New answers to the question, How does hypnosis work?

My current favorite blog, Jonah Lehrer’s The Frontal Cortex, recently described a series of experiments by Ibrahim Senay, Dolores Albarracin, and Kenji Noguchi that compare the effects on motivation of focused thinking (“I will”) versus questioning (“Will I?”). The study report, published in Psychological Science, is called “Motivating Goal-Directed Behavior through Introspective Self-Talk:  The Role of the Interrogative Form of Simple Future Tense.” The authors’ conclusion was that using questioning to reflect on our intentions before approaching a task helps develop (or strengthen) intrinsic motivation.

The post included a link to the report itself (another reason to love his blog), so I was able to read about the study in more detail.  I read it to answer my own questions about whether their conclusion that “engaging in interrogative as opposed to declarative talk (e.g., Will I vs. I will) may lead to increased intrinsic motivation” is justified.

They are definitely onto something.

It makes sense, doesn’t it, that asking a question—an open-ended way of approaching an idea—would elicit more responses than a statement. Still, I would not have been able to predict that asking that particular question would help people get in touch with their intrinsic motivation.

By the way, Daniel Pink in Drive discusses the importance of intrinsic motivation in the world of business, and makes a horrifyingly great case that we typically do a darn good job of helping children ignore their own innate abilities and interests by encouraging external motivators rather than their intrinsic motivation. For example, their reward for reading a book is a sticker, not the opportunity to read another book.

I’d love to see follow-up work on how this method of eliciting the subjects’ awareness of intrinsic motivation plays out in their actions and choices after the study.  How often does the motivation translate to action?  And I’d love to see what brain imaging technology could tell us about what happens in the brain during the subjects’ “I Will” and  “Will I?” experiences.

The study report referred to previous research “showing that performing a behavior leads to applying the same behavior in a subsequent context.” This has a direct connection to what happens in a typical hypnosis session. A recent Science News article, “The Mesmerized Mind,” described several studies focusing on hypnosis.  They clearly show that when subjects visualize an activity under hypnosis, the brain areas that light up are the same brain areas that that light up when they are actually performing the activity—those areas don’t light up when they simply visualize the activity. Under hypnosis, visualizing oneself performing a desired behavior—exercise, for example—provides familiarity with the behavior that is in some ways similar to familiarity based on prior experience.

Anyone familiar with hypnosis knows of Milton Erickson, the influential 20th century medical doctor and hypnotherapist who primarily used indirect hypnotic suggestions—in other words, questions—to help his patients.  I think the “I Will, Will I?” study sheds some light on why Erickson’s method is so very successful.  And while Erickson is known for indirect suggestions, he also used direct suggestions, when he thought his patients would respond to them better. Perhaps direct suggestions can work better than indirect suggestions for people who are already fully in touch with their motivation.

We know hypnosis works—we just don’t know exactly how it works. Some people dismiss hypnosis as a placebo, which always strikes me as odd.  Placebos work, much better than most treatments, so why the scorn? I think these studies are beginning to tell us some of the ways hypnosis works, which can only help us use it more effectively, to help more people.

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