Michael Heap Interview

Psychology MRes student, Kev Sheldrake talks hypnosis theory, therapy and dissociation with retired clinical and forensic psychologist, Michael Heap.

I’ve been aware of Michael Heap since I first came across the book The Highly Hypnotisable Person, of which Michael is joint-editor. It was one of the first scientific books Anthony and I had indulged in at Head Hacking and I can still remember the surprise that we felt when we read the chapter by Graham Wagstaff: hypnosis was not a state! A lot of it was compliance! But I hadn’t actually met Michael when Amy and I first saw him speak at the 2019 UK Hypnosis Convention.

When I interviewed Zoltan, I asked him if he thought Michael might be up for an interview and he encouraged me to contact him. In the time between sending my email and Michael agreeing to it, he did his own research, asking Zoltan about me to make sure it was a good idea. I liked that – who doesn’t do research on anyone and everyone you come into contact with? No? Just us? Maybe it’s a hypnosis thing? Anyway, I hoped that Zoltan had said nice things about me and Michael assured me that he had done.

Michael read his first book on hypnosis when he was in his teens; it was by John Milne Bramwell and it came from his local library: “Some of the chapters are about his clinical cases and some are of the nice experiments he did; and the one that sticks in my mind: he would say to somebody, ‘In x minutes (x being in the hundreds or even thousands), you will do y (y being an action visible to others) . And of course, they did (some very accurately), but he didn’t do any control conditions. I didn’t realise this, I just took it at face value at the time. I thought, well, this hypnosis is remarkable!”

Image of Dr Michael Heap
Dr Michael Heap

This led Michael to acquiring a popular book on the subject, which included suggestions to cause participants who were amateur pianists to be able to play the piano like Chopin. Michael was impressed and wanted to be involved with it, but that wasn’t really the way things initially played out. He studied psychology at University College London and took a Master’s degree in clinical psychology. During this time he attended a couple of lectures and demonstrations related to hypnosis at the university, but it was the formation of the British Society of Experimental and Clinical Hypnosis (BSECH) that really kick-started his career with hypnosis.

“I was doing a part-time PhD at that time at Birkbeck College, where they were holding meetings to put this society together, so I went along. I only heard about it because somebody just mentioned it; so if I hadn’t heard about it, you know, history would be entirely different now.” Michael was a trainee clinical psychologist at the Royal Free Hospital at that time and the BSECH started putting on hypnosis training courses. “I thought: this is a useful technique. I mean, when you’re training, you want to be the world’s best therapist.”

Fortuitously, a senior clinical psychologist at the Royal Free led to an opportunity. “He was leaving to go up to Liverpool and he said, ‘I’ve got some patients I’m doing hypnosis with and I’d like them to continue – would you like to take them over?’. And I said, ‘Well funnily enough, I’m doing some training in this.’ So I took over one or two of his patients, and carried on doing what he was doing, which was mainly relaxation.”

When the secretary of the BSECH resigned, Michael took over. “I practically ran the show, really, to be honest. I’m not boasting or anything, it was hard work. But it was a very successful society, and a lot of psychologists in those days were interested. We put on training events and specialised events, like workshops for the professionals, and I started the annual conferences.” Early on, the society launched its own journal, the ‘British Journal of Experimental and Clinical Hypnosis’; “TX Barber said this was a really excellent contribution to the field.” Eventually, the publishers demanded a snappier title and Michael suggested ‘Contemporary Hypnosis’, which was accepted.

Michael pictured with with renowned magician and skeptic James Randi.
Michael with renowned magician and skeptic
James Randi.

I asked Michael what he thought hypnosis was back then and he told me that he “accepted the ‘party line’, that hypnosis was involved in the induction of a trance state and altered states of consciousness, that as yet we didn’t fully understand.” Originally trained by mainly medical practitioners, he elaborated that “medics prefer to talk about depth of trance, and high, medium and low trance capacity; and also claimed that it facilitated access to unconscious processes, memories, impulses, conflicts, and so on, that were not readily available in consciousness. And so yes, I accepted the traditional view. It was only the more I got into it, the more I was having my doubts; and also I was doing a lot of reading.”

Which brought us to books. Michael didn’t have a favourite, but he told me he had read Wagstaff’s Hypnosis, Compliance and Belief in those early days – “It’s dated now, but it was like a breath of fresh air. It was honest; it was logical; it explained things; and it adopted a more rational and scientific approach, testing hypotheses, disproving hypotheses and so on.” He also cited Theories of Hypnosis by Lynn and Rhue and, of course, Hilgard’s Divided Consciousness. “I mean, it’s old hat now and some of his ideas, like the hidden observer, they’re frowned upon a bit and not much investigated now. But I read his book and thought it was good. He sometimes would say he wasn’t a state theorist, but I think he really was, if you look at some of the things he said it was. But he did try to ground hypnosis in human psychology generally. And this has always been a problem with hypnosis – it’s kind of been an alternative reality that doesn’t obey the normal rules of psychology.”

In 1990 Michael launched a hypnosis training course with his colleagues at Sheffield University. “It was organised around eight weekends and the first weekend I had a chap called Brian Fellows come up and talk about theories of hypnosis. The people on our course were largely medics and dentists who had prior exposure to hypnosis, and they belonged to the old BSMDH [British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis]. And they were furious with me for having this man seemingly debunking the whole idea of hypnosis or the hypnotic trance!”, Michael chuckled, “So, from the next year onwards, I asked him to come the last weekend instead, which was more logical really.” 🙂 Soon after these courses were established, David Oakley persuaded Michael to help him establish very similar Diploma and Master’s courses at University College London.  

When it came to fiction, Michael had a subtle brag that Sophie Hannah – the writer of psychological suspense novels – had been in touch with him to ask him about hypnosis, for what became her Sunday Times top-ten bestseller, Kind of Cruel. “She wrote a novel about a woman who went for hypnosis, and Ms Hannah got in touch with me for advice to do with memory. She’d been on my website and was taking the trouble to find out how it worked.”

With regards to films, Michael recommended Compliance: “If I talk about this subject or do any teaching on hypnosis, compliance and persuasion, I always recommend this film.” He told me it was about a fictionalised version of a single case of a scam that had been carried out 70 times in America. I won’t spoil the plot by repeating what he said (look it up on IMDB) but, suffice to say, Michael was impressed. “This film is one the best I’ve seen, really remarkable. It gets the psychology absolutely spot on.”

And this brought us round to the topic that dominated the latter part of Michael’s career. “I went into forensic psychology and because of my interest in hypnosis now and again I would be asked my opinion in both civil (personal injury) and criminal cases involving hypnosis or some related procedure. I think there were four of these where a defendant was claiming that they committed the alleged offence while they were hypnotised.” Obviously the intersection of crime and hypnosis is a hot topic for this blog, especially with our interest in Estabrooks.

Martin Orne was a very influential psychiatrist and psychologist, and he was interested in compliance. One of the things he showed was that people taking part in a psychological experiment will do the most ridiculous things, even dangerous things and anti-social things, regardless of whether or not they’re hypnotised, because they’re taking part in an experiment.” So how did that fit with Michael’s forensic work?

“Where it does concern my forensic work is in the clinical setting; can you hypnotise somebody so they will accept your sexual advances? And indeed, can you hypnotise them so they will engage in sexual activity with you all the way up to the point of intercourse? Now, obviously nobody’s done a controlled experiment on this in a clinical setting, but I’ve looked at dozens of statements, and police interviews of people who have been complaining that this is what happened; when I read through them, I find them fascinating.

“They’re revealing so much about human nature, persuasion, compliance, and so on. But if you also read the accounts by (mainly) women who have been sexually, indecently assaulted, and have even engaged in sexual activity with their doctors and therapists, without hypnosis, they’re very, very similar; and indeed they’re rather similar to accounts of people who have said they were sexually abused in childhood and so on. For example, the questions that they are asking themselves at the time are: ‘What’s happening? Should this be happening? Is this okay? Is this part of the therapy? Will I be believed?’. Or, ‘Well, he’s a doctor, he knows best. I want to get well and if I complain, will he reject me?’. Well, that’s just classic transference. But hypnosis and suggestion doesn’t really inform me much in understanding the experiences these people are reporting.”

A photo of Michael Heap demonstrating dowsing at a scientific skepticism conference.
Michael demonstrates dowsing at a scientific skepticism conference.

Before the clock caused us to stop, I had chance to ask Michael what he thought about hypnotic inductions. “For the laboratory, and for stage hypnosis and demonstrations, or if you’re doing a training course for example, the induction is just a way of preparing the person and increasing expectation, to get them focused, maybe get them nicely relaxed, so that they can start to do what they’re required to do.”

But Michael explained that in hypnotherapy, the induction was significant. “Your induction is part of your therapy, so think about what is a good induction for your patient and for their problems. If it’s anxiety and stress, insomnia, something like that, then use the traditional relaxation induction, where you can talk about how you can relax your body, feel in control, and you can do this yourself and so on. You can incorporate that into your induction, so your traditional relaxation induction is fine.

“When it comes to depression, however, I don’t want to be saying you’re feeling heavier and heavier, tired, etc. So we’ve got to somehow – it’s not always possible – send the person out of the room feeling that their mood is lifted, that something positive is happening. And so you might use an alert method. You’re using imagery and you’re feeling alert, you’re walking along in the countryside, you feel that nice breeze and you feel, you know, that kind of thing. Think what inductions might make sense with other kinds of problems.”

And this randomly brought us back to trance and dissociation: “When we have people responding to hypnosis, some of them just go out; and they’re not asleep, they’re still listening. TX Barber identified a small group of people that show some amnesia as well, who had been responding and hadn’t zoned out completely. I think it’s a capacity that some people have, they zone out, they become so absorbed in something.

“Helen Crawford went along to a stage hypnosis show with some colleagues. And when she interviewed [the participants] afterwards, she found there were raised incidents of amnesia, not necessarily complete amnesia, but partial amnesia. She also incidentally tested their suggestibility, and it was only somewhat above average. It’s a myth, I think, that volunteers in stage hypnosis are what the medics called ‘deep trance subjects’ or even that they’re ‘highly suggestible’. They don’t have to be – there are other things going on as well – they don’t have to be the virtuosos at the tail-end of the spectrum of suggestibility.”

Michael went on to explain that he thought that the socio-cognitive theorists, such as Spanos, Kirsch, and Sarbin, had rejected the idea of dissociation but that actually “there’s some blockage, some dissociation, something being kept out of consciousness. And this is, I think, not unlike current theories of hypnosis, which get away from the idea of trance, but, nevertheless, posit that something is going on in the system, where you’ve got some dissociation, like cold control theory. This isn’t so different from Hilgard’s idea of ‘amnesic barriers’.”

So, there you have it, from the mouth of the man that runs one of the most informative websites about hypnosis and suggestion (other than this one, of course!), that perhaps there is more to hypnotic responses than that accounted for by pure cognition. Does that make cold control theory a dissociation theory? (Zoltan appeared to say not.) Does it make Michael partially a state theorist? Or does it simply highlight that there are still things unknown in how suggestion actually works?

Coming back to how Michael found himself entering this field, he had a little story-twist to add. Remember that he spent the latter part of his career investigating people who claimed to have been abused by their hypnotist? Well, it turned out that the clinical psychologist that gave him his first ever hypnosis patients, was eventually suspended in Liverpool for having intimate relationships with his patients! (He wasn’t the only one as this other case shows.)

And with that, and with so many loose ends still untied, and so many more questions unanswered, Michael had to go. It was a fascinating insight into a wondrous career, and I sincerely hope to meet up with him in the future to find out more.

This interview was originally featured on hypnosis website Cosmic Pancakes.

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