A precise definition of hypnosis has yet to be established, a difficulty arising from the fact that hypnosis is a highly subjective experience that varies in quality from individual to individual. Defining “love” and “spirituality” pose the same kinds of challenges. Despite the lack of a precise definition, we can certainly describe some of the defining characteristics of hypnotic experience:

Hypnosis involves an experiential absorption, a powerful focus on some stimulus (such as a thought, a feeling, a memory, an expectation, a sensation, the words of the clinician, or any specific aspect of experience).

The perceptual process of selective attention is clearly involved, as is a type of dissociation in which cognitive subsystems can operate more independently from the larger executive functions of consciousness. Dissociation allows for meaningful responses to be generated beyond one’s awareness and provide some of the most puzzling yet inspiring aspects of working with hypnosis. Sophisticated responses such as  mood alterations or anxiety reduction in response to suggestion can occur without conscious effort to produce them. It’s this quality called “automaticity” that helps make hypnosis so intriguing: positive responses seem to “just happen.”

Many people think that hypnosis necessarily involves relaxation, but the ability to produce hypnotic phenomena even when active and alert makes it clear that relaxation is not a defining characteristic of hypnosis. Relaxation is often the vehicle for clinical uses of hypnosis, however, for its anxiety reducing benefits and for making acquiring new skills easier.  Dissociation, however, is a defining characteristic, and allows for abilities the person does not know how to create consciously and deliberately, such as an analgesia in an arm, to become possible in hypnosis.

Simply put, even though someone may not have a conscious and deliberate strategy for producing hypnotic phenomena, he or she can respond to suggestions at the level of direct experience and produce meaningful responses with no awareness for how he or she is doing so.

These are typically described as unconscious processes, and they provide clear evidence of latent abilities and resources people can develop in meaningful ways that highlight the extraordinary potential benefits of hypnosis.