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: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.