Hypnosis isn’t always fully understood, even by those who study and practice it. In the most general definition, hypnosis is a state of human consciousness that includes highly focused attention and reduced peripheral input during which people experience an enhanced capacity to respond to suggestion.
The key theories that attempt to explain what happens to the human mind during hypnosis have long been divided between two camps.
Altered state theories see hypnosis as an altered state of consciousness, marked by a different level of awareness than one has during an ordinary conscious state.
By contrast, nonstate theorists interpret the effects of hypnosis as a combination of task-specific factors akin to a kind of imaginative role play.
In this article, we’ll explore how hypnosis works and how you can use it to find solutions and achieve goals that currently feel out of reach.
New Discoveries Offer New Insights into the Effects of Hypnosis
A recent study by researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine could shed new light on what exactly happens to the brain when someone is hypnotized. Specifically, scientists were able to isolate and analyze distinct sections of the brain that demonstrated altered activity and connectivity while a person is hypnotized.
To appreciate how meaningful this breakthrough is, it’s important to understand that all human beings operate with two states of mind: the conscious mind and the unconscious mind.
The unconscious mind keeps us alive: among other functions, it regulates our heart beats, blood pressure, immune system and other vital life functions. The unconscious mind is a wildly undervalued human condition, processing some two million sets of sensory data every second and processing that data down to about seven bits of sensory information that the conscious mind can process.
Your mind is home to a vast array of thoughts, images, feelings, beliefs and sensations. At any given time, you are only consciously aware of a tiny fraction of them. The rest lie below your consciousness, which is the realm of your unconscious mind.
Though your conscious appears to be running the show, most of the things you do stem from the unconscious. For instance, most unwanted behaviors exist because they serve a purpose for your unconscious thoughts, beliefs and feelings (even if they don’t seem very helpful to your conscious mind). A few examples include smoking and overeating or undereating.
So, if the unconscious mind is basically running things around here, what do human beings use the conscious mind for? This is the part of our brains that is logical, critical and analytical; it’s how we process information and make decisions. The unconscious mind is more accepting of new information, bypassing introspection and playing a leading role in motivation, interests and decision-making.
It’s like an iceberg, where the conscious mind is the small part that is visible above the water—the unconscious mind exists below the surface. And although we know it’s there, we can’t easily make out its size and shape.
That’s where hypnosis comes in.
How Hypnosis Works on the Unconscious Mind
Hypnosis works by bypassing the conscious mind and speaking directly to the unconscious in a language it can process: generally by using patterns, word associations, stories, and metaphors. It’s like your unconscious mind is speaking an entirely different language than the conscious mind.
To speak to the unconscious mind, a hypnotist (or hypnosis audio program) uses a process called induction to create an environment that relaxes the conscious mind. Following induction, you’re given carefully scripted hypnotic suggestions designed to address thoughts,beliefs, and behaviors you wish to change.
Hypnosis works because the process of hypnotic suggestion updates and replaces content in the unconscious mind with new and more helpful information. It’s a bit like reprogramming or updating a computer. It can be used to change associations, so that things that are bad for you—like cigarettes or too many sweets—are no longer seen as welcome behaviors by the unconscious mind. Instead, these harmful behaviors are regarded as things that are bad for you and will ultimately make you feel bad.
Hypnosis can also be used to mentally rehearse how you’ll behave in stressful situations, allowing you to avoid bad habits that you formerly viewed as a source of relief.
How Hypnosis Has Already Worked For You
Would you be surprised to learn that you’ve been hypnotized before?
It’s not uncommon for people to enter a state of hypnosis during everyday activities. It’s a lot like drifting off into a daydream.
Think about the last time you drove somewhere and arrived at your destination without remembering the trip. Or consider a moment you let your mind wander, when suddenly, the answer to a difficult problem revealed itself (even though you weren’t consciously thinking about the problem). Hypnosis is a lot like those experiences.
The ultimate goal of hypnosis is to help you access your subconscious mind. You can understand and process your deepest desires, change your perspective, and develop creative solutions to problems that you couldn’t solve while actively focusing on them.
Not unlike other brain phenomena, hypnosis works in part because of the brain’s neuroplasticity—it’s ability to change over time. We know that hypnosis can alter brain activity and promote connectivity in parts of the brain supporting retention. In other words, the information and new ideas that come to you in a state of hypnosis won’t slip away when you leave the hypnotic state.
These ideas and thoughts nest in your subconscious mind, fully available for retrieval at any time. Through hypnosis, you are enabled to give up bad habits or to embrace more helpful behavior, thereby living a more empowered life.
Hypnosis Offers Real Solutions
The evidence that hypnosis alters brain activity and connectivity strongly supports the theory that hypnosis supports retention and creative problem solving. In other words, ideas that are delivered to the unconscious mind remain there, fully available for retrieval at any time.
Hypnosis works by updating the unconscious mind with new and more helpful information. You’re essentially “rebooting” your understanding of your own behavior and how you interpret input from the world around you.
It’s a safe and effective way to make deep, lasting changes, whether you want to quit smoking, lose weight, reduce anxiety or sleep better at night.
Want to learn more about hypnosis? We offer a variety of helpful articles and resources to help you understand what it is, how it works, and how you can use hypnosis to live a fuller, more satisfying life.