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.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt