There are a lot of assumptions about psychedelics and hypnosis. Probably the biggest is still stigma — hallucinating is for hippies, and hypnosis is a staged show. But is it true?
It's not hard to find information about the potential of psychedelics these days. And while many still cry hypnosis "isn't real," research shows hypnosis is as "real" as psychedelics.
In fact, brain scans show an overlap between psychedelics and hypnosis. This discovery has led to speculation synergy could be found between the two.
The idea of combining these altered states isn't new. Aldus Huxley wrote about it while intelligence agencies like the CIA conducted experiments.
Other, less disturbing, therapeutic research was completed in the 60s. And now, interest in how hypnosis relates to psychedelics is popping up in modern research.
How Does Hypnosis Work?
The cliche is hypnotists getting folks to pretend to be a chicken on stage. But that's not all that is possible with hypnosis. For example, hypnosis for health is ancient, first recorded over a thousand years ago and could be much older.
What does hypnosis do to a person? The "hypnotic trance" a hypnotist relaxes a person into might look like people are drifting off, but they are entering a state of heightened awareness. This state of "hyper-awareness" is more like a meditative state that allows for increased imagination and "suggestibility."
Hypnosis and Suggestibility
Suggestibility is how accepting of another person's suggestions someone is. Some people are highly suggestible, and hypnosis works great on them. Others have low suggestibility and can't be hypnotized at all.
Hypnosis can be potent for highly suggestible people; for example, a BBC television special featured mentalist Darren Brown hypnotizing someone into assassinating Stephen Fry.
Turning someone into an assassin against their will was one of the goals of the CIA's MK-Ultra brainwashing experiments. If this is possible is still debated, and if the CIA knows the answer, they aren't sharing it.
Can Hypnosis Heal People?
Whatever you believe, it's well established that hypnosis has applications other than stage shows and mind control.
Army doctors used hypnosis to treat trauma caused by World Wars 1 and 2. There is even "hypnosurgery," — where patients have no anesthetic and are given surgery while fully awake.
The whole brainwashing narrative comes from the idea that hypnosis can "implant" suggestions in our minds. This is why people seek out hypnotherapy to quit smoking or lose weight.
Science isn't sure about those claims, but there is pretty compelling evidence for using hypnosis to help people sleep and get relief from pain, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and PTSD symptoms.
Irving Kirsch and Hypnosis Research
Dr. Irving Kirsch is a researcher at Harvard who has been researching hypnosis for years. Kirsch is skeptical of certain claims about hypnosis, though, for example, people remembering forgotten memories — also a hot debate in psychedelics.
But he also validates some interesting points, like we don't need to enter a "hypnotic trance," and the power of suggestion alone affects certain people. And that more conventional treatments like cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) can have impressive results when combined with hypnosis.
The Placebo Effect, Suggestibility, and Hypnosis
Kirsh's work also connects suggestibility and hypnosis to the placebo effect. This happens when a person's expectations about how a treatment or drug will work create the expected outcome.
An example of the placebo effect is a person being given a fake pill and told it would make them feel happy. Some who take the fake medication will feel happy.
All of this is to say that suggestibility is seriously powerful. It's why we use the placebo to test new drugs and is why it's pretty challenging for new drugs to beat the placebo. So why does any of this matter for psychedelics?
Psychedelics and Suggestibility
According to psychedelic researcher Robin-Carhartt Harris, LSD does enhance suggestibility. This matters because a higher level of suggestibility could help people reframe their thoughts and experiences — a typical goal of therapy.
And suggestibility could also be one of the reasons that psychedelics have fantastic results. Researchers are pointing out that media create an expectation that psychedelics "cure depression," so they do. Critics suggest positive effects of psychedelics might be based on a placebo rather than the compounds.
Placebo effects do make research confusing. But what if suggestibility is a tool?
Hypnodelic Treatment Technique
In the 60s, researchers Ludwig and Levine hypnotized subjects on LSD. They wanted to combine psychedelics and hypnosis into something they called "hypnodelic."
Researchers used hypnosis to see if they could improve preparation before sessions, guide tripping participants, and assist with psychedelic integration.
Ludwig and Levine would give folks LSD and, while waiting for the drug to work, would hypnotize participants. During the trip, they would use suggestions to try to overcome blockages or release emotions.
Ludwig and Levine also experimented with "post-hypnotic" suggestions. These are suggestions given during a hypnosis session to influence behaviour afterwards. During the comedown, participants would be given instructions to remember their psychedelic experience and insights or to take specific actions.
Hypnodelics never became an established therapy in the 60s, but the idea is pretty old and has a dark history.
A History of Psychedelics and Hypnosis
Unfortunately, many creepy scientists have been down this road as early as the 1930s.
We mentioned the CIA's MK-Ultra, approved in 1953 by director Allen Dulles. The project is (one of many) stains on the CIA's history because the press reported on the agency giving LSD to unsuspecting military personnel.
MK-Ultra is the most famous example. But it gets weirder when you learn that a nazi doctor inspired the exploration of psychedelics, hypnosis, and mind control.
Psychedelic and Hypnosis Experiments of the Nazis and Russians
Operating in Dachau, the first nazi concentration camp, Kurt Plötner was searching for the "perfect" interrogation technique. He gave prisoners a combination of mescaline and hypnosis while trying to develop a "truth serum."
One can also find references to Soviet "psychotronic" experiments, and the New York Post alleged that the USSR spent over 1 billion on research into parapsychology. Some released CIA files even mention Russians studying "chemical hypnosis."
The results of all these experiments aren't something you can Google, and let's avoid that rabbit hole for stories where people use psychedelics and hypnosis to try and help people.
Hypnosis for Psychedelic Therapy and Integration?
One drawback to hypnosis that Russian brainwashers likely noticed is that many people cannot be hypnotized.
Resisting suggestions might be a superpower because, oddly enough, we live in a world where governments spend millions trying to hypnotize each other.
Except there also seem to be benefits to being highly suggestible — a doctor or shaman only needs to suggest you are healing with no need for pills, surgery, or therapy.
Sounds great, but what about those who resist suggestion? Do they miss out on all the Joe Dispenza workshops?
Ketamine and Hypnosis
Well, in 2018, a little study was done on ketamine and hypnosis. Ketamine is quite different from psychedelics like LSD or mushrooms. Ketamine is known for dissociative effects, which is a disconnection from our day-to-day consciousness like our sense of self or our environment.
The authors of the ketamine and hypnosis study noticed disassociation "has long been regarded as an important, if not essential" part of how hypnosis works.
Because both ketamine and hypnosis seem to share dissociative effects, researchers decided to see if they could "increase dissociative experiences."
They found that ketamine could make it easier to hypnotize people, particularly those who were more difficult to hypnotize when sober.
Thought you couldn't be hypnotized into an assassin? Maybe ketamine can help with that.
Could Hypnosis Help With Psychedelic Integration?
Am I suggesting you take ketamine to be easily hypnotized before your LSD trip?
No, I'm really not. Probably better to think of this article as a collection of weird ideas found online. But I do find the potential of suggestion fascinating.
Psychedelics are massively powerful tools. So is the mind. And my sense is that the potential of either one hasn't been realized yet.
Even if a trip with easy, actionable takeaways, following through on psychedelic integration can be challenging. Sure, journaling and yoga are helpful, but when I read about tools to adjust my mindset, I get curious. Even an idea seems weird at first.
And as society slowly opens up to psychedelics, I wonder what other previously "alternative" treatments will come with them?