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Somewhere in a jungle far, far away, a witch doctor waves a bone adorned with beads and other gewgaws over the head of a frightened, convulsing villager. He shouts a few words, throws a handful of dust into the wind and the villager stops shaking, seemingly cured of what ailed him.
Such shamanistic rites are as much a part of everyday life in certain cultures as are sowing fields, drawing water, even drawing breath. According to Dr. Amir Raz, newly installed associate professor of psychiatry at McGill, the success or failure of such rites is not so very different from the placebo effect witnessed in the practice of medicine in more modernized, less superstitious societies. The patient gets better because, on some level, he expects to.
"Our shamans wear white coats instead of feathers, you might have to wait three months for an appointment to see them and they might charge you a lot of money—all of that creates a lot of expectation," said Dr. Raz, a cognitive psychologist whose research focuses on understanding consciousness, expectation, the placebo effect and the power of suggestion—in other words, hypnosis.
"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."
What Dr. Raz does is vastly different. In fact, he shuns the word "hypnosis" in favour of "focused attention" or "susceptibility to suggestion."
"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. By authorship I mean that when we brush our teeth, it's clear that we're the author of that action, and we can explain exactly why we're doing it—to protect our teeth and keep them healthy—but under hypnosis, you can perform certain actions but not be quite sure who the author is or why you're doing them."
He cites as an example a patient told under hypnosis to imagine a helium balloon connected to his wrist.
"The arm would actually start to levitate, the person would be aware that it was happening, but wouldn't know why it was happening. Did he do it, or did the hypnotist make him do it?"
Dr. Raz came to McGill in April from Columbia University in New York and has been settling in as an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry, but also as a researcher affiliated with the Sir Mortimer B. Davis Jewish General Hospital, a McGill University Teaching Hospital. He also works closely with neuroscientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute as well as other departments in McGill's Faculty of Science.
"McGill was very clever in enticing me with the special configuration they have here," he said. "McGill has seasoned clinicians and one of the world's foremost neurological institutes and the Department of Psychology is one of the top in North America. All these pockets of excellence create tremendous opportunities for me not only to establish collaborative relationships but also to come up with a research program that is both complementary and tangential."
His interest in hypnosis came from magic—literally.
"I started performing magic as a grade-school kid," said Dr. Raz, who grew up in Israel and eventually became a member of the Israeli Magic Circle, the country's association of professional magicians.
"It was a way to eke out a good living as a graduate student," he explained. "Plus, 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."
Through collaborations with the MNI and others, Dr. Raz hopes to answer such questions as What goes on inside the hypnotized brain? And, perhaps more importantly, Can hypnosis be used therapeutically?
"There is plenty of exploratory data that suggests potential," he said, citing studies in which clinical hypnosis has been used to alleviate symptoms of depression, pain and even Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Still, he cautions against overstating that potential.
"Clinical hypnosis, if used properly, can bring about physiological changes, but the right way to look at hypnosis is as a tool with an adjunctive role. It won't necessarily cure cancer, but for someone on chemotherapy, it could reduce some of the side effects."
Like any good science, he said, the true value of hypnosis will be revealed through a combination of reliable data and time. No incantations or gewgaws required.