In the popular imagination, a person who submits to hypnosis falls into a trance. The subject slavishly follows the hypnotist’s commands, perhaps to squawk like a chicken, re-enact events from childhood or develop a lasting aversion to cigarettes. When the subject “awakens,” he or she forgets everything that happened during the session.
Actually, hypnosis is not like that at all, said Steven Lynn, professor of psychology at Binghamton University, who has devoted much of his career to establishing a clear, scientific understanding of hypnotic suggestion. A person who responds well to hypnosis takes an active rather than a passive role, working in partnership with the hypnotist. “Hypnosis involves the participant thinking and imagining along with whatever is suggested, in an expectant manner,” he said.
Hypnosis can serve as a valuable adjunct to certain kinds of psychotherapy, Lynn said. But not everyone responds to it equally well.
In some of his latest work, Lynn tries to pinpoint what makes certain people especially good hypnotic subjects and determine if it’s possible to raise others to their level. One project, supported by a $376,000 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, explores the idea that the ability to respond to hypnotic suggestions “can be changed and enhanced when participants are instructed,” Lynn said. Janet Ambrogne, assistant professor in BU’s Decker School of Nursing, is working on this study along with Lynn and his graduate students.
The research team tests subjects to determine how well each responds to hypnotic suggestions. Then researchers provide information about how hypnosis works, trying to eliminate the subject’s misconceptions-for example, that people under hypnosis are gullible and easily led. “We try to encourage them to use their imaginations, rather than to passively respond to the suggestions, and to actively immerse themselves in the experience of whatever is suggested,” Lynn said. Researchers also teach subjects how to interpret hypnotic suggestions, so that a misunderstanding won’t lead to an inappropriate response.
Two years into the three-year project, the research indicates that instruction does indeed help people respond better to hypnotic suggestions. By speaking with subjects and letting them watch how others perform under hypnosis, “we can get at least half of initially low-hypnotizable subjects to test as high hypnotizing subjects,” Lynn said. The team still needs to figure out, though, which elements of the training do the trick. “Is it telling people they should make an active response? Is it the imagination part of it, when we ask people to vividly imagine what we’ve been suggesting? We don’t know what components are responsible for the effectiveness.”
Lynn will also investigate the malleability of hypnotic response in a new study of “mindfulness”-the ability to stay non-judgmentally aware of one’s fluctuating thoughts and feelings. “Many psychotherapies are now recognizing that people try to suppress or conceal feelings,” but the more they try to push away unwelcome mental experiences, the more those experiences come back to trouble them, Lynn said. By learning to observe and accept whatever flows through their minds, “individuals can come to desensitize themselves to unsettling thoughts and feelings.”
Lynn and his graduate students are working to develop scales that measure a person’s aptitude for mindfulness and see how one’s ranking on those scales correlates to other traits. “Initial results suggest that the ability to be mindful is associated with a variety of positive characteristics, such as positive self esteem and the ability to be absorbed in different experiences, from watching a sunset to reading novels,” he said.
Along with other traits, they want to determine if mindfulness correlates to strong hypnotic response. “If we had scales where we could pre-select people who tend to be mindful, and contrast them with people who in everyday life tend to not be especially mindful, we could see whether, for example, there were differences in the way they responded to hypnotic suggestions,” Lynn said. “Or we could ask the question, ‘Would combining a hypnotic induction with suggestions to be mindful increase people’s suggestibility?'”
If the researchers can figure out what sort of instruction or encouragement helps subjects gain greater benefit from hypnosis, this knowledge could help therapists put hypnosis to better use for clients who want to manage anxiety, lose weight or make other positive changes.
It might also settle certain theoretical controversies. Along with the general public, some schools of psychologists also contend that hypnosis is a state apart from ordinary consciousness, Lynn said. In their research, he and his team “try to consistently debunk that position and show that the same variables that account for non-hypnotic behaviors and experiences account for hypnotic behaviors and experiences.”
“My way of thinking,” Lynn said, “is that hypnotic responsiveness is associated with attitudes, beliefs, expectancies, motivation, using your imagination and the kinds of strategies people use.” If he is correct, and if therapists can help subjects fine-tune those variables, that could increase the value of hypnosis as a therapeutic tool.