Harvard Professor Demonstrates Hypnosis Is Real

According to Lindsley Professor of Psychology Stephen M. Kosslyn and the research team at his Visual Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, hypnosis
By Arielle J. Cohen

According to Lindsley Professor of Psychology Stephen M. Kosslyn and the research team at his Visual Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, hypnosis is no joke. The phrase “hypnosis is not a toy” came through the phone receiver loud and clear as Kosslyn, slightly offended, immediately rejected the idea of hypnotizing an FM reporter. To say that Kosslyn, who has published an award-winning paper finding hypnosis to be a distinct mental state, takes hypnosis seriously is an understatement.

Despite his quick rejection of trial hypnosis, Kosslyn was happy to grant FM an interview. An abundance of work and an obviously hectic schedule are evident upon entering Kosslyn’s eighth-floor William James Hall office. Model brains are crammed in whatever space they can find on a desk piled so high with journals that Kosslyn himself is hidden from sight. But the bearded professor manages to pop through the cracks to discuss the science that has captured his attention for the greater part of the last decade.

Kosslyn, who has specialized in mental imagery and the connection between vision and the brain at Harvard since 1977, teamed up with Stanford University’s David Spiegel, a major figure in hypnosis research, five years ago at a conference for mind-body interaction. Kosslyn had no previous association with the field, but with the help of a MacArthur Foundation grant, Spiegel and Kosslyn took on the challenge of proving hypnosis’ legitimacy.

In addition to the fact that it’s been exploited as an gimmick (“My sense is that [hypnosis shows] trivialize what’s really interesting, and also leads many people to dismiss hypnosis as nothing but stage-show silliness,” Kosslyn says), hypnosis’ sketchy reputation stems from real academic dispute. “Different perspectives led to a difficulty in even agreeing upon a definition for hypnosis,” says William L. Thompson, one of Kosslyn’s research assistants. Some scientists believe that a hypnotic state must be induced, while others contend that people can simply fall into a hypnotic state on their own. Most agree, however, that hypnosis is a mental state of relaxation that carries with it simultaneous focused attention and receptive openness to external suggestions. Kosslyn acknowledges the seeming “paradox” within this definition and cites it as one of the driving forces behind his work. “I want to understand the underlying process of the phenomenon of hypnosis,” he says.

The cross-country team of researchers, led by Spiegel and Kosslyn, first found several test subjects—including Harvard undergraduates—who were “highly susceptible” to hypnosis. Hypnotic inducibility has been characterized as a consistent trait that can be tested for by specific methods. One’s score on these tests is based on what stage of relaxation one can achieve. It has not yet been determined what is responsible for a person’s susceptibility to hypnosis, but many believe that, like risk-taking and susceptibility to addictions, it is a genetically determined trait.

Subjects were monitored while identifying colors in pictures that were both black and white and colored. When subjects under hypnosis were asked to see color, neuronal activity was detected in the basic color-identifying portion of the brain even when the pictures were black and white. This observation led the team to conclude that the hypnosis was not somehow tricking the brain into seeing color—through the hypnosis, the brain actually was seeing a colored image.

“The sun has come up over the horizon, and a new light is being shed as hypnosis comes out of the shadows,” Kosslyn says proudly. Hypnosis has a long history in psychology, extending back to Freud’s era, but according to Kosslyn, has never developed to its full potential.

Kosslyn hopes to use hypnosis to eventually revolutionize methods of teaching and learning. “Education is pretty traditional. Kids are still taking notes, even with the laptops, they’re still taking notes,” he says. “I want to see what science can do to change education in the 21st century. Maybe we can learn something about the brain to help people take full advantage of their capabilities.”

In preparation for future research, Spiegel visited Kosslyn’s Harvard lab last month to demonstrate the phenomenon of hypnosis to several of the researchers. His demo convinced at least one person. “Before the project I was skeptical of hypnosis. I just didn’t believe in it. But after the study I was convinced of its legitimacy,” Thompson says. “You can’t draw sweeping conclusions from one paper, but the body of research that has recently been published certainly suggests that hypnosis is a true physiologic phenomenon.”