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Hypnotic Science

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Your eyes are getting heavy, your body is relaxing. Going limp.  You feel like you are floating in space. Sound familiar? Fans of hypnosis should recognize those feelings. The power of hypnosis to change your mind is just as fascinating as how it can affect your body.  And all due to a few changes in specific areas of the brain, according to the Standford University School of medicine.  This is hypnotic science.

Scientists at Stanford scanned the brains of 57 people during guided hypnosis. The sessions provided were similar to those you may see hypnotists use to treat anxiety, pain, trauma, and more. Here is just a little taste of what they found and what it could me for hypnosis, medicine, and behavioral sciences.

Why is this important?

For everything we know about the brain there is far more that we still do not understand. Understanding which regions of the brain are involved gives us a lot of information on how hypnosis works. Scientists are hoping that this knowledge can lead to altering someone’s capacity for hypnosis or even maximize its effectiveness. This could be monumental in treating pain.

A Serious Science

Scientists studying the potentials of hypnosis are constantly revealing the brain’s ability to heal medical and psychiatric conditions. I imagine you would find it surprising to discover that hypnosis is the oldest form of psychotherapy in Western civilization. However, we are only now beginning to be able to quantify and explain how it works scientifically.

Yet, little is known about how it works on a physiological level.  While it is proven that hypnosis works, we cannot explain it.  Many studies explain how hypnosis effects pain management or other treatments. This study, however, is the first to detail changes it enacts on the brain. In effect, scientists have studied what it does, but not how hypnosis achieves it.

The Meat And Bones

The study screened 545 healthy participants to find 36 people who tested high on hypnotizability as well as 21 control subjects who scored on the opposite end of the spectrum. Observations were then conducted while scanning the 57 subjects using functional magnetic resonance imaging.  This scan measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow in the brain.

The participants were scanned under four conditions

  • At rest
  • While recalling a memory
  • Hypnosis session #1
  • Hypnosis session #2

The controls were included to help eliminate things that might not be associated with hypnosis during the course of the study.

Three Specific Changes

Of all of the subjects, the highly suggestive subjects showed three differences in brain function during their hypnotic sessions. Results showed that these changes only occurred in the subjects capable of being hypnotized. In addition, these results only occurred while the subjects were in hypnosis.

The areas they saw the change in were:

  • The Dorsal Anterior Cingulate
  • Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex
  • Insula
  • Default Mode Network (Which includes the medial prefrontal and the posterior cingulate cortex)

Dorsal Anterior Cingulate

First, the scans showed a decrease in activity in this area of the brain. It acts as a part of the brain’s salience network, which is a collection of regions in the brain that select which stimuli deserve our attention. This network is critical for detecting behaviorally relevant stimuli and for coordinating the brain’s neural resources in response to these stimuli.  Hypnosis pulls your mind into the process leaving little room for other distractions.

Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex and Insula

Secondly, they found an increase in the connections between these two areas of the brain.  Spiegal, the lead scientist on the team describes this as a brain-body connection that helps the brain process and control what’s going on in the body.  Think of it like a junction box.  If you want to make changes in the body, this is the place where the mind access those responses to effect change.

Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex and the Default Mode Network

Finally, the team observed reduced connections between these two systems.  The Default Mode Network is active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest, such as when we daydream.  But it is also active when we think of others, ourselves, remember the past, or plan for the future.  This network in our brain, while not well known, is our default when we are not engaged in a partiular task.

This functional change likely accounts for the disconnect between our actions and the awareness of our actions in hypnosis. It’s why we’re more suggestive in the hypnotic state.  During hypnosis this kind of disassociation between action and reflection allows us to engage with the suggestion without devoting mental resources or being self-conscious about the activity.  This also explains why the highly suggestible are willing to do such silly things during a stage show.

Future Potentials

Hypnosis shows results in many treatment fields. It has been used to treat chronic pain, pain associated with childbirth, and other medical procedures. Hypnosis has also been effective in treating addiction, PTSD, anxiety, phobias, and depression.  These new findings may pave the way for developing treatments for the rest of the population, those who aren’t naturally susceptible to hypnosis. If we can stimulate or decrease stimulation in these parts of the brain we could help so many people.

These studies could lead to new treatments that combine brain stimulation with hypnosis. We could improve the known analgesic effects of hypnosis and potentially replace the addictive medications. This could eliminate medications given to treat symptoms.  It could also lead to less medication for humanity overall. However, these treatments require far more research before they could be implemented.


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