Hypnosis is difficult to define precisely, like many concepts relating to the mind and consciousness. Webster defines hypnosis as “a trancelike state that resembles sleep but is induced by a person whose suggestions are readily accepted by the subject” and “any of various conditions that resemble sleep.” This definition is consistent with how most people think of hypnosis, but it’s only part of the picture.
The question of whether hypnosis is an altered state or a continuum of our normal state of awareness has been debated. You can see this reflected in the following contradictory definitions of hypnosis:
“Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness. It is characterized by an increased ability to produce desirable changes in habit patterns, motivations, self-image and life style. Alterations may be produced in physiological functions, such as pain, that are usually inaccessible to psychological influence.” – Clinical Hypnosis Principles and Applications by Crasilneck & Hall.
“Hypnosis is not a ‘state,’ but rather a ‘descriptive abstraction’ referring to a number of interrelated and overlapping processes.” –Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis by Kroger.
Also, hypnosis does not always resemble sleep. Waking hypnosis and conversational hypnosis, for example, are not like sleep at all. This idea that the hypnotic subject goes into a sleep-like state or loses consciousness is the most common misconception about hypnosis. People do sometimes enter such profound states of trance that they appear asleep, but not always. In many cases a subject in hypnosis is actually more awake, more focused, and concentrating intensely.
The word “hypnosis” doesn’t help. It comes from the Greek word “hypnos,” meaning sleep. The person who coined the term (James Braid, the father of modern hypnosis) attempted to change it later to “monoideism” (meaning focus on one idea), but “hypnosis” had already gained popularity. Braid’s notion of “monoideism” is descriptive of what many people experience in hypnosis. The following definitions of hypnosis from some of my favorites are more in line with Braid's idea of singular focus.
“[Hypnosis is]…an increase in focal attention to one aspect of the total situation and a concomitant constriction of peripheral awareness of other aspects.” – Trance and Treatment: Clinical Uses of Hypnosis by Spiegel & Spiegel.
“Hypnosis is “a dissociation of awareness from the majority of sensory and even strictly neural events that are taking place.” – “Personality and Hypnotic Susceptibility,” Am. J. Clin. Hypnosis, by Weitzenhoffer & Weitzenhoffer.
“Hypnosis: A state of consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterized by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion.” - The Society of Psychological Hypnosis
Hypnosis is well-studied, but as in many fields of science, theories are debated. These definitions at least give a glimpse of hypnosis from the scientific perspective, and a more balanced understanding of one of the most fascinating phenomena of the human mind.