Sunday, April 5, 2015

Hypnosis, the Placebo Effect and Human Experimentation

It has been said that hypnosis and the placebo effect are so heavily reliant upon belief and suggestion that it would be hard to imagine how a placebo control could ever be devised for a hypnotism study. I would fundamentally agree with that. Let's consider the placebo effect and how it relates to the UFO community staple, hypnotic regression.

The American Cancer Society describes a placebo (pluh-see-bow) as "a substance or other kind of treatment that looks just like a regular treatment or medicine, but is not." It's a harmless medicine or procedure prescribed more for psychological benefit than physiological effect. It has no therapeutic value and is used as a control in testing new drugs; the drugs must demonstrate substantially better measurable results than the placebo being administered to the control group.

A primary factor of how medication makes
people feel may be their expectations
As we might envision, a great deal of speculation and rather fascinating questions surround the placebo effect. A researcher named Ted Kaptchuk made legitimate attempts to put a yardstick to some of the dynamics. While most studies focus upon the results of the drugs being tested, Kaptchuk was more interested in the placebos.

Harvard Magazine reported Kaptchuk's work was met with both praise and criticism but, take it or leave it, he raised valid questions. In some circumstances, it was difficult to discern if drugs had any particularly different subjective effects at all from placebos. Kaptchuk indicated that even when physiological benefits could be measured among patients given respiratory medication, they reported similar subjective interpretations of their physical conditions, or how they felt, as those given placebos. Observations were also made about patients desiring to be helpful to the researchers and deliver the results anticipated.

What I'm getting at here with hypnotic regression and the placebo effect is that there is virtually no difference between the two. If people believe that investigators of alleged alien abduction have the power to put them in trance states and clarify memories of encounters with extraterrestrials from years gone by, there is little way to validate or invalidate that belief. Slippery slopes.

Moreover, qualified professionals tell us that hypnosis subjects tend to assign more validity to hypnotically retrieved memories - and reject the notion the memories might be inaccurate - than other memories. They also tend to defend the accuracy of their memories more than their peers who have not used techniques designed to supposedly enhance memory. Hypnosis subjects tend to cling to belief in the retrieved memories even when the material is conclusively demonstrated to be inaccurate and false. 

The work of Ted Kaptchuk further showed us the potential value of a good bedside manner. Patients given positive attention ("I’m so glad to meet you"; "I know how difficult this is for you"; "This treatment has excellent results") experienced, or perceived, significant results. Suffice it to say I would fully expect to find that dynamic prevalent among relationships between clients and their hypnotists who present themselves as friendly, charming and empathetic of the trials and tribulations of alien abduction.

Injections reportedly induce stronger
placebo effects than achieved via pills
On a related note, studies are suggesting – and the American Cancer Society indicates – that different means of delivering the placebo come with effects of varying value. An injection works better than a pill, for instance, and a big pill is more effective than a smaller pill.

A 2009 document released by the Department of Defense reported detainees at sites such as Guantanamo Bay were interrogated while drugged. In at least one circumstance, the DoD revealed, a detainee was the subject of a "deliberate ruse" in which interrogators injected him with what he was led to believe was "truth serum." The report also included reference to a 2002 meeting attended by Defense Intelligence Agency interrogation personnel and mental health specialists in which it was noted, "Truth serum; even though it may not actually work, it does have a placebo effect." A 2010 white paper subsequently published by the Physicians for Human Rights called for further investigation and suggested human experimentation was taking place.

I will be presenting more on these topics and several related areas of interest in an upcoming book. It is on track for completion and release in a few months.


  1. Back when I was a pup, I was frequently hypnotized by my then husband and several of his peers while he was working on a doctorate in clinical psych. I was also hypnotized by some therapy professionals who were mentoring the group in hypnosis for use in psychotherapy. I was a demonstration or practice subject in most sessions.

    It was a fascinating experience, but I came away from it aware that even hypnotized someone can't be led to believe something is true if they aren't amenable to accepting it as such (e.g. I was okay with my arm being a helium balloon so it floated uncontrollably over my head -- no big deal), and that they can't be be made to say or do anything to which they have strong, deep seated objections (I couldn't be convinced to strike another person).

    For me, the experience of being hypnotized wasn't profoundly affecting and didn't bring up any buried memories or new insights into the past

    Because of my experience, I've never accepted that abduction researchers have somehow been able to make their subjects believe they were, indeed, abducted by aliens Rather, It seems to me subjects already believe strongly or suspect they are abduction victims before they ever visit a researcher. The researchers then merely provide reinforcement and encouragement during sessions for subjects' confabulations based on their preexisting beliefs.

    After toying with hypnosis awhile, my then husband decided that it wasn't a very effective tool for psychotherapy and abandoned it. He never used it in his subsequent practice.

  2. I can see why the Physicians for Human Rights thought that human experimentation was taking place. How awful to experiment on prisoners of war in this day and age.

  3. Hypnosis has a place even now as it was used by Dr. Josef Breuer to treat patients with hysteria to some successes. However because not all subjects were able to undergo it (some to unstable, disturbed, etc.) it was later abandoned by Freud in favor of free association. So you see it can be used for mental health just not if you're properly familiar with how.