How Does Hypnosis Work?

One of the things that comes up time and time again when you’re a hypnotist is people wanting to know how hypnosis works. 

So how does hypnosis work? It turns out that human brains can only consciously track about 7 things at once. Hypnosis happens when we exceed that limit and the information flowing into us still goes into our mind, but we’re not consciously aware of it. Hypnotists use a variety of techniques to exploit this gap in our awareness to make changes directly to the hypnosis subject’s unconscious mind. In this article, I’ll cover exactly how all of that happens.

What is hypnosis

Before we can begin to define exactly how hypnosis works, it’s important to begin with a definition of hypnosis.

Now, if you look around the web, read books on hypnosis, and take part in hypnosis trainings, you’ll very quickly come to realize that there are probably more definitions of hypnosis out there than there are hypnotists in the world.

And it’s even worse than that.

Lots of these definitions disagree with each other. Some will claim that neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a part of hypnosis, which makes sense since its founders are hypnotists. Others will claim they are totally separate things. The same is true of such fields as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

So who should we believe?

Even though it looks bad on the face of it, there are some common threads that run throughout most definitions of hypnosis. These threads allow us to begin to form a clear picture.

What I have found to be most useful is to simply define hypnosis each time I am talking about it.

If you have your own slightly different definition of hypnosis, that’s fine. And for the purposes of this article making sense, I’d like to invite you to set aside whatever definition you may currently have while reading this article, and to try on this one for size.

For our purposes here, I will define hypnosis thusly:

Hypnosis is the state that occurs when we occupy enough of the subject’s conscious mind that they cannot consciously process everything we’re doing.

Hopefully this definition makes sense even if it doesn’t quite fit in with the one you usually use.

So what exactly is the state of hypnosis?

Hypnosis is a natural state that everyone goes into multiple times each day. In a sense, it is the process of learning itself, unfettered by logic and reason.

When you’re a hypnotist, you’ll often find yourself being asked questions such as:

  • Does hypnosis work on everyone?
  • Can you get hypnotized?
  • Can you really be hypnotized?
  • Is hypnosis real science?

And many more.

I’d like to address these questions quickly before we proceed.

does hypnosis work on everyone?

In a sense, hypnosis is nothing more than learning beyond the level that we can consciously process. Since almost everyone can learn, this means that hypnosis works on just about everyone. The only exceptions to this are people who are unable to learn for some reason, such as those who have specific kinds of brain injury. 

Many have claimed that it’s impossible to hypnotize those of low intelligence. I do not believe this for a moment. The fact is, if someone is capable of learning and communicating, they are capable of being hypnotized.

can you get hypnotized, or can you really be hypnotized?

Hopefully it’s apparent from the reason that hypnosis does work on everyone that, yes, you really can be hypnotized. 

A lot of people will claim things such as they can’t be hypnotized because they are too smart, or they can’t be hypnotized because their mind is too strong, or some other equivalent statement. Each of these claims tends to be equivalent to the person in question being good at learning.

As a hypnotist, this is very amusing.

They are quite literally claiming that they can’t be hypnotized because they are good at the very things that tend to make people into excellent hypnosis subjects.

Read more: How to Have an Amazing Experience of Hypnosis

is hypnosis real science?

Well… I’m a physicist. I’ve been a physicist for a very long time. It’s safe to say that I know a bit about science. And the thing about being a physicist is that it’s a way of thinking about the world.

I find that as I go through my life, I am constantly constructing hypotheses, and then designing and running experiments to test them. I do this with everything, including hypnosis.

The core of science is this: We make observations about things happening in the universe, come up with explanations that predict new behaviors based on those observations, and then run experiments to validate those explanations. So long as we’re following the scientific method like that, we are doing real science.

Every time I hypnotize someone, I come up with new ideas, or refine existing ones, and then test them out. In real time, on live subjects.

Spread over many subjects and controls, that’s science.

On top of that, even though most hypnotists are not scientists, and most scientists are not hypnotists, there are still significant numbers of people who are both.

The simple fact is: Hypnosis is an established part of psychology, which is itself a science.

There are numerous papers on hypnosis and its effectiveness that have been published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals.

It’s safe to say that yes, hypnosis is real science.

Which brings us to a scientific experiment that some psychologists ran a few decades ago.

Invisible gorillas and the limits of brain capacity

So what do you do if you want to find out if there are limits on how much stuff someone can pay attention to at once?

If you happen to be a scientist, quite often the answer to such questions involves running an experiment on some students from your local university.

In this specific case, psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris ran an elegant experiment based on an earlier experiment with less entertainment value. Without going into too many details, they had a group of test subjects carry out a task, and then had someone wearing a gorilla suit wander in front of them. Finally, they asked how many of the subjects noticed the gorilla.

In doing so, they were able to demonstrate that people can only focus on between 5 and 9 things at once. After someone hits that limit, things literally start to fall out of their perception.

In the case of the invisible gorilla experiment, an entire gorilla was erased from the subjects’ perception because their attention was focused elsewhere.

This feature of the human mind, known as inattentional blindness, is the key to understanding how hypnosis works.

If we can occupy enough of someone’s conscious attention, anything else we do will slip past unnoticed so long as we don’t do things to draw their attention to it. And since the number of things that people can focus on at once is so small, this is relatively easy to do.

This is how hypnotists and magicians are able to create seemingly impossible feats.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to refer to these 5 to 9 things we can focus on at the same time as conscious attention chunks.

Read more: Is Hypnosis Real?

The basic structure of neural networks

Our brains are composed of billions of massively-interconnected neurons. This neural network encodes everything we ever experience. Information constantly flows into the system from our senses, but also from our ongoing stream of thoughts.

Because of the way information is stored in the neural network that makes up our brain, everything is associated with everything else. 

Right now I’m looking at the screen as I’m typing this, and I can see my phone and my drink bottle out of the corner of my eyes. My brain is unconsciously forming associations between this writing, my computer, my drink bottle, my phone, and everything else I can perceive in this moment, including my thoughts.

Hypnotic anchors

In hypnosis we refer to these associations as anchors. Hypnotists use anchors all the time to help people to get the results that they want.

book cover Artful Hypnotic Anchoring

Here’s a simple example.

Suppose that I want to drop someone into deep hypnosis when I speak with a particular tone of voice. Because I know how the associations inside the mind work, all I have to do to make that happen is hypnotize the subject, then switch my voice tone to my deep hypnosis voice when I notice they’ve reached deep hypnosis.

After a few iterations, their brain has formed the association enough. At that point, all I have to do in future to drop them into deep hypnosis is switch my voice tone, and they drop. This is so effective that it’s the only thing I really do to hypnotize subjects with whom I have more than a handful of sessions because it saves so much time.

Getting back to the brain, the network of associations impacts every area of our lives.

Dreaming is a form of self-hypnosis

When we sleep at night, our senses significantly shut down. In most people, our conscious awareness shuts down too. While it’s possible to learn to remain conscious and aware while we sleep, we’re mostly unaware of our senses even when we dream.

Our dreams appear to have the purpose of essentially keeping us sane. Conveniently this happens unconsciously, which means that we can generally wake up inside our dreams without messing up the processes that need to happen. We never really become aware of the ways in which our brains are organizing the information for us.

To us, it seems to happen by magic.

So what’s going on?

Let’s think back to what we need for effective hypnosis: We need to get the conscious mind out of the way, so that we can make changes in the structure of information inside the subject’s mind.

Now let’s think about what happens when we dream: We lose consciousness, and then our brains sort out the day’s information for us while we sleep. 

Because these changes happen on the level of structure, rather than the specific content, the process still works even when we wake up inside our dreams.

So it appears that the process of dreaming is a form of automatic self-hypnosis.

Read more: How to Fall Asleep Even if You Can’t Stop Thinking
Read more: How to Have Lucid Dreams

Now that we know what hypnosis is, and how our brains associate everything with everything else, we’re in a good place to begin to understand how hypnosis works.

How does hypnosis work?

So far we’ve covered how everything within our brains is connected to everything else, and how we can only place our attention on around 7 conscious attention chunks at once. 

When we put these two together, it starts to become clear how hypnosis works.

So how exactly does hypnosis work?

At its core, it’s a very simple process.

Every piece of information that flows into us influences and shapes our neural network in some way. It has to, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to remember it at all.

When all of our conscious attention chunks are consumed, we can only notice additional things if they cause our alert system to fire. We only have a limited amount of attention we can use at any point in time. So anything beyond that slips by unnoticed.

Just like the invisible gorilla.

This does not prevent the new information from going into our minds. It just prevents us from interfering with it.

We can still shift our attention almost instantly if we need to

Now, we do have all sorts of alerting systems to keep us safe. This is why we can instantly shift our attention should it become necessary. 

But here’s the thing: The deeper we are in hypnosis, the louder the things we’re not focusing on have to be in order for our attention to shift to them.

Most of us have had the experience of being fully absorbed in a TV show or movie to the extent that we didn’t notice our partner talking to us. Or more accurately, we’ve had the experience of them complaining about it afterwards. This happens because all of our attention is consumed. We don’t have enough resources left to track them as well as the show.

If someone is deep enough in hypnosis, even critical threats to their personal safety might not alert them.

In practical terms, this means that we can have effective hypnosis when the hypnotist guides their subject into deep hypnosis, while simultaneously presenting things in a way that’s unlikely to trigger their alert mechanisms.

The better the hypnotist is at avoiding triggering their subject’s alert mechanisms, the less work they have to do inducing trance.

How do you hypnotize someone?

Now that we’ve covered how hypnosis works, it makes sense to cover the basic structure of hypnosis. At their core, all hypnosis sessions looks like this:

  1. The hypnotist consumes all of their subject’s conscious attention chunks. At this point, any further information presented to the subject bypasses their conscious filters.
  2. The hypnotist frames new information, suggestions, or whatever else in such a way that they are unlikely to cause the subject’s alert systems to fire.
  3. Because everything we experience goes into our minds in one way or another, whatever the hypnotist is doing goes into their subject’s mind.
  4. Often, but not always, the hypnotist will take additional steps to temporarily inhibit their subject’s recollection of the hypnosis session. We do this because those changes remain fluid for a few hours afterwards, which means that if the subject can access them consciously, they can mess them up.
  5. The hypnotist guides their subject back out of hypnosis.

As you can see, this exactly matches how hypnosis works. If you’d like to know the details of how to hypnotize someone, you might enjoy my article How to Hypnotize Someone Easily.

We started this article with a definition of hypnosis:

Hypnosis is the state that occurs when we occupy enough of the subject’s conscious mind that they cannot consciously process everything we’re doing.

This too exactly matches how hypnosis works.

How does self-hypnosis work?

Hypnosis is a consequence of the finite capacity of our brains.

Given everything we’ve covered, we might ask whether it’s possible to hypnotize ourselves.

From looking at the process above, it might appear easy to conclude that self-hypnosis is impossible. After all, how can we consciously do stuff if we don’t have any conscious attention left?

It turns out that it’s actually quite straightforward to hypnotize yourself.

Go deep today with my easy step by step guide to self-hypnosis. Click here to check it out!

If you want to hypnotize yourself, all you have to do is consume all of your conscious awareness. This is very easy to do: Just find multiple tasks that you can focus on at the same time, and you will almost certainly go into hypnosis.

If you’d like to learn how to hypnotize yourself, I’ve covered exactly how to do this in my book The Self-Hypnosis Formula. Inside the book, I give a simple 7-step process designed to lead you all the way into hypnosis. This process can be used to bootstrap lucid dreaming, meditation, hypnotic realities, sleep, and more.

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