Hypnosis, and the many things it can do, has been studied for a long time. Many scientists have assumed that people can be hypnotized, but have struggled to figure out who is hypnotized, who is pretending, and who just wants to believe. It looks like now they've managed to distinguish between the three.
In the movies, getting hypnotized can stop you from smoking, make you act like a fool on camera, get you to remember past lives, force you to tell the truth, put you in touch with ghosts, leave you with the unconscious urge to murder someone, and anything and everything else required to make the plot interesting. While plenty of people have been hypnotized in the real world, others have just pretended to be. Scientists have been looking for ways to tell the difference and have found one: a terrifying, nonreactive, dead-eyed stare.
Hypnotism produces real changes in how the brain works. The most disturbing is the metaphoric detachment of the front area of the brain from the rest. This is the area that controls decision making, problem solving, emotions, and consciousness. With this part disengaged, someone could make the suggestion that you are in fact Spock, and the part of your brain that screens that suggestion for obvious problems of logic will not come online. The rest of the brain will receive the unfiltered suggestion and act on it. Then again, the suggestion could go through that frontal part of the brain and approved (for whatever reason - maybe you like the idea of being Spock), without an observer being any the wiser. There was no external way to be sure.
One of the problems with the process of hypnosis is the fact that it comes with suggestions like, "You are getting sleepy," and, "You will be relaxed and suggestible." These kinds of phrases have an effect on the conscious mind, and render people more likely to pretend they're hypnotized when they're not. The first step was to strip that hoopla away, and so scientists at the University of Turku in Finland conditioned someone to fall into a hypnotic state when they heard the simple word 'hypno.' They then took footage of that person going into and out of the hypnotic state, and compared them to footage of people trying their best to fake being hypnotized.
While other people were able to fake hypnotism with their features and their lack of expression, only the one woman had hypnotized eyes. Her eyes didn't shift, didn't blink, and didn't even react to motion or changes in light. The researchers had to stop regularly to remind her to blink so her eyeballs didn't dry out. (No one ever mentions shriveled little raisin eyeballs as one of the side-effects of hypnosis, but they should!) People don't have conscious control over the state of their pupils, and have little control over the urge to blink. It's reflex for the eyes to respond to motion, to words, and to shifts in light, with a change in the size of pupils. Only the truly hypnotized person would have that disconnect between action and reaction. The woman's state was compared to that of a lobotomized person. Hypnosis might give you superpowers, but it seems to give them to you through a temporary lobotomy.
Image: Giulia Ciappa
Via New Scientist.