More than a carnival attraction, the act of hypnosis continues to gain respect in the scientific community for its potential benefits, without many real risks. But not everyone can get hypnotized. Whether you’re able to fall into a trance and repeat phrases, perform actions, or change a habit may be up to genetics. In their review of recent hypnosis studies, researchers from the University of London and the State University of New York conclude that it all comes down to what’s known “hypnotic suggestibility.” Some people are very responsive to hypnosis, others are not, and most fall somewhere in between. It’s good to know which camp you fall in, but there’s no use trying to change it.
A 2014 study out of Austria found susceptibility to hypnosis could be the result of a unique combination. First, you’ve got to carry a certain gene variant, the COMT Met allele. But that in itself wasn’t enough: of those who had the gene variant in question, which the researchers say is “linked to the capability or proneness to dissociate from reality,” people who also had a good attention span were more likely to be able to get hypnotized. This discovery goes beyond just hypnosis, however. The researchers wrote that this result suggests “investigating the effects of a gene in the context of relevant psychological traits may further elucidate gene-brain-behavior relationships”—in other words, if we study more genes and the ways they affect personality, we might learn more about impact of genes on our brains and our behavior.
Although most of us are moderately receptive to hypnosis, according to the review in The Conversation, the bulk of research available investigates the only 10 to 15 percent of people who are very susceptible to hypnosis.
Is legitimate hypnosis similar to what you’ve seen on stage or on TV? According to the authors of The Conversation review, the real thing begins with an induction, which is often a direction to focus your mind on one specific thing. The scientists explain, “The purpose of the induction is to induce a mental state in which participants are focused on instructions from the experimenter or therapist, and are not distracted by everyday concerns.”
After the participant’s mind is freed, he or she will be steered toward the stated goal of the session, whether it’s entertainment- or health-focused. And the way instructions are posed matters, too. A hypnosis literature review in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews notes, “suggestions are verbal communications for involuntary responses,” rather than instructions that the participant could choose to ignore. The phrase, “your hand will raise” would elicit a better response under hypnosis than “raise your hand,” in the example cited, because it seems like the only possible response is to comply.
Indeed, some medical conditions may benefit from hypnosis, though again, it likely depends on the susceptibility of each person. A 2017 clinician’s guide to the latest in hypnosis describes some of the conditions most often treated with hypnosis, from depression and anxiety to chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome, to Parkinson’s disease and even addiction.