Ten tips for successful brain-hacking

Why are actors so much more susceptible to hypnosis?

There’s a very British shaking of heads going on around the Katie Holmes/Tom Cruise divorce story. Who could fall in with that Scientology lot in the first place? Well, look down the list of famous Scientologists on Wikipedia and one thing jumps out: actors. A bizarrely large proportion of high profile followers of the cult tread the boards. What’s so special about actors? Well, one answer is that they are highly suggestible to hypnosis. Especially American actors.

I learned this yesterday as I sat through a three-hour tutorial at the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness meeting in Brighton. It’s worth pointing out, for legal reasons, that the Church of Scientology officially looks down its nose at the use of hypnosis. But it’s also worth mentioning that L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, was an accomplished hypnotist.

According to yesterday’s tutor, Devin Terhune of Oxford University, hypnosis is an under-used tool in science. The idea is simple: if you can get people to behave in strange ways using only the power of suggestion, you can do it in ways that allow you to explore the fault lines of the brain that lead to conditions such as schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Do it right, and you can make people unable to recognise themselves in a mirror - even when they hold up an object and see the person in the mirror holding it too. Thanks to hypnosis, you can induce obsessive-compulsive washing of hands by blocking people’s ability to “know” their hands are clean. You can make them enter synaesthesia, where sounds or letters are experienced as colours.

It has to be said, this approach doesn’t do anything for Terhune’s standing amongst his Oxford colleagues.  “You’re already dealing with strange phenomena,” he told us. “This just weakens your credibility.”

Nonetheless, he was encouraging the scientists in the room to consider taking it up.

Anyone can be a hypnotist, he says. The skill lies in weeding out the 85 to 90 per cent of people who aren’t highly suggestible; here’s what you need to know:

1. Forget spiralling black and white patterns, or pendulums. Visual imagery doesn’t help.

2. Suggestibility does not depend on gender, gullibility, naivete or intelligence.

3. If people are interested, co-operative, think hypnosis will help them or simply believe in magic, they are much more likely to succumb to your suggestion. A bit of alcohol helps, as does a quick snort of oxytocin, the naturally-occuring bonding chemical that increases trust.

4. Telling people to relax is unnecessary: in fact, it produces a decrease in suggestibility.

5. Use of the word “hypnosis” seems to be vital.

6. You can’t hypnotise people against their will.

7. A distaste for critical thinking is important in your subject.

8. Actors and drama students tend to be highly suggestible.

9. Americans tend to be more easily hypnotisable than the British.

10. If your subject is an American actor who is not known for critical thinking, you’re golden.


A hypnotist at work with a fob watch. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

Photo: Getty Images
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Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.