How hypnosis affects the brain

The debate as to whether hypnosis is a special stand-alone state or simply the result of suggestion, is now resolved. Scientists at Stanford University, the home to the notorious prison experiment, have at last provided clarity. But for stage hypnosis, the news may not be so good…

Scientists at America’s prestigious Stanford University, led by Professor David Spiegel, MD, the associate chair of psychiatry and behavioural sciences, have been able to pinpoint changes in areas of the brain involved with emotion, the brain/body connection and awareness of action in people when hypnotised.

With the cooperation of 57 participants, the researchers were able to scan their brains while they were resting, while they were recalling memories, and twice during hypnosis sessions similar to those used in clinical hypnosis to treat anxiety, pain and trauma.

They discovered three distinct changes in participants undergoing hypnosis, although these changes were only observable in highly hypnotisable individuals. The scans showed that specific regions of the brain had altered activity and connectivity.

Activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate, an area involved in the formation and processing of emotions, learning and memory, was seen to decrease.

The team also saw an increase in connectivity between two other areas – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula – a conduit between brain and body. These areas are believed to assist the brain process and control what’s happening in the body.

There was also a reduced connectivity between said dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the ‘default mode network’ that includes the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex.

During hypnosis, the mind is focussed and concentrated to such an extent it becomes fully absorbed by, and involved in the imagery and feelings conjured up by the suggestions. In fact the brain becomes so intensely focussed, it is able to ignore pretty well anything else that is going on. It’s almost as if the rest of the world temporarily ceases to exist. This is why genuinely hypnotised subjects are able to change their attitudes and beliefs during hypnotherapy and are willing to perform unusual tasks during stage hypnosis. Many subjects confirm this sense of involvement during hypnosis.

Put simply, this decrease in functional connectivity likely represents a separation of an individual’s actions and their awareness of their actions. In hypnosis parlance, you know what you’re doing, it just seems like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

During hypnosis, this kind of disassociation between action and reflection allows the person to engage in activities either suggested by a clinician or self-suggested without the usual mental resources of self-consciousness about the activity.

As any professional mesmerist well knows, hypnosis can be an extremely powerful way of changing the way our minds are used to control not only our perception, but also our behaviour and even our bodies – particularly when it comes to ridding ourselves of unwanted habits, pain management and increased confidence.

In order to properly study the hypnotic state itself, the Stanford team screened another group of 545 healthy volunteers. They were able to select 36 people who were capable of being hypnotised [they should have brought in a professional hypnotist!] and 21 individuals who proved to be at the extreme low end of hypnotisability. This group – the ones who were unable to be hypnotised – made up the all-important control group. In this way, it was possible to negate the possibility of seeing things happening in the brains of those being hypnotised but be unsure whether they were associated with hypnosis or not. [I am presuming that the team also looked at brain scans of the highly hypnotisable volunteers whilst they were not hypnotised.]

I already know that only about 10% of the population is highly hypnotisable – suggestible enough – to make imaginative subjects for stage hypnosis. At the other end of the scale, around 10% find it nigh on impossible to achieve hypnosis. The remaining 80% of the population reside in the grey area in between. But even the 80% majority are able to enter into hypnosis, just not to the degree we are culturally used to seeing in stage hypnosis shows. However, for the purposes of hypnotherapy, they are. All that matters in hypnotherapy is that the subject is able to concentrate, relax, and focus their attention – and that’s enough to benefit from the rapid change hypnosis can facilitate.

David Spiegel and his colleagues are convinced of the power of hypnosis on the brain as a means of modifying beliefs and behaviour.

And now for something completely different…

Researchers at the University of Turku and Aalto in Finland and at the University of Skövde in Sweden claim the glazed and staring eyes of one very suggestible hypnotic subject have provided proof the hypnotic state exists and their findings have been reported in PLoS ONE, a pay-to-publish but peer reviewed journal published by the Public Library of Science, San Francisco.

The Finnish and Swedish researcher’s single subject was able to transition between the waking state and hypnosis in seconds and on the cue of a given word.

By now stage hypnotists all over the world will be laughing their socks off because this is something they do on a nightly basis. The given word of choice is usually ‘Sleep!’ and Bob’s your uncle, out they go like a light.

The researchers are obviously thrilled with their discovery, especially as they observed the glazed state was accompanied by measurable changes in automatic and reflexive eye movements they claim could not possibly be simulated by someone who was not genuinely hypnotised.

Their conclusion that this result means hypnosis can no longer be regarded as merely a product of the mental imagery that takes place in the normal waking state (normal consciousness) is misplaced – as is their belief that this one result, observed in one highly hypnotisable subject may be the first evidence of a special conscious state in humans that has not previously been scientifically confirmed.

One must understand that the Nordic countries have comparatively little experience of hypnosis. When I first performed in Sweden in 1997, the Swedes had never seen anything like it before. Special permission had to be sought from the Social Authority and there was a lot of opposition to allowing my shows to go ahead. In the end, common sense prevailed and I was allowed to perform. At that time, there were precisely two people practicing hypnotherapy in the whole country.

In Norway, all hypnosis – including hypnotherapy – was banned until 2006 and so again, when I arrived to do my first training course that same year, I found myself talking to a group who didn’t have the first idea about what I was about to teach them.

Finland is in the same position. Hypnosis/hypnotherapy is a very new phenomenon and is not as well understood as it is in the United States or the UK. In both Norway and Finland stage hypnosis is still banned by law, although in Norway there have been some underground hypnosis shows in private homes and closed premises.

In 2009 I gave a public demonstration in Oslo as part of a large alternative health expo and was threatened with arrest if I went ahead. I did go ahead, but turned it into a lecture, with the only hypnosis being on film! Two uniformed Norwegian policemen sat in the audience watching every move I made, and by the end of the hour long session seemed perplexed as to what all the fuss had been about.

So it’s no big surprise that the Finns and the Swedes are hyper-excited over something they are only just getting to grips with and we take for granted.

But back to the Stanford study – more enlightened and supported by the sort of technological resources that give it the significance it deserves.

The success of the Stanford study is good news. We now have undeniable proof of the existence of hypnosis as a state, rather than a non-state, and a much better picture of its neurological correlations.

The bad news is that the age-old debate about the safety of stage hypnosis is now likely to be reignited. The purists (myself among them) will claim that the Stanford results prove the power of hypnosis, and more important call into question the wisdom of administering trivial suggestions to highly suggestible subjects as opposed to more positive and life-enhancing suggestions. Moreover, badly crafted suggestions can lead to literal interpretations by subjects and unforeseen reactions.

At the risk of repeating myself, the majority of stage hypnotists are content to carry on regardless because it works, it gets laughs, and they get paid. But they are in addition woefully unprepared for things going wrong, as we saw with the Sharon Tabarn case and the Paul McKenna/Christopher Gates case in 1997. McKenna failed to deal with Gates’ problem in an appropriate manner and his treatment of Gates in the days after the show was appalling. The result was that the subsequent and inevitable court case nearly succeeded in scuppering stage hypnosis in the UK, something that would certainly have had a knock-on effect in the rest of the world. *

Stage hypnosis deals with real people who do occasionally experience real problems that may subsequently become irreversibly rooted in the brain. The possibility of this happening is, admittedly slight, but a possibility nonetheless. Stage hypnotists are woefully unprepared to deal with real psychological problems and conundrums, even ones that they themselves are responsible for.

Stanford should be cause for reflection and reassessment, but it probably won’t be, and that will be an opportunity missed.

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Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.

About Andrew Newton

Andrew Newton has an international reputation as a leading authority on hypnosis. 

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