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Neuroscience and Hypnosis: Part 3

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Neuroscience and hypnosis research
For all we know of the brain, Hypnosis helps us learn more.

This is Amber back with a third helping in our neuroscience and hypnosis series. Today we’re going to delve deeper into some of the questions we may see hypnosis research (and possibly answer) in the next two decades. Continuing our journey through the research article. If you have not read the first two articles, here are links to part 1 and part 2.

Questions, Questions, Questions…

In the past two articles we talked and learned about what hypnotic research has discovered, and what the pitfalls of the research has been. But what questions should we be asking? What makes the most sense to ask? And how do we go about researching those questions? More importantly, why are these questions important? What will they teach us?

Again, that is what we are looking at today. The questions that will shape the hypnosis of tomorrow. And the may not be the questions you might expect either. Though some of them will likely be entirely expected as well. So lets dig in, and see what the study identified as the most likely and potentially most fruitful questions.

Biological Response, Hypnotic Suggestion, and Hypnotic Suggestibility

We have already begun to explore the biological underpinnings of hypnotic suggestion. We have already begun to identify the roles that different brain structures and networks play in generating responses to hypnotic suggestions. Or responses. The researchers believe that better understanding this area is going to be incredibly important in advancing hypnotic research.

Many of the researchers would like to see more data aimed at identifying the mechanisms that enable, facilitate, initiate, or terminate the operation of the specific functional mechanisms engaged by different types of hypnotic suggestions. In particular, specific suggestions related to motor response, perception, and hypnotic amnesia. Much of the question is centered around brain function during these suggestions, their similarity to similar natural experiences, and how they may be used to further therapeutic intervention. This likely will also lead to a better understanding of different traits leading to suggestibility. Potentially leading to more accurate measurements of such phenomena. All in the hope of creating a more reliable foundation of shared knowledge across the field and throughout the sciences.

The goal here is to establish a reliable foundation of shared knowledge, across labs and cultures, upon which future advances may be built. We anticipate that such basic research will help to establish a solid foundation for the development and evaluation of wider neurobiological theories of the impact of hypnotic inductions and response to hypnotic suggestions.

The Importance and Impact of Hypnotic Inductions

Inductions are, essentially, the procedure or suggestion used to put someone into trance. They can take many forms. There are instant, confusion, kinesthetic, progressive muscle relaxation, to name a few of the many options. They can be as short as a few seconds or as long as necessary to achieve the desired goal (our inductions are often 10 minutes or less).

I cannot name a hypnotist who does not find an induction essential to the process of implanting suggestions. Despite that fact, very little research has been directed at isolating the specific features that make them successful. Or to identify elements that augment suggestibility. Our understanding of the process can be significantly increased if we better understand how these language patterns are affecting the mind. Right now we don’t know why an induction works or what parts of the brain it activates. Does it increase suggestibility or does that come after one has entered the hypnotic state? And of course, we want to know which parts of the brain make it work.

Part of this inquiry will require experimental designs that disentangle the effects of induction of hypnosis on response to suggestions from the effects of the same suggestions given without the induction. This would require studying a suggestion only condition. It may even answer the question as to whether or not an induction is required or a conceptual limitation of the hypnotist and subject.

Using Neuroscience to compare Hypnosis To Similar Phenomena

There are many trance like states. We know right now that they are similar in nature, but not exactly alike. The same thing is true of other chemically heightened emotional states like those being explored at the Northern University of Illinois. Or how the trance state measured in meditation is similar or different to what we experience in hypnotic trance. There is already a tradition of scholars proposing conceptual and phenomenological links between hypnosis and meditation (D Lifshitz et al. 2012) yet there remains a lack of empirical studies directly comparing the two sets of practices.

Despite meditation and hypnosis being using as alternative treatments, their efficacy as a treatment remains poorly understood. Especially the connection between the lived experience of the individual and the neurophysical data. The same is true of other phenomena such as the placebo affect in relation to hypnotic treatment. While we do not believe the placebo affect accounts for all (or even some) of the responses we achieve, it is still important to understand its relevance.

In addition, researchers would like to further evaluate the utility of bridging models of hypnosis with other related phenomenon such as those mentioned above.

Understanding Hypnotic Suggestibility

The measures that we use for suggestibility were developed more than 5 decades ago. Which raises questions as to whether or not they are scientifically relevant given contemporary behavioral and neuroimaging advancements. There is even some debate as to whether or not the scales are useful at all given that some people display phenomena at different “depths”. The concept of depth itself may be a misnomer. it is a bit like trying to compare a digital system to an analog one. The comparison often fails to be useful or work.

Raising the question if these scales are useful for modern research of if new ones need to be developed. For example, there is evidence that group measures are inferior to individual measures in the prediction of response to suggestion. The current scales are also poorly suited to proving individual difference in suggestibility. Another limitiation is that they do not distinguish between voluntary and involuntary responses. Which calls into question their validity as a tool. For future measures to be useful they will need to more optimally integrate behavioral and experimental measures, rather than focusing primarily on the former.

Further Understanding of The Variance In Hypnotic Language

Current research remains limited in how suggestions are phrased to participants. Many times the measures do not account for differences between what we call direct or indirect hypnosis. Direct being suggestions that directly call you to action to do something such as “Your arm is gettting heavier”. Indirect being more subtle suggestions such as “And you may start to notice a change in your arm or a sense of heaviness”. Both are useful in certain contexts, but the research rarely delineates between the two.

The data indicates that different people, with potentially specific characteristics, may respond differently individually. when we fail to address these questions we fail to account for different cognitive styles between individuals. Better understanding of these characteristics may lead to a better understanding of why some interventions work better with some than others.

Neuroimaging to Map the Full Spectrum of Hypnotic Responding

Nearly all hypnosis research designs select participants based on suggestibility. Primarily to ensure response. In the past, researchers scored subjects into the categories of high, low, or medium susceptibility without studying the characteristics of each. We know that hypnotic suggestion is a basic bell curve, but a better understanding of these characteristics may lead to better selection of hypnotic intervention.

We also know that people with high suggestibility are more likely to exhibit specific phenomena than others. An example of this would be hallucination suggestions. However, some people at other places on the bell curve have still exhibited these phenomena. Further comparison between lows, highs, and mediums could teach us something about these phenomena. Or as to what characteristics define the three proposed suggestibility levels.

All we know right now is that there are differences in EEG’s. A better understanding of any atypical characteristics between these groups or in specific groups may lead to a better interpretation of both past and future data. As things stand right now, this lack only propagates conflicting data and an incomplete picture.

In addition, neuroscience may have to find a way to account for these differences because they have no counterpart in their body of work. This may require neuroimaging to identify the differences. This remains important so far as our understanding of hypnosis. However not so relevant to instrumental studies designed to use hypnosis to study psychiatric conditions or symptoms.

Debates to Discard

For the longest time we have focused on a few select questions with little innovation and derivation. But the time for that is over. Neuroimagine and science have made it easier than ever to learn about hypnosis and its effects both physiologically and mentally on participants. Research should no longer focus on questions that do not further the field.

Past hypnotist desired to know whether or not hypnosis facilitates the process or if regular cognition explains the phenomena. I personally don’t believe this question matters until something in the research indicates towards one direction or the other. More important is what can we learn to help even more people?

While once upon a time we thought this was productive. However that no longer seems to be the case. It used to produce innovative or novel research to formulate theories. However, evaluation of the research, particularly neuroscientific research, this question quickly bogs down process into conceptual debates. Currently, there remains no indication that one is more correct that the other. Tested tirelessly with little to no conclusion. It also hinders researchers from the common effort to solve questions we can answer due to new technology, advances in other fields, and contemporary research leading to fruitful answers.

Instead I hope to see hypnosis focus on these other identified questions in conjunction with neuroscience. I hope to see more collaborative research to learn more about how this works and how we can apply it to help others. And who knows these other questions may answer the first.

Neuroscience and Hypnosis. A Perfect Combination

Exposure to the research only begins to show you all the innovative things hypnosis can do and potentially overcome. Together with neuroimaging technology we are learning so much about the brain. How it functions. What we can do to hypnosis and how that affects the mind. We are even learning about the characteristics that make people more suggestible which could lead to later applications to help those who are less suggestible benefit from hypnosis more effectively.

Just take a look at the research out there. There are more stories of people calling on hypnotist to treat their symptoms. With great success, contrary to many media depictions. And the buck doesn’t stop here. The more we learn the better able we are to help people. And the more people we help, the better the world becomes.

I hope this series has been useful or at least interesting. If you have further questions about hypnosis or any of our services please check out our FAQ, Rates & Insurance, Our Locations page, or Our Services page for more information.

And of course feel free to contact us anytime by phone at 317-699-1066.

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