We have seen it written over and over that you should never meet your heroes, and the internet holds so many accounts of people who upon meeting their heroes, found that it was simply not as they had hoped. Some had unrealistic and high expectations that could not be met, others had fantastical ideas about how someone is and so on.
Nearly 10 years ago now, I wrote about meeting one of my sporting heroes Stuart Pearce and that went pretty well. So when my Phd supervisor and head of research in the Psychology department of Bournemouth University told me that he would be entertaining Irving Kirsch for a couple of days and wanted me to present my current research to him, I was incredibly excited even if I was also riddled with nerves.
Those who have ever attended my courses know that I refer to Irving Kirsch’s major contribution to the body of research that the field of hypnosis boasts. He is currently the programme director for Placebo Studies at Harvard University and is officially retired. His books on hypnosis and placebo adorn my shelves and are vital reading for any evidence based hypnotherapist and/or psychotherapist.
Yesterday morning I met up with Irving and Dr Ben Parris in a training room at the Bournemouth University campus to deliver a presentation on my current research. It was the smallest audience I have ever presented to, but certainly the most nerve-inducing one. I usually get to teach my subject to audiences who wish to know more, who are looking for insight and knowledge development, yet here was a man whose work has informed my own greatly throughout my career. He was challenging myths and misconceptions of hypnosis while I was a teenager, he is a lifelong academic, researcher and clinician with an incredible wealth of experience and I could not help feeling a tad over-awed.
“You can call me Irving” were pretty much his first words and when I openly admitted my nervousness, he told me “aah, take a marshmallow… have a cream puff…. there’s nothing to be nervous about here.” I attempted to condense my research into a single hour-long presentation and at the halfway point of the time allotted, I’d probably got a quarter of the way through my material. I overran, but delivered it all and as well as receiving some satisfying praise, I got some excellent guidance on future direction, some components to consider adding and exploring and some incredibly useful feedback.
(If you follow my Twitter, Facebook or Instagram accounts, you’ll find much better quality versions of the photos I took yesterday)
We headed out for lunch and with the pressure off, the self-induced sense of a scrutinising glare over, we relaxed and got to talk about hypnosis, placebo and much more in a thoroughly enjoyable manner. I found out so much, asked him about his research, we joked, laughed and it became an absolute pleasure to just be around him and dipping in to his knowledge and experience and his natural thought processes.
Later that evening, Irving delivered a lecture “The Wonderful World of Placebo” at one of the large University lecture theatres and plenty of my college students and graduates attended. It was not just incredibly insightful and filled with studies that I have been digging out to read already, it was humorous, quite surprising at times, and very useful for me as a hypnotherapy trainer and hypnotherapist. In particular, the references to how placebo can be enhanced by the manner of it’s delivery, the relevance of placebo research into the therapeutic alliance and the varying forms of expectancy, and the importance of context within placebo were all areas that really stood out for me and I was delighted that these are all central topics covered in my own teaching, though I saw ways that my own coverage of these topics can be enriched further as a result of the lecture.
I wish I’d have had more time to spend with those students and graduates of the college, but after a post-lecture drink, I drove Irving over to the restaurant where we were booked to have dinner. In the car, we talked about his written correspondence with Bertrand Russell as a younger man which delighted me, and in return I got to tell him about how I used Bertrand Russell’s teapot theory when confronted with people telling me I cannot prove the subconscious mind does not exist, you can read that here if you like:
More Tea Vicar? Bertrand Russell’s Teapot Theory & That Big Hypnosis Field Discussion
I found out about how Steven J Lynn had taken him under his wing in the early days of his academic career, I discovered his love of theoretical research and became much more familiar with his clinical approach and experience that I had previously been unaware of. I asked him about everything I had ever thought of and it must have felt like how I feel when one of my kids has a major stream of consciousness and just wants answers to everything at once “how many sleeps until Christmas Dad? Can you get my favourite shorts out for me Dad? Can we play hot wheels Dad? Why does ice cream melt when it’s hot Dad? Can we have the paddling pool out Dad? Are you working tomorrow Dad? Can you take me to the park tomorrow Dad? Why can’t we go to space Dad? etc”
We had dinner right on the sea front on a very warm and balmy evening and were joined by Dr Ben Parris and Alethea from Bournemouth University. I managed to convince Irving of the best Gin and Tonic to drink, and we talked non-stop about hypnosis, placebo, future research ideas and life in general. It was wonderful. I simply can’t do justice to the ground I felt got covered in our discussions and the depth of benefit to me. We even talked about Douglas Adams and other sci-fi comedy – how happy was I!??
So for me, I was delighted to meet my hero. I love to discover the real people beneath their work, but also recognise what it was about them that enabled them to be the person that they are. Irving Kirsch was incredibly insightful, very warm and generous with his expertise and advice, driven by a desire to do good and help others contribute valuably too, and he was a lot of fun to be around. I feel very motivated as a result of my time with him and have spent plenty of time this morning charting my ideas and deciphering the masses of notes I made throughout the day and night yesterday. He has offered to help me further in the future and we’ll be keeping in contact. Adopting the role of humble student was incredibly valuable for me yesterday and I feel like I really made the most of it. Happy days.
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How absolutely fantastic- I shared your overflowing joy as you wrote! Your work deserves the great man’s interest in the future- and how great to put Bournemouth Uni on the map for Hypnosis. … I am interested!
Thanks Linda, Bournemouth University is a great place to be for hypnosis research currently! Always love hearing from you, Adam.
It was a really enjoyable and informative lecture — so pleased I made it down there. Lots of key ideas covered in the talk and plenty to dive into for later. I especially loved the OA knee joint ‘scope research because I was part of a section of my profession who were convinced the procedure was not all it was claimed to be as far back as the late 1990s. To put it stronger: we felt most knee ‘scopes were totally unnecessary and better outcomes were achieved with physical rehab. However, that’s where you need evidence — it’s not enough to have an educated hunch — (but it’s great when it turns out to be right!).
And, doing my best mystic Meg, I have the hunch that placebo effects will be explained, in part, by rapid neuroplastic changes. (Which was the thought behind my Q to IK about looking for structural neural changes and it’s great to hear this is being investigated.) Because one of my own areas of interest and practice is seeing which drivers of pain can be modulated through good therapeutic alliance, the power of words, and a metric sh*tload of behavioural exposure. The reduction/ elimination of allodynia and the rapid wind down of hyper-sensitive tissue is pretty impressive. Something is going on there and “placebo,” I’m convinced, is to some extent rapid neuroplasticity in action. So I’ll watch that space for evidence!
Interesting night and even the M3 roadworks on the return didn’t dent my mood 🙂
Thanks Oli, I really appreciate your thoughts and observations. I loved that the knee research was preceded by a 1959 study of mammary ligations which ultimately saw such procedures become redundant.
Likewise, I am keeping a keen eye on upcoming research. The programme that Irving Kirsch has headed up at Harvard has lots of ongoing studies currently and the results are likely to start being publiched soon and with conveyor belt like regularity thereafter!
Great seeing you! Best wishes, Adam.