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.

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The Taliban's succession crisis will not diminish its resilience

Haibatullah Akhunzada's appointment as leader of the Taliban may put stress on the movement, but is unlikely to dampen its insurgency. 

After 19 years under the guidance of the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar, the group has now faced two succession crises in under a year. But although Haibatullah Akhunzada’s appointment as leader of the Taliban will likely put stress on the movement, it shows few signals of diminishing its renewed insurgency.

The news pretty much ends speculation about former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s death in a US airstrike in Pakistan’s south-western Baluchistan province, which was criticised by Islamabad as a violation of its sovereignty.

The Taliban would have prepared extensively for this eventuality. The fast appointment, following days of intense council, appears to be a conspicuous act of decisiveness. It stands in contrast to the two-year delay the movement faced in announcing the death of the Mullah Omar. It will be not be lost on the Taliban that it was subterfuge around the death of Mullah Omar that caused the fracture within the movement which in turn led to the establishment of an ISIS presence in the country.

The appointment is a victory for the Taliban old guard. As former head of the Taliban's judiciary and Mullah Mansour’s deputy, in many ways, Haibatullah is a natural successor. Haibatullah, described by Afghanistan expert Sami Yousafzai as a “stone age Mullah,” demonstrates the Taliban’s inherent tendency to resort to tradition rather than innovation during times of internal crisis.

The decision taken by the Taliban to have an elder statesman of the group at the helm highlights the increasing marginalisation of the Haqqani network, a powerful subset within the Taliban that has been waging an offensive against the government and coalition forces in northwest Pakistan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network who already has a bounty of 5 million dollars on his head, was touted in some Taliban circles as a potential successor, however the decision to overlook him is a conservative move from the Taliban. 

The Taliban’s leadership of the jihad against the Afghan government is hinged on their claims to religious legitimacy, something the group will hope to affirm through the Haibatullah’s jurisprudential credentials. This assertion of authority has particular significance given the rise of ISIS elements in the country. The last two Taliban chiefs have both declared themselves to be amir ul-momineen or ‘leader of the faithful,’ providing a challenge to the parallel claims of ISIS’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Any suggestions that Mansour’s death will lead to the unravelling of the Taliban are premature. The military targeting of prominent jihadi leaders within group structures has been seen in operations against the leadership of ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other groups.

In recent research for the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, we found that it is often less prominent jihadis that play an integral role in keeping the movement alive. Targeted killings do create a void, but this often comes at the expense of addressing the wider support base and ideological draw of militant outfits. This is particularly relevant with a relatively decentralised movement like the Taliban.

Such operations can spur activity. If the example of the Taliban’s previous leadership succession is to be heeded, we might expect renewed attacks across Afghanistan, beyond the group’s strongholds near the eastern border with Pakistan. The brief capture of Kunduz, Afghanistan's fifth-largest city, at the end of September 2015, was a show of strength to answer the numerous internal critics of Mullah Mansour’s new leadership of the movement.

In a news cycle dominated by reports of ISIS, and to a diminishing extent al-Qaeda, atrocities, it is important to comprehend the renewed brutality of the Afghan insurgency.  Data from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics Global Extremism Monitor found a seventeen per cent rise in fatalities from March to April, marking the start of the Taliban’s spring fighting season. A suicide attack in central Kabul on the headquarters of an elite military unit that killed 64 people was the single most deadly act of terror around the world in the month of April, and the group’s bloodiest attack in the Afghan capital for years. Reports this morning of a suicide attack on a bus killing 10 staff from an appeal court west of Kabul, suggests that the violence shows no sign of diminishing under the new leadership.

All these developments come during a period of renewed impetus behind international peace talks. Last week representatives from Pakistan were joined by delegates from Afghanistan, the United States, and China in an attempt to restart the stalled negotiation process with the Taliban.

Haibatullah Akhunzada’s early leadership moves will be watched closely by these countries, as well as dissonant voices within the movement, to ascertain what the Taliban does next, in a period of unprecedented challenge for the infamously resilient movement. 

Milo Comerford is a South and Central Asia Analyst for the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics