Understanding the Science Behind Hypnotherapy

Steven Smith Hypnotherapist
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The Placebo Effect

It is a phenomenon in the medical field, that can help explain to a degree, why hypnosis works.

If you’ve not heard of this before it’s when a patient receives something like a sugar pill or a saline solution then begins to feel better. How?

Simple: Our Mind Map – Our Belief & Expectation.

Our subconscious mind stores our beliefs and expectation and protects them. Making these beliefs and hope our reality, our Map of the world.

Like our belief and expectation of doctors and medication. When a doctor tells a patient that this pill will help them feel better, the belief and expectation are that the tablet will do what the doctor said, make them better.

Alternatively, we can look at it a different way. The placebo is a trigger for our subconscious mind to tell the body to expect results. Which in turn shapes what happens and how we will feel.

Hypnotherapy works similarly. While in hypnosis we can empower our minds to update our beliefs and expectations. Take quitting smoking, for example. Most believe that it will be difficult, stressful if not painful. With hypnosis, we can replace those assumptions with helpful and more positive ones.

How Hypnosis Can Helps Us Reshape Our Mind Map?

Here’s why hypnosis works, while in this state, the mind is open to suggestion. Giving us the ability to alter our subconscious thoughts to help us achieve our goals. A hypnotherapist can help a person access this state of mind. Then they make suggestions that will help that person update their mind map with a more positive one.

Take hypnosis for weight loss for example. Your subconscious mind may have many beliefs and expectations about losing weight. For example, you might think to yourself:

  • ‘That losing weight is impossible’,
  • ‘I don’t want to miss out on my your favourite foods’
  • ‘I was born this way’.

These type of thoughts, memories, experiences help create beliefs and expectations, our reality. It creates a structure for our mind map to live by, resulting in you taking conscious action to full fill these beliefs no matter what it takes. The subconscious will always win and will do what it believes to be right in the information it has at the time. Even if it means stopping you from losing weight.

We are programmed to fail. Our subconscious mind holds on to everything, including bad habits. The negative self-talk, smoking, overeating, they’re all embedded in the subconscious.

Hypnotherapy helps us to alter and update these negative beliefs. Research is now showing that hypnosis can work for many conditions. Conditions like chronic pain, anxiety, and weight loss. By training our minds to think about the challenges we face in life and the goals we want differently. We can drop the negative thoughts that result in self-sabotage.

So you now know that hypnosis empowers you to change your subconscious thoughts. In a nutshell, that’s how hypnotherapy works, its a tool for change.

Now we’re going to dive a little deeper. We are going to show you why people think the subconscious is so suggestible under hypnosis. As well as why our subconscious is so powerful and amazing.

The Many Theories of Hypnotherapy

Hypnosis goes way back beyond anything we can track. It goes back at least hundreds of years, if not thousands. In that time, it has gone by many names over the years and has fascinated many minds.

Today, we will begin with an Austrian physician from the 1770s called, Frances Mesmer. Whose name the word ‘mesmerism’ and to be ‘mesmerised’ came from. After seeing a Priest called ‘Maximilian Hell.’ do healing using bloodletting, and magnetic rods. He began experimenting with it and believed that diseases were the results of blockages in the bodies magnetic flow. Known as ‘Animal Magnetism’. He would travel up and down the Europe healing people. Using iron rods, chanting, playing ethereal music, in dim lighting.

This theory changed, when one day he had forgotten his iron rod, and in a fit of panic used a stick that was close by. Still ending in the same result, the person getting better. Mesmer then believed that it was him changing a person’s magnetic flow, due to what he was saying and doing.

Even the Mesmer had some out there theory about how he was helping people. He did spark curiosity in the field of hypnosis.

One such person was James Braid, A Scottish eye specialist. He had seen a few demonstrations of mesmerism, by one of Mesmer disciples. After watching these shows, he believed that there was something else at work, and began experimenting.

One day, Braid was late for an appointment. When he arrived, he found his patient in the waiting room staring into an old lamp. This patient had a glazed over look on his face, like the one he had seen at the Mesmer shows. Braid took this opportunity and gave some simple suggestions, like close your eyes. To which the patient complied, and Braid’s interest grew.

After lots of research on himself and patients, he published a paper in which he coined the term ‘Hypnosis’.

Today, there are two main schools of thought about what’s going on in the mind while in a state of hypnosis.

State Theory

This theory suggests that subjects under hypnosis, enter an altered state of consciousness. In this altered state, subjects can disassociate behavioural control from their awareness. They can bypass critical conscious thoughts, and focus on what they’re doing. Without asking why.

In an early hypnosis experiment, by Ernst Hilgard. He had subject hold their hands in a bucket of cold water. He found those under hypnosis, were able to keep their hands in the cold water for much longer. Compared to those that were not hypnotised.

This experiment shows that while under hypnosis, a subject can bypass critical thoughts. e.g. ‘Man, this water is cold.’

So, that’s what the state theory proposes. That we reach an altered state of awareness when we bypass normal brain processes.

Non-State Theory

This theory suggests that hypnotised subjects are pretending to be in hypnosis. This is due to us having assumptions about how we’re supposed to act in this role. In turn, influencing our behaviour, resulting in a positive response to hypnosis. The subjects assume they should act that way afterwards.

Which Theory Is Correct?

Recent research suggests that both theories may be correct. Thanks to modern brain imaging technology. Research has shown that the brain behaviour changes when someone is acting upon hypnotic suggestions.

This research has been compelling. Here’s an example:

Dr Amir Raz, a Columbia professor, in 2005, asked patients to complete a simple task. The task had four words on a board in block letters – GREEN, BLUE, RED, and YELLOW. However, the colour of ink used for each was different. For example, RED would have been in blue ink.

So when asked what colour the written word was, our brains wanted to say blue, even though Red was the correct answer. This is known as the Stroop Effect, it was the incongruent ideas get crossed, and it takes us longer to answer.

Raz then hypnotised subjects and told them they would see words in gibberish on a screen. Their task would be to identify the colour of the ink. Not only did the hypnotised subjects complete the work, without delay. However, by using brain imaging software, the area of the brain that decodes written words was not activated.

This study and other suggestions. That during hypnosis we achieve an altered state of consciousness.

Belief and Expectation vs. Reality

Raz’s study shows us that expectation influences our perception. His subjects expected to read gibberish words. So, the area of the brain that would have recognised the word RED did not activate.

This idea forms the basis of why hypnosis works.

Our minds have embedded beliefs and expectations, developed over our lifetime. Memories, assumptions, negative experiences, positive experiences. They all help to form and reinforce the beliefs and expectations we have.

What we see, what we hear and what we feel and assume to be true, isn’t always correct. Our conscious thoughts interpret sensory data from a brain network, that’s always evolving.

Called top-down processing. The information from the top overrides and informs lower-level processes.

Say you see a red car for example. Your eyes capture sensory data about the car. This data goes to the higher brain for processing, deciphering the shape and colour. Then, the information goes to higher functioning levels. Where the colour and shape helps us recognise the car’s make and model.

The information flows up, but at the same time about 10 times the amount of feedback flows down. Our subconscious thoughts determine this feedback. It tells the brain how to interpret the data.

This helps explain what’s causing hypnosis to work, by overriding these processes with new, improved and more helpful suggestions. Subjects can perceive the world through new eyes.

Take a look at the ‘Stroop Effect,’ you’ll find it on most brain training software. It’s difficult to say “BLUE” when looking at the word red. Our brains read the word blue before we encode the colour of the ink. However, when we perceive the words to be nonsense, we’re able to bypass the critical thinking and answer the question straight away.

Now, that’s the key to overcoming bad habits and achieving a new empowered you. We must get to the cause of these habits. It’s our negative assumptions that are keeping the bad habit in place. Override them with better information. So, you can overcome your brain’s learned top-down processes. i.e. when you feel stressed, you crave sugar and replace this thinking with a more helpful response.

Re-framing through Hypnosis


Here’s another example of the power of beliefs and expectation. A group of participants asked to take a wine taste test. They were given two choices: One glass had “expensive” wine and another some reasonably priced wine.

However, in truth, both glasses were the same reasonably priced wine, but participants expected the expensive wine to taste better. So, they gave it much higher marks for taste.

The suggestion was subtle, and one was more expensive. It just demonstrates how a simple suggestion can change our perception.

What if we could enable the mind to accept better suggestions? That’s precisely what hypnosis does. Hypnosis heightens our susceptibility to suggestion.

We’re able to re-frame reality thanks to two principles: Suggestion and disassociation.

Disassociation: While hypnotised, the theory is that the mind splits into two states. The hypnotised mind and a hidden observer. In this state, we block out our surroundings and bypass the hidden observer. (top-down process)

This empowers us to take the suggestion without questioning, as long as the suggestion matches our existing moral code. Recent research suggests that hypnosis can create brain connections that make this possible.

Suggestion: During hypnosis, the person can focus on a single idea or suggestion. Also, in that state, you can bypass your critical thoughts about the suggestions. Hypnosis is useful, as we reach a state in which the mind can take suggestions without questioning them.

Look at Dr Raz’s experiment: The hypnotised subjects read words like BLUE as nonsense. This happened because the mind was free to act on a suggestion without questioning why.

The majority of the time, sensory information matches our top-down processing. We see a blue car, and our memories tell us how to interpret what the car is.

However, hypnosis works by creating a mix up between bottom-up and top-down thinking.

Through hypnosis, we can use suggestion to train the mind to respond differently. To create a new reality, in which, sensory data will trigger healthier responses. When you experience stress, your existing thought might force you to reach for a cigarette, binge on chocolate, or stay awake at night. Hypnosis allows us to update and re-frame these top-down responses.

What's the Research Saying About Hypnosis

Hypnosis is now common in a lot of world-renowned healthcare facilities.

For example, the NHS refers patients to hypnosis as a therapy for pain management and anxiety.

The research paints a brilliant picture of hypnosis for a variety of conditions. From addiction to anxiety. Below is a look at some research in a difference of categories:

Insomnia and Sleep Disorders

A study in 2010, found that hypnosis effective for inducing REM sleep. In showed, that subjects who listened to a short sleep hypnosis audio before sleep, achieved 80 per cent more sleep.

Weight Loss

A 1986 study examined how well group hypnosis worked for weight loss. The group that underwent hypnosis lost over 7 KG, while the non-hypnotised group lost less than half a kilogram.

Smoking Cessation

A randomised trial in 2008. Found that smokers who underwent hypnosis found stopping easier. Then those who received counselling and nicotine replacement therapy.

Anxiety and Depression

In 2010 six studies showed that hypnosis helped with anxiety. In 2009 a meta-analysis also found that hypnosis was beneficial for treating depression.

Final Thoughts

We’ve thrown a lot of information at you about how hypnosis works, but remember it’s simple.

Our beliefs and expectations create our REALITY. So, we expect an expensive glass of wine to taste better, and we perceive a difference in taste. Our minds interpret words as gibberish and were able to decipher the colour of the ink without delay.

Hypnosis provides a means to upgrade our existing beliefs, expectations, assumptions and memories. Achieved by following a hypnotic induction so we can reach a hypnotised state.

According to the state theory of hypnosis. Once we reach hypnosis, we’re able to disassociate our critical thoughts. We hear the suggestions and follow them without questioning them as to why we’re following them. It’s by using the power of suggestion that enables us to reshape and re-frame our perceptions.

Our brains have a vast network for interpreting the world around us. Over time, negative and unhelpful thoughts have worked their way into that network. So, when we experience stress, we can have an overpowering urge to indulge in sweets, smoke. Even turn to drugs or alcohol. These subconscious urges are automatic, uncontrollable.

Hypnosis enables us to overcome and quite these uncontrolled thoughts. That’s where the power lies.

Hypnosis empowers us to believe in the suggestions, and this enables us to alter our behaviour.

Here ends the science part from me. I tend to keep things a lot simpler in my work. Want more information, then check out my other blog posts.

Are you ready to start your hypnotic journey? Then Contact us a call or check out our store.

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