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All About Hypnosis Part 3: How Hypnosis Affects Your Brain

Welcome back to another installment of information from Hoosier Hypnosis. The last two posts (part 1, part 2) (ADD LINKS) covered common myths and defined hypnosis. Today I would like to focus on describing and in some cases showing, what takes place in the brain during hypnosis. And with such a research intensive article all the sources are linked at the bottom of the page.

Typical Brain Function

Humans have four basic states of awareness. Each one corresponding to a specific identifiable brain wave pattern.

  • Beta– Alert, actively thinking, and concentrating.
  • Alpha– Relaxed, associated with light trances.
  • Theta– Daydreaming, deep hypnosis, also associated with light slumber.
  • Delta– Deep sleep state.

When we are talking about hypnosis we are typically dealing with alpha and theta waves. Though it is important to note that we go through all four of these stages throughout the day. We don’t just say in beta all day. We often shift between the first three and eventually sleep, entering the fourth type of wave.

Beta State

Every day we spend most of our waking hours in beta, alert and aware of what is going on around us. This is the state in which our conscious mind analyzes, judges, and makes decisions.

Alpha & Theta State

When you first enter any sort of light trance state you go into alpha. Any deep state is associated with Theta waves. Theta waves are also associated with internal imagery, hypnotic suggestibility, and memory access. Just about any type of induction can induce these states. And you induce these states daily when you close your eyes and get ready to go to sleep.

So essentially anyone can access these stages by closing their eyes and limiting their external stimulation. Doing things like turning off the lights, turning off anything making noise, etc. When you limit your sensory input in these ways your brain activity slows down transitioning you from beta into alpha and then theta.

In these states the brain’s activity shifts from the cortex to the subcortical structures involved in emotional processing, stress responses and long term memory. Essentially you are accessing your subconscious. Whether you do this with a hypnotist, self-hypnosis, or other trance-like method. You have access to these states all on your own. This is why I like to say we’re just your guide through the process giving you tools that you can then take and use in your daily life.

Brain Imaging

In modern research we are observing more effects of hypnosis than ever before. If not for brain imaging we would still be in the dark. Studies since the advent of their invention found that hypnosis causes observable changes in the brain areas and systems involved in many important processes including:

  • Consciousness (1)
  • Sense of self (1)
  • Spontaneous conceptual thought (2)
  • Concentration (3)
  • Executive functioning (reasoning, problem-solving, planning, self-control, mental flexibility (3)
  • Awareness and control of emotions and bodily functions (11)
  • Emotional Evaluation (11)
  • Worrying (11)

While the research has been limited, these studies demonstrate that not only do these changes occur in brain physiology but also that these changes explain the behaviors and phenomena observed in hypnosis. Studies thus far remain primarily focused on neurophysiological response to suggestions for pain, limb paralysis, imagination, memory, and motor function.

In fact, brain studies and imaging have been shown to affect the systems involved in:

  • Consciousness and self-awareness (5, 10)
  • Motor Control (6)
  • Sleep (5)
  • Autonomic functions (7)
  • Alertness and Concentration (5, 7)
  • Reward Anticipation (7)
  • Decision Making (7)
  • Reasoning (9)
  • Motor control (10)

Your Brain On Hypnosis

Parts of the brain known to be involved in hypnosis.
Parts of the brain known to be involved in hypnosis.

Studies have considered what takes place in the brain during hypnosis. (fMRI) was used by Stanford University in 2016 to observe the brain activity in 57 subjects under hypnosis. They found the following:

1. Reduced connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex. The first is a part of the systems involved in planning and decision making. The second is usually active during self-related thinking. Researchers have a theory that this reduced connection between planning and self-awareness may account for the immediacy of change in hypnosis.

The insula.
The insula

2. Increased connection between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (planning and decision making) and the insula (involved in sensing and internal bodily processing). Which may account for the increased control over emotional processes in hypnosis. This connection also may increase bodily control.

So What?

If you’re like me and you like science, but are not up on the technical jargon let me explain. Part of the reason we get stuck in making change within ourselves is due to over-analyzing the situation. We’re all guilty of it. How many of us have had someone tell us that we are trying or thinking too hard or much about something?

During hypnosis, that part of your brain is not as active. Neither is the part of your brain that is involved in self-thought. Self-thought while it can be positive is often negative, especially when we are struggling to overcome a problem. Think about the last time you struggled. What mean words did you say to yourself? Were the things you said something that you would say to anyone else?

We are often the harshest on ourselves making it even more difficult to overcome. This can become a negative loop that we end up stuck in. Without that loop in our way, it makes sense that we could enact more efficient and fast-acting change in our lives. In addition, during hypnosis, we are so focused on overcoming the problem that we have far better control over emotional and bodily processes.

While this is an oversimplified explanation it is consistent with the results and the experiences of clients. Whether those are the exact words they use or not.

Next Time

We’ve covered myths (add link) and definitions (add link) in the last two posts. Next time we’re going to talk about all the funky phenomena of trance as well as signs of trance states. I’m hoping you’ll be as surprised as I was to learn all the subtle signs. Until then, have a great week. I look forward to touching base with you again in the next part of our series.

Until then…feel free to learn more by checking out our services and About Hypnosis pages


[1] Rainville, P., & Price, D. D. (2003). Hypnosis Phenomenology and the Neurobiology of Consciousness. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 51(2), 105-129.

[2] Deeley, Q., Oakley, D. A., Toone, B., Giampietro, V., Brammer, M. J., Williams, S. C., & Halligan, P. W. (2012). Modulating the Default Mode Network Using Hypnosis. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 60(2), 206-228.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rainville, P., Hofbauer, R. K., Bushnell, M. C., Duncan, G. H., & Price, D. D. (2002). Hypnosis Modulates Activity in Brain Structures Involved in the Regulation of Consciousness. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14(6), 887-901.

[5] Müller, K., Bacht, K., Prochnow, D., Schramm, S., & Seitz, R. J. (2013). Activation of thalamus in motor imagery results from gating by hypnosis. NeuroImage, 66, 361-367.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Vanhaudenhuyse, A., Boly, M., Balteau, E., Schnakers, C., Moonen, G., Luxen, A., . . . Faymonville, M. (2009). Pain and non-pain processing during hypnosis: A thulium-YAG event-related fMRI study. NeuroImage, 47(3), 1047-1054.

[8] Kosslyn, S. M., Thompson, W. L., Costantini-Ferrando, M. F., Alpert, N. M., & Spiegel, D. (2000). Hypnotic Visual Illusion Alters Color Processing in the Brain. American Journal of Psychiatry AJP, 157(8), 1279-1284.

[9] Raij, T. T., Numminen, J., Närvänen, S., Hiltunen, J., & Hari, R. (2009). Strength of prefrontal activation predicts intensity of suggestion-induced pain. Human Brain Mapping Hum. Brain Mapp., 30(9), 2890-2897.

[10] Cojan, Y., Waber, L., Schwartz, S., Rossier, L., Forster, A., & Vuilleumier, P. (2009). The Brain under Self-Control: Modulation of Inhibitory and Monitoring Cortical Networks during Hypnotic Paralysis. Neuron, 62(6), 862-875.

[11] Jiang, H., White, M. P., Greicius, M. D., Waelde, L. C., & Spiegel, D. (2016). Brain Activity and Functional Connectivity Associated with Hypnosis. Cerebral Cortex.

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