|Scientific American Gets Hypnotized
STAFFERS SEE WHAT IT'S LIKE TO "GO UNDER"
The editors at Scientific American pride themselves on their skepticism toward pseudoscience and on their hard-nosed insistence on solid research. So in 2001 they invited Michael R. Nash of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and research psychologist Grant Benham to New York City so they 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. The outcome surprised them.
Nash and Benham set up two quiet offices. Each researcher hypnotized three people individually, spending about an hour with each subject. They took each volunteer through the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scales, which rate an individual's responsiveness from 0 to 12.
One of the most surprising things about the hypnotic experience was its very banality. To induce hypnosis. Nash and Benham merely asked the staffers to stare at a yellow Post-It note on the wall and spoke in a calm voice about how relaxed they were becoming and how their 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 volunteer 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 subjects, 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.) No one accurately predicted how susceptible they 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.
Everyone had a sense of "watching" themselves 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 person 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 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 the volunteers found that they felt less hypnotized during some parts of the session than during others, as if they had come near the "surface" for a few moments and then slipped under again.
All in all, the staff concluded that seeing is believing when it comes to hypnosis. Or maybe hearing is believing: I'm the one who heard — and swatted — the imaginary fly.
PHOTO (COLOR): People are aware of what they do during hypnosis, although their actions feel Involuntary. Some laugh at their Inability to say their name or open their eyes under hypnotic suggestion.
By Carol Ezzell Webb
Carol Ezzell Webb, former staff writer (7 on the Stanford scales)