“Hypnosis is nothing more than response to suggestion”. This statement is often uttered by some non-state theorists and people who deny the existence of a hypnotic trance. “There is no such thing as hypnosis” is another statement I have heard. I confess that I was one of those people who badly misinterpreted them and thought they meant that hypnotic phenomena are not real. Part of the confusion, I believe, is that suggestion has several connotations, with many taking a very specific interpretation of the word.
Suggestions of Everyday Life Occurrences
Merriam-Webster defines suggestion as “the process by which a physical or mental state is influenced by a thought or idea”. The most common usage of the word, to me at least, comes in the form of a recommendation, guidance, or advice:
May I suggest an alternative to this evening’s plan?
The waiter suggested that we should try the French wine.
Netflix’s movie suggestions are fairly off the mark.
Such forms of suggestions are for behaviors that are (for the most part) freely and explicitly chosen, volitional, and self-determinately performed without awe or much need of reflection. If one’s spouse suggests the 7 o’clock showing of a film instead of the 9 o’clock showing, one will still have to make the concerted and voluntary effort of putting on one’s coat and shoes, getting into the car, and buying tickets to see the movie.
Suggestions That Affect Relatively Involuntary Processes
However, suggestion can effect other types of experiences. Take, for example, the following:
Are you feeling okay? You don’t seem well.
I just turned on the heat…it should be kicking in soon.
What if mom cooked for us veal parmesan tonight?
Each of these may elicit a more involuntary response. The first statement may bring a person to question their health and actually bring on unpleasant feelings. The idea of heat can make one feel warmer even though they may have been no real change in room temperature. The mere mention of dinner for that evening makes the mouths of many people water! Again, a thought brings a change in state or behavior, but this is perceived as more automatic than choosing a movie time.
Suggestions for Seemingly Miraculous or Transcendent Experiences
Yet there are suggestions that can bring about experiences that can (dare I say) mesmerize people. It is these types of suggestions that some may interpret as witchcraft, sorcery, or other form of occult practice. Still, the statements can be as relatively simple as other types of suggestion:
If you look very closely, I think you will see the cat sitting in the corner.
When I ask for your name, you will find that you will have difficulty saying it.
You will jump out of your chair as if it were hot after I snap my fingers.
Odd as it may seem, some people will have these experiences!
It is this type of suggestion that is unknown to many people. There are several reasons for this. One, few people ever think to say such things to people and fewer have no purpose to do so. Second, sometimes such suggestions require a certain amount of careful and well-time phrasing. Finally, and most importantly, it takes a certain amount of aptitude to have those kinds of experiences.
For example, a person could be asked to stand straight with their eyes closed and imagine falling backwards. Many people, if they are motivated and willing to imagine that, will find themselves swaying or even actually starting to fall. However, only a very small percentage can experience hallucinations of all the senses (e.g., taste, smell, or touch things that are not actually present). Not surprisingly, many stage hypnotists use screening methods to find this group of people in order to have an entertaining show.
When someone with an informed view of hypnosis says that there is no such thing as hypnosis, just suggestion, they do not suggest (pun intended) that it is all fake. Research has shown distinct behavioral and biological changes of people who are experiencing hypnotic phenomena. The person who is hypnotized, rather, is merely following a series of suggestions (of mostly the second and third types); the point of contention centers of whether that person, while hypnotized, is in a distinct special state of consciousness that is an inherent and necessary component of the hypnotic experience.
The multiple ways of interpreting suggestion have led to confusion in understanding how some scholars view hypnosis. Hopefully, this may clear up the issue!