18 Experts And Skeptics Talk About What’s Really Going On During Hypnosis


Found at ELI5 and appearing here with permission.

1. Not Everyone Has The Same Limitations

My fav anecdote regarding the limitations of hypnosis was a professor demonstrating to students each year that people wouldn’t do what they normally are unwilling to do while under hypnosis, by inducing the state in a viable student, then asking them to take off their clothes.

This would immediately disrupt their mental state and clearly show folks can’t be made to “do things” via hypnosis.

Until one year a female student promptly began disrobing. He stopped her, and it turned out she was employed as a stripper, so had no reservations about removing her clothing publicly.

2. Here’s What Happens Psychologically

It has been well established that hypnosis is an ability of the subject. It has essentially nothing to do with the hypnotist, and in fact even unskilled trainees, students, or the subject themselves can hypnotize a person with high hypnotic ability.

There are two schools of thought about what actually happens psychologically.

  1. Social-cognitive theory. Basically, the act represents a very special social situation in which you’re allowed to do outrageous things with no consequences. It is socially understood that that isn’t “really” you, and afterwards you can claim amnesia or loss of control or whatever and you’ll never be blamed for acting like that. This isn’t exactly “they’re all faking”, because there is also an extreme social pressure to do what the hypnotist says and not be a buzzkill for everyone else. So, the combination of the pressure and the opportunity give rise to all the things you see.
  2. Dissociation theory. Basically, you have two aspects of your consciousness: The everyday thinking and feeling part you call “I”, and a hidden observer in the back of your mind that just kind of watches everything. Normally you identify with the I, and have only a faint awareness of the observer. In hypnosis you become the observer – which is an altered state of consciousness – and don’t worry so much about the I. The observer cares far less about your social standing, personal qualms, etc, and just notes everything going on. So it is more likely to do far-out stuff, similar to what you might do when you’re drunk, high, in a dream, etc (all of which are other altered states of consciousness).

Some fun facts:

  • Hypnosis is not at all related to sleep, except in the sense that sleep is also an altered state of consciousness. Saying “you’re getting very sleepy” is kind of a myth, and if anyone ever said it they were just trying to get the person to relax
  • Hypnosis is not mind control. You will not murder/rob/rape or do anything you don’t want to.
    Hypnosis gives you no superpowers. No super strength, no improved memory, nothing. Of course, no other altered state (again think dreams, drugs, etc) will give you that either.
  • Because it is an ability, it can be studied. People who are good at being hypnotized also tend to be really good at “getting into” a book or TV show to the point where they’re totally absorbed and don’t notice when someone in the room starts talking to them.
  • A very motivated person/actor can do anything a hypnotized person can do, but studies usually show they wont. For example, fakers will stop faking when they think the experiment is over or the experimenter is not paying attention, whereas truly hypnotized people will not.
  • Although it is mostly used for stress relief, hypnosis can be used in surgery to numb pain and slow bleeding – usually resulting in a better recovery than drug-induced surgery, but of course the drugs work on everyone whereas only about 5-10% of people are good at being hypnotized without training.

Also I should note that a stage hypnotist definitely knows all these things, and will pick people who exhibit symptoms of both #1 and #2. Also they will usually pick a strong guy and a small girl to use in a finale “feat of strength” type thing, which of course works whether they’re hypnotized or not.

A lot of people have a very low threshold for what counts as a “superpower”. What is sometimes claimed by stage hypnotists is that the person gets superhuman strength, and could do something that would otherwise be impossible for them (usually “plank” across two chairs while someone stands on their stomach). This is not true and any normal human can do those things – though sometimes sleight of hand or other stage tricks are involved.

3. Dry Humped A Chair

Been a subject at a late adult hypnosis show. No nudity, but I did dry hump a chair.

4. “We Need You To Act”

At about 10 I was picked as a subject. I had gone to the earlier show which i totally believed and loved so I was excitedly brought on stage to and seated in a line with four other adults. As the hypnotist is giving his speech on how his process works his assistant kneels down beside me, backed turned like she’s messing with a speaker and whispers “we need you to act, it will be very simple, and is necessary to make everyone happy” (as my 10 yr old brain remembers) I was terrified, and froze, then said “I can’t do that” she said, “that’s fine” and another assistant ushered me offstage.

A week later my friend and I went to the same show. This time I don’t even raise my hand to get picked, but he does and is chosen. they had him willingly run down the aisle doing the roadrunner “MEEP MEEP”. He then lied to his little sister and told her it was real.

5. Holiday Dinners Are Interesting Now

My wife and I went to Vegas with my brother and his soon to be wife for them to get married. The night before the wedding we ended up at a hypnotist stage show. My brother and his wife were 2 of 7 or 8 people chosen to go on stage. This was one of the funniest moments of my life. My brother faked it enough to not be sent off stage, while my sister in law fell fully “under”. Although, the hypnotist never told the participants what to do he would lead them to do things they normally wouldn’t. Such as asking them to identify thier sexiest body part and move it around and touch it. My sister in law went right for her ass and started grabbing it, sticking it out, and grinding in her chair. It was absolutely hysterical watching her (and others) do these sort of things, to the point that I was crying from laughing so hard. However, to me that wasn’t even the funniest part. Watching my brother continually having his head shoved down (as in the I’m in a deep sleep, because I’m hypnotized) by an “assistant”on stage because he would be sitting on the edge of his chair staring at his soon to be wife with the dirtiest looks possible. Watching him squirm was worth every penny I lost at the tables that trip. Needless to say, my wife and I had a lot better rest of the night than my brother and his wife did.

Oh and btw you know I waited around for copies of that nights show to be ready to buy on DVD. I love to pull out after holiday dinners! I’m sure they love it too!

6. Sometimes It’s About The Pressure To Conform

From my own experience, I went to a carnival thing and got on stage with I believe 7 other people. They did some stuff and had us do a rest state of some kind. This was ages ago and I cant remember amazingly. They picked out 2 people from us who I guess weren’t into it a ton and sent them back to the audience.

They had us act out scenes like a play, etc. It was interesting. On the one hand I was aware of what I was doing, I was doing it because I didnt want to get sent off the stage like the other 2 for being ‘not hypnotized’. I kinda wonder if thats all it really was was the pressure to conform for the sake of performance. And because there was an audience of course.

My memory of that event is terrible, it was when I was like 10. I cant really say if it was altered consciousness hypnosis or social pressure hypnosis because I don’t remember back that far.

Though if I get the chance Id love to try it out again. Maybe I’ll get a more solid result on which it is for me.

7. True Story

I once saw a documentary about a guy’s experience with hypnotherapy. He was seeking treatment for his anxiety which was causing him to get really stressed out over minor
inconveniences, and during the hypotherapy session the psychotherapist had a heart attack and died, leaving the guy in a perpetual state of hypnotic calm. His quality of life actually improved since he gained more confidence in himself and became more outgoing, prioritizing the things he enjoys more than the things like work that used to stress him out, forming a more realistic perspective about them. On the downside, he became a little too relaxed about things like laws against felony theft and tried to steal millions from the company he worked for.

8. Too Excited To Be Hypnotized

I always became frustrated at hypnosis shows because I would volunteer to go under, but would be too excited/hopeful to be able to actually make it work. I think it’s kind of like when you’re trying to fall asleep and telling yourself not to try hard, but ultimately end up trying that much harder.

I am very convinced, however, that hypnosis is “real” in the sense of being an altered state of consciousness, as you describe. I find the process of being hypnotized to be very relaxing and enjoyable, even if I get frustrated when I’m not experiencing “going under” like I want to.

9. There Are Different Levels Of Consciousness

I had been to see a local hypnotist show live twice, the second time where I was able to be chosen to get hypnotized. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but my experience was significantly different from one of the others who I had a conversation with afterwards. Witnessing her getting hypnotized, she appeared to fall into a deep deep slumber, whereas I felt quite alert with my eyes closed.

When we had our eyes closed, my mind was alert, I could hear everything, but I was very focused on the hypnotists suggestions. The first suggestion was we were to act as if we were holding a lottery ticket, and every number he would read out, it would be our winning numbers, but we would not be able to leave our seats, because we were stuck to them.

Hearing this suggestion while my eyes were closed, my ‘alert’ mind or consciousness found this absurd, why would I be stuck to the chair? It’s silly, I can get up if I wanted to.

Then, as soon as he told us to open our eyes and ‘wake up’, he immediately went into the act, pretending to be a lotto announcer and reading out the winning numbers.

My alert mind had disappeared somewhere, and I found myself really excited hearing my winning numbers one by one. When the final number was announced, I wanted to get up and claim my millions of dollars, but I could not, I was stuck to the chair! I was so mad and desperate for that money, I started bunny hopping in the chair, my bum stuck to it, just to claim my winnings.

Before I reached him, he made us go back to ‘sleep’, my ‘alert mind’ came back, and I thought to myself, wtf was that? And told myself the hypnotist is at fault, this is all his doing. Thinking back about it now, my alert mind was probably another layer of consciousness, separate from my ‘hypnotized and acting out suggestions’, as well as my everyday ‘awake’ consciousness.

Some other crazy suggested skits from the night too.

10. “My Eyelids Shook Uncontrollably”

Heh, about that, last year I went to a course of introduction to hypnosis, and the lecturer told us a case he had. My memory isn’t the best, though, but it was something like this:

A rich woman knew he was a hypnotist and asked him for help. She had completely forgotten where she put her case of jewels, and she needed it soon because she wanted to take them with her for a cruise. So the dude put her in trance, and did his thing, asking her to vividly imagine her house and describe her process of going directly to the place her jewels were; if I’m not mistaken during the trance she soon remembered more or less the place they were in the wardrobe, behind a drawer specifically designed to hide a safe. So, thinking he had found the location of her jewels, he asked her to put the password in the safe and open it… and she wouldn’t! She completely stopped obeying his requests and would just be silent. He quickly understood that she was not comfortable sharing her secret, so he woke her up, but did not tell her she had a safe in the wardrobe.

“So, did I tell you were I put my jewels?”, the woman asked. “You stopped at a certain point; but let’s try again, I have an idea”, he said. So he put her in trance state again, but this time asked her to imagine her following a person… and described someone who looked very similar to her, living in a similar house, with a similar wardrobe… by enabling this “third person mode”, the woman felt confident to put her password, and opened the safe and confirmed the jewels were there!

That course was fun. He also told us how he hypnotized a woman suffering of migraines, on the phone! And I got to taste his hypnosis myself, too. He hypnotized one side of the room while the other watched, then reversed. In this case, probably because he didn’t have the time to do a deep and individual trance induction, I could still sense much of the room around me, and the noises (that damn AC), however I physically felt some effects… my eyelids shook uncontrollably (a sign that the person entered a hypnotic trance, he told us), and when he told us we would slowly feel our heads getting a bit heavier and falling back, I did feel my head falling back by itself! It was incredible, I wish I could have gone deeper in trance.

11. I Felt Better Than I Ever Have

I can attest to the latter. Back in my day for our Senior All Night Party (So we wouldn’t go out and get drunk around the time we graduated), we had a bunch of events….one being a hypnotist. They took about ten of us up on stage. I remember almost all of it but it was just this indifference of “Why not.” I don’t actively remember doing any of it, but it just happened. The emotions felt very real and he had added in a soundtrack and storyline. We drove to the beach, hit a car, it felt so real I was literally crying…but at the end, and I will never forget this, he had all of us hug and just said, You are going to feel great, better than you ever have.

I honestly truly did. I actually have a video of it out on YouTube, if there is interest I can throw it up. I am also really receptive to asmr, to the point I just feel like dead weight at points. Maybe it is just the way you receive things.

On that note, after watching the video, there were people that went under and came out…I imagine it would be hard to fake it. A lot of people said afterwards it seemed like we were all faking, but when I had broken down in tears they thought….holy shit…he’s a bitch and this might be legit….

12. I Remembered The Words Even Though I Didn’t Know Them

I’ve been hypnotized several times at comedy shows and the like, and have been told I’m an excellent subject for hypnosis. I also used to meditate, dunno if that’s related.

Anyways, I remember thinking during the hypnosis at the time “This isn’t going to work, this is so fake, it’s so silly, I can stop this at any time.” But it never occurred to me to actually do it. It was exactly like I was watching someone else do all these things, and I was happy just sitting back and enjoying the ride.

The only time it REALLY weird-ed me out was one time the hypnotist said “when I snap my fingers you’re going to be George Thorogood and you’re going to sing ‘bad to the bone’ for this stadium full of people.”

I remember panicking, because 1. I didn’t know the lyrics and 2. the thought of performing in front of a huge crowd (it was only maybe a hundred people in a comedy club) had me nervous. So I remember like ‘taking control’ and telling the hypnotist that I couldn’t do it, I had forgotten the words.

So he said “that’s ok when I snap my fingers you’re not going to be nervous anymore and you’re going to know all the words perfectly.”

Then he did, and every ounce of anxiety was gone, he put a mic in my hand and booted up the karaoke song. Then I just sang, and my friends in the crowd later told me I didn’t miss a word…. I was horribly off key, but I didn’t miss a single word that they noticed.

So that’s the one part that always kinda weird-ed me out. How the hell did I sing a song I didn’t know the words to? I mean, it’s a pretty common song, did my subconscious know it?

13. That’s What The $35 Is For

I can answer this with a story.

So once upon a time I was in my university’s cafeteria shoveling a crap ton of onions onto my hotdog.

A man approached me and asked if I liked onions.

I replied that I in fact, “loved onions.”

He inquired whether or not I would be willing to eat an onion like an apple on stage for $35 for his hypnosis show.

I responded that I didn’t believe in hypnosis.

He informed me that that was what the $35 was for.

14. Highway Hypnosis

Ever driven a car long distances on a road you’ve gone down 100s of times and *BOOM” you realize you were driving that stretch of road yet don’t remember at all how you got to the part of the road you are on now? You feel like you completely zoned out and were on autopilot while driving? It happened, and you were in complete control and could snap to it at any moment, yet you don’t remember doing it.

That is a type of hypnosis.

15. They Don’t Remember What Happened But I Do

Well, I was once a “hypnotized” audience member in one of those shows and I can tell you without a doubt that I was faking it harder than Mia Khalifa. But the other people on the stage, I just don’t know. A few of them may have been faking it like me, a few others. I’m positive they were hypnotized.

The show was during Orientation at my university. The Hypnotist comes every year and every year some people are faking it, and some people seriously do go under. I watched the same show I took part in, a year later, from the audience and watched as several members of the audience who had fallen partially asleep watching the show started responding to his commands in the same way as the volunteers on stage.

I think its about someone who is both willing to relax to an extreme degree, I mean like sleep paralysis levels, and who is also very suggestible and willing to submerge themselves in the game, although I have no idea how to quantify that. I am gullible as hell and managed to convince the hypnotist that I was under.

Before the show got underway he separated those who he figured were obviously faking, or too tense to relax to the right degree. The people I interacted with on the stage…well a lot of them remained friends and acquaintances years later. They don’t remember what happened. I long since told people that I was acting, but those guys? No recollection at all. And no one is going to maintain a joke about a hypnotist show that happened 5 years in the past. I think some people legitimately go under.

16. I Used To Be A Skeptic

I was always very skeptical about these hypnosis shows and assumed all the people on stage were basically “faking” it until I witnessed something at a comedy show.

My friends and I went to one of those comic hypnotists who brings people up on stage who want to be hypnotised and makes them do amusing things. Its good fun. As he’s hypnotising those on stage, he tells the audience if you want to try to also get hypnotised at your seat you can do all the relaxation things that he is telling the on-stage folks. None of us follow these commands.

Now fast forward like 30 minutes into show and in between each “skit” he tells the people on stage to go back to sleep and all of them would essentially nod off. Were all sitting like 500 ft from the stage but look over at my friend Dan and every time they say go to sleep, his head is down also. At this point were just sort of amused.

Now he’s describing the next skit that everyone is going to do and its something around the people on stage being tv critics and the girls hate the show and guys love it. And then reveals show is Scooby Doo. Wake up and (snaps fingers) go.

Now the girls start talking about how unrealistic the show is. How do these people even afford to travel around without working? Why do they even keep Scooby and shaggy around if they always screw things up? And the guys are saying stuff like, its always an interesting twist at the end. And where else can you get a mystery and comedy in just a 30 minute episode?

Now all of a sudden, Dan stands up from our table. Mind you were nowhere near the stage. We assume he’s headed to take a piss or something. But no. He’s headed down the aisle towards the stage. All of us are wide eyed and dying of hysterics. wtf he is doing? He walks on stage and the MC (who must have seen this type of thing happen before) walks over to him and asks his name and if he has something to say.

Dan, who is a very shy and unassmuming kind of guy, says, “Scooby dooby was the best theme song ever!” and starts singing the theme song. ♪♪Scooby dooby doo. Where are you? Youve got some something something♫♫ Gets the whole crowd to sing along until he forgets all the words. Hands the mic back to the hypnotist, walks back sits down grabs his beer bottle and sits and watches the stage like nothing happened. All of us are about to piss ourselves laughing but arent sure how were supposed to approach him.

After the show, we go out for beers, and we all question him about it. He remembered everything and to this day swears he wasnt hypnotised but simply really likes scooby doo and was pissed off the girls were bad mouthing it and had to step up. We all tried our best to impart to him how insane that is and that its not exactly normal behavior to get in front of a crowd of like 1000 people and sing the scooby doo song.
And thats why I now fully believe that hypnosis is real.

tl;dr friend got himself hypnotized in the audience of a show and defended scoobys honor

17. Hypnotizing Friends

Here’s a cool little story from someone that has been on both sides of the coin. I’m 35 now, but in my early 20’s I made a HUGE effort to learn hypnosis. I was able to hypnotize a few friends and even a few people I worked with. First of all, the induction was the hardest part for me. Getting someone into a relaxed, trusting state and recognizing through their breathing and eye movements that they were ready was amazingly difficult. Giving those people a post-hypnotic suggestion took nearly 6 months to get down. It was really a long process for me, which gave me a lot of respect for those that could do it in a few minutes. I had a friend who was skeptical, and after about 45 minutes I was finally able to suggest that after he woke up he would say “cheese” every time I said “elephant”. That was my first one and it only got more elaborate from there. A year later, I went to see an actual hypnotherapist about my social anxiety. He took a while to induce me, but brought me back to a memory I honestly hadn’t thought about for years. It was a very painful memory about me as a 9 year old being bullied by a neighbor kid. The worst part of that whole ordeal was that he brought together a group to stand outside my house and try and get me outside to fight him. Part of that group were the only two friends I had. My parents were actually in the house and called the police, making things even worse for the 9 year old me. I hadn’t remembered any of that since I was a kid, but even 13-14 years later at 35 it’s a vivid memory. I still feel that he had somehow uncovered a root problem with bonding with other male friends. The therapist started saying encouraging things to me while I was (not kidding) reliving the scenario.. I became alert again and I was holding a teddy bear tightly.. Things changed for my confidence and social anxiety around other males from that day on. I always thought that as someone who figured a few things out, that I wouldn’t be able to be induced but I was wrong. I can honestly say I’m a different person walking out of that session.

18. The Final Word From An Actual Professional Hypnotist

As a stage hypnotist, I’ve learned to anticipate it whenever I see a thread like this pop up. I like to share my genuine experiences, but it tends to get crowded out by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. Hypnotists are very used to people not believing them (and, really, it’s a ton of fun to make a believer out of those sorts of people), but reddit just gets nasty about it. Still, I’m going to address a few points I’ve seen in this thread, real quick:

Yes, hypnosis is real.

No, no one is a victim. Although they are in a hypnotic state, they are not helpless. Their inhibitions are lowered, and it’s easier to convince them of things outside of their normal reality. But they’re never victims. Just volunteers. In my shows, I’ve endeavored to make sure the volunteers have more fun than the audience. They deserve it, for being brave!

Yes, we do try to select people that are going to be better subjects. We don’t want “better actors.” Those are awful for a show. Actors like to let the audience know they’re playing along. A wink here or an over-large grin there. It’s useless to us. They can ruin the show and ruin your credibility. The simple truth is, some people are more easily hypnotized than others, and that’s why we select. No actors, please, we’re specifically trying to weed those people out.

We aren’t perfect in our selection, though. Sometimes we pick someone who has gotten up there to mess with us. Or someone who wants to be hypnotized, but for whatever reason it just doesn’t take (every mind works differently, especially under varieties of circumstances). These people tend to be the loudest “Oh my god, hypnosis is fake because it didn’t work for me!” in threads like this. Yet you will always find (including in this thread) people trying to speak up saying “It worked for me!” Sadly, they get shouted down as liars (once again, as you can find in this thread).

I think the realness of hypnosis scares people, on a core level. The notion of someone going into their mind and changing their reality. It sounds both fantastical and terrifying. So the loudest voice in the room tends to be the one who tells you there’s no way it can be true. That’s an easier pill to swallow, and so people do.

I love hypnosis. It’s one of the most amazing skills I ever set out to learn, and I’m glad every day that I did. I’m glad that I pushed past my own disbelief. The looks of amazement and joy I see on people’s faces after their first experience with it is incredibly rewarding. It bums me out sometimes when I see how certain people are that my passion is a sham, but the people who appreciate what I do continue to make it worth it.