You're Getting Sleepy

Hypnotists' methods vary, but they all depend on a few basic prerequisites:
  • The subject must want to be hypnotized.
  • The subject must believe he or she can be hypnotized.
  • The subject must eventually feel comfortable and relaxed.

If these criteria are met, the hypnotist can guide the subject into a hypnotic trance using a variety of methods. The most common hypnotic techniques are:

  • Fixed-gaze induction or eye fixation - This is the method you often see in movies, when the hypnotist waves a pocket watch in front of the subject.

    The basic idea is to get the subject to focus on an object so intently that he or she tunes out any other stimuli. As the subject focuses, the hypnotist talks to him or her in a low tone, lulling the subject into relaxation. This method was very popular in the early days of hypnotism, but it isn't used much today because it doesn't work on a large proportion of the population.

  • Rapid - The idea of this method is to overload the mind with sudden, firm commands.

    If the commands are forceful, and the hypnotist is convincing enough, the subject will surrender his or her conscious control over the situation. This method works well for a stage hypnotist because the novel circumstance of being up in front of an audience puts subjects on edge, making them more susceptible to the hypnotist's commands.

  • Progressive relaxation and imagery - This is the hypnosis method most commonly employed by psychiatrists.

    By speaking to the subject in a slow, soothing voice, the hypnotist gradually brings on complete relaxation and focus, easing the subject into full hypnosis. Typically, self-hypnosis training, as well as relaxation and meditation audio tapes, use the progressive relaxation method.

  • Loss of balance - This method creates a loss of equilibrium using slow, rhythmic rocking.

    Parents have been putting babies to sleep with this method for thousands of years.       

Before hypnotists bring a subject into a full trance, they generally test his or her willingness and capacity to be hypnotized. The typical testing method is to make several simple suggestions, such as "Relax your arms completely," and work up to suggestions that ask the subject to suspend disbelief or distort normal thoughts, such as "Pretend you are weightless."

Depending on the person's mental state and personality, the entire hypnotism process can take anywhere from a few minutes to more than a half hour. Hypnotists and hypnotism proponents see the peculiar mental state as a powerful tool with a wide range of applications. In the next section, we'll look at some of the more common uses of hypnotism.