How hypnotizable are you? There’s a test for that.

Ever lose yourself in a great book or movie? This is a form of hypnosis. 

 

Painting of a hypnotist.

I always loved the hypnotist show at the state fair in the summertime. A smooth talking showman usually asks for volunteers from an attentive crowd. Once, I saw the entertainer choose an intimidating, muscle bound man, who quickly became convinced that he was a pretty, little girl. Another, serious and dowdy woman found herself strutting and clucking like a chicken across the stage.


There are lots of myths surrounding hypnosis, such as, that you can only tell the truth when you are under, that you can be controlled, or that the hypnotist can wipe your memory. These are all false. In fact, such fanfare delegitimizes hypnotherapy, as does Hollywood which often portray hypnotists as con men or villains.

In the clinical world, hypnosis has been used to help people quit smoking, overcome phobias, and control pain. But is there really something at work here, or is it all just the power of suggestion? Despite a body of evidence suggesting its validity, hypnotherapy remains controversial. History can tell us why.

Austrian physician Franz Mesmer was the first recorded figure to utilize hypnosis for clinical aims. The 18th century medical celebrity, from whom we get the term “mesmerize," used it to heal all sorts of ailments. The French crown remained unconvinced, and so King Louis XVI assembled a committee to investigate whether hypnosis held any credence. American ambassador Benjamin Franklin was among them, and lent his name to the enterprise. In 1784, the “Franklin Commission" deemed “mesmerism" devoid of therapeutic benefit.

Franz Mesmer demonstrating his ability to hypnotize subjects.

Despite this, hypnosis was used medically throughout the 19th century. For instance, Scottish surgeon James Esdaile is said to have operated on thousands in India between 1845 and 1851, without the benefit of anesthetic. Instead, he used hypnosis, and is said to have successfully controlled patient pain and brought the death rate down to five percent. Today, the death rate from surgery is 1.14%.

Although the Franklin Commission report besmirched the practice for centuries, by the 1950s, researchers had a body of evidence proving its worth, and even discovered ways to measure hypnotizability. Over 12,000 scholarly papers have been published on the subject over the years, according to Penn State psychologist William Ray. This helped restore the practice's credibility. Ray himself has conducted EEG studies on patients under hypnosis.

One of these concluded that the practice can cancel out the emotional aspect of pain. Neuroscientists recently discovered that pain actually travels two channels inside the brain. It first registers it in the sensory cortex, but its meaning is deciphered in the prefrontal cortex. The emotional center within the latter, acts as a dimmer switch, intensifying or muting pain, depending on the person's opinion of it. Stress and anxiety surrounding pain make it worse.

According to Dr. Mark Jensen, a psychologist at the University of Washington, patients under hypnosis told that their pain is only minor, allows them to interpret it differently, lifting anxiety and despair, and making them feel better. Some experts believe hypnosis can have tremendous therapeutic value to those with chronic pain, in a way free of drugs, invasive procedures, or side effects. But there's also bad news.

French first responders deliver therapeutic hypnotism to a car accident victim.

A Stanford University study, published in 2012, found that not everyone is susceptible. Researchers, using an fMRI, scanned the brains of 12 adults who were highly hypnotizable and 12 who were not. Three specific areas were examined, the default mode network—the holding pattern of the brain, the executive control network, which controls brain and bodily functions, and the salience network—responsible for deciding what is important and what isn't.

This study was led by David Spiegel, MD, professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford. In 1972, he made headlines for undergoing shoulder surgery and refusing pain medication afterward. Instead, he hypnotized himself and reportedly felt little pain. One of his previous studies found that painkiller use dropped by half, among chronic pain patients who practiced self-hypnosis. A recent string of research supports this, having found that self-hypnosis can reduce the pain of childbirth.

According to Spiegel, those who can be hypnotized tend to be more intuitive, trusting, imaginative, and are more likely to get caught up in a movie or book than others. They are also less likely to insist on order and logic in every situation. Even so, the ability to be hypnotized was found less to do with personality and more to do with brain structure, what Spiegel calls a “neural trait." He and colleagues found that participants who were hypnotizable showed greater activity between the executive control and salience networks. Those with a low susceptibility however, saw little activity between these two regions.

Researchers found a drop in activity in a part of the salience network called the dorsal anterior cingulate in the hypnotizable. This tells the brain what to pay attention to and what to ignore. When you're worried, it lights up. But under hypnosis, it tends to calm down. The second thing they noticed was a strong connection between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula, which controls heart rate and blood pressure, among other functions. “They fire together, basically," Spiegel said. This means that “your brain in hypnosis is intensifying its connection to your body."

A hypnosis session to help participants quit smoking.

Other regions however saw less activity. The part of the brain responsible for self-reflection, becomes less active. “That's why sometimes people will do embarrassing or silly things in staged hypnosis shows," Spiegel said. “They're not thinking about themselves doing it, they're just doing it." He and his team concluded that, “…altered functional connectivity in [the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex] and [the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex] may underlie hypnotizability."

Take the hypnotism test

Spiegel believes he was on the verge of identifying a brain signature for hypnotizability. About 25% of people cannot undergo hypnosis. There is a test in place to tell, known as the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scales. People are rated from 0 to 12 on responsiveness. One's susceptibility can be low, medium, or high. Around 80% of the population fall in the medium range. 10% are in the high range and 10% have low susceptibility. Just like IQ, hypnotizability remains constant throughout the person's life. Some longitudinal studies found that 25 years later, retested subjects had nearly the same scores.

Of course, you probably experience hypnosis all the time and don't even know it. Have you ever been so sucked into a movie that you don't notice what's going on around you? Technically, that's a hypnotic state. You're so hyper-focused that you block out everything else. Those who are more likely to become engrossed in such things are more susceptible to hypnosis. In such a state, what we call a trance, a person can be led by a therapist through specific tasks or to reflect on certain thoughts. At this point, your subconscious is more open to suggestion. But that doesn't mean you lose your will. Both your will and your judgment remain intact.

By understanding this mental state further, we will likely get a better picture of how consciousness and our perception of reality work, Byzantine stuff that will take a lot of time to unravel. However, the Human Connectome Project and other brain mapping studies are likely, over time, make significant headway.

To learn more about the scientific basis of hypnosis, click here:

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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
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