Beyond the Trance: Unraveling the Mystery of Hypnosis and Its Impact on the Brain

Picture this: a stage magician, waving a pocket watch, telling a participant to focus and relax. As the participant slips into a trance, the audience watches in anticipation. Is this merely entertainment, or is there more to hypnosis than meets the eye? While hypnosis might be associated with showbiz and illusion, it is actually a potent tool, utilized by clinicians and neuroscientists alike to assist patients with psychological and psychosomatic disorders. But how exactly does it work?

Let’s dive into the mesmerizing world of hypnosis, and discover how it truly influences our brain activity.

Hypnosis: A Viable Tool, Not a Magic Trick

There’s a common misconception that hypnosis is simply a party trick. But would it surprise you to learn that hypnosis is one of the oldest forms of Western psychotherapy? It’s high time we left behind images of dangling watches and purple capes. Instead, we should recognize hypnosis as a powerful tool that allows us to harness our minds to control our perceptions and even our bodily functions.

Hypnotic Susceptibility: A Matter of the Mind

Not everyone is equally susceptible to hypnosis. Stanford University researchers decided to probe this further. They initially screened 545 individuals using the Harvard Group Scale for Hypnotic Susceptibility, a tool designed to assess one’s susceptibility to being hypnotized. The result? They identified 36 individuals with high hypnotizability scores, who, along with 21 low-scoring controls, were selected for further study.

What Happens to the Brain Under Hypnosis?

By using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers were able to take a peek into the brains of the participants. They did this while the participants were at rest, recalling a memory, and, most importantly, when they were under hypnosis.

So, what exactly happens in the brain during hypnosis? The team made three major findings.

  1. A Disconnect in Perception and Cognition: Normally, two parts of our brain, the default mode network (DMN) and the executive control network (ECN), work together. The DMN plays a role in self-awareness and episodic memory, while the ECN handles cognition. Under hypnosis, these two networks disconnect. This could explain why hypnotized individuals remain conscious and capable of action, yet seem unable to reflect on their actions.
  2. Heightened Pain Management: The second discovery was increased connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the insula, a brain region linked with somatic function, pain processing, emotion, empathy, and a sense of time. This could be the reason why hypnosis has been successful in helping people manage or even overcome pain.
  3. Selective Attention: Lastly, researchers found a decrease in activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), a part of the brain that helps us decide what to focus on and what to ignore. This could explain why people in a hypnotic trance often seem oblivious to certain elements of their environment.

Hypnosis: A Different State of Consciousness

So, does hypnosis simply turn off parts of our brain? The answer is no. Instead, hypnosis alters the connectivity within our brain. Certain parts become separated, while others become integrated. This could potentially explain why hypnosis is often seen as a different state of consciousness rather than a reduced level of arousal.

In a nutshell, hypnosis, far from being a frivolous trick, is a fascinating and practical tool with profound impacts on the brain. It’s like a backstage pass into the human mind, enabling us to tap into aspects of our consciousness that often remain elusive. But like any tool, the power of hypnosis lies in how we use it. And as we continue to unlock its mysteries, who knows what potential we could unleash?

Further reading

Kirsch, I., & Braffman, W. (2001). Imaginative suggestibility and hypnotizability: An empirical analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(3), 510-524.

Elkins, G. R. (2015). Hypnosis in the treatment of anxiety- and stress-related disorders. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics, 15(3), 289-297.

Oakley, D. A., & Halligan, P. W. (2013). Hypnotic suggestion: Opportunities for cognitive neuroscience. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 14(8), 565-576. Link

Raz, A., Kirsch, I., Pollard, J., & Nitkin-Kaner, Y. (2006). Suggestion reduces the Stroop effect. Psychological Science, 17(2), 91-95.

Deeley, Q., Oakley, D. A., Toone, B., Giampietro, V., Brammer, M. J., Williams, S. C., … & Aziz, Q. (2012). Modulating the default mode network using hypnosis. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 60(2), 206-228. Link

Faymonville, M. E., Boly, M., Laureys, S., & Fuchs, S. (2008). Functional neuroanatomy of the hypnotic state. Journal of Physiology-Paris, 102(1-3), 84-87.

Jensen, M. P., & Patterson, D. R. (2014). Hypnotic approaches for chronic pain management: Clinical implications of recent research findings. American Psychologist, 69(2), 167-177.