Why on earth did I do that?

A thrill-seeking personality and a variable heart rate affects judgement during stage hypnosis. The paradox of stage hypnosis is that the hypnosis is genuine – but what other factors are coming into play?

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The miracle of hypnosis! People running around the stage, behaving in ways they would never have thought possible! And afterwards, the inevitable question – why on earth did I do that?

We already know that hypnosis is in no way any kind of ‘trance’ and any stage hypnotist who says it is, is not only guilty of misrepresentation, but also deluding themselves (and some of them really are, believe me!)

Yes the hypnosis is real; yes the people who take part are genuinely hypnotised, and yes the actual induction process of hypnosis is a major contributing factor to the overall phenomenon. But hypnosis is only an effect or consequence of the mental gymnastics that lead to the extreme focus of attention that constitutes the hypnotic state. One must also take into account the personality of each participant contributes (not to mention the consumption of alcohol can have on a volunteer’s level of bravado.)

Some observers, as well as some clinicians have commented that people who take part (or enjoy taking part) in hypnosis shows are extroverts. But that explanation is dismissive and does not account for the large percentage of people who take part whose behaviour would normally be described as introverted. But introversion and extroversion can be irrelevant in stage hypnosis because subject’s behaviour is governed more by how others in the group behave rather than their response the instructions given them by the hypnotist. Hence the influence of social compliance, something discussed at length in previous articles.

The subject’s ability to enter into the world of imagination demanded by the circumstances of the unusual social situation that is stage hypnosis is the most important factor, but this isn’t going to happen unless the subject is willing to take that first step and volunteer.

In my experience, it is obvious that a sizeable proportion, possibly even a majority of those who get up on the stage are also natural risk-takers. A natural aptitude for risk-taking is a major influence on an individual’s decision to volunteer for stage hypnosis and there is now growing evidence that people who act impulsively and are prone to thrill seeking may have less grey matter in their brain than the rest of us.

Volunteers in stage hypnosis shows are mainly younger people, so a recent study of the brains of more 1,200 young adults is of particular interest. The study found areas of the cortex involved in decision-making and self-control were thinner in ‘sensation-seekers.’

The researchers, led by Professor Avram Holmes of Yale University and working closely with researchers from Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital, used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of the volunteers. The researchers found that many of them were also predisposed to substance abuse. However, it is the thinner brain that makes an individual more likely to use drugs rather than drug abuse causing a thinner brain. These findings were reported in the Journal of Neuroscience.

After measuring the size of the relevant areas of each participant’s brain the teams compared them to the results of a questionnaire on their behaviour. Volunteers were asked about their need for ‘novel and intense’ experiences, their willingness to take risks, and whether they made rapid and impetuous decisions. Participants were also asked about their use of alcohol, tobacco, energy drinks and caffeine.

People who appeared to seek high levels of stimulation or excitement had a reduced thickness in areas of the brain involved in decision-making and self-control. [Two specific regions, the anterior cingulate and middle frontal gyrus, showed the biggest differences.]

This relationship was just as strong in people who did not use drugs as in those who did, showing that it is brain structure that affects behaviour and not the other way round. Other research has shown that drug use can affect brain anatomy, but it is genetics that governs thrill-seeking and impulsive behaviour.

Having had the opportunity to observe in excess of 60,000 subjects at very close quarters, I can confirm that participants are often extroverts and a surprising majority arrive on stage simply because it’s a chance to experience something new. For most people, getting up on a stage in full public view is just as exciting as getting on a extreme theme park ride.

Heart rate may also be an important factor in the decision to participate in stage hypnosis shows because fluctuations in heartbeat can also affect the wisdom of one’s decision making, especially when taking into account unusual social or moderately stressful situations.

Volunteers with rapid heartbeats seem more likely to succumb to the persuasion that is stage hypnosis. I can sense and even feel subject’s heartbeats, especially during the earlier stages of the show so I’ve had plenty of opportunity to monitor this. Exactly how I do it is one of my secrets, but it’s relatively easy and does not involve any inappropriate or intimate physical contact. I can detect a pulse just by shaking hands with a potential subject, although the way I shake their hands would almost certainly cause them to raise their eyebrows under normal circumstances.

Great excitement makes people more open to suggestion, more likely to be carried along with the flow, and it’s the racing pulse or heartbeat that is a dead giveaway.

Cognitive ability, long thought to be an exclusive function of the mind, can be affected by heart rate. Fluctuations in an individual’s heartbeat can and does affect judgement –similar to the way falling in love or one too many drinks can affect judgement. In fact it appears that the thinking process and heart rate work hand in hand to affect reasoning.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada and at the Australian Catholic University have identified some of the particular conditions where this variability impacts judgment. The results of their study are published in the specialist journal Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience and follows on from earlier research on the cognitive processes of judgement.

Remember, this does not necessarily mean that people with more variable heart rates are wiser than their fellows because some people often use their cognitive skills to make unwise decisions. This research is concerned exclusively with how variable heartbeat affects wise decision-making.

So we are left with the inescapable conclusion that it’s the thrill seekers and the people with the desire for excitement that are the ones we are looking for when they traipse up onto the stage at the start of yet another night of hypnotic hilarity. And it bears out what I’ve always believed to be the truth – people who are easily excited make the best subjects, no matter how calm or laid back they appear to their friends.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.