It’s helped people quit smoking, turned others into on-stage buffoons, and been embroiled in controversy over “recovered memory therapy”. Now hypnosis may offer unique insights into the workings of our brain.
– Article by Fenella Souter –
In her office in the department of cognitive science at Sydney’s Macquarie University, Amanda Barnier is showing me a video of one of her recent human experiments. On the screen is one of the associate professor’s willing subjects, a young male student who is perfectly normal aside from being highly hypnotisable, a quality only 10 to 15 per cent of the population possess. Seventy to 80 per cent of us are moderately hypnotisable.
Simon, let’s call him, sits on a chair beside a mirror, in a small, bare room, alone with Barnier. Barnier has induced hypnosis and Simon is now in what seems like a waking trance, alert but slightly dazed. Earlier, she has given him a hypnotic suggestion that when he looks in the mirror – at his own reflection – he will see a stranger.
“Who do you see in the mirror?” Barnier asks in the video. “A man. I don’t know who he is.” Can he describe him? “Brown hair, brown eyes. A big nose.” So he doesn’t look familiar? “Well, he looks a bit like someone I knew at school. I think his name was Anthony or something like that. Yeah, Anthony.”
Simon agrees that both he and the stranger have brown hair but says that the stranger’s nose is bigger. The stranger has brown eyes. His, he points out, are hazel. Barnier asks him to touch his nose. He smiles when he sees the stranger do the same. “He’s copying me …”
“Why?” asks Barnier. A pause. “Maybe he’s trying to make me look crazy or something.” Simon agrees he can see the man talking but doesn’t know what he’s saying. “I can’t lip-read .”
From time to time he glances around the room, trying to find the other man, but, extraordinarily , the absence of a third party doesn’t break the delusion. And there is no sense he’s faking. “When I brought him out of hypnosis and cancelled the suggestion,” Barnier says, “he looked at himself in the mirror and immediately started fiddling with his hair. During hypnosis, he hadn’t done any of that kind of grooming behaviour , the sort of thing we tend to do when we look at ourselves.”
Hypnosis, in and out of fashion, is enjoying a resurgence in the lab as a tool in neuroscience and neuropsychology. It’s a way to create “virtual patients” and simulate conditions ranging from functional amnesia to paranoia to hysterical blindness, from auditory hallucinations to a conviction that “my arm belongs to someone else” .
Barnier and her colleagues are using it to fathom why the brain can fail to process information in the usual way and abandon logical thinking. What’s going on with the unshakeable delusions produced by mental illness or disorders of self mis-identification or, say, Capgras syndrome, a condition in which people become convinced their spouse or family members have been replaced by impostors?
In other experiments, subjects have been hypnotised into believing they are of the opposite sex. Asked to assess “herself” in the mirror, one hypnotised man said rather wanly, “I’m not as attractive as I thought I was.”
Except for stage hypnotists, hypnosis is a means rather than an end. Psychologists often use it to help treat problems like smoking addiction, phobias, low self-esteem or chronic anxiety. Some doctors and dentists call on it to help with pain or at least quell anxiety and panic.
In Europe, hypnosis is even offered for some forms of surgery, including cosmetic, paired with a local anaesthetic. Since 1992, for example, Marie-Elisabeth Faymonville, a Belgian anaesthetist , has performed more than 5000 hypnosedations , using hypnosis and a sedative five times less powerful than a general anaesthetic. At another Belgian hospital, a third of surgeries to remove thyroids and a quarter of all breast cancer surgeries, including biopsies and mastectomies, use hypnosis and local anaesthetic. There have even been cases of abdominal surgery with hypnosis alone … It’s not for everyone.
Cultures throughout the ages have used trance states, but in the West our modern notion of hypnosis dates to Anton Mesmer, the charismatic 18th-century French doctor who gave his name to mesmerism, which included the notion of “animal magnetism”. His theories were discredited (Benjamin Franklin convened one of two royal commissions to investigate the work), yet Mesmer achieved an impressive cure rate at a time when little else worked and, perhaps by force of personality, had notable success in pain relief.
Hypnosis, the term coined by James Braid, a Scottish surgeon, in 1842, still defies definition. It’s not a science so much as a psychological phenomenon. It is not sleep. It is not meditation, although there are similarities. It could be called a trance, but then, what is a trance? It can produce hallucinations or just compliance. It is a focused state – rather like driving, both engaged and abstracted – even though it can feel like relaxation.
“Relaxation is often used as the pathway into hypnosis but it doesn’t have to be,” says psychologist Ann Wilson, a spokesperson for the Australian Society of Hypnosis. “One experiment had people on exercise bikes, pedalling furiously while they were put into trance.” So what is it? “It’s an altered state. I often talk to my clients about the ‘committee of the mind’ , meaning all the talk that goes on in our mind, usually negative talk,” Wilson says. “In hypnosis, that committee shuts up.”
On a day of furious rain, I visit Leon Cowen, executive director of the Academy of Applied Hypnosis, to be hypnotised. Cowen is one of the practitioners working to have standards tightened within the profession because, worryingly perhaps, hypnotherapy is a wildly unregulated industry, answerable only to itself and managed by a bewildering array of associations. Anyone can attend a workshop or read a book on hypnotherapy and hang out a shingle.
Cowen’s office, a suite of rooms above a KFC outlet, is old-fashioned and homely. A sofa holds stuffed toys; they are for adult clients who like to hold them “when they feel anxious and go to a childlike situation” , he explains. Soothing photos of sea and sunsets hang from pale-pink walls. A black Jason recliner sits opposite his desk.
Cowen, trim with short grey hair and a beard, likens the state of hypnosis to the total involvement some people experience watching a film or reading a book, where the external world falls away. Imagination helps. “A child falls over and is crying. You kiss them better and they’re better. That’s hypnosis,” says Cowen. It’s impossible to define, he says, and – because it feels so natural – quite difficult to prove it even exists, although obviously he thinks it does and so must his clients, willing to pay $210 a session.
We talk a little and I stand up ready to drop into the recliner and be entranced. “Wait! Wait! Have you ever done meditation? The state of hypnosis is one where your eyes are closed, you’re relaxed, everything else is normal.” He warns I may feel very little or as if I’m sinking or floating. I may or may not experience REM. I may or may not feel a little tipsy.
Once I’m settled, he begins.“Relax and enjoy it. Okay, just pick a spot above you and focus on it … In a few moments I’m going to count to three and as I do, I just want you to let your eyes close and as they close go into a comfortable, relaxed state … One, really concentrating. Two … finding your eyes blinking as you concentrate. There they go, right on cue.” His pleasant, resonant voice drops lower and grows softer, more mellow. It’s … mesmerising. “And now, three. Just close your eyes now and leave them closed. With every word that I say, every breath that you take, let yourself relax even deeper.” We continue and at some point, in the absence of a specific problem, he plants and repeats a suggestion that I should think about something I want to do, and think about completing it exactly as I wish. I try. After a while, he counts me back out of the state.
Was I hypnotised? I don’t think so, certainly nothing like Simon in Barnier’s experiment. It was very calming and relaxing, however, with that inward focus that comes with closing your eyes, and I did have a lovely floating sensation afterwards.
A few days later, Amanda Barnier agrees to rate me on the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scale. After the induction process (the focusing on an object, the counting, “your eyelids are feeling heavy” , etc), she gives a series of suggestions, including: “Your arm is so rigid you are having trouble bending it … Imagine a piece of chocolate . The taste in your mouth is getting sweeter and sweeter … Now bitter … You’ve lost all sense of smell – you can’t smell this … You’re in fifth class … Write your name … What can you see?”
I did find it quite hard to bend my arm and so on, but I suspect that was a result of being obedient rather than hypnotised. There was a sense of dislocation but the external world didn’t fall away as I had hoped. Call it a failure of the imagination, but I could still smell. I couldn’t conjure up a bitter taste. Yet I did have a clear picture of a sunny day in fifth class, my teacher writing on the blackboard.
At the end, Barnier adds up my score. I am crestfallen to find I score a meagre 3/10, a result that she says, in a kindly way, is “low to moderate”. I’m intrigued, however, about my vivid recall of those moments in fifth class. Was it a real day I was remembering or an imaginary one?
Hypnosis earned a particularly bad name in the 1980s and ’90s, with an epidemic of people claiming to have “recovered” long-repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. Many had been hypnotised, and asked leading questions, in therapy. Patients described in lurid detail ordeals at the hands of “satanic cults” , often naming relatives as ringleaders. Scores of fathers, teachers and others were charged with abuse, and sometimes jailed, on the strength of “recovered” memory . People who had been merely unhappy or depressed became convinced they had been sexually abused – how else to explain the vivid images and recall that came under hypnosis?
In the ’80s and ’90s in the US, and to a much lesser degree in Australia, police and lawyers eagerly embraced the use of hypnotically induced or “hypnotically refreshed” evidence in trials. Witnesses were hypnotised to “sharpen” their memory of events, details or assailants – the kind of thing Australian actor Simon Baker does with a pale-eyed glance and a few words in The Mentalist. Hypnosis was involved in two famous cases here: that of former NSW police chief inspector Harry Blackburn, in 1989, accused of a series of rapes; and the “Mr Bubbles” case, where two kindergarten owners and two teachers in Sydney were charged on multiple counts of child sexual abuse. In the latter, a three-year-old girl was hypnotised and questioned, in a highly leading way, by police. In both cases, charges were dropped because of the dubious nature – hypnosis only one culprit – of evidence gathering, and Blackburn received substantial compensation for his wrongful arrest.
Most experts now agree hypnosis is not a reliable method of recall, even if it feels as if it is. It’s not so much that hypnosis has a more distorting effect on memory; rather, that people, especially the highly hypnotisable, are much more confident of the truth of memories produced under hypnosis, even though experiments have shown they are no more dependable than the usual sort.
On nights when he is plagued by his arthritis, Graham Jamieson practises self-hypnosis. Fortunately, he’s highly hypnotisable. He’s also a researcher at the University of New England, and has spent years studying hypnosis and states of consciousness, including meditation. Using functional MRIs and EEGs, he’s looking to see what changes occur during hypnosis.
Out of hypnosis, conscious awareness and the actions it controls – from scratching your nose to choosing a restaurant – are overseen by a kind of cerebral CEO with top-down management. That executive function has a control component, which modulates what’s going on in the rest of the brain, as well as a monitoring function. “You can’t exercise control if you’ve got no idea about what’s going on out there,” Jamieson explains. “Those two components have to integrate to allow executive regulation.”
Part of what’s happening under hypnosis, he believes, is that the communication channels between those two components break down: “They don’t stop working, but there is a dissociation.” The logical, “reality-checking ” aspects of the brain also retreat.
That muting of the usual restraints means other parts of the brain – especially the more posterior regions, which process sensory information – are free to play a bigger role. In a highly susceptible person under hypnosis, the brain doesn’t have to work at consciously implementing a suggestion, however far-fetched – for example, that he or she can no longer experience colour. It just happens. “Show them an image of a Kandinsky and tell them they can’t see colour and, for them, the colour simply drains away. It’s experienced as involuntary.”
If you can take the colour out of a Kandinsky or convince a man he’s a woman, can you make people act against their own moral code? Perhaps create a “hypno-operative”,a Manchurian Candidate-style assassin, programmed to kill on cue? That sensational scenario was presented by the defence lawyer of Sirhan Sirhan, Robert Kennedy’s assassin in 1968, in a failed attempt to have Sirhan’s conviction overturned. A woman in apolka-dotdresswasclaimedtobethe “controller” .
Along with brainwashing, the hypnotically programmed operative was a popular idea in the ’50s and ’60s, that golden age of secret CIA experiments, communism, conspiracy theories and crypto-science. Canadian-American psychologist George Estabrooks, who worked with US military intelligence during and after World War II, boldly claimed he could “hypnotise a man – without his knowledge or consent – into committing treason against the United States” .
It’s a long way from leaving people with hypnotic suggestions to stop biting their nails or being afraid of clowns. Those are things they want to do, so they’re open to it. A psychologist with long experience of hypnosis tells me that while a highly hypnotisable person can be vulnerable, he or she would have to have some psychopathology embedded in their nature to take up extreme suggestions. Experimental studies suggest it’s unlikely hypnosis can make people do bad things, but science isn’t in a position to know for sure. Ethics tend to get in the way. These days it’s just not the done thing to program an assassin in the name of hypnosis research.
Keen to experience hypnosis for yourself?
Aspire Hypnotherapy offers appointments at various locations in Brisbane, including Eatons Hill, Redcliffe, Bowen Hills.