaker produce subtleties in his verbal and nonverbal communication, which may be perceived by the listener's unconscious. Metaphysically, thoughts have the power to affect outcomes.[4] The focused and concentrated will of a hypnotist or speaker give life to his words.

The direct suggestions of a hypnotist are often sharp and decisive. An effective hypnotist or speaker does not hesitate in his statements.

Hypnosis is not always a predictable experience. A hypnotist or speaker must be prepared for any response from his subject(s) or audience. He should not be timid or fearful.

A good hypnotist or speaker must concentrate entirely on the idea being expressed and avoid being distracted by other thoughts, such as wondering how he is being received or whether he will be successful. Also, he must be persistent and adhere to a course of action, despite any difficulties or distractions that might arise from the subject(s), audience, or environment.

Self Possession
A person who would direct others must have command of himself first. Hypnotists and speakers cannot lose control and react negatively to difficult circumstances. They must be in charge of their responses at all times.

Using verbal suggestions to create mental imagery, a hypnotist must be able to create a vivid picture of the desired outcome. Successful speakers also are often skilled at describing their ideas with compelling imagery.

The hypnotic subject must feel a kinship with the hypnotist. The hypnotist and subject must be en rapport. Some believe that this is more essential to hypnosis than depth of trance. Likewise, for a speaker to be effective the audience must feel that they can relate to him. They must like the speaker and want to succeed with him. Also, the hypnotist or speaker must be sensitive enough to perceive the subtleties and nuances of unconscious communication and empathize with their subject's or audience's perspective. Anyone seeking to influence others should develop their sense of empathy.

A good hypnotist or powerful speaker should be of good physical, mental, and emotional health. Ailments can diminish one’s power to think and concentrate. Also, a person who appears vital and healthy exerts a stronger influence than someone who does not.

There are no short cuts to “hypnotic power.” Indirect suggestion plays an important role in clinical hypnosis and hypnotherapy, but when it comes to influencing others nothing can match the force of these authentic personal qualities. Anyone who wants to increase their power in speaking, leadership, or performance should pay attention to these areas: confidence, success, willfulness, decisiveness, fearlessness, concentration, self-possession, vision, rapport, and health. The key to real hypnotic power is self improvement.

1. Erickson, M., & Rossi, E. (1976). Hypnotic realities: The induction of clinical hypnosis and forms of indirect suggestion. New York: Irvington.

2. Kirsch, I., & Braffman, W. (n.d.). Imaginative Suggestibility and Hypnotizability. Current Directions in Psychological Science Current Directions in Psychol Sci, 57-61.

3. Cook, W. (1943). Practical lessons in hypnotism. New York: Willey Book.

4. Radin, D. (1997). The conscious universe: The scientific truth of psychic phenomena. New York, N.Y.: HarperEdge.