Interview with Professor Zoltan Dienes – leading researcher on hypnosis

University of Sussex professor, Zoltan Dienes talks cold control theory and phenomenological control with Psychology MRes student, Kev Sheldrake.

I first heard of Zoltan Dienes (pronounced ‘dee-en-es’, or more correctly, ‘dee-en-esh’) when I devoured the theory section of the Oxford Handbook of Hypnosis. His chapter with Amanda Barnier described ‘cold control theory’ – an integrative theory of how suggestions were taken. Unlike the neoneodissociation theories (dissociated control, for example) it didn’t invent parts of the brain or mind to explain what was going on. And unlike Nicholas Spanos’s role-play or Graham Wagstaff’s ‘expectation, strategy and compliance’ theories, it took a strong, solid stab at accounting for the feelings of automaticity and involuntariness. As far as I was aware, only Irving Kirsch’s response set theory had really attempted this in the socio-cognitive (or cognitive-behaviour) domain, so it was a big deal.

Fast forward to the UK Hypnosis Convention in 2019 and Zoltan and I were speaking on the same stage on the same day – Zoltan missed my talk but I’ve since forced him to watch a recording of it on pain of death. We got chatting afterwards and I expressed how influential his work had been on my thinking about hypnosis, and in the development of the (theoretical but never-formally-tested) Automatic Imagination Model, that Anthony Jacquin and I put together while at Head Hacking (circa 2010).

Since then, and since starting this wonderful blog with my amazing wife, Amy, I’ve been reading a lot of vintage and classic academic texts on the topic, and decided to ask Zoltan whether there was any way he would supervise me studying for a part-time PhD. He agreed on the proviso that I studied first for a Master of Research degree in psychological methods, so that’s where I am right now – one term into a Master’s degree, being supervised by my hypno-hero, Zoltan Dienes! When it came to choosing people to interview for this blog, Zoltan was an obvious first candidate.

Professor Zoltan Dienes chatting to Kev via Zoom.

When asking Zoltan about how he became interested in hypnosis, it was surprising to discover that, really, hypnosis chose him:

“It was sort of a coincidence, really. My first degree was natural sciences, and I specialised in psychology, and decided I wanted to be an academic while I was doing my first degree. I was born in Australia, and grew up there until I was 11. And I thought, it would be nice to go back to ‘the fatherland’ and do a Master’s there before going on to do a PhD. And so I applied to Australian universities. At that time, I didn’t think about hypnosis, but I thought about maybe the application of cognitive psychology to clinical issues. One of the places I applied was Macquarie [Sydney], and they took my application to be for what they called an MA, which is actually like an MPhil, or a mini PhD in two years.

“So the crucial issue then was having a supervisor retain me as you would with a PhD. Kevin McConkey was interested in the application of cognitive psychology in hypnosis. They accepted me and I arrived at Macquarie, and Kevin gave me the review of hypnosis that had just been written by John Kihlstrom (this was in 1985). And he said, ‘If you want me to be your supervisor, it has to be on hypnosis, so read this review, and see what you think.’ Anyway, I read Kihlstrom’s review and thought, ‘Well, this sounds quite interesting to me really.’”

I’ve heard many a lay-hypnotist claim that academics aren’t very good at hypnosis and that they rarely use it, preferring instead to theorise, but not Zoltan: “So then I sort of hypnotised 100 people in the name of science and wrote that up as a Master’s thesis.” Zoltan explained that Kevin McConkey had a very active lab (one of the ‘big five’ in the world at the time; the other four being in the USA), and that they would screen hundreds of new psychology undergraduate students entering the university each year, for their response to hypnosis. He told me that back then, each UK university might have had between 30 and 40 new psychology undergraduates each year, making hypnosis research implausible, but that now Sussex (where Zoltan is a professor of experimental psychology) has an intake of over 500 each year, and that the majority of them are screened. The point being that if you want to run experiments, it is very helpful to have a large, pre-tested set of students who are prepared to take part in experiments, where you already know how good or bad they are at taking suggestions before you start.

When I asked him if that made Sussex the leading university in the UK for hypnosis research, he was unequivocal: “So part of first-year psychology requirements is a phenomenological control screening now, and we’ve been screening hundreds of people a year for hypnotisability since about 2006. I don’t know of any other place in the UK that has a regular year-on-year screening. Every year we’ll get out several papers on hypnosis. I can’t think of anywhere else [in the UK]; Oakley did have a big operation at UCL, but he’s now retired.”

Especially as Zoltan hadn’t specifically chosen to research hypnosis, I really wanted to know what he thought it was when he started out, and what he thinks it is now. He told me that initially he had no idea what was going on, and that non-hypnosis academics often fall into a similar camp:

“It’s interesting when you talk to scientists who don’t do hypnosis, about hypnosis, because they have absorbed the cultural stereotypes, and they haven’t really processed it in terms of their scientific understanding of the world yet, so they can believe all these myths about hypnosis. At the same time, they’re trying to be a scientist, so they try and square all that information. And I guess I was like that, but I found it intriguing. So I didn’t have any set ideas and I found all the ideas out there a bit baffling in a sense.”

Zoltan told me that Ernest Hilgard’s theory of parallel streams of consciousness made little sense to him when it came to pain control, because: “Why would anyone want hypnotic analgesia, if there’s this other conscious stream in intense pain?”. But on the other side of the debate, he didn’t really think that role enactment (Nicholas Spanos, Theodore Sarbin, William Coe, etc) properly explained hypnotic phenomena, nor was even saying anything fundamentally different to Hilgard.

Zoltan appeared as the hypnosis expert on The Assassin, one of Derren Brown: The Experiments TV shows broadcast on Channel 4 in 2011.

Zoltan’s insight, and the way he currently thinks about hypnosis, was that both sides of the debate were simply using different metaphors for the same thing. On the one side, Hilgard was describing parts of the mind in ways that Zoltan understood to be metaphors – even if Hilgard himself believed them as actual fact (“I don’t think Hilgard thought it was a metaphor”). On the other side, Spanos was using the metaphor of role enactment, essentially saying that the participant performs the action but somehow believes they aren’t the cause of it.

“I think I got to the bottom of that confusion in my mind when I came up with cold control theory, because there was a sense in which both Spanos and Hilgard were saying the same thing, which is what I put my finger on, in terms of cold control. And that sort of, I think, was partly a way of resolving my sense of confusion about what are they really arguing about? Well, part of that was because actually they had quite a lot in common, even though they sounded so very different.”

I suggested to Zoltan (pun intended) that what I found interesting and unique to cold control theory was that it presented testable hypotheses and, if the theory stood up, it would result in things you could actually change in order to improve response to suggestion, which other theories typically did not. Zoltan agreed; so I had to ask him, what role did he think the hypnotic induction plays in all of this? “I think no role,” he replied. He told me that William James in the late 19th century concluded that almost anything could be an induction: “Rubbing the temples, looking into the eyes… You could write a letter, it also has that!”. The implication was that if anything could be an induction, then an induction was essentially nothing, other than just a suggestion to enter a ‘trance’.

And on that, we discussed what people meant by the word ‘trance’ and what he thought of that whole area: “The thing with special states, and the sort of approach you find is people think, ‘Oh, good, cognitive neuroscience, EEG and ERPs’, and all sorts of things. And what they seem to think is if we find anything happening at all, in this huge mass of EEG data, that it’s a sign that the state is real, which obviously doesn’t follow at all. There’s no theory there. You’re just looking at a tonne of data. But there has not been a theory of trance that makes predictions about what will happen in EEG, fMRI or anything else, or at least that could not also be equally well explained by use of imagination in accordance with demand characteristics.”

Regardless of whether there is a state (spoiler: there isn’t) different people respond to differing levels to suggestion, so where did Zoltan find himself on that scale? “One of the first things I did when I went to Kevin McConkey’s lab to start my Master’s was sit in on the Harvard screening and, unfortunately, I am a low. I can experience some of the basic motor suggestions, which I’m pleased with.

“Irving Kirsch tells me he’s a medium. Hilgard [statetist] apparently was a low. But Theodore Barber [socio-cognitive theorist, or non-state] was a high. So Hilgard thought, ‘Wow, these highs are really amazing with what they can do’; because he couldn’t do it, he thought it was something special. Whereas Barber thought: any old fool can do this.”

This perspective on the researcher’s own hypnotic (or phenomenological control) capabilities, and the subsequent way they devised theory was really interesting. The guy who pretty much couldn’t achieve any hypnotic phenomena saw those who could as special, and invented special mechanisms by which they experienced the things they did. Whereas the guy who could personally experience all the phenomena didn’t think it was special at all, and consequently felt that all minds had the capability, and that it must just be the way he was using his, that resulted in the phenomena that he experienced.

Zoltan on The Assassin.

So we got talking about hypnotic anecdotes and Zoltan revealed that he is, in fact, a secret street hypnotist!

“One anecdote through phenomenological control I often tell people relates to what you’re asking about how hypnotizable researchers are. I had a PhD student, Rebecca, doing a hypnosis session; she was a high, and at the time I was doing work with Irving on the colour experiment. I was quite interested in that the highest could do it without an induction and just be told to do it, basically. So I said to Rebecca, ‘We’re sitting in a cafe, you see that bottle in front of you, you can turn it red, if you want’. She said, ‘No I can’t do that’, and then she said ‘Oh! It’s turned red!’. So she didn’t know she had this capability to do it. Or somehow she deceived herself enough that it was surprising to her.”

This reminded me of a Head Hacking discovery of ‘permanosis’, where once we’d hypnotised someone, we could just deliver suggestions at a future time and they would be taken as if we’d re-hypnotised them. Obviously, now I know it’s all just suggestion and the induction was unnecessary, but, at the time, Anthony gave a similar suggestion with a bottle in a cafe to someone he had hypnotised once about three weeks prior. He told him his hand was stuck to the bottle and that it would rise into the air. While filming this, I reached out from behind the camera and grabbed his other hand and told him it was stuck to Anthony, and of course it was. I’d never hypnotised the guy before, but he knew I was a hypnotist. At the time we thought we’d discovered something but obviously this was well known (even James referred to it back in the 1890s!).

I asked Zoltan for his favourite hypnosis book and he nominated Lynn and Kirsch’s Essentials of Clinical Hypnosis: An Evidence-Based Approach (review coming soon!). “I like the stuff Irving Kirsch has done. I quite liked the preamble to that; I use it as a basis for my introductory lectures to hypnosis that I give to first-years.”

But when asked for a fiction reference Zoltan was far from forthcoming. No amount of celebrating The Exorcist II, The Manchurian Candidate, Fear In The Night, or Dean Koontz’s False Memory would draw him into giving a literary reference that he actually liked. “I probably get annoyed by the way hypnosis is portrayed in literature generally. So no I can’t think of a favourite hypnosis film.” (Sad face.)

I asked Zoltan what he thought about the effect that Derren Brown has had on people’s beliefs about hypnosis and he revealed that he had actually appeared on one of his shows – The Assassin – as the hypnosis expert!

“So he brings in a hypnosis expert, mainly me. I say, ‘That can’t be done’. He says, ‘That’s what the experts say. But what can I do?’. It was fun. And it was really interesting to see how stage hypnosis works in a TV setting. Because the responses he was getting were just phenomenal. You know, there’s a TV audience, and he says, ‘I’ll tell you to do some suggestions and I’ll select the people who are responding well’. So he’s giving these really complex suggestions, like you’ll see people naked or things that only highs should be able to experience, but the whole audience was acting them out as if they’re intensely experiencing these.”

I asked him what he thought this meant for the public’s understanding of psychology and hypnosis in particular, and he was relatively measured in his response: “To be fair to him, I picked up one of his books in the bookshop, and just skimmed it on hypnosis, and he said, ‘Don’t believe anything I say on TV’. So he openly acknowledges that, but, still, that doesn’t get through to the fanbase.”

All this talk of Derren inevitably led to a conversation about NLP: “There’s a lot of wishy-washy stuff. I mean, couldn’t you be put into trance by stroking Erickson’s dog, for example?” (As a reminder, Zoltan thinks ‘trance’ is the result of a suggestion, not a state, and he probably thinks it is quite a silly concept.) “There’s all sorts of things; ‘if you confuse a person, they’ll be at the point of sort of trance’ seems like, you know, all sorts of wishful thinking about magic.”

And similar with conversational or covert hypnosis: “What I think happens is, particularly if you want to be part of the group, you want to sort of fulfil the requirements of being in that group. And in an experiment, it’s part of the experimental team, as it were, and you feel motivated to create the effects that the experimenter wants. Because that is sort of what’s meant to happen in that context, and so you do it. You can imagine that – I mean, in religious contexts, it’s exactly the same thing: social pressure, adherence, something religious. If you’re a high, you create those experiences.”

But this means that the application of conversational or covert hypnosis is limited to these circumstances: “That means you wouldn’t be able to hypnotise the mugger to stop him mugging you” – which I think is worth knowing! (The wall outside my house is four-feet high, by the way, Derren.)

And this conversation about NLP naturally led to one about hypnotherapy. I recounted a story where Irving told a room full of hypnotherapists (at ‘change | phenomena’ in 2011) that, if they weren’t otherwise qualified to treat psychological issues without hypnosis, that they shouldn’t be treating them with hypnosis, and that maybe they should limit their offerings to helping people handle chronic pain instead. When I asked Zoltan where he stood on this issue he drew a comparison with the teaching of martial arts.

He said that in France they limit martial arts training to only those that are accepted and regulated, which meant that the introduction of mixed martial arts (MMA), where many fighting approaches are combined, was very slow to gain acceptance and therefore become available. Whereas in the UK (where Zoltan teaches martial arts), there isn’t such stringent regulation; it was easy for him and others to pivot from karate to MMA with few requirements to satisfy, resulting in a much faster uptake.

Whilst he didn’t want “charlatans who don’t know what they’re doing” charging people for therapies that don’t work, he also felt his instincts were against the idea of mandatory regulation. He didn’t think that science was yet in a position to state which therapy works well enough to regulate it and force everyone to stick with that one.

So, there we have it – possibly one of the best interviews I’m ever going to conduct. Partly, that’s because Zoltan is high-hypno-hero-priest, up there with Irving Kirsch, and few others could hope to achieve the insights that he has; and partly, because he’s my supervisor for my Master’s degree and, assuming everything goes well, for my PhD in experimental psychology, specialising in hypnosis. Or should I say ‘phenomenological control’? Either way, what a fantastic opening to our (hopeful) series of interviews with academics. I can only hope that Graham Wagstaff gives me the same level of gossip, or that Donald Gorassini is secretly a Mason.

(Side note: Amy thinks that hypnosis should be rebranded as Zoltanism, because it just sounds so mystical. I didn’t get to ask what he thought, but I imagine Zoltan is more interested in removing the mysticism than he is in adding it, hence phenomenological control. Sorry, Amy – this rebrand isn’t going to happen.)

This interview was originally featured on hypnosis website Cosmic Pancakes.

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