Here’s What Hypnosis Does to the Brain – What Happens to Your Brain on Hypnosis Revealed
by Erika Slater
“If the brain were so simple we could understand it,
we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”
Emerson M. Pugh/George Edgin Pugh
In this article you’ll discover:
- Why science and medical researchers are showing an expanded interest in hypnosis today.
- What science and medical studies are finding out about “what hypnosis does to the brain” from a visual perspective.
- Translation and mapping of the characteristics of these studies, to understanding how hypnosis produces the results, and outcomes, hypnotherapists see in patients and clients.
- Further reading and hypnosis resources around the cited hypnosis studies, and understanding further what hypnosis can be used for, and the benefits it provides.
When trying to answer what hypnosis does to the brain there are two types of answers. One is scientific and delves into understanding what exactly in the brain can be seen to change during hypnosis, and the other focuses more on the results and outcomes for the person experiencing hypnosis, or put another way – “This is what happens to your brain on hypnosis.”
Both sides of the coin interest researchers and practitioners of psychology and psychotherapy.
We have many more questions about our complex brain than answers, and this is likely to be the case for the foreseeable future. We’ve only just started on our journey of understanding our brain and how it all works.
But why the interest on hypnosis by science and researchers?
Well, while hypnosis has been in use by different names for hundreds of years, it was shrouded in mystery and widely believed to be just trickery, like magic, by those who practised it. It wasn’t until the last century as we begun to explore the frontiers of the brain, and advanced in our understanding of cognitive science, researchers realised hypnosis was a natural condition of our brain and produced an altered visible state, and was grounded in the working principles of the mind.
More recently these altered states have been confirmed in MRI scans, and from scientific studies attempting to understand what is going on in the brain under hypnosis.
As it’s no longer a question of does hypnosis work to help people with both medical and habit challenges, the research is focused on understanding “how it works,” because if we understand the “how,” then, we can better control it to provide more consistently the outcomes we want. For example why is it some people are successful quitting smoking using hypnosis in one session while others can still struggle or need extra sessions to quit? Can this research help hypnotists obtain consistent results for clients?
So, let’s start by diving into some of the recent research around what science has discovered through studies about hypnosis and the brain…
WHAT IS SCIENCE ACTUALLY SEEING IN THE BRAIN ON HYPNOSIS:
In one experiment done at Cornell University’s medical school with the findings appearing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers used brain scans to watch the brain under the influence of hypnosis.
Specialized MRI brain scans showed less activity in two areas of the hypnotized brain, one covers visual processing, and the other is likely significant in handling conflicts.
“That could mean that the brains of highly hypnotizable people were more accepting of the instructions (suggestions), said Michael Posner, PhD, and colleagues.”
“The researchers say that these results could also help explain the power of suggestion under other circumstances.”
You can read more about this study in the link provided in the resource section at the end of this article.
In another study performed by David Spiegel, MD, professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, along with other colleagues, they scanned the brains of subjects while they were hypnotized and were able to see neural changes associated with hypnosis.
“The scientists scanned the brains of 57 people during guided hypnosis sessions similar to those that might be used clinically to treat anxiety, pain or trauma. Distinct sections of the brain have altered activity and connectivity while someone is hypnotized, they report in a study published online July 28 in Cerebral Cortex.”
The Stanford study uncovered characteristics of a brain under hypnosis. “First, they saw a decrease in activity in an area called the dorsal anterior cingulate, part of the brain’s salience network.” This confirms when you’re absorbed in something such as a book, movie or hobby, then, you enter a state of hypnosis or trance as some professionals prefer to define this state.
“… secondly, they saw an increase in connections between two other areas of the brain — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula. He (Dr. Spiegel) described this as a brain-body connection that helps the brain process and control what’s going on in the body.”
The third hallmark they observed was “…reduced connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network, which includes the medial prefrontal and the posterior cingulate cortex. This decrease in functional connectivity likely represents a disconnect between someone’s actions and their awareness of their actions, Spiegel said. ‘When you’re really engaged in something, you don’t really think about doing it — you just do it,’ he said.”
Again, I’ve placed a link in the resource section below to the full transcript of the article I pulled excerpts from.
One common technique, as a hypnotic convincer to subjects, is to invoke paralysis during hypnosis. This can be something like telling a subject while in a hypnotic state “their arm is so heavy its impossible to lift it.” Then when you ask them to lift up their arm while still in trance they’re unable to do so.
In another research study connected to such convincers and what’s going on in the brain… “Yann Cojan, at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, viewed the mental activity of 12 volunteers experiencing hand paralysis while under hypnosis. It was discovered that activity of the right motor cortex, responsible for left side-body movement, was intercepted by a brain region called the precuneus. The precuneus is a section of the brain committed in part to personal memory and mental imagery… this part of the brain then relayed the impossibility of the task to the motor cortex. Cojan said, it’s as if the motor cortex is connected to the idea that it cannot move (the hand) and so … it doesn’t send the message to move.” Excerpted from article with link in resource section below on “What Part of the Brain is Affected by Hypnosis.”
So, what does research so far tell us about what hypnosis does to the brain?
Its shown when someone is in a state of hypnosis, their minds are deeply focused and absorbed in feelings and imagery created by the suggestions of the hypnotherapist. One’s brain becomes so focused and intent on the suggestions they can only focus on the suggestions, and nothing else around them. It also tells us their focus is on carrying out the suggestion (or instructions) without critical thinking or thought around the suggestion.
Researchers who’ve studied hypnosis and the brain found those who were under hypnosis, had fewer connections in their brains between the region in the brain active in self-reflection and daydreaming, and areas in the prefrontal cortex that is involved with carrying out tasks and planning.
Basically, the brain goes on autopilot and only ‘hears’ what the hypnotist is ‘suggesting’ and carrying it out. This goes back to my point on critical thinking being excluded because the hypnotic suggestions are bypassing the conscious mind (critical thinking), and the instructions being encoded directly into the unconscious mind during hypnosis.
Under hypnosis researchers have found that individuals experience a separation between their actions and their awareness of their actions. The ‘connection’ in the brain gets compromised if you will. There occurs a disconnect between one’s actions and the ability to reflect on actions.
This makes it possible for the individual to engage in any activities suggested by a hypnotherapist without having to use their ‘mental’ capacities to think about the activity.
We can conclude this section by stating, we’ve really just begun, and have more questions than answers. More research and studies are needed. I just extracted a few pieces of research performed already but there is a lot more to form solid scientific evidence-based conclusions.
So, now its time to discuss the second element I want to cover, and this is around outcomes for the person experiencing hypnosis, as in many respects this is more important than the science to clients and patients I see daily.
YOUR BRAIN ON HYPNOSIS AND RESULTS AND OUTCOMES:
While just about everybody can, and has, experienced hypnosis in their life there are a section of people who are highly suggestible and enter trance more easily. If you’ve ever watched a stage hypnotist select volunteers from the audience for their show then you’ll see how they’re looking for those highly suggestible candidates.
I’ve seen figures of 10-20% of the population as being highly suggestible but not seen any scientific studies to back this figure up.
However, that doesn’t mean the remaining population is not hypnotizable, it just means most of us are not good candidates for entertaining others by performing the embarrassing suggestions of a stage hypnotist. Be thankful.
In full disclosure there is a selection of individuals that can’t be hypnotized and likely this percentage is small as it contains people with reduced capability of mental awareness. So, if you’re reading this and thinking “I can’t be hypnotized”, then, likely you can but won’t let yourself, and this is fine. There are many people who don’t want to win the lottery but can – but I’m not one! As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”
Individuals can use hypnosis to change the perceptions they hold, as well as their behaviors. If that isn’t enough, it can also influence the ability to ‘change’ things in the body.
Since the mind/brain controls the body, the body has to do what the mind tells it to do. The body (robot) responds to the brain (Central Processing Unit). What makes this interesting is the body’s ability to heal from the commands by the brain via hypnotic suggestions.
You see, this can help individuals who suffer from stress or anxiety which creates physical symptoms in the body. It can help with unwanted habits or spasms. And it can also help with pain management, or using hypnosis as a form of anesthesia for helping with varying medical procedures.
One of the interesting aspects of using hypnosis and how it can influence the brain is how it can change neural pathways.
The longer you do something repeatedly, the more likely you’re going to do it out of habit. The reason habits form is neural pathways in the brain become conditioned to act and respond a certain way. This greatly influences the unconscious mind.
When you use hypnosis, you can tap in to the unconscious mind and change old thought patterns. By changing thought patterns and creating new ones, you’re creating new neuropathways.
Basically, your brain is malleable like putty when it comes to thoughts and conditioned responses. By changing the neuropathways up, you change the way you think! Hypnotic suggestions can be planted in the unconscious mind to interrupt damaging patterns when they occur. Pattern interrupts to help break habits is another topic I’ve covered in a detailed article linked to below.
Medical science is particularly interested about using hypnosis in treating pain and anxiety to replace addictive and side-effect-laden painkillers and anxiety medication – topical with the current opioid crisis in this country, and which I wrote about recently in another post you can find linked to in the resource section below.
Hypnosis sessions have been shown to be effective in lessening chronic pain, the pain of childbirth and other medical procedures; treating smoking addiction, helping with weight issues, and post-traumatic stress disorder; and easing anxiety or phobias. For a fuller list of “what hypnosis can and cannot do and what it can help with” see my article on this linked to in resources below.
So, what does current research and practice tell us about what hypnosis does to the brain?
Well, we can conclude we’ve really just begun, and have more questions than answers. More research and studies are needed. I just extracted a few pieces of research performed already but there’s more required to form solid scientific evidence-based conclusions.
But that doesn’t mean hypnosis doesn’t work, it just means we’ve just begun the journey to understand how it works in our brain. There will always be skeptics – I understand their remain “flat-earthers” and people who don’t believe the U.S. put men on the moon. Skepticism is healthy and moves us forward but at the end of the day, the skepticism that remains is better founded in focusing on how hypnosis works on our brain, rather than if it works.
The fact hypnosis works is proven by science and the medical world, as well as hypnotists performing work to make life better for their clients and patients day in and day out. If you want to consider working directly with me through my online and in-office sessions then check out my Hypnosis Services or if you’ve a specific need then contact me here.
Those who continue to feel hypnosis is wonky science, and those they feel who believe in hypnosis are wonky, is in this day and age evidence of biased wonky reporting, and we have enough of that going around at the moment to fill up all the internet bandwidth available, and all it does is effectively stop the progress of understanding.
Science and medical research is actively conducting studies on hypnosis and the affect it has on our brain using MRI, and other imagery technology, to determine the actual physical impact on the brain of people in hypnosis.
While science is only at the start of understanding the complex human brain, nonetheless the ability to pinpoint what’s going on in the brain when under hypnosis will help provide more consistent procedures, and results, for those using hypnosis for therapeutic outcomes.
Its no longer a question if hypnosis works to help with various medical procedures and recovery, and as an alternative to the harmful side-effects of many medications, but more a question of being able to expand out from the staple help with smoking cessation, weight loss, anxiety, and phobias, to replace, or compliment, more medical treatments that can benefit from alternative coping and habit changing therapies, leading to better outcomes for patients.
You’ve reached the end of this article, and so, first thank you for making it all the way through. If you’ve any comments on this article please post them below or send me a private note through our contacts page. I’m interested in continuing the dialogue around expanding the use of hypnosis in the medical community.
If you want to learn more about hypnosis and its techniques then you can take a free introductory hypnosis course at the renowned Uncommon Knowledge hypnosis resource center here >>>
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES RELATED TO HYPNOSIS:
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