Revisiting the link between Verbal Suggestion, Hypnosis, and Psychopathology
The capacity to respond to verbal suggestions was long believed to be a characteristic of, or predisposing factor, for different forms of psychopathology prior to the twentieth century. With the emergence of experimental hypnosis research and a narrow focus on healthy non-clinical samples, researchers and clinicians have largely coalesced around the belief that the capacity to respond to verbal suggestions represents a healthy, adaptive trait.
Here I will draw on numerous lines of evidence from experimental hypnosis research, cognitive neuroscience, and psychiatry to challenge this view. In particular, I will review research on the link between verbal suggestion and symptom reporting in different contexts as well as recent meta-analytic evidence demonstrating robust evidence for elevated suggestibility in multiple psychiatric disorders. This body of evidence implies a specific link between the capacity to respond to verbal suggestions and dissociative psychopathology.
Importantly, this work has a direct bearing on parallel disagreements regarding the role of suggestion in the dissociative (and germane) disorders. I will specifically highlight how research and theorization on this topic has misunderstood and mischaracterized the available evidence.
Specifically, clinicians and researchers have at once coupled an overly broad view regarding the domain of suggestion with an overly narrow interpretation of how suggestion relates to dissociation. I will argue that many disagreements regarding the relations among these phenomena arise from widespread misconceptions regarding the nature of suggestion. Bringing a variety of different types of data to bear on these issues, I will present a nuanced perspective on how to best situate hypnosis and suggestion within contemporary theoretical accounts of perception and psychopathology. Although most individuals who are highly responsive to verbal suggestion have a healthy cognitive profile, I will advance the position that this capacity confers risk for dissociative psychopathology.
Devin B. Terhune, PhD, is a Reader in the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he directs the Timing, Awareness, and Suggestion Lab. His research draws on methods and theories from cognitive neuroscience, psychometrics, and psychiatry with an aim to characterize the neurocognitive and neuropsychiatric profiles of individuals who are highly responsive to suggestion.