Science blog

30 September 2015

Overpowered! The Science and Showbiz of Hypnosis

Performer and entertainer Christopher Green's new book "The Science & Showbiz of Hypnosis" is published by British Library Publications on 16th October 2015. In this blog post Christopher explores the intriguing history of hypnosis and investigates some of the science behind this curious practice. Hear more from Christopher at the launch event at the British Library on 13th October. Tickets are available here.

OverpoweredWhat we call hypnosis now has been going on in our brains since we were first human, and it will carry on until there are no more humans.  At this stage of our cultural development we happen to call it hypnosis.  It also happens to be regarded by the vast majority of human beings as something of a joke, by many others as irrelevant and, even those of us who are fascinated tend to focus more on the big moustaches and kitchsy, campy, quirky notions of the big-mouthed practitioners of the subject.  But it belongs to all of us.  It’s a human process.  What exactly is going on chemically, biochemically and bioelectrically isn’t known, but we are fools if we think it’s just the preserve of fellas in spandex shirts.  It’s the people in the white coats that we should be interested in.  Especially in our age of increasing mental dis-ease.  These days, it’s much more acceptable to alter your brain chemistry using powerful drugs in the hope that a tiny percentage of it’s efficacy will help with lifting your mood.  And yet, harnessing what is after all a perfect natural human process – one person simply helping another to experience something – is thought of as a bit sinister and weird.  So I salute the neuro-hypnotism research.  I suspect in a few hundred years when some irreverent and light-hearted comedian writes a round up of their thinking of hypnosis using books from our time, that they look at this and say “Christopher was over-focused on type-face, bill matter and moustaches, but he was right about the neuro-science.  It was, after all, what they called hypnosis back then, that proved the turning point in helping human beings fight back from the damaging mental ill-health caused by fighting the squishing effects of capitalism on a daily basis”.  I can dream, can’t I?

Christopher's second favourite old-time hypnotist 'Karlyn'

This stuff might only be taken seriously once we move on from the word ‘hypnosis’.  It needs serious rebranding.  I think that’s a shame, because as you see from this book, I celebrate all the bright shouts and all the dark shameful whispers in the history of the hypnosis, but to the average person it’s too bleedin’ confusing.  Could it be time to change the name?  A modern day hypnotic hero is Dr Amir Raz.  He started off as a magician while studying to be a doctor.   He says “Magic taught me a lot about psychology in terms of attention, directing attention and how the mind works. At one point I started reading about hypnosis and decided to marry the two."  But he acknowledges the need for the rebrand and I like his solution, although it’s a bit worthy and not spunky enough. 

"Hypnosis is tricky because it has such a checkered history. Many people feel uncomfortable with it, even within the scientific community, because they think it's not something that a serious scientist should get involved in. Part of the reason it has this bad reputation is because of things like stage hypnosis, where you see a bunch of people clucking like chickens."  Dr Raz suggests ditching "hypnosis" in favour of "focused attention" or "susceptibility to suggestion”.

This is not a million miles away from the term coined by James Coates in 1905 “suggestive therapeutics” though as I’ve pointed out in my book, this is likely to get people in cahoots with pimps rather than psychiatrists.  But though his new names don’t zing, Dr Raz makes a rallying cry for the future of the subject.  "I don't consider myself a hypnosis researcher. If anything, I'm more of a neuroscientist with an interest in attention. I see hypnosis as an interesting tool for illuminating interesting scientific questions about consciousness, volitional control and authorship”

Of course, I want to challenge myself and think of a new term for hypnosis that takes all of the history and all the modern neuroscience into account.  I want to be a 21st Century rebranding Braid.  But then he cocked up with the name Hypnosis, introducing all sorts of notions of sleep etc that have misled people ever since.  I’m sure I’ll do the same.  But I’ll have a go.  Please contact me with your own suggestions and let’s solve this one, fam.


Relaxed wakefulness


Attention Therapy

…. or following in the footsteps of the arch egotist hypnotist Walford Bodie who coined the term Bodic Force, I suggest calling it after myself - Green Power.

Oh dear!  Your turn!

Christopher Green

24 September 2015

A novel use of PhD data: Investigating the state of the Dementia Workforce

Katie Howe explains how data from the British Library’s electronic thesis service EThOS has been used in a report into the state of dementia research in the UK.

EThOS is the British Library’s electronic theses service. By working with universities across the UK EThOS is able to provide records for over 400,000 UK PhD theses going back as far as the 19th century. For 165,000 of these PhD theses it is also possible to access a full text version of the document. A key feature of EThOS is that you don’t have to come to the BL to use it - in fact it is accessible from anywhere in the world.

In previous blog posts we have described how EThOS could be a valuable resource for scientific researchers (see here and here). However, as an extensive source of information on PhDs undertaken in the UK, EThOS data can also be used to look at trends in PhD research over time. A recent report by the Alzheimer’s Society illustrates this approach. Graph

The Alzheimer’s Society appointed RAND Europe to produce a report on the state of dementia research in the UK. RAND wished to investigate the dementia workforce pipeline - how many researchers are working on dementia and how this is changing over time. As EThOS contains records for a high (and growing proportion) of recent PhD theses, RAND contacted the EThOS team to ask for their help with this investigation. EThOS Metadata Manager Heather Rosie and her colleagues undertook bespoke analysis for RAND and produced a list of theses awarded from 1970 onwards. The graph above shows the results. Dementia-related PhD research has been steadily increasing over the last 30 years. However, cancer-related PhDs have skyrocketed over the same time frame. Now five times more PhD researchers chose to work on cancer than dementia.

InfographicRAND were also interested in what proportion of PhD students studying dementia stay in the field. To investigate this they traced about 1500 dementia PhD researchers to find out about their career since finishing their PhD. The results show that of those who do complete a PhD in dementia, retention in the field is poor with 70% leaving the field within four years. Only 21% are still researching dementia. (The results are summarised on the infographic opposite. A full version of which can be seen here)

The researchers gave a number of reasons for leaving the field of dementia but amongst the most common was a concern over the increasing competition for senior faculty positions. This is not a problem unique to dementia research but spans all of academia. This is a familiar issue for us in team ScienceBL and a previous series of blog posts outlines some alternative career options for those undertaking biomedical PhDs (here and here).

As well as being a great source of detailed information for scientific researchers, PhD theses accessed through EThOS can be used to find out about individual researchers or to help students structure their own PhD thesis. This report shows another novel use of PhD data enabled by the size and national scope of the EThOS resource. The full report can be seen here.

Katie Howe

22 September 2015

‘Impossibly bold and Utopian’: H.G. Wells on education

Alice Kirke investigates HG Wells’ views on science education ahead of our upcoming TalkScience event.

Although he is better known as ‘the Shakespeare of science fiction,’[1] H.G. Wells began his career as a school science teacher. Science education today needs to cater for the budding professional scientist in order to tackle global challenges such as population growth, climate change, and food security. But it also needs to nurture a greater public understanding of science. In light of these challenges, the anniversary of Wells’ birth, on 21st September 1866, prompted me to revisit his educational ideas.

H. G WellsBorn into a lower-middle class family, Wells immersed himself in books from the library at the Sussex mansion of Uppark, where his mother worked as a lady's maid. He continued to educate himself while he trained as a pupil-teacher,[2] and was eventually awarded a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in South Kensington in London, now Imperial College.


Whilst there, he was taught by the eminent advocate of Darwin’s theory of evolution, T.H. Huxley. Wells founded the Science Schools Journal, which provided a forum for the development of his views on science and society. Darwinian notions of progress and degeneration came to inform his understanding of history, the future of mankind, and the importance of education.

In 1937, during his presidential address to the Educational Science section of the British Association, he outlined his concerns over ‘the contents of the minds our schools are turning out.’[3] His address was judged by Nature to be of such historical significance that they published it on the centenary of his birth in 1966. So, what did he have say about education?

In his address, Wells insisted that he was speaking not as a scientist, educator or author but as a ‘citizen’. Ignorance, he argued, led to tyranny, and was a consequence of the failure of elementary education to ‘properly inform’ citizens. He posed the question:

‘What are we telling young people directly about the world in which they are to live?’

Wells advocated a child-centred approach to learning which stimulated curiosity, rather than the old-fashioned rote learning which he believed still characterised schooling in the 1930s. He suggested that instead ‘the weather and the mud pie’ should introduce children to biology and that ‘we ought to build up simple and clear ideas from natural experience.’ Further, he argued that ‘natural experience’ should be the foundation not only of scientific instruction but of education more generally. Geography should give children:

‘a real picture in their minds of the Amazon forest, the pampas, the various phases in the course of the Nile… and the sort of human life that is led in these regions.’

Wells believed that telling children about the physical environment of different areas, and the lives of the people who lived there, would teach them to respect and appreciate the world as ‘one community.’ He described himself as a democratic socialist, and saw education as fundamental to peace; in his Outline of History he claimed that ‘human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.’ He argued that History should be the ‘main subject of instruction’ in schools, and that to avoid the ‘crazy combative patriotism that plainly threatens to destroy civilisation’, it should be based on the recent discoveries of archaeologists, not the squabbles and affairs of past kings and queens.

The education system Wells envisaged would lay down a ‘foundation of knowledge’, enabling people to continue learning throughout their lives, and to engage with issues which were of public concern, including those related to science and technology. In the world conjured up by his A Modern Utopia engineers and scientists have figured out how to meet all human needs, and are part of the elite ruling group known as the ‘Samurai’. But in the real world, Wells believed that science education was not only for scientists.

Frontispiece, H. G Wells, A Modern Utopia (Chapman and Hall, 1905) Shelfmark: 012631.aa.9

Education meant more than the pursuit of reason and intellect, and was not oriented towards purely instrumental economic goals. It was about discovery, questioning and knowledge, and was part of the whole education of the citizen. He concluded his address by reflecting that his educational vision seemed ‘impossibly bold and Utopian’. But he maintained that a reinvigorated education system which would enable people to engage with political, social and scientific challenges was an achievable aim, and a vital one for anyone concerned about the future of civilisation.

Wells’ reflections on education raise important questions for science education today; how should it be taught, and to what end? To debate these issues with an expert panel, come along to our next TalkScience event on 27th October.

[1] Brian Aldiss and Sam J. Lundwall (eds), The Penguin World Omnibus of Science Fiction: an anthology (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986) p.133 Shelfmark: YC.1987.a.3902

[2] A senior pupil who acted as a teacher to younger children

[3] Supplement to Nature, September 3, 1966