Look Into My Wide, Vacant, Eyes

When I was in my first year at college I went to a hypnotism “show”, or “exhibition”, or “demonstration”… I don’t know … anyway, a hypnotist came and hypnotized people. Being naturally curious, I volunteered. Also, either because of my natural skepticism or through the incompetence of the hypnotist I failed to become entranced. But a friend of mine was. She was told to imagine the boy next to her naked, and immediately burst out laughing. When the hypnotist asked her why she was so amused, she gave a telltale gesture with her pinky finger.

So what is going on in a hypnotized brain? Hypnosis research has been embroiled in a debate for years: Is there a hypnotic “state” that is different from all other emotional states, or is it a phenomenon that depends on states observed in the non-hypnotized population?

A paper published by Sakari Kallio and colleagues in PLoS ONE this month appears to have found evidence for a specific hypnotic, a.k.a. trance, state. Building on previous fMRI and PET studies, the authors conducted a case study on subject TS-H, who is known to be highly susceptible to suggestion.

Yes, there is a scale measuring hypnotic susceptibility. Andre Muller Weitzenhoffer, a prominent psychologist whose prolific career focused on the ins and outs of hypnosis, developed this Stanford Scale in the late 1950s. And here it is:

0 – Eye Closure (not scored)
1 – Hand Lowering (right hand)
2 – Moving Hands Apart
3 – Mosquito Hallucination
4 – Taste Hallucination
5 – Arm Rigidity (right arm)
6 – Dream
7 – Age Regression (school)
8 – Arm Immobilization
9 – Anosmiia to Ammonia
10 – Hallucinated Voice
11 – Negative Visual Hallucination
12 – Post-Hypnotic Amnesia

TS-H scored a 12, and thus has been called upon many times to play the part of experimental subject in a variety of hypnosis experiments.

In the current paper TS-H and a cohort of control subjects were hypnotized by a professional hypnotist (although sadly I couldn’t find out the exact details of how this was achieved). The authors then looked at the physiology of the eye while the participants were in the hypnotic state. They assessed a variety of functions, including frequency of blinking, the size of the pupils, and several measurements of their ability to focus. In all of these cases TS-H showed dramatic differences in and out of the hypnotic state; she blinked far less, her pupils constricted, and her eyes did not move as much in response to external stimuli. She was also far more likely to exhibit these effects than the control participants.

Importantly these experiments provide conclusive evidence for a distinct hypnotic state (immediate induction and cancellation, objective confirmation through measurements, and showed features that are impossible to imitate). While the authors admit that “It is also possible that TS-H has somehow acquired a special ability to control her eye behavior and was in fact just using this ability during the experiment”, the fact that the behaviors she exhibited are generally very difficult to control voluntarily suggests this is unlikely.

This paper will also allow for less invasive monitoring of the hypnotic state, although I doubt we will ever see a hypnotist measuring the pupil size of their unwitting volunteers.

.

Katie Pratt is a graduate student in Molecular Biology at Brown University. She has a passion for science communication, and in an attempt to bring hardcore biology and medicine to everyone, she blogs jargon-free at www.katiephd.com. Follow her escapades in the lab and online on Twitter.

.

.

Be the first one to mind the gap by filling in the psychologist’s full name as a comment and get your name in the blog along with a sweet new BenchFly mug!

Andy LongUPDATE: Congratulations to Andy – winner of this week’s Mind the Gap !

About the winner: Andy is a graphic designer based in Boston, MA, who has found himself thrust into the science world by his BFFs. He is also a huge coffee fan, and is therefore VERY excited about his new mug.

.

About the prize: In addition to fame and glory beyond their wildest dreams, winners receive our new hot-off-the-presses large (15 oz) BenchFly mug to help quench their unending thirst for scientific knowledge… or coffee.

.


.

Miss a previous edition of Mind the Gap? Shame on you! Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered:

I’m Just Mad About Saffron

Sweet Relief: How Sugar May Help Reverse Climate Change

Laughter Really is the Best Medicine

All Work and No Play Makes Katie RSI Prone

Sexual Identity and Autocrine Stimulation: Oh, To Be Teenage Yeast

On Wine, Sunburns and the Tendency of Headlines to Mislead

Which Came First: The Opossum or the Snake?

Pigeons Know a Crazy Woman When they See One

To Boldly Go Where No Worm Has Gone Before

Another One Bites the Dust: Rinderpest Eradicated

Scientists Just Wanna Have Fun (Like Uncaged Monkeys)

Mosquitoes Eating You Alive? Cheesy Feet Could be the Problem

Dirty Mouth? Clean it Up with Cancer Screening

Because in Space…It’s Always 5 O’Clock Somewhere

Curry: Now Good for Detecting Explosions, Not Just Causing Them

So You Thought Eating Poop Was Bad For You?

Are Fatty Acids the Cure for PMS?

Botanical Sleuthing Recovered Endangered Daisy

.

.

.

Believe in Video.Then Dominate It

Join thousands of scientists and marketers already keeping up with
the latest trends, best practices, and freshest ideas in video.

Free Registration

This is just the beginning...

Share your opinions, feedback, or whatever else is on
your mind over on Google+ or Twitter right now!

5 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Adny

    wrote on October 26, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    Andre Muller Weitzenhoffer!

  2. @JacquelynGill

    wrote on October 26, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    André Muller Weitzenhoffer!

  3. alan@benchfly

    wrote on October 26, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    We've got ourselves a winner!

  4. Nick Othen

    wrote on February 21, 2013 at 5:58 am

    Interesting article but the field of hypnosis has moved forward since the 1950's.

  5. @richardjdsouza

    wrote on October 28, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    There is a small percentage of the population that is more suggestible than the rest. They have incredible visualisation abilities. They tend to be shortlisted in a typical stage hypnosis show. As part of a hypnotherapy course, they respond very well to treatment. The rest of the population can be receptive; it just takes the right mix of "want", skill of hypnotherapist, empathy between hypnotherapist and patient etc.

Leave a comment

will not be published