The Science Behind Hypnosis: Lillian Loescher interviews Oisin Foley
Much like the mom jeans of the 90’s itseems 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 andsuggestibility are topics of rigorous empirical study. Whether convincing anunsuspecting lad that he is Connor McGregor or temporarily altering the way anindividual with chronic pain perceives their pain, the implications andmechanisms of hypnosis are far reaching and mysterious.
Hypnosis is defined as “the induction ofa state of consciousness in which a person loses the power of voluntary actionand is highly responsive to suggestion or direction”. Given the numerousproposed models to explain the mechanism by which hypnosis works, there isstill a need for further research. Each model individually explains one part ofa larger picture, but that larger picture has not been fully explained in andof itself. The most current research in the area suggests that a model thatencompasses the biological, psychological and social aspects as well as theinteractions between these factors best describes how hypnosis actually works.
An interview with professional hypnotistOisin Foley helps to shed a bit of light on this complex topic. Oisin’sexpertise lies within the performance of hypnosis, so his perception andimplementation of hypnosis is different than what would be discussed in a clinicalsetting. He emphasises this point explicitly by saying, “I think if you’re to chat to 100different hypnotists each of them is going to have a different perspective onthings because everyone is different [and] every hypnotist is different”. Whenasked to define suggestion (in the context of hypnosis) he says, “It’ssomething that psychologists have debated for years whether suggestion is realor 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 thepsychological and social aspects of hypnosis have the utmost importance in determining how one is hypnotised and how heapproaches the hypnosis. He says, “If you approach the alpha male of the group and say ‘Oh, I’mgoing to hypnotise you’, 9 times out of 10 it’s not going to work, but if yousay to him, ‘I’m going to try something a little bit different with you’, (makehim 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 feelyou get of them as a person…The beta male’s…they’re the kind of person who youcould go up to and say ‘Oh, I’m going to hypnotise you’. Then there are otherpeople who are terrified of hypnosis, [to which I would say] ‘don’t worry weare 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 notethat the alpha/beta male distinction is debunked science.]
Foley’sexperience has merit and is backed by extensive scientific research, theprevailing social-psychobiological models stress the importance of therelationship between the hypnotist and the person being hypnotised. The scientific literaturesays that there seem to be two main social aspects that influence hypnoticresponding, that is, the relationship between the individual and the hypnotistand the rapport between them. It was found that when a hypnotist and theirsubject had a personable relationship the subject exhibited significantlygreater hypnotic responding when compared to hypnotists with impersonalrelationships with their subjects. So, it’s no wonder that Foley relies heavily on social perception and likability duringhis acts.
On the biological side the literatureoutlines a number of quantitative approaches to measure a person’ssuggestibility. Additionally, there seem to be neuroanatomical differenceswithin the brains of individuals who are highly suggestable versus those that are significantly less suggestable. Forexample, using an EEG (electroencephalograph) numerous studies have shown thatindividuals who are highly susceptible to suggestion have higher baselinelevels of theta wave activity as compared to individuals who are lesssusceptible to suggestion. Of the five main types of brain waves (beta, alpha,gamma, theta and delta), theta brain waves are involved in daydreaming andsleep as well as with experiencing intense emotions. As Foley puts it, “there is this stereotype that people who are lessintelligent are easier to be hypnotised which is not the case at all, it reliesmassively on the use of complex intellectual ideas and having a very vivid imagination,two things we have already seen from hundreds of years of psychologicalresearch are linked very strongly with people of higher intelligence”.
Thescientific models support a correlation that Foley describes. The two keyfactors that influence how responsive an individual is to hypnotic suggestionare; (1) alatent cognitive ability/talent for hypnotic responding and (2) one’s beliefsabout their own future hypnotic responding. Thus, if you believe that you canbe hypnotised, you are statistically more likely to respond to hypnoticsuggestion and if you are part of a group of individuals that are highlysusceptible to suggestion you will be more likely to experience hypnoticamnesia, according to the science that is. Psychological factors that tend toincrease an individual’s susceptibility to hypnotic suggestion are: a tendencyto daydream, a vivid imagination, a better ability to entertain the possibilityof a thought being true. Given the proven medical benefits of hypnosis as wellas the entertainment value it seems that when mom jeans cycle out of style,perhaps the study of hypnosis will not.