Is immersive daydreaming a form of self-hypnosis?

When I was a child, my favourite place to daydream was in the garden at the back of our house. I used to bounce a ball off the back wall of the house over and over again. Throw, bounce, catch, throw, bounce, catch. I could go on like that for hours; it helped me to focus on the daydreams.

Many daydreamers use some kind of repetitive movement to help them daydream, whether it’s pacing, swinging or fidgeting with an object. It’s not known why we do this, but thinking back to my own experience, I wonder whether it might have something to do with evoking a trance state. And that led me to consider whether daydreaming might be a form of hypnosis.

There’s no universally accepted definition of hypnosis, but most hypnotists would agree that it involves a state of deep relaxation. In this state, your conscious mind takes a step back, you become less aware of your surroundings, and your subconscious mind comes to the surface. You become receptive to the suggestions of the hypnotist, in part because those suggestions go straight into your subconscious without giving your conscious mind a chance to question them or argue with them.

It’s also possible to hypnotise yourself, and there are many resources available online that teach you to use self-hypnosis to break bad habits such as smoking or excessive drinking. I used a self-hypnosis recording throughout my second pregnancy, and I believe it was part of the reason I was able to give birth to my son at home without needing pain relief.

So, when we pace, or swing, or fidget, or use any other repetitive movement to activate our daydreaming, are we really hypnotising ourselves? It certainly feels like it; both daydreaming and hypnosis involve a disconnection from the world around us and a turning inward of our attention.

But while hypnosis is always deeply relaxing, daydreaming doesn’t have to be. We feel very real emotions while daydreaming, and they can range from peace and relaxation to excitement or even anger. Daydreaming can be energising as well as relaxing.

Also, the suggestibility aspect of hypnosis is typically absent in daydreaming. People choose to be hypnotised because they want to achieve something in real life; they want to reprogram their brains to eliminate a bad habit or set them up for success. So although hypnosis temporarily disconnects you from real life, in the long term the aim is usually to improve real life in some way. This is quite different from daydreaming, which is often something we do to escape from real life.

So despite the similarities in how they feel, I’m left thinking that hypnosis and daydreaming are probably distinct states. That’s not to say that we can’t use our daydreaming to enhance the results of hypnosis. We probably can. Using self-hypnosis to break a bad habit often involves visualising the desired outcome and embedding that image in our subconscious so that it will guide our choices in the future. That’s something that we daydreamers are very good at. When we visualise something, it feels real. We can experience our imagined future as if it’s happening right now, and so when we make choices later on that are designed to bring us closer to realising that future, it feels more natural to us. We take away any fear of the unknown, because we’ve already lived it. We know exactly how good it’s going to feel to achieve our goal, and that can motivate us to do the work to make it a reality.

I would love to know whether immersive and maladaptive daydreamers are, on average, more easily hypnotised than normative daydreamers. And it would also be fascinating to see whether daydreaming and hypnosis activate similar areas of the brain. But the research hasn’t been done. Until it is, we’ll have to rely on our subjective experiences of hypnosis and daydreaming to draw our own conclusions about how similar they might be and how we can use daydreaming in conjunction with hypnosis to bring about positive changes in our lives.