I AM about to have my left leg paralysed, my arm taken over by an alien force and, quite possibly, be made blind. I confess I’m a bit nervous. But also, strangely, I hope it all works.
These insults to my body will not be inflicted with a scalpel, but instead induced using hypnosis. The effects, if they occur, will only be temporary, my hypnotist, David Oakley, reassures me.
It’s all being done in the interest of science. Oakley is an emeritus professor at University College London. He is one of a handful of researchers who hope that by taking hypnosis seriously, they will help to dispel its quackery-tainted image (see “What is hypnosis?”). “I think hypnosis is underaccepted and undervalued,” says psychologist Irving Kirsch at the University of Hull, UK. “Partly because of lurid tales published in books and movies, which lead to views of hypnosis as a strange and unbelievable state. Still many people scoff.”
Aside from improving the reputation of hypnosis, Oakley also aims to better understand some of the strangest neurological conditions out there. The idea is to use hypnosis to induce symptoms in otherwise healthy people. This creates “virtual patients” with symptoms that can literally be switched on and off with a snap of the fingers, making it easier to study the abnormal brain activity that causes them. “It’s like reverse engineering,” says Peter Halligan, a neuropsychologist at Cardiff University, UK, who works with Oakley. “It’s only when things break down that you appreciate the mechanism involved.”
They create virtual patients with symptoms that can be switched on and off with a snap of the fingers
For their experiments, Halligan and Oakley have focused on a range of rare and bizarre conditions. They include hysterical blindness (the person cannot see but has no perceptible damage to their eyes or brain), hysterical paralysis (an inability to move a part of the body despite having no physical injury – the same limb may move while the person is asleep), prosopagnosia (an inability to recognise faces despite having good sight), alien limb syndrome (the feeling that an arm or leg is acting of its own accord), visual neglect (total lack of awareness of half of the visual field) and Capgras syndrome (a delusional belief that a loved one has been replaced by an imposter).
These are all conditions that the researchers believe can be recreated in healthy people using hypnosis. …