How Hypnosis Works

Suggestion Box

Hypnotism illustration
Hypnotists say that subjects under hypnosis are a lot like little kids: playful and imaginative, fully embracing bizarre suggestions.
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In the last section, we examined the idea that hypnosis puts your conscious mind in the backseat, so you and the hypnotist can communicate directly with your subconscious. This theory has gained wide acceptance in the psychiatric community, mostly because it explains all the major characteristics of the hypnotic state so nicely.

It provides an especially convincing explanation for the playfulness and uninhibitedness of hypnotic subjects. The conscious mind is the main inhibitive component in your makeup -- it's in charge of putting on the brakes -- while the subconscious mind is the seat of imagination and impulse. When your subconscious mind is in control, you feel much freer and may be more creative. Your conscious mind doesn't have to filter through everything.


Hypnotized people do such bizarre things so willingly, this theory holds, because the conscious mind is not filtering and relaying the information they take in. It seems like the hypnotist's suggestions are coming directly from the subconscious, rather than from another person. You react automatically to these impulses and suggestions, just as you would to your own thoughts. Of course, your subconscious mind does have a conscience, a survival instinct and its own ideas, so there are a lot of things it won't agree to.

The subconscious regulates your bodily sensations, such as taste, touch and sight, as well as your emotional feelings. When the access door is open, and the hypnotist can speak to your subconscious directly, he or she can trigger all these feelings, so you experience the taste of a chocolate milkshake, the satisfaction of contentment and any number of other feelings.

Additionally, the subconscious is the storehouse for all your memories. While under hypnosis, subjects may be able to access past events that they have completely forgotten. Psychiatrists may use hypnotism to bring up these memories so that a related personal problem can finally be resolved. Since the subject's mind is in such a suggestible state, it is also possible to create false memories. For this reason, psychiatrists must be extremely careful when exploring a hypnotic subject's past.

This theory of hypnosis is based mostly on logical reasoning, but there is some physiological evidence that supports it. In the next section, we'll look at some of the physical data researchers have gathered on hypnosis.