In this article published in Harper's magazine back in 1996, journalist David Foster Wallace described his experience with hypnotist Nigel Ellery (see the last section of the article, titled "THE HEADLINE ENTERTAINMENT"). Mr Ellery was providing part of the entertainment on the cruise ship that David was on.

As to hypnotism, David writes that:

First off, we learn that not everyone is susceptible to serious hypnosis: Nigel Ellery puts the Celebrity Show Lounge's whole 300-plus crowd through some simple in-your-seat tests to determine who is suggestibly "gifted" enough to "participate" in the "fun" to come.

In the footnote to that paragraph just quoted, David writes that:

I, who know from hard experience that I am hypnotizable, think about sports statistics and deliberately flunk a couple of the tests to avoid getting up there.

The question I wanted to ask is, are there any studies looking into why some people would be more susceptible to hypnotism?

What I am particularly interested in is whether this has something to do with a habitual activation or inactivation of parts of the brain, or perhaps the levels of some neuromodulators?

  • $\begingroup$ I haven't looked, but it's very unlikely that such papers exist or are anything other than garbage. Susceptibility to hypnotism is very high-level, abstract, and presumably non-specific (that is to say, not specific to hypnotism). $\endgroup$ Feb 23, 2015 at 15:36

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Overall, while there are developing cognitive neuroscience theories of how hypnotic states are produced, there does not appear to be any known cognitive neuroscience basis for individual differences in hypnotic susceptibility based on a reasonable Google Scholar, Web of Science and Scopus search on the topic.

There is at least some evidence to suggest that highly hypnotic participants exhibit different EEG activity patterns (Sabourin et al., 1990). A later review of the hypnosis literature proposed an attentional explanation for the difference in hypnotic behavior for highs and lows (Crawford, 1994). They specifically propose that:

highly hypnotizable persons (highs) possess stronger attentional filtering abilities than do low hypnotizable persons, and that these differences are reflected in underlying brain dynamics.

Finally, a still later study more specifically implicated the anterior cingulate cortex, the thalamus, and the ponto-mesencephalic brainstem in the production of hypnotic states (Rainville et al., 2002), but they make no mention of differences of highly and less hypnotically susceptible individuals. This seems to be a trend in the literature I reviewed, suggesting the concept may have been abandoned.


  • Crawford, H. J. (1994). Brain dynamics and hypnosis: Attentional and disattentional processes. International journal of clinical and experimental hypnosis, 42(3), 204-232.
  • Rainville, P., Hofbauer, R. K., Bushnell, M. C., Duncan, G. H., & Price, D. D. (2002). Hypnosis modulates activity in brain structures involved in the regulation of consciousness. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 14(6), 887-901.
  • Sabourin, M. E., Cutcomb, S. D., Crawford, H. J., & Pribram, K. (1990). EEG correlates of hypnotic susceptibility and hypnotic trance: Spectral analysis and coherence. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 10(2), 125-142.

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