Hypnosis History

Introduction to Hypnosis

Hypnosis as a therapeutic technique has been historically investigated and debated for many years. For most laypeople,the term hypnosis connotes an altered state or trance state of consciousness. Within this conception, a hypnotist transforms their subjects into passive individuals whose experiences and behaviors are now in control of the hypnotist. However, currently a struggle to reach a consensus about how to explain hypnotic phenomenon, specifically the altered state theory, exists. Controversies surrounding the altered state theory have created alternate conceptions of hypnosis rooted in theories involving social construction and expectation. The traditional theories of hypnosis remain fixated to the definition of hypnosis as an altered state. However, more contemporary theories of hypnosis, the cognitive-behavioral conception, have split from the traditional views and have defined hypnosis in a differing manner. Throughout the endeavor to find a modern definition of hypnosis, individual modern hypnotic camps maintain their radically distinctive conceptions of hypnosis.

However, the historical shift made by the cognitive-behavioral perspective from the traditional perspective has been accompanied by a corresponding shift in numerous critical concepts related to hypnosis.

Here, I will first outline brief histories of the state and cognitive-behavioral hypnotic perspectives and discuss the historical shift of the cognitive-behavioral hypnotic perspective from the traditional state theories of hypnosis. Next, I will consider the historical shift in terms of the implications for specific hypnotic domains. Finally, I will discuss the implications of cognitive-behavioral application to current hypnotic therapy.


Currently, two theories remain dominant throughout the quest for the definition of hypnosis. These theories differ from one another primarily with respect to the emphasis they place upon hypnosis as an operation of cognitive activities. The most traditional of theories, coined as neodissociation, views hypnosis as a state in which the subject is a passive observer (Spanos & Chaves, 1991). This theory stems from the notion of ideomotor responding, one of the earliest psychological theories that aimed to account for the automaticity of hypnosis and the influence of the hypnotist’s expectations.

Ideomotor responding embraces the idea that a hypnotist communicates a particular idea to the subject and the mere focusing by the subject on that idea leads the subject to automatically respond. For example, a hypnotist might communicate the idea that the subject’s hand is becoming stiff and rigid. According to the theory of ideomotor responding, the mere focusing on the idea by the subject will automatically cause the stiffening of his or her hand. This theory claims that the suggestions of the hypnotist are interpreted by the patient into representations or ideas. These ideas then facilitate the automatic behaviors. The notion of the automaticity of a hypnotized subject is key to the theory of ideomotor responding. While simplistic, this theory became the cornerstone of many of the early hypnotic perspectives (Spanos & Chaves, 1991).

Embracing the concept of ideomotor responding, the neodissociation perspective affirms that the suggestions of the hypnotist are translated by the subjects and the translations subsequently facilitate automatic behaviors. Thus, after the suggestions are translated by the subject, he or she becomes a passive observer during the hypnotic process. In 1959, Orne initiated this perspective and described hypnotized subjects as being in a trance-like state in which complex behaviors can be elicited automatically by the hypnotist and independently of conscious control (Spanos & Chaves, 1989).

In 1977, E.R. Hilgard named this conception as the neodissociation perspective of hypnosis. This perspective conceptualizes hypnotic behavior as events that happen to passive subjects
(as observers of the hypnotic experience rather than active initiators) when particular cognitive subsystems become separated (dissociated) from one another (Spanos & Chaves, 1989). This supports the view that hypnosis is a special state of consciousness and without this state hypnotic phenomenon would not occur (Ross, 1981).

The modern neodissociation perspective stems from Janet’s (1925) concept of dissociation. According to this hypothesis, ideas or behavioral patterns that normally occurred together could be separated from one another. This theory explained that only particular individuals were predisposed to dissociation and only these individuals consequently dissociate by suggestion or command of a hypnotist. The dissociation theory gained popularity as it attempted to explain multiple personality, the existence of intelligent “selves” that appeared to be isolated from an individual’s “conscious self”. A re-interpretation of this theory spawned the definition of hypnosis as a neodissociation. According to this theory, the partial dissociation of cognitive structures in the brain facilitates hypnosis (Spanos & Chaves, 1991).