#141: Hypnosis: When Imagination Takes Control

August 11, 2016

You’re familiar with hypnosis, of course.  Something along the lines of:  Look into my eyes — you’re getting sleepy, very sleepy…  when I snap my fingers, you’ll wake up and think you’re a chicken.

Wait a minute…  backup.  We’re not talking about clichéd, variety-show hypnosis.

We’re talking about real-deal, scientifically backed up hypnosis.  The kind that can numb pain, help you quit smoking, and control an asthma attack.

With all the research showing that hypnosis is an incredible tool to treat pain and addiction — not to mention boosting focus and performance — “the fact that we still associate it with dangling watches is unfortunate,” in the words of Dr. David Spiegel, Professor at Stanford University.

Listen to Episode 141 for a double interviewee whammy, with both Dr. Spiegel and Jeff Jordan, the world’s tallest hypnotist (but how can you look into his eyes when he’s towering above you?) explaining the ins and outs of hypnosis.

Does Hypnosis Really Work?

In short:  yes.

That said, not everyone is hypnotizable.  About one-third of adults are not hypnotizable, with the rest ranging from highly hypnotizable to not-so-much.

Interestingly, everyone is hypnotizable as children.  This has to do with how highly involved in imagination children are.  But something happens to some of us as we grow up, and imagination, along with the ability to be hypnotized, gets locked away.

What’s the difference between people who are easily hypnotizable and those who aren’t

Brain scans of people with a high ability to be hypnotized showed a significant difference in levels of functional connectivity, with high levels of communication between two parts of the brain even during rest:

  1. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which helps us plan and think
  2. The dorsal anterior cingulate, which is part of our worry network

So, in highly hypnotizable people, the part of the brain that worries about what you’re thinking is constantly coordinating with the part of the brain that is doing the thinking.

What does that mean in practice?  People who are easily hypnotizable also easily get lost in a book or movie, forgetting that they are reading or watching.  It’s the “flow” state, where you are entirely in the present activity.

Want to find out how hypnotizable you are?  Find someone to administer the Hypnotic Induction Profile, a 5-minute test of hypnotizability.

Controlling Your Mind With…  Your Own Mind

Much of your ability to be hypnotized is innate and is a fixed trait as an adult.  That said, you can train to improve your skills.  If you’re at least somewhat hypnotizable, you can learn to use it, especially if you’re motivated.

If you want to learn to be hypnotized, you don’t need someone else to do it for you.  The ability to be hypnotized resides in the individual, not the hypnotist.

Of course, if you have no experience with hypnosis, getting started with a trained professional can make things easier.  And once someone has helped take you into an experience of hypnosis, it will be easier for you to return to that state of mind on your own.

Using Hypnosis in the Real World

As a pain control method hypnosis is extremely helpful; you can tolerate an enormous amount of pain under hypnosis.  It’s even reduced signs of swelling and physical trauma.

But you can also improve physical and cognitive performance under hypnosis in a way that would be impossible or very difficult consciously.  Says Dr. Spiegel:  “We can use hypnosis to change the way we use our brains, to change brain function, in ways that classical psychology used to think was impossible.”

Once example is the Stroop Test.  You’re probably familiar with the concept, if not the name.  The Stroop Test consists of colors written out in text of a different color.  So, for example, the word might be “red,” but the text will be blue.  You then have to say the color the word is printed in.  Almost everyone experiences a delay of 300 milliseconds before being able to answer because of how difficult it is to inhibit processing of the word itself.  Even with practice you can’t change this number.

But if you hypnotize people to believe they can’t read, this delay disappears.

The Limits of Hypnosis

There are limits to hypnosis.  One, of course, is how hypnotizable the individual is.  But much also depends on how far an action is from the person’s normal moral code, i.e. how much do they actually want to do what the hypnotist is suggesting they do.  Hypnosis may be able to extend a person’s limits, but they still exist.

For any Charles Manson wannabes out there reading this:  sorry, but you’re not going to be able to hypnotize people to commit murders (unless they want to).

PS:  When we snap our fingers, you will sign up for our weekly Brain Breakfast emails.

Read Full Transcript
Show Notes
  • 00:00:26

    Medical hypnosis

  • 00:01:43

    This Week in Neuroscience: Opposites attract – unless you’re in a relationship

  • 00:04:11

    The audience interaction section

  • 00:07:04

    Intro to Dr. David Spiegel and Jeff Jordan

  • 00:08:14

    Dr. Spiegel and Jeff Jordan’s respective backgrounds in hypnosis

  • 00:11:38

    How did medical hypnotism begin?

  • 00:14:15

    Are people more and less hypnotizable than others?

  • 00:18:33

    All hypnosis is self-hypnosis

  • 00:19:04

    Can people learn how to becoming more hypnotizable?

  • 00:21:35

    Training children to be hypnotizable

  • 00:22:40

    The Stroop testand hypnosis

  • 00:25:20

    Limitations of hypnosis

  • 00:27:41

    How did being hypnotizable develop as a useful trait?

  • 00:29:21

    Why is hypnosis still so rarely used in the medical world?

  • 00:31:03

    Practice makes perfect

  • 00:32:48

    Mindfulness and hypnosis

  • 00:33:48

    How you can learn to self-hypnotize

  • 00:34:49

    Can people more accurately self-diagnose in a hypnotic state?

  • 00:37:22

    Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Flashing lights and music turn rats into problem gamblers


  1. Jeff Jordan says:

    Thank you Jesse for having me. My new project, Fight Brain, mental coaching for MMA fighters is always giving away free tools to help you grow some new brain cells. One is a guided meditation and another is a deep sleep MP3. Check them out with instant access at

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      Thanks Jeff. I’m downloading the deep-sleep one now. (Admittedly, I’m not an MMA fighter, but I’m throwing caution to the wind.)

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