Pro athletes, Hollywood stars, and fitness buffs everywhere have started turning back to history’s oldest brain hack—hypnosis—for some good old-fashioned motivation. But can a temporary trancelike state really change our habits?
By most measures I’m a relatively fit guy. I lift, I ride my bike, I try to get a yoga class in every now and then. But lately my motivation has begun to flag. Living in New York can do that to you. Work happens, life happens, you maybe don’t achieve the gains you were hoping for, and suddenly the very thought of going to the gym becomes a grim existential wrestling match.
I know several people who relied on hypnosis techniques to quit smoking. And many athletes have turned to it—Tiger Woods, for one, as well as Troy Aikman—in order to improve their game. But when I heard that Olivia Munn, the stunner from Magic Mike and HBO’s The Newsroom and a TRX fanatic, recently told Good Housekeeping that hypnosis was the sole reason she hit the gym, I was sold.
Back in the Barcalounger, Janelli takes me through two swings around the hypnotic bend. The first is a longer induction exercise, one meant to establish a behavioral shift through relaxation and positive reinforcement—essentially, to couple a relaxed and happy state with the act of going to the gym. To do this, she speaks words of positive affirmation, sort of a New Agey cheer-squad routine. “Push through all your anxiety. What you’re afraid of is totally achievable. You will be successful. You look forward to the fitness you will get from working out.”
What this is meant to do is replace those thick waves of existential dread with eagerness and hopeful anticipation. Or, if you’re trying to quit smoking, it’s the reverse—replacing the positive emotion, the addiction, with some existential dread. All told, it’s a remarkably simple process. Isolate the issue, focus on relaxation, attach positive or negative feelings to the issue, and then you’re out.
The second induction is merely an abbreviated version of the first, one meant to help solidify the behavioral shift. Since I’m already in a relaxed state, Janelli simply instructs me to close my eyes again and focus on any remaining tension in my body. She tells me to melt back into the chair. Then, it’s a few more positive words on going to the gym. “You want to be healthy, you look forward to the shape your body will be when you exercise.” All in all it’s about 30 minutes of relaxation, visualization, and positive reinforcement. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon. Of course, the question afterward is, has my brain been hacked? Am I now a fitness-seeking machine? Honestly, I have no idea. Other than feeling a bit looser than usual, I don’t feel any different. It’s time to pack my gym bag.
Hypnosis as a medically sanctioned form of therapeutic practice has been around for just a little more than half a century. It was in 1958 that the American Medical Association officially recognized it as a legitimate treatment method and, though it isn’t widely taught, recommended that hypnosis training be included in the curriculum of all medical schools. As a phenomenon, however, hypnosis is considerably older.
“It’s the oldest Western conception of psychotherapy,” says David Spiegel, the associate chair of psychiatry at Stanford University and one of the leading experts on hypnosis. The form we know today dates back to the late 18th century, when a German-born physician named Franz Anton Mesmer first introduced the idea of “mesmerizing” clients with dim light and ethereal music.
But as psychotherapy evolved throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, hypnosis slowly shed its association with spiritualism and the occult and eventually became a clinical tool in the arsenal of such psychiatric luminaries as Sigmund Freud and Pierre Janet. It wasn’t until the emergence, however, of the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis in 1949, and then the AMA’s sanctioning of it nine years later, that hypnosis gained wider clinical acceptance.
Today, though the scientific base for hypnosis is stronger than it ever has been, much of its rise in popularity comes from its association with mindfulness, a vague term meant to describe anything that focuses your attention on the present, a fad currently in vogue among celebrities, especially those pedaling lifestyle brands like Gwyneth Paltrow. At least that’s Spiegel’s theory for the resurgence, anyway.
“I don’t mean to say that mindfulness is exactly the same thing,” he says. “But the idea that shifting mental states can change the way mind and body interact is consistent with the growth in mindfulness, as well as the increase in use of hypnosis.” Of course, while much of that mindfulness is centered on meditation—which is designed to, as Janelli describes it, “push out” or clear your mind of mental clutter—hypnosis is designed to “bring in” or process information in a way that organizes and positively utilizes that clutter.
Advances in neuroscience have also helped legitimize the practice. “We’re using techniques, like functional MRI, that make a huge difference in our ability to put people in different states and see what’s happening in their brain,” says Spiegel. However, as Peter Halligan, Ph.D., and David Oakley, Ph.D., two U.K.-based neuroscientists, write in Hypnosis and Cognitive Neuroscience: Bridging the Gap, “From a cognitive neuroscience perspective, relatively little is known about the underlying processes involved in the hypnotic state itself.” What we do know, Spiegel explains, is that it involves a heightened degree of focus brought about when two parts of your brain—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (the part you use when conducting a task) and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (the part that helps you decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore)—are working together. In other words, look at a person’s brain on an fMRI during hypnosis and those two regions will be lit up like Times Square.
In this state your brain becomes more, for lack of a better word, malleable, and you become more open to suggestion. The most obvious example of this can be seen in hypnotism stage shows—even the kind you might find at a high school event, at which the quarterback ends up twirling like a ballerina. Despite his personal objections to such displays, Spiegel says, the hypnotism is real.
The trick, he explains, is in finding people in the audience who are highly hypnotizable. During any stage show, you’ll see the hypnotist bring up 20 or so audience members. The hypnotist will then whittle the number down to one or two by performing quick induction routines, essentially a sped-up version of Janelli’s relaxation techniques, then look for things like eyes rolling up into heads or muscle catalepsy, an occurrence in which the muscles, through the power of suggestion, become rigid. Janelli calls these people somnambulists, which essentially means sleepwalkers. Though only about 15% of the population is thought to be so highly hypnotizable—as in, fodder for a stage show—everyone is, to some degree, hypnotizable, says Richard Barker, who largely uses his own stage act as a marketing tool for his clinical practice. You can’t be made to cluck like a chicken or twirl like a ballerina, but you will achieve a heightened state of focus. “If you want to work with me and be receptive, then you can and will be hypnotized,” he says. “The only real block for hypnosis, the critical thing that will break it, is a lack of concentration.”
Part of what makes everyone hypnotizable to at least some degree is also what inspires dissension among clinicians and researchers: differing opinions on what, exactly, the hypnotic state is. Typically, hypnosis is defined as a trance state brought about by an induction procedure—that is, the method by which a person is brought into the trance, like watching a dangling watch (though that’s not actually used anymore). Today, induction is most often a script used to speak someone into a hypnotic state—usually a series of breathing exercises done while focusing on a mental image.
But more and more, researchers are defining hypnosis as a subject’s heightened susceptibility to suggestion irrespective of whether an induction procedure was used. Elvira Lang, M.D., a former associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School and the CEO of Comfort Talk, a company that uses guidance in self-hypnotic relaxation to aid in patient recovery, says that the hypnotic state can occur in all manner of situations, even by simply visiting the doctor’s office.
Think about the last time you went to the doctor for something worrying you. Chances are you were especially attentive when the doctor told you what it was and how to treat it. In that moment, you were highly suggestible. Your doctor could have told you to hop on one foot for 10 minutes every day for a week and you’d likely have done it. “Health-care professionals deal with very stressed people every day,” says Lang, “and because of that stress, these people are already in a hypnotic state”—a spontaneous trance with an intense level of focus and a high degree of suggestibility because they really want to be cured. It’s the same thing athletes call being in “the zone,” a state of intense focus and absorption during which hours can go by unnoticed and even discomfort isn’t felt. “That experience of intense absorption has a lot in common with hypnosis,” says Spiegel.
The power in this is that our heightened suggestibility can make us perceive something as either better or worse than it actually is. Lang points out that medical professionals often unwittingly increase a patient’s pain by simply suggesting that a procedure will hurt. When we’re in that “zone,” our brains can change our perception of an event based purely on suggestion.
Not that we can be persuaded to do just anything, Barker explains: The brain does have a mechanism called the “critical factor,” which protects us from doing something that could cause harm or that goes against our moral beliefs. “If all of a sudden I hypnotize you and tell you to go rob a bank, if that’s not something you’d typically do or agree with, you just won’t do it,” he says.
So how does all of this get you to do something like go to the gym? For some people, the reality is that one trip to the hypnotist is enough to change their behavior forever. One area where Spiegel sees a lot of success is in dealing with anxiety. “Half the people I see for one session for something like an airplane phobia are either improved or cured.” So if your aversion to working out is the result of anxiety—fearing the discomfort of it, or even fearing the gym itself, with all its attendant mirrors and judging stares—it’s entirely possible that one session could fix the problem. Or one session followed up by periodic rounds of self-hypnosis.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that for the process to succeed, there has to be a mental investment on the part of the patient. After all, it’s not the hypnotist who changes your behavior. He or she only guides you toward a mental state in which you want to change that behavior. That’s why for many patients, following up with self-hypnosis—exercises that involve deep breathing coupled with a focus on the benefits of the behavioral change—is key.
Janelli also suggests framing everything in a positive light. “Avoid what I call ‘negative self-talk,’ ” she says. “Beating yourself up over what you’re failing to achieve.” Lang fully agrees that language is essential when it comes to altering perception and behavior. “A lot of it is just changing the wording and the expectation,” she says. For my session, Janelli has me avoid platitudes like “No pain, no gain” since they allow for negativity—i.e., pain. Instead, I’m told to focus purely on the gain—which is surprisingly effective, at least in the moment. During the session I really do feel the anxiety drift away and in its place a sense of world-conquering optimism.
It’s now a month since I went through my hypnosis session. And while I haven’t achieved a Hugh Jackman level of fitness, I have noticed a measurable difference in my approach to working out. Not only am I getting to the weight room more often, but I’m also feeling a greater sense of calm, both before going to the gym as well as during my workout. And while I do more often feel the urge to actually get on my bike and ride there, it’s not an overpowering one. It feels like an established habit, similar to brushing my teeth. It’s just something I do because it’ll feel weird if I don’t. Which is why hypnosis is probably best viewed as a tool to help effectuate change rather than some miracle cure that will forcefully impose it. As Spiegel describes it, “Hypnosis is all about learning how to better manage your mind and your body.” Of course, staying the course at the gym is all about forming good habits and keeping a positive outlook—and anything that can help establish those habits, I would argue, is worth a shot.
One recommendation if you’re thinking of trying hypnosis: Don’t let up on the homework. Because, while I have no idea how long the feel-good feelings will last, I’ve found that returning to the exercise about once a week clears my mind and firmly re-establishes that positive connection.
Something I can guarantee, though: Either way, you won’t end up clucking like a chicken. Unless, of course, that’s what you’re going for.