If you meet me at a party you will quickly discover I am an excitable personality (and that’s an understatement). If you don’t like excitable personalities, then for your own sake, don’t ask me what I do.
When I tell people my research involves hypnosis I get one of two reactions:
- Their eyes widen, their brows arch, and they express a curious desire to be a guinea pig; or
- they go quiet and nod their head politely, before the inevitable question boils to the surface – ‘but, is hypnosis even real?‘
‘That’s a good question’ is my standard response (do you see how I am already rehearsing for a life in academia?). But in all seriousness, it is a good question. For many people, hypnosis is more commonly associated with magical practices and entertainment. Hearing the word may conjure images of pop culture figures, such as the fictional character Svengali, the contemporary illusionist Derren Brown, or even Little Britain’s comical hypnotist, Kenny Craig. But, hypnosis is more than mere illusion and has uses far beyond entertainment. In fact, it has been explored within medical practice for 175 years, having been first described by the James Braid in 1843. Since then hypnosis has been present within the medical field, helping to relieve digestive disturbances and pain, aid many smokers in their endeavours to quit, used as an anaesthetic in surgery, and has most recently become the latest trend amongst pregnant millennials (see hypnobirthing). And if the behavioural effects aren’t convincing enough, they are reinforced by neuroimaging evidence, which attribute susceptibility to hypnotic suggestions to differences in attention processing (Egner, Jamieson, & Gruzelier, 2005).
So how does it work? The method of hypnosis usually involves an individual (hypnotist) who attempts to influence the perceptions, feelings, thinking and behaviour of a subject by using verbal ‘suggestions’ (Heap, 2005). This is achieved by first relaxing the subject using guided imagery and deep breathing techniques. To reach a state of hypnosis requires cooperation and willingness from the subject, not to do anything in particular but rather to ‘go with the flow’. Responding to suggestions is experienced as a passivity within your body, losing your capacity to make voluntary actions whilst remaining alert and aware in your mind. Once in a hypnotized state, suggestions can be made that range in their complexity, from mere motor movements (e.g. eye closure), to motor challenges (e.g. attempting to move one’s arm that is locked into place), and even complex cognitive experiences (e.g. hearing auditory hallucinations).
At this point, a skeptical listener will probe further: ‘but surely hypnosis is just some kind of placebo?‘ – a fake medical treatment (e.g. a pill with no active ingredient) that is given to a patient, which may result in actual positive effects. The ‘placebo effect’ phenomenon is modulated by how much the patient believes the treatment will help them, the stronger the belief the greater the effect. From the perspective of belief being a mediating factor, there is surely a resemblance between hypnosis and placeboes. However, how effective these experiences are is markedly different. One study comparing the effects of hypnosis and placebos on pain reduction, found a significant difference between the two in highly hypnotically suggestible subjects, with hypnosis having a positive impact, whilst the placebo made no difference (McGlashan, Evans, & Orne, 1969). More recently, neuroimaging studies have illustrated some overlap, but also clear differences in brain activity between the two (Kirjanen, 2012), reiterating that whilst these processes may be related, they are nevertheless distinct.
An important point to note, and perhaps a contributing factor as to why hypnosis has never quite captured the attention of the mainstream, is that not everyone is actually responsive to suggestions under hypnosis. This characteristic is in fact normally distributed across the population, with some people being highly suggestible, others not very suggestible, and the majority of the population somewhere in between. Determining how responsive you are to suggestions is usually done through the use of standardised procedures, such as the Harvard Scale of Hypnotic Suggestibility, that produces a quasi-objective score ranging from low (0) to high (12). When someone receives a high score their first response tends to be ‘does it mean I’m gullible?‘ and I am quick to offer a reassuring smile – the answer is ‘no’ – being labeled as ‘highly suggestible’ is admittedly not the best turn of phrase. But then what does being highly suggestible say about my personality? Well, this question is tricky, because the answer isn’t quite clear. In personality psychology, we tend to refer to five basic personality features: openness/intellect, conscientiousness, neuroticism, agreeableness, and extraversion. Hypnosis, it would appear, doesn’t seem to map easily on to any of these traits (perhaps the closest is openness, which relates to being intellectually curious, but this correlation is weak). It would appear being highly responsive to hypnotic suggestion implies just that, you respond to suggestion (riveting stuff, right?). But when you think about it, learning this about yourself might make you think twice about investing money in hypnotherapy (I know, you’re welcome!).
The last question I tend to get asked is this: ‘so what good is hypnosis for research?‘ By this point, I can barely contain my geeky enthusiasm – this is surely the best question! Studying hypnosis itself might be interesting, but it’s what you can do with hypnosis that makes things really exciting. Hypnotic suggestion is thought to be an important mediating factor connecting the effects of thoughts and ideas to functional symptoms via brain activity. In effect, hypnosis can be used to model functional neurological disorders (Deeley, 2016). These are disorders in which the structure of the brain appears normal, but its function does not. Common examples of such conditions include irritable bowel syndrome or fibromyalgia, both of which possess neurological symptoms that are thought to be mitigated by psychological factors (Bowers, Wroe, & Pincus, 2017). In my research I use hypnosis to model psychiatric symptoms associated with psychosis – I give people the experience of ‘hearing voices’.
At this point in the conversation I have either bored my victim dangerously close to death, or have in fact hypnotised them with my amazing array of facts – either way they look tired. I take pity on the exhausted face I have just verbally vomited all over – poor fool, they simply asked ‘what do you do?‘ I set them free in search of the bar with a final thought: beliefs play an integral role in the development of culture and are an inherent aspect of what it means to be human. Hypnosis is one of the very few techniques that are able to investigate the grey area between our physical and mental realities, and how our subjective experiences can impact our behaviour, beliefs and the world around us.
It’s a wonder why they never follow me on Twitter…