I’ve got an article in today’s Observer about the re-emergence of hypnosis into the scientific mainstream despite the fact that the technique is still associated with stereotypes.
The piece has been oddly titled ‘hypnosis is no laughing matter’, which kind of misses the point, because no-one laughs at it, but many scientists do find it uncomfortable because of its long-running associations with stage shows, high-street hypnotists and the like.
The sub-heading also suggests that the article is about the revival of hypnosis as a ‘clinical tool’ when the article only discusses the use of hypnosis in the lab.
However, get past the headings and the piece discusses the genuinely interesting cognitive science of hypnosis and suggestibility.
The recent research is interesting not so much because we are learning about hypnosis itself, but because it is helping us understand some quite striking things about the fundamentals of the mind.
Amir Raz and colleagues at McGill University in Montreal reported that it was possible to “switch off” automatic word reading and abolish the Stroop effect – a psychological phenomenon that demonstrates a conflict between meanings, such as where we are much slower to identify the ink colour of a word when the word itself describes a different hue. Furthermore, when this experiment was run in a brain scanner, participants showed much lower activation in both the anterior cingulate cortex, an area known to be particularly involved in resolving conflict between competing demands, and the visual cortex, which is crucial for recognising words. Although this may seem like a technicality, to the scientific world it was a strikingly persuasive demonstration that hypnosis could apparently disassemble an automatic and well-established psychological effect in a manner consistent with the brain processes that support it.
One of the other exciting areas is the use of hypnosis to temporarily induce altered states of consciousness that can then be studied in the lab. More of that in the article.
Link to Observer article.