Walking up Harley Street, London’s most prestigious medical address, on a warm spring afternoon I felt a familiar sense of trepidation. Once again, I was pushing my research to the limits. As a non-fiction writer, I love to walk in my subject’s footsteps, to tour the house where she once lived, to trace the route that he once took. Just as with a novel, these experiences help me get under the skin of the people I write about. Yet with each book there has been one place, one experience, I have avoided for as long as possible.
With my first book, The Knife Man, a biography of the 18th-century surgeon John Hunter, that place was the dissecting room. I knew that at some point I needed to witness a dissection in order to understand – in part at least – Hunter’s world of rotting flesh, bare bones and congealing blood. But a mixture of squeamishness and terror deterred me and so I had finished my first draft before I plucked up the courage to observe a dissection class. The experience was transformative. As I watched students and tutors calmly picking apart a dozen dead bodies, I grasped for the first time Hunter’s wonder at the beauty of the human form and his motivation to unravel its puzzles.
For my latest book, I was deterred not by a natural dread of dead flesh but a deep-rooted and personal fear. I was initially drawn to its subject by the extraordinary story of two teenage girls, the Okey sisters, who in 1838 held London in thrall by their outlandish antics under the influence of a strange new power. Watched by scientists, journalists and dignitaries in the lecture theatre of University College Hospital, the girls lifted heavy weights, withstood electric shocks and changed personality when they were ‘mesmerised’ into a trance-like state. Their doctor, John Elliotson, was utterly convinced by their performances; his colleagues were equally certain he was being hoodwinked by two clever actresses. Who was telling the truth?
Mesmerism – hypnosis to us – seemed a fairly inconsequential aspect of the story. Yet whenever I mentioned the book to anyone, the first question would be, invariably: was I going to undergo hypnosis myself? People, it seemed, were just as fascinated by hypnotism today as they were in the 1830s. I was always evasive. In truth I felt completely resistant to the notion of giving up control to another person, and apprehensive about making a fool of myself.
Like most people, my expectations of hypnosis had been fuelled by sensational stage shows and television programmes in which slick black-suited men convinced unwitting volunteers to bark like a dog or eat onions. Hypnotism was essentially theatrical spectacle — hilarious or appalling to watch, not a subject for serious research. At the same time, as a journalist I was sceptical about the reality of hypnosis and certain that, if there was anything in it, I would automatically resist.
Although much about hypnosis remains unexplained, by the time I reached the end of my research I was able to discount most of the popular myths. Recent scientific studies show that about 90 per cent of us are susceptible to hypnosis, with about 10 per cent highly responsive. Neuro-imaging scans reveal that hypnosis triggers a recognisable pattern of activity in the brain although whether this is a special state – the so-called ‘trance’ – or simply an altered consciousness similar to that induced by meditation is still hotly debated. It is now generally accepted that nobody can be hypnotised against their will or compelled to commit an act they would not ordinarily do. Indeed, advocates argue that far from surrendering control, people under hypnosis gain control over part of their subconscious which enables them to perform acts beyond their normal waking powers. Using this technique subjects may be able to withstand pain, control anxiety and combat a host of medical conditions – from irritable bowel syndrome to insomnia – which otherwise defy treatment.
Despite all the reassuring science, I still put off the moment of arranging a hypnosis session. Racing towards my deadline I told myself I had no time. Besides, other authors successfully wrote books without first-hand experience. Most famously, the novelist Stef Penney won the Costa Book of the Year award for her book The Tenderness of Wolves despite having never seen the Canadian landscape where it was set. Finally, having despatched the first draft of my book, I ran out of excuses. And so I found myself nervously ringing the bell of the anonymous-looking house in Harley Street where Dr Rumi Peynovska had agreed to see me.
Welcoming, relaxed and down-to-earth, Rumi, who is a qualified doctor as well as a hypnotherapist, defies the hypnotist stereotype. Currently president of the Royal Society of Medicine’s Hypnosis and Psychosomatic Medicine section, she uses hypnosis to treat people with a range of problems including phobias, allergies, addictions and chronic pain. She explained that hypnosis works best if the subject has a motivation or goal, so I asked if she could help with my recurrent headaches. Still half-afraid of going under, half-fearful that I would not, I looked in vain for a couch. In fact the process proved disarmingly straightforward. There was no swinging pocket watch; she did not command me to look into her eyes or mesmerise me with mysterious hand movements.
As I sat in a comfortable armchair, Rumi told me to close my eyes and visualise the heaviest book in my house – appropriately it’s Roy Porter’s magnificent medical history tome The Greatest Benefit to Mankind – then imagine I was holding it in my outstretched hands. Naturally I felt my arms fall to my lap. Using a slow and melodic tone of voice, she continued with standard relaxation techniques: instructing me to imagine walking down steps, finding myself in a favourite scene and then opening a door marked ‘control room’ where I could turn off or dial down switches attached to my headaches. Finally, she commanded me to walk back up the steps and open my eyes. But had I succumbed or not? Had I been hypnotised at all?
Certainly I felt relaxed, almost to the point of sleep, yet at the same time part of my mind was listening and observing throughout. Letting my arms drop was a deliberate decision, and I felt I was recreating imagined scenes consciously, even having to stop myself from laughing. At one point, however, an image – perhaps a memory – arrived unbidden and I found myself as a very young child lying on a rug in a garden with a comforting presence – perhaps my mother – nearby. This time I was not passively watching the scene; it seemed as if I was physically there. I felt secure and content. At another point, when Rumi told me that in future I would feel optimistic, I grasped that notion; it felt reasonable and right. When we finished she asked how long I thought the session had lasted. I estimated 15 minutes. In fact it had lasted nearly twice that long. Time distortion is a common feature of hypnosis.
It is impossible to judge the effectiveness of hypnosis from a single session. But as I walked back down Harley Street I certainly felt more relaxed, happier and – yes – more optimistic. I have no idea whether, after repeated sessions, I would be able to withstand electric shocks or lift heavy weights, as the Okey sisters did, but by putting myself in their shoes I had gained invaluable insight into the mysterious world of mesmerism. I knew that I had done the right thing: I had felt the fear and done the research anyway.