The Science Behind Hypnosis: Lillian Loescher interviews Oisin Foley

Much like the mom jeans of the 90’s it seems that the science behind hypnosis and suggestibility is making a comeback. Often thought of as an eccentric offshoot of cognitive science, the underpinnings of hypnosis and suggestibility are topics of rigorous empirical study. Whether convincing an unsuspecting lad that he is Connor McGregor or temporarily altering the way an individual with chronic pain perceives their pain, the implications and mechanisms of hypnosis are far reaching and mysterious.

Hypnosis is defined as “the induction of a state of consciousness in which a person loses the power of voluntary action and is highly responsive to suggestion or direction”. Given the numerous proposed models to explain the mechanism by which hypnosis works, there is still a need for further research. Each model individually explains one part of a larger picture, but that larger picture has not been fully explained in and of itself. The most current research in the area suggests that a model that encompasses the biological, psychological and social aspects as well as the interactions between these factors best describes how hypnosis actually works.

An interview with professional hypnotist Oisin Foley helps to shed a bit of light on this complex topic. Oisin’s expertise lies within the performance of hypnosis, so his perception and implementation of hypnosis is different than what would be discussed in a clinical setting. He emphasises this point explicitly by saying, “I think if you’re to chat to 100 different hypnotists each of them is going to have a different perspective on things because everyone is different [and] every hypnotist is different”. When asked to define suggestion (in the context of hypnosis) he says, “It’s something that psychologists have debated for years whether suggestion is real or not, the very same they have done with hypnosis [though they are both real]. It’s pretty much where an idea can be planted into someone’s head.”

Foley stresses that the psychological and social aspects of hypnosis have the utmost importance in determining how one is hypnotised and how he approaches the hypnosis. He says, “If you approach the alpha male of the group and say ‘Oh, I’m going to hypnotise you’, 9 times out of 10 it’s not going to work, but if you say to him, ‘I’m going to try something a little bit different with you’, (make him think that he cannot be hypnotised) it’s going to work 9 times out of 10. Each way you approach someone has to be different based on what kind of feel you get of them as a person…The beta male’s…they’re the kind of person who you could go up to and say ‘Oh, I’m going to hypnotise you’. Then there are other people who are terrified of hypnosis, [to which I would say] ‘don’t worry we are just doing a relaxation technique. You’re going to be completely fine; you’ll be aware of everything the whole way through’.” [It is important to note that the alpha/beta male distinction is debunked science.]

Foley’s experience has merit and is backed by extensive scientific research, the prevailing social-psychobiological models stress the importance of the relationship between the hypnotist and the person being hypnotised. The scientific literature says that there seem to be two main social aspects that influence hypnotic responding, that is, the relationship between the individual and the hypnotist and the rapport between them. It was found that when a hypnotist and their subject had a personable relationship the subject exhibited significantly greater hypnotic responding when compared to hypnotists with impersonal relationships with their subjects. So, it’s no wonder that Foley relies heavily on social perception and likability during his acts.

On the biological side the literature outlines a number of quantitative approaches to measure a person’s suggestibility. Additionally, there seem to be neuroanatomical differences within the brains of individuals who are highly suggestable versus those that are significantly less suggestable. For example, using an EEG (electroencephalograph) numerous studies have shown that individuals who are highly susceptible to suggestion have higher baseline levels of theta wave activity as compared to individuals who are less susceptible to suggestion. Of the five main types of brain waves (beta, alpha, gamma, theta and delta), theta brain waves are involved in daydreaming and sleep as well as with experiencing intense emotions. As Foley puts it, “there is this stereotype that people who are less intelligent are easier to be hypnotised which is not the case at all, it relies massively on the use of complex intellectual ideas and having a very vivid imagination, two things we have already seen from hundreds of years of psychological research are linked very strongly with people of higher intelligence”.

The scientific models support a correlation that Foley describes. The two key factors that influence how responsive an individual is to hypnotic suggestion are; (1) a latent cognitive ability/talent for hypnotic responding and (2) one’s beliefs about their own future hypnotic responding. Thus, if you believe that you can be hypnotised, you are statistically more likely to respond to hypnotic suggestion and if you are part of a group of individuals that are highly susceptible to suggestion you will be more likely to experience hypnotic amnesia, according to the science that is. Psychological factors that tend to increase an individual’s susceptibility to hypnotic suggestion are: a tendency to daydream, a vivid imagination, a better ability to entertain the possibility of a thought being true. Given the proven medical benefits of hypnosis as well as the entertainment value it seems that when mom jeans cycle out of style, perhaps the study of hypnosis will not.