Our staff sees what it’s like to “go under”
Here at Scientific American we pride ourselves on our skepticism toward pseudoscience and on our hard-nosed insistence on solid research. So when we invited Michael R. Nash of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to write the accompanying article on the scientific basis of hypnosis, we warned him that we’d put him through the wringer — which we did. But while editing the article, we began to wonder: Isn’t this something we should experience ourselves? How many of us would be hypnotizable?
We invited Nash and research psychologist Grant Benham to New York so we could see what hypnosis was like firsthand. Six editorial staffers — three men and three women, none of whom had been hypnotized before –were willing to give it a try. What we found surprised us.
Nash and Benham set up two quiet offices for our initiation into hypnosis. Each researcher hypnotized three people individually, spending about an hour with each subject. They took us through the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scales, which rate an individual’s responsiveness from 0 to 12.
One of the most surprising things about our hypnotic experience was its very banality. To induce hypnosis, Nash and Benham merely asked us to stare at a yellow Post-It note on the wall and spoke to us in a calm voice about how relaxed we were becoming and how our eyes were growing tired. “Your whole body feels heavy — heavier and heavier,” they read from the Stanford script. “You are beginning to feel drowsy — drowsy and sleepy. More and more drowsy and sleepy while your eyelids become heavier and heavier, more and more tired and heavy.” That soothing patter went on for roughly 15 minutes, after which all but one of us had closed his or her eyes without being directly told to do so.
The Stanford scales consist of 12 different activities ranging from trying to pull apart one’s interlocked fingers and feeling one’s elevated arm lower involuntarily to hallucinating that one hears a buzzing fly. Of the six of us, one scored an 8, one a 7, one a 6, two a 4 and one a 3. (A score of 0 to 4 is considered “low” hypnotizable; 5 to 7 is “medium” hypnotizable; 8 to 12 is “high” hypnotizable.) None of us accurately predicted how susceptible we would be: some who thought themselves very suggestible turned out to be poor subjects, and others who deemed themselves tough cases were surprised to find their two outstretched arms coming together by themselves or their mouth clamped shut so that they couldn’t say their name.
We all had a sense of “watching” ourselves and were sometimes amused. “I knew what my name was, but I couldn’t think how to move my mouth,” recalled one staff member. Another said his fingers “felt stuck” during the finger-lock exercise. “At first they pulled apart easily enough, but then they seemed to sort of latch up. It was interesting to see that it was so difficult.”
Only one of us experienced item number 12 on the Stanford scale — posthypnotic amnesia. In this exercise, the hypnotist tells the subject not to remember what occurred during the session. “Every time I’d try to remember,” said the staff member who had this sensation, “the only thing that came back to me was that I shouldn’t remember. But when Dr. Benham said it was okay to remember, it all came flooding back.”
In general, the experience was much less eerie than we had expected. The feeling was akin to falling into a light doze after you’ve awakened in the morning but while you’re still in bed. All of us found that we felt less hypnotized during some parts of the session than during others, as if we had come near the “surface” for a few moments and then slipped under again.
All in all, we concluded that seeing is believing when it comes to hypnosis. Or maybe we should say hearing is believing: I’m the one who heard — and swatted — the imaginary fly.
–Carol Ezzell, staff writer and a 7 on the Stanford scales – http://www.sciam.com:80/2001/0701issue/0701nashbox2.html
Last updated: April 30, 2014 at 13:28 pm
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