Can Hypnosis Work on Those With Aphantasia?

A hypnotherapist with aphantasia explains hypnosis and how hypnosis can work for aphantasics.
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Hello! I’m Paulina, and I’m a hypnotherapist who has aphantasia. I’m also a social scientist and academic researcher by background, so when I started training in hypnosis and realised aphantasia could be a barrier to accessing it, I couldn’t help but start a research project into the issue that might help answer the question; can hypnosis work on those with aphantasia?

Before we get into that, let’s clarify a few things.

What Is Hypnosis?

Hypnosis is a process of focusing your attention and enhancing your capacity to respond to suggestions. In hypnosis, you are more likely to accept a different perspective and allow yourself to make the changes you desire at a subconscious level.

When a hypnotist works with someone, they typically aim to temporarily ‘put to sleep’ the ‘critical faculty’ of our brain—the one which is always questioning and evaluating all the information that reaches us, based on our own knowledge, understandings and deeply seated beliefs.

Why do we want to quieten this ‘critical faculty’ in hypnosis? That depends on our aim.

What’s the Difference Between Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy?

Hypnosis is understood more broadly and may be used for different aims. Hypnotherapy is the clinical application of hypnosis—using it for therapy. The word ‘hypnosis’ is more often associated with street or stage hypnosis and using it for entertainment.

While the aims of hypnotherapy—or, clinical hypnosis—and stage hypnosis are obviously very different, they are based on the same principles, and the methods used for both can be very similar. I’m saying ‘can be similar’ because there’s a multitude of techniques used in hypnotherapy.

Coming back to the question of bypassing the ‘critical faculty’, a stage or street hypnotist does it to convince people to do something which is out of the ordinary—things which are outside their comfort zone or seem impossible—to the amazement and amusement of others.

A hypnotherapist does it because our ‘critical faculty’ is often responsible for keeping us stuck. For example, you might be thinking of stopping smoking, but you believe you can’t do that because you’re addicted. While this is not the objective truth, it is your truth, a story you keep telling yourself that you deeply believe.

That’s where clinical hypnosis can be really effective. In hypnosis, you are more likely to accept a different point of view and explain to your subconscious that, actually, quitting smoking is easy because it is just a bad habit, not a serious addiction.

7 Myth-Busters About Hypnosis

  1. Whether we’re talking about stage hypnosis or clinical hypnosis, one thing is important to understand—even under hypnosis, you are always in control of your thoughts and what you’re doing.
  2. You need to ‘buy into’ the process. Even with street or stage hypnosis, people volunteer for it; they’re up for some fun. You cannot be hypnotised against your will.
  3. Hypnotherapy is not the ‘magic bullet’—you need to want to make the change for it to be effective. If you don’t really want to quit smoking but have come for hypnotherapy because your doctor told you to do so, chances are it is not going to be successful. 
  4. Most of us do not use an old watch to hypnotise people—though it certainly can be used! It’s all about focusing your attention on something other than that which you normally would. This something can be an object, such as a watch.
  5. You don’t need to look into our eyes intensively. Usually, you’ll actually have your eyes closed.
  6. You can do hypnosis online; it doesn’t need to be in person.
  7. You can do hypnosis in a group.

Individual Differences in Hypnotisability

Hypnotisability is understood as the ability of individuals to go into hypnosis.

Research categorises 10% of the population as ‘highs’ (highly hypnotisable individuals), and 10% as ‘lows’ (low hypnotisability), while the rest of us are somewhere in between (Dienes 2012).

Researchers have been trying to establish whether particular traits make some people more hypnotisable than others. One of these is ‘intense imagination’– defined as the ability to engage in vivid and seemingly real imaginative experiences (Hilgard 1970).

The point that is of particular interest for us in the context of aphantasia is that it begs the question—does the lack of visual mental imagery (and often also tactile, olfactory, auditory and gustatory) make us less hypnotisable? Does hypnosis work on those with aphantasia?

So far, academic research on the links between visual imagery and hypnotisability has produced mixed results. Some studies report hypnotisability to be positively associated with greater vividness of visual imagery (Marucci & Meo 2000) and control over it (Coe et al. 1980), as well as imaginative involvement (Glisky et al. 1991), imagery of scenes (Farthing et al. 1983) and superior performance on visual imagery tasks (Sheehan & Robertson 1996). Other studies have found no significant relationship between visual mental imagery and hypnotisability (e.g. Perry 1973, Kogon et al. 1998, Glisky et al. 1995, Hargadon, Bowers, & Woody 1995).

A recent study looking at hypnotisability in aphantasics, in particular, also found no sensitive evidence for the absence or presence of a relationship between hypnotisability and self-reported mental imagery vividness (Cabbai et al., 2023). However, what it did find was that those who identified as aphantasics prior to doing some suggestibility tests scored substantially lower on these than aphantasics who did not realise they had aphantasia. This raises interesting questions about the role of expectations in hypnotisability.

So, what does academic research on hypnotisability tell us about the ability of aphantasics to be hypnotised? The results are inconclusive, so it does not give us a clear answer to the question.

However, my one (but major) reservation about hypnotisability research is that it is based solely on testing for phenomenological control—the ability to generate experiences to meet expectations. Study participants are instructed to imagine the suggested state and then expected to experience a suggested effect (Spanos & Barber, 1972). For instance, participants are asked to imagine that their elbow is stiffening and they can’t bend it, or that they are eating a lemon and salivating, or that they can hear a mosquito buzzing and are annoyed by the sound.

While being able to imagine such things and get these effects is undoubtedly a great indication of how a client might react and experience certain suggestions of the hypnotherapist, is it necessary for a transformation to occur? No. You can still achieve an internal shift even if you’re not the best at following such suggestions. 

But then, there remains the matter of…

Visual Techniques in Hypnosis

A multitude of hypnotherapy techniques are heavily based on visualisation.

It is standard practice among hypnotherapists to ask clients to see themselves on a beach, or walking through a forest, or to visualise their younger self or future self. These are things aphantasics often struggle with.

Hypnotherapists also typically refer to other forms of mental imagery: smell, touch, sound, taste. This may resonate more with some aphantasics who have imagery in other senses, but, as we know, many people with aphantasia are ‘completely aphantasic’ and don’t have any mental imagery at all (myself included!).

However, there are other ways of working with clients who have aphantasia.

Which leads us to the question…

I’m Aphantasic—Can Hypnosis Work on Those With Aphantasia?

Yes, I believe it can. Perhaps not on every single one of us (the same would apply to the general population), and perhaps it might take some experimenting to find the right technique for you. But I do believe you can hypnotise most people, including aphantasics.

Why do I believe it is possible? Because of my own personal experience and the preliminary findings of my research on aphantasia and hypnosis.

My personal experiences with hypnosis are mixed: it has worked a few times, but many times, not.

What I find particularly interesting about this is that the very first time I experienced hypnosis, it was successful. I was doing a group course on developing a positive mind (rather than hypnosis itself), which was run by a hypnotherapist and NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) practitioner. At the time, I had no idea about hypnosis.

Literally, none. My only association were Scooby Doo films—in other words, evil hypnotists taking over people’s minds and commanding them to do what they wanted (remember what I said earlier—this is not quite how it works).

So, when the hypnotherapist carried out the first online group hypnosis session—incidentally, a guided visualisation—I just went with the process and allowed myself to simply experience it. And I did. It led me to a ‘vision’—an encounter with a younger version of myself. This was a few years back, and I’m not entirely sure if I actually ‘saw’ this or just imagined it (I do have highly visual dreams, so perhaps in the dream-like state I was in, I could actually see it). Whichever way it happened, it did, and it really helped me understand some things about myself.

I found this absolutely fascinating. I got so hooked that I wanted to learn more about hypnosis. I decided to train in hypnotherapy.

Being An Aphantasic Hypnotherapist

That’s when I came across a challenge—a big one!

As I mentioned, I had trained in predominantly visual methods. My training involved a lot of demonstrations and practice with other budding hypnotherapists. 

And that’s when it appeared that I was a ‘difficult’ subject. People would train with me, and I’d get nowhere. The critical and questioning part of my brain just didn’t seem able to switch off. Nothing resonated. The suggestions that worked for other people fell on deaf ears when it came to me. My apparent inability to be hypnotised and experience change the way my course buddies were really got to me. It completely shook my confidence. So much so that I gave up my training for a while, having concluded hypnotherapy might not be for me.

However, I knew I could experience hypnosis. And I deeply believed in the power of hypnosis; I could see the impact it had on other people. So, I kept trying. And it worked again. In a single session, I overcame over 20 years of grief and guilt following my dear mum’s death.

This only strengthened my conviction that while aphantasia may pose a difficulty in experiencing hypnosis, it does not make it impossible. We just need to find an approach that works for us. And it might not be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ either.

So, I decided to get back into the saddle and get certified as a hypnotherapist. During the course, I started talking about my difficulties with experiencing hypnosis and why some of the techniques did not work for me.

The more I talked about it, the more other hypnotherapists started coming forward and saying, “I’m the same.” That’s when I realised that I’m not the only one struggling with these challenges, which led me to start a passion project into aphantasia and hypnosis.

In Search of a Method—How Best to Provide Hypnotherapy to People With Aphantasia

I started working with a group of aphantasic hypnotherapists back in 2021 with the goal of developing best practices when working with non-visualisers.

In the first stage of the project, I explored what helped my study participants go into hypnosis and what created a barrier to it. At present, the project is in its second stage, where I’m running hypnosis experiments with my group. The idea is to try out different techniques and see which ones work best for aphantasics.

The study has its limitations as I’m working with a group rather than individuals (and we’re all different), and fellow hypnotists at that, who know the ins and outs of hypnotherapy and what to expect. Meanwhile, as I’ve mentioned earlier in this article—expectations can really shape our experience of hypnosis.  

The project is still underway, and I am still working on developing best practices when working with non-visualisers. However, I’d like to share a few learnings from it.  

5 Tips for Hypnotherapists Treating Aphantasics

  • Be mindful that your clients might not know they have aphantasia. If you use visual methods, check whether they have the ability to visualise (or tune into other forms of mental imagery) before the session. The simple ‘apple test’ will do the job. “Close your eyes and imagine an apple. Can you see it in your mind? Can you turn it around? Can you smell it? Taste it? What does it feel like?
  • You might find someone cannot visualise but can ‘translate’ the visual into another sense (e.g., can’t ‘see’ a ladder but can ‘feel’ it). If this is the case, they may be able to ‘translate’ a guided visualisation into their other sense.
  • If you come across a non-visualiser who cannot tap into other forms of mental imagery either, it is best to avoid guided visualisations. Instead, try using kinaesthetic methods such as breathwork.  
  • Be mindful of your language when working with aphantasics—asking them to ‘see’, ‘picture’, ‘visualise’, and in some cases even ‘imagine’ things may throw them off track and switch their conscious brain right on. Use language such as ‘think of’, ‘experience any way you like’, ‘pretend’, etc.
  • Consider there is a lot of individual variation between aphantasics. What works for one person might not work for the other. Then again, that’s true of all of our clients.

4 Tips for Aphantasics Looking to Have Hypnotherapy

  • Ditch any expectations of what hypnosis ‘should’ be like. Everyone experiences hypnosis differently. However you experience it is right for you.
  • Tell your hypnotherapist you cannot visualise, and if you have no mental imagery across other senses—make them aware of that, too. This will allow them to think through alternative techniques when working with you.
  • Remember—the goal in hypnotherapy is not to reach some ‘altered state’. The hypnotherapist wants to focus your attention on solving your problem and getting you into the right frame of mind for that. You don’t necessarily need to be ‘deep in’ to experience transformation.
  • Assume your hypnotherapy can work for you; that it will be successful!

Final Thoughts— Can Hypnosis Work on Those With Aphantasia?

I believe that hypnosis can work on those with aphantasia. I’m living proof of that. For some aphantasics, it might take some time and patience to determine the method that best suits them to help them bypass their critical faculty and experience the benefits of clinical hypnosis. 

Interested in aphantasia and/or hypnosis? You can join her FB group @Aphantasia and Hypnosis Research Lab here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/aphantasiaandhypnosis


References

Cabbai, G., Dance, C., Dienes, Z., Simner, J., Forster, S., & Lush, P. (2023). Investigating relationships between trait visual imagery and phenomenological control: the role of context effects. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/7qmfj (pre-print)

Coe, W. C., St Jean, R. L., & Burger, J. M. (1980). Hypnosis and the enhancement of visual imagery. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 28(3), 225-243. https://doi.org/10.1080/00207148008409848

Dienes 2012

Farthing, G. W., Venturino, M., & Brown, S. W. (1983). Relationship between two different types of imagery vividness questionnaire items and three Hypnotic Susceptibility Scale factors: a brief communication. The International journal of clinical and experimental hypnosis, 31(1), 8–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/00207148308407176

Glisky, M. L., Tataryn, D. J., Tobias, B. A., Kihlstrom, J. F., & McConkey, K. M. (1991). Absorption, openness to experience, and hypnotizability. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(2), 263. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3514.60.2.263

Glisky, M. L., Tataryn, D. J., & Kihlstrom, J. F. (1995). Hypnotizability and mental imagery. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 43(1), 34-54. https://doi.org/10.1080/00207149508409374

Hargadon, R., Bowers, K. S., & Woody, E. Z. (1995). Does counterpain imagery mediate hypnotic analgesia? Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 104(3), 508. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.104.3.508

Hilgard, J. R. (1970). Personality and hypnosis: A study of imaginative involvement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kogon, M. M., Jasiukaitis, P., Berardi, A., Gupta, M., Kosslyn, S. M., & Spiegel, D. (1998). Imagery and hypnotizability revisited. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 46(4), 363-370. https://doi.org/10.1080/00207149808410015

Marucci, F. S., & Meo, M. (2000). Suggestibility and imagery during attribution of meaning to ambiguous figures. In V. De Pascalis, V. A. Gheorghiu, P. W. Sheehan, & I. Kirsch (Eds.), Suggestion and suggestibility: Theory and research (pp. 167-175). Munich, Germany: M.E.G.-Stiftung.

Nash, M. R., & Barnier, A. J. (Eds.). (2008). The Oxford handbook of hypnosis: Theory, research, and practice. Oxford University Press.

Perry, C. (1973). Imagery, fantasy, and hypnotic susceptibility: A multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26(2), 217–221. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0034491

Sheehan, P. W., & Robertson, R. (2018). Imagery and hypnosis: Trends and patternings in effects. In Hypnosis and imagination (pp. 1-18). Routledge.

Spanos, N. P., & Barber, T. X. (1972). Cognitive activity during “hypnotic” suggestibility: goal directed fantasy and the experience of nonvolition. Journal of personality, 40(4), 510–524. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.1972.tb00077.x

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As both a hypnotherapist and somebody with Aphantasia, nice article.