SUSSEX, England — Despite its still controversial reputation with the general public, hypnosis has gained considerable respectability within the field of psychology. In recent decades, therapists have employed the “power of suggestion” to induce patients to stop smoking, lose weight, and manage pain from chronic illness, especially cancer.
But how hypnosis actually works inside a patient’s brain — including the level of “voluntary” compliance — has remained a deep mystery.
While some critics have argued that hypnosis only works with people who subconsciously desire the suggested outcome, a new study directed by Peter Lush at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex – and published in the journal, Psychological Science – argues that hypnotized subjects can be induced to perform simple involuntary acts — though their degree of compliance may vary depending on the individual.
Lush and colleagues subjected 18 survey volunteers to a battery of tests to see if he could compel them through hypnosis to act in ways directly contrary to their intention.
The subjects – all of them pre-tested for susceptibility to hypnosis – were asked to perform a series of simple acts, like pressing a bell, after being cued to do so with and without hypnotic suggestion. Lush’s team compared their response times under hypnosis to the times it took for them to push the bell voluntarily and when prompted with a hand or string attachment.
What happened? Most respondents, under hypnotic suggestion, took almost as long to push the bell as they did when a hand or string compelled their response. However, once they emerged from their “spell,” they had no memory of having delayed their response to conform to Lush’s suggestion.
Lush says his simple test debunks the idea that people claiming to be hypnotized are in the same conscious state as those not subject to hypnosis and are simply “faking it.” Instead, his subjects experienced a bedeviling disjuncture between their conscious intent and their subconscious will for which they had no obvious explanation.
“Our study was set up to ensure that this degree of shift in the reported time of events cannot easily be explained by participants wishing to conform to the demands of the task. The results suggest that people who experience involuntariness are genuinely experiencing changes in the sense of agency over their actions,” Lush says in a Sussex University news release.
How far can the “power of suggestion” go? Most hypnosis experts doubt that carnival stage acts in which hypnotized respondents strut around like chickens or perform other bizarre acts are real, but past research has shown that hypnosis can interrupt the brain’s sensory perception so completely that respondents “forget” to experience their “normal” reactions to stimuli on an emotional and cognitive level.
And that’s precisely where the therapeutic potential of hypnosis lies. Cancer patients that suffer chronic pain can still feel the throbbing in their body as a physical sensation. But under hypnosis, they can be induced to shut off the part of their brain that associates that sensation with “pain.” The effect may last for hours, even days. In fact, regularly hypnotized patients can even live longer, some research shows.
Apparently, hypnosis occurs in our everyday lives all the time — but we rarely notice it. Ever been so engrossed in a book that you never heard someone call your name? That’s a form of self-hypnosis and it’s akin to guided meditation, visualization, and other therapeutic techniques that alter conscious brain patterns, experts say.
But these techniques also operate in different ways from hypnosis. In a separate study, Lush argues that the brain’s “meta-cognition” capacity — its self-regulatory ability – is stronger in meditation, in part because the outcome is consciously desired
The upshot? The benefits of supported hypnosis are still worth clucking over, but there’s no substitute for training your own mind to detach and heal.