Q. How does hypnosis work?

A. It works great!

Okay, if you clicked on this link, you were probably wanting an explanation, not just a slogan. So here goes.

Scholarly Debate

Nobody knows exactly how hypnosis works, just that it does. Scholars and scientists have spent decades formulating and debating definitions of hypnosis and theories on how exactly it works, and they’re not really much closer to agreement than they were when they started. While science has made amazing discoveries in how the brain works, there’s still a great deal that hasn’t been figured out yet. Fortunately, just as you really don’t need to know what a microwave is in order to defrost dinner in a microwave oven, you really don’t need to know literally what’s happening in your brain during hypnosis.

It’s All in Your Mind

It does help to have an understanding of your mind, though. It is made up of several parts, one of which is your conscious mind, the part you identify as yourself, the voice inside you that you think of as you. The conscious mind can only keep track of about seven things at any one time, but of course our senses are noticing millions of things in any given second. So below (or beside or above or all around) the conscious mind is the subconscious mind, which performs an amazing number of functions. It takes in all that sensory input and filters through it to decide what to bring to your attention. It also handles your emotions. It maintains your habits and skills. It manages all of your memory. It takes care of your body by means of the autonomic nervous system; after all, you don’t have to think about making your heart beat. (Good thing, too. What if you forgot?)

The Early Edition

Some hypnotists say that hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness, a little bit like daydreaming, that allows you to more easily make changes in your unconscious. Do you remember your mom telling you to stop daydreaming? During childhood, we spend a lot of time in altered states of consciousness so that we can absorb the world around us. This is necessary so that we can learn. The downside is that it’s easy for children to get “hypnotized” by things that others, especially authority figures like parents, say to them. Most parents don’t realize how much what they say affects their children long after they are dead. Fortunately, we have hypnosis so that we can correct those problems.

Ahoy, Cap’n!

There are some very useful metaphors that can help you to understand what’s going on in your mind. One comparison is that your conscious mind is a ship captain, your unconscious mind is the crew, and your body is the ship. The captain gives the orders and decides where to go, but it’s the crew that actually trims the sails and maintains the ship. Of course, as on actual sailing vessels, the crew and the captain rarely see eye-to-eye, so orders may be misinterpreted or ignored. The crew can even become mutinous, doing the exact opposite of what the captain orders. So while the captain may be telling the crew to quit taking on all those Boston cream pies, because they are weighing the ship down too much, the crew keeps right on shoving all those sweets in the pie-hold. The hypnotist in this metaphor is a bit like a labor negotiator who persuades the crew to go along with what the captain wants, for the good of the entire ship.

Horse and Rider

Another metaphor is that the conscious mind is a rider, and the unconscious mind (especially the part that handles emotion) is a horse. Now, a man riding a horse may feel like he’s in charge, but in truth he’s going to be carried anywhere the horse plans to go. (Or he’s going to get thrown painfully, so that the horse can get where it’s going more quickly.) If you’ve ever tried to tell yourself to quit feeling an emotion because it didn’t make sense, then you know how hard it is to wrestle a horse. In this metaphor, the hypnotist is a bit more like a horse-whisperer.

Intel(ligence) Inside

Of course, we often compare our brains to computers, and this metaphor is the basis for some very powerful hypnosis. In this image, the windows open on the screen are the conscious mind, while the unconscious is all of those programs that are constantly running in the background. Habits, behaviors, and unconscious beliefs are equivalent to bits of code and software, to preferences and defaults; some are more like viruses, harmful patterns and ideas you’ve absorbed without being aware of it. In this metaphor, the hypnotist is—you guessed it—a computer programmer, or in some cases, the tech support worker who teaches you how to fix your own problems.

Cache Cab

One of my favorite metaphors is that your unconscious mind is like a foreign cabdriver. This cabbie can get you anywhere in the city, but he doesn’t want you to tell him how to get there; he just wants you to show him a picture of where you want to go. He also doesn’t want to hear you screaming from the backseat that he can’t possibly slip into that hole in traffic; backseat screaming distracts him and may make him mess up. You just have to show the cabbie where you want to be, and then trust him to get you there.

The Bar and the Bouncer

My friend and teacher, Scott Sandland of Goal-Oriented Hypnotherapy in California, uses a very apt and humorous metaphor for hypnosis, which he explains in this video:

Now there are many more metaphors for the relationship between mind, body, and unconscious, and each one sheds a little new light on this complicated synergy. Hopefully, these have given you a glimpse of how hypnosis can help you to make powerful and effective changes in your life.