OK, you might have to bare with me on this one.

The concept that someone might influence another, even through suggestions, has never once sat comfortably with me.

Across the internet people seem to be in two camps about hypnosis – those who have no idea what hypnosis is and portray it as blatant mind control, and those that reckon they understand what it is, saying that people under hypnosis have complete control and can reject suggestions if they do not agree with them – if this were entirely true, you wouldn’t be able to induce hypnosis on unsuspecting victims in the first place.

However, I feel that the truth lies somewhere in between.

While it is true that people can reject suggestions in hypnosis, it appears to me that this can be simply bypassed through a correct strategy of wording suggestions.

By wording suggestions that avoid evoking conflict with the subject’s belief system, a hypnotist can make the subject feel like the hypnotist’s interests are enjoyable and relaxing, even if the subject wouldn’t ordinarily consent.

For example, the suggestion “The deeper you go, the better you feel, the better you feel, the deeper you go” followed by “every step deeper you go, you feel 10x more comfortable with the words I say” - helps the subject to believe that following the hypnotist’s instructions is the right thing to do, even if it doesn’t follow their moral code (and why should they care, they feel really really good because they are following the instructions). The first suggestion focuses on going deeper, and the second uses that deepening loop as a lever to strengthen the suggestibility of the subject. After extended suggestion and deepening, does this not allow for more ‘edgy’ suggestions because the subject is more comfortable with the words that the hypnotist says?

It’s often commented by hypnotists that a patient can wake up at any point if they do not feel comfortable with the suggestions, but the whole key to hypnosis is creating comfort and using that comfort to embed suggestions. Most people are looking to relax and enjoy themselves. If a hypnotist associates doing something illicit with relaxation and joy, I foresee the patient being easily manipulated, which in laymen terms, is brainwashing.

This was demonstrated by Derren brown, whereby he uses hypnosis to compel a man to shoot a target on command (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90xfZJQzAhc). (the patient meanwhile completely oblivious to the fact that he is being trained to assassinate someone, only believing that he is shooting an inanimate target) Furthermore, cases such as (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/11/15/ohio-lawyer-hypnotized-six-female-clients-then-he-molested-them/?utm_term=.aadcde7accb1) show that men have taken advantage of women under hypnosis, leaving the women memory less and confused only to find out they were under hypnosis from a lucky police investigation. Essentially, is this not the definition of mind control?

Even if hypnosis is not as simple as: “you are now hypnotised, now kill this person/have sex with me”, is this principle not still the same through carefully worded suggestions, manipulation and making the person believe what they are doing is desirable? (as Darren Brown proves can be done)

If such manipulation is possible, then HOW is this not discussed with more criticism? And, probably more importantly, HOW can anyone trust a hypnotherapist if they have the ability to slowly word their way around your belief system one suggestion at a time?

After-all, what are we but animals without a personalised belief system?

Given the above, how close is hypnosis truly to the infamous 'mind control' that it is depicted as in pop culture? And why is this always overlooked by hypnotherapists when discussing hypnosis? Have I missed something? Is Derren Brown, the world famous hypnotist a fraud?

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    $\begingroup$ I figured this is about the psychology of hypnosis, and this is a forum for psychology. If you believe that this is pseudoscience, and have proof to support, such an answer would be wonderfully appreciated. Nevertheless, suit yourself. However, if you disregard my question as pseudoscience without any any constructive criticism, I give up. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ Isn't (non-hypnotic) persuasion also mind control in your terms? Define mind control first. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ @John: If you have access to the Sci Am article linked from WaPo "The Truth and the Hype of Hypnosis", I suggest you read it. In particular it says "(if you think) People who are hypnotized lose control of themselves. (the reality is) Subjects are perfectly capable of saying no or terminating hypnosis." $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Fizz Arguably, hypnosis has a place in clinical therapy for use in meditation and related effects. "Mind control" is more a layman's term for any number of topics as you've indicated in your answer. However, the combination of the two is clearly pseudoscience. Having said that, we did discuss on meta that science-based answers to pseudoscience questions are welcome here, so I don't see an issue with keeping this question open given your good answer. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ I have not watched the full (47 minute!) video featuring Derren Brown, I am familiar with his work. He is a magician, who admits (when off-stage) that he lies on stage. You cannot use his stage persona as scientific or even anecdotal evidence. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 14, 2018 at 11:30

1 Answer 1


Since I vaguely remember a similar question not that long ago, let me use this one to quote from one the few peer-reviewed papers (doi link; preprint pdf). that discusses the notion of "mind control":

Mind control is a common plot device in many genres of fiction. Its ubiquity is perhaps unsurprising: the prospect of the explicit, full control of the mind evokes alluring and startling possibilities. Fictional mind control often takes implausible forms: telepathy, magical interventions, and nefarious schemes of authoritarian organizations. In more biologically inspired plot lines, mind control is delivered by devices implanted in the subject’s brain, as depicted in The Matrix: these devices manipulate neurophysiological processes resulting in a change of mental state.

In reality, mind control encompasses numerous means for influencing the mind. These include effects mediated through the senses. Sense-mediated effects can include positive influences, such as updating one’s beliefs based on presented evidence, or nudging someone to make healthy decisions via environmental manipulation. They can also be more insidious, as in the case of propaganda or brainwashing. Beyond social and environmental means, mind control can also result from direct neural stimulation. Neural stimulation can include subtle modulation via pharmacological agents or more direct manipulations with brain stimulation that result in neural discharges. The last few decades have seen a steady increase in the use of implanted devices to assist individuals with major mental disorders. The ubiquitous nature of social forms of control and increasing prevalence of neural devices motivates important questions about the control of brain processes and, by extension, mental functions.

So as you can see other things qualify as (partial) mind control just as well, deep brain stimulation, rRTMs etc., as well less invasive ones, propaganda etc.

[-much later, the paper talks about ethics-]

Insofar as mind control has been and will be undertaken in experimental and clinical contexts, four basic principles of medical and research ethics apply: non-maleficence, beneficence, justice, and autonomy. Adhering to these principles is a first step toward ensuring that efforts to guide the mind enhance human welfare without violating human rights.

So it's less of matter of means than of context and motives what is unacceptable mind control. Think for a sec how is indoctrination different from psychotherapy, for instance. And regarding "HOW can anyone trust a hypnotherapist if they have the ability to slowly word their way around your belief system one suggestion at a time?" The latter doesn't require hypnosis. You can ask exactly the same question about psychotherapy. That's why stuff like sex with patients is prohibited by codes of ethics.

And since I've not talked at all about hypnosis above let me say that traditionally the literature about hypnosis (at least the one with therapeutic bend), emphasizes that people cannot be made to do anything they don't want to under hypnosis. Typical of this is the Sci Am Mind magazine article "The Truth and the Hype of Hypnosis", which has been quoted in some textbooks for the received wisdom that:

"(if you think) People who are hypnotized lose control of themselves. (the reality is) Subjects are perfectly capable of saying no or terminating hypnosis.

On the other hand, recent (2017) research by Lush et al. does indicate that thre's perhaps an objective measure of a "feeling of involuntariness" in hypnosis subjects.

Using an established test designed to measure self-agency – the sense that our own actions are actually down to us – participants were shown to be more likely to feel their movements were involuntary after hypnosis.

The actual metric of self-agency relied on measuring intentional binding. Quoting New Scientist's description of the experiment (as the most concise I found):

Lush’s team asked 18 people who were highly susceptible to hypnotism to sit in front of a very accurate clock and do a task repeatedly where they pressed a button, triggering a beep after 250 milliseconds, in three different circumstances.

If their finger was pulled down involuntarily – by an attached string – they perceived the period before the beep as 176 milliseconds. If the string wasn’t pulled and they chose when to press the button, they experienced it as 91 milliseconds – showing intentional binding.

But if they pressed the button due to a post-hypnotic command, they perceived it as 156 milliseconds – closer to the involuntary state than the voluntary one.

“This feeling of involuntariness is a key element of the hypnotic experience,” says David Spiegel of Stanford University.

A somewhat similar (2017) study by another research team (published a few months later), but which has the advantage of using a control group (but the disadvantage of not doing actual hypnosis):

Here we tested the proposal that distorted volition during response to suggestions arises from poor metacognition pertaining to the sources of one's control. Highly suggestible and control participants completed a motor task in which performance was reduced through surreptitious manipulations of cursor lag and stimuli speed. Highly suggestible participants did not differ from controls in performance or metacognition of performance, but their sense of agency was less sensitive to cursor lag manipulations, suggesting reduced awareness that their control was being manipulated.

Since these studies are too new to have been covered by a review, if I may inject my own interpretation here, it does look like hypnosis works as a "double whammy" in highly suggestible individuals: not only to do they start with a lower metacognition of self-agency, but this is further lowered by hypnosis itself.

Moreover, recent "revival" research in hypnosis has confirmed that LSD enhances hypnotic susceptibility, and a new finding is that rTMS can also do the same. You should be very worried now :0

Seriously, I mean to show by this that there's a continuum of "mind control" and while hypnosis surely is an interesting phenomenon in that regard, it's not the "OMG mind control"... especially because when hypnosis is used to boost some other psychotherapeutic intervention, it doesn't seem that impressive.

Furthermore, some (again) 2017 research found that hypnotic sugestibility correlated with some psychiatric disorders (lifetime diagnosis) as well as the subjects' current mood:

The passing rate of the SHSS:C ‘Moving hands apart’ item was higher in bipolar I patients than in controls, whereas for ‘Mosquito hallucination’ the rate was lower. The passing rates of ‘Mosquito hallucination’ in controls, ‘Arm rigidity’ in bipolar I, and ‘Age regression’ in bipolar II predicted the respective MDQ [Mood Disorder Questionnaire] scores.

Although published in a reputable-enough journal (BMC Psychiatry), the study was conducted in a Chinese university hospital (although according to Wikipedia it's an "elite" medical shool), so perhaps more research is needed before drawing firm conclusion on associations between mental illness (or mood) and hypnotisability. While the paper did Bonferroni-correct their multiple comparisons, I could not find anything in it about the medication status of the subjects.

Thers's also a 2015 Australian study comparing some schizophrenic experiences with hypnosis:

Passivity phenomena in schizophrenia are characterized by a sense of diminished agency. [...] Our aim was first to investigate sense of agency and clinical symptoms in schizophrenia, both classic passivity phenomena and more general positive symptoms; and second, to contrast the agentive experiences of patients with a previously tested sample of 370 nonclinical, hypnotized participants. Twenty-six patients with schizophrenia completed ratings of classic passivity phenomena and of involuntariness associated with a particular experience of agency alteration. [...] Patients reported considerable levels of involuntariness for both body-related and thought-related symptoms. Overall involuntariness ratings from patients were similar to those of high hypnotizable participants in hypnosis. These results indicate altered sense of agency is associated with a range of experiences in schizophrenia, not just classic passivity phenomena. Moreover, the experience of altered agency in schizophrenia was similar to that seen in hypnosis, suggesting that hypnotic analogues may be a useful way to test theories of passivity-like phenomena.

This probably fits with the theory that most psychiatric disorders lie on a spectrum, with subclinical features seen in the healthy population. The "spectrum of self-agency awareness" (if I may coin a term for this notion) is rarely talked about though... although a quick search found a paper discussing it in autism; no mention of hypnosis in that paper though.


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