Thursday, 1 August 2013

Neuroscience gets serious about hypnosis

Hypnosis is synonymous with stage entertainment where the performer puts volunteers from the audience into a trance and commands them to do embarrassing things. This makes it sound like a joke, but in fact hypnosis is a real phenomenon and it is proving increasingly useful to psychologists and neuroscientists, granting new insights into mental processes and medically unexplained neurological disorders.

That's according to David Oakley and Peter Halligan who have written an authoritative new review, debunking hypnosis myths, and covering ways that neuroscience is shedding light on hypnosis and ways hypnosis is aiding neuroscience.

Despite popular folklore, hypnosis is not a form of sleep (this misconception isn't helped by the fact that hypnosis studies typically label the control condition the "waking state"). However, Oakley and Halligan say new brain imaging findings do support the contention that hypnosis is a distinct form of consciousness. After successful hypnotic induction, which involves using mental strategies to reach "a focused and absorbed attentional state", participants show reduced activity in parts of the brain's default mode network together with increased activity in prefrontal attentional systems. Oakley and Halligan concede that "it remains to be seen if these particular changes are unique to hypnosis."

After hypnotic induction (or in some cases even without it) participants exposed to suggestive statements can experience altered perceptual or bodily sensations. For instance, told that their arm is getting heavier and they cannot move it, a suggestible participant may experience paralysis of the arm. Sceptics may wonder about the veracity of these experiences but brain imaging results are indicating they are real and not merely imagined.

Consider a study of participants hypnotised and induced to see colourful Mondrian images in grey. Brain scan results of these participants showed altered activity in fusiform regions involved in colour processing, and crucially such changes weren't observed when the participants merely imagined the Mondrians in grey. Another study showed that the famous Stroop effect disappeared when hypnotised participants received the suggestion that they would see words as meaningless symbols.

Another line of research explores the correlates of hypnotic suggestibility. Apparently it is a highly stable trait and it is heritable. It doesn't correlate with the main personality dimensions but does correlate with creativity, empathy, mental absorption, fantasy proneness and people's expectation that they will be prone to hypnotic procedures.

Many neurological symptoms are medically unexplained with no apparent organic cause and it is here that hypnosis is proving especially useful as a new way to model, explore and treat people's symptoms. For instance people can be hypnotised to experience limb paralysis in a way that appears similar to the paralysis observed in conversion disorder. People can also be hypnotically induced to experience the sense that there is a stranger looking back at them when they peer in a mirror - an apparent analogue of the real "mirrored-self-misidentification delusion". Hypnosis research is also exposing the apparent volitional element to mental phenomena previously considered automatic. For example, a patient who experienced face-colour synaesthesia received post-hypnotic suggestion that abolished the colours she usually sees with faces (as confirmed by a colour-naming task in which faces no longer had an interfering effect).

"The psychological disposition to modify and generate experiences following targeted suggestion remains one of the most remarkable but under-researched human cognitive abilities given its striking causal influence on behaviour and consciousness," said Oakley and Halligan.


Oakley DA, and Halligan PW (2013). Hypnotic suggestion: opportunities for cognitive neuroscience. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 14 (8), 565-76 PMID: 23860312

--Further reading--
The hypnotised brain.
The efficacy of ‘hypnotic’ inductions depends on the label ‘hypnosis’.
Also: the latest Neurpod podcast covered this review paper.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Rolf Degen said...

This article does not mention that there is a strong tradition in social psychology debunking the special state approach to hypnosis. In principle it means that people are not really hypnotized, the do only role play, conformimg to the expectations of the hypnotist or researcher. You will find this in the book "50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior" by Prof. Scott O. Lilienfeld. The magician "The Amazing Kreskin" has even offered a reward of 100.00 Dollars for anyone who can prove the existence of the hypnotic trance:

This suits my own experience: In former years, I had myself hypnotized and I hypnotized others. And there was no there there. If scientist want a new "cognitive neuroscience" of hypnosis, the would have to debunk the debunking, and there are a lot of fine experiments to debunk.

Unknown said...

hi Rolf, thanks for this. You're right there is no evidence (not yet at least) for a unique hypnotic brain state and Oakley and Halligan concede this point in their review. They also acknowledge that many people are open to suggestion without hypnotic induction. I suppose part of this is semantics ... the larger point Oakley and Halligan are trying to make is that hypnotic suggestion (or whatever we call it) is proving very useful to neuroscience research.

The Relaxed Soul said...

There is a lot that can be done with hypnosis, and there are actual changes in the brain under hypnosis.

Here is a link to an article showing my brain wave under hypnosis with one side working in an altered state and the other pretty much calm.

And another set of brain waves while meditating where both sides are calm.

We have a Mind/Body - it cannot be disconnected so things can change drastically under hypnosis.

As with Milton Erickson the father of modern day hypnosis who would just talk to someone and have them stop wetting the bed, or help a woman who was flat chested grow breasts... all without any formal induction.

I find it amazing... and perhaps we will never totally understand hypnosis

Dr. Paul Haider - Master Herbalist

Marc Carlin said...

Combining the neuroplasticity of the brain with hypnotic techniques is the new frontier for generative change.

Man has always needed to understand his surroundings, but do you need to fully understand something in order to use it to your benefit?

Dave Berman said...

I agree with Marc Carlin above. Also, I think hypnosis research often leads to inaccurate conclusions because studies are conducted in settings that don't always resemble the real world ways we clinical/medical hypnotists practice with clients.

For example, we are all capable of going into hypnosis and can learn to do this with increasing ease. Yet often we hear that some people are "unhypnotizable" and that it is a stable trait. Only the narrow constructs of a research environment would lead to those false conclusions that are easily debunked in any practicing hypnotist's office.

I'm sorry to slightly grind that axe here because I think you have mostly highlighted some encouraging findings well worth paying attention to. I commented on another hypnosis-related post you had a while ago and you dismissed the broad view I took on what constitutes hypnosis. I'm glad to see you giving it more credit here.

Dave Berman, C.Ht.

Unknown said...

"However, Oakley and Halligan say new brain imaging findings do support the contention that hypnosis is a distinct form of consciousness."

This seems to indicate there is evidence.

Unknown said...

Neuroscience can be getting serious about hypnosis in the research lab. As a Clinical Hypnosis Practitioner, I am serious about the dramatic changes some clients experience in the office (after the session/s), working with hypnosis (among other therapeutic tools)in a short period of time.

Hypnosis is not a magic wand and it does not work the same way for everyone (personal belief system on hypnosis help to favourable outcomes too).

Thankfully, research studies are steadily advancing and supporting positive correlations between hypnosis and neuroplasticity that can lead to publically its acceptance and inclusion in traditional medicine.

Ivan Lentijo CHP

Jeffrey Stephens said...

Hello Rolf, My only comment to your comment is; there may not be a 'special state' when YOU do hypnosis, but there is when I do.

I have altered personalities on a base level to the point that I have had people honestly believing they are someone else entirely for weeks at a time, including one who spent nearly three weeks believing she was an E.T. who just wanted to find a way home.

As a hypnotic subject, one can only be subjective about the experience, but I can tell you that my world has been altered a few times. My perceived reality was real until I was brought out and told what I had done and believed... with video to prove to me that it had happened.

Since your experience and perception don't match my experience and perception, I'll just have to go with mine as being more accurate.

Anonymous said...

And you wonder why people have a negative opinion of hypnosis/hypnotherapy? You are bragging about creating a distressing situation, allowing it to go on for three weeks and altering people's personalities. Whether or not these are truthful brags, they are not helping the reputation of the scientific study of hypnosis as a tool for further understanding of neurological symptoms and the possible use of it as a therapeutic method.

Ulrich Eckardt said...


thank you for sharing this informations. We use hypnosis in our office and so many positive things happened.

Greetings from Germany


Mark Davis said...


Hypnosis has a long and venerable history in psychotherapy - psychologists and psychotherapists who aren't aware of that need to study again.

By any study of the history of psychotherapy would could contend that it started with hypnosis (Charcot and Bernheim), Freud started with it, abandoned it and then returned to it at the end. The father's of behavioural therapy (Jo Wolpe and Andrew Salter) made extensive use of hypnosis - as did Arnold Lazarus and Albert Ellis. Hans Eysenck's biggest regret was the he did not get to study hypnosis (due to concerns at the Maudsely).
In Russia Pavlov's team continued to develop psychotherapy using hypnosis - building up a research file of some 50,000 case studies (Platanov).
The socio-cognitive theorists (Barber, Sarbin, Spanos, Kirsch etc) did not debunk "hypnosis" - they debunked the idea that it is a "special state" - however the idea of hypnosis as a "response set", as a cue to play a social role, to deploy particular cognitive strategies, an increased expectancy to respond etc - all this they do not deny. But what do we call this rather unique conglomeration of factors - why not "hypnosis" (or "mono-ideaism" as James Braid, who originated the term 'hypnosis' proposed latterly proposed).

The population at large, the medical profession and most psychologists have no idea of what is possible in terms of suggestion and increasing suggestibility (people can be trained to become increase their "innate" hypnotic suggestability - a discovery of the socio-cognitivists). The label hypnosis is useful in terms of providing a label, a cue and preparing the subject to adopt a "hypnotic mind-set".
The evidence for it's potential benefits - especially when used in combination with cognitive and behavioural therapies is hard to deny.

However I doubt that Oakley and co have really found a distinct state of consciousness that would meet a clear definition of a state as the public would understand (e.g. wakefulness vs dreaming vs deep sleep vs coma).

Thank you

Mark Davis
The UK College of Hypnosis & Hypnotherapy

Richard said...

When hypnotic states can be objectively measured, it can open the door to reliable research being taken seriously by the medical profession.

Unknown said...

Hello All,
I think that the point that we are all missing here (or that you are all missing), is that we have to prove everything, because that's what science has taught us. After all we are all scientific, and we all know how much effective the scientific method of the null hypothesis is. Don't we? :)
All this makes us look seriou-ass.

Hypnosis or the hypnotic phenomenon has since the dawn of humans, continues to these days, and will inevitably continue to affect changes. THOSE changes we are particularly after. How they are effected, in what concerns the chemical, biochemical, and bioelectrical mechanisms is still not exactly known. Though I approve of science's efforts in elucidating how this is possible. I do believe that it will take us some time if we continue to employ the contemporary scientific/medical method, and shun the quantum physics model. Consciousness must be taken as a force in itself and not just as a programme instruction pattern in the neurological pathways.

Your talking and debating all reminds me of the academic disputes between the schools of psychology back in the seventies, when none of them could provide effective therapy. And they were all arguing which system was the best..:). Of all comments I approve of yours Jeff :)

Of course that hypnosis has an element of role play in it, no one denies it. Think of this, doesn't an actor who performs beautifully need to get into his form of hypnosis or altered state to perform well? Doesn't a public speaker have to believe in himself (that is he believes that He Is a Public Speaker) before he performs correctly?
So of course that there is a HUGE element of role play in hypnosis. This does not nullify its existence of the altered states, but truly elucidate what in part it is.
After all it was Dr. Milton Erickson himself who said that, "If you can PRETEND something well enough, you can master it".
Yours Joseph Zammit.

Yassin Madwin said...

Neurology is the validation of psychology as is maths for physics. hypnosis has a bad reputation is scientific community because of those who use hypnosis as a joke or for super phenomena like past life regression .

Ellen McNally, Hypnotherapist said...

As a hypnotherapist, I have observed how readily clients make important changes under hypnosis and equally, how spontaneously dismissive they are of any suggestion of change that they do not want to make. And this is where the myth and the fear of hypnosis begins: Whether the hypnotist can control your mind and make you change in ways you don’t want. And the answer is a definitive NO. The funny thing here is that there is rarely a dispute about what really matters: Whether hypnotherapy is an effective tool for change. And that is no longer a dispute. Thousands of clinical research studies conducted internationally have proven, clearly, that it works. Is there a lot of pushback from the established healing professions? Yes, as you would expect. Change is hard.

Ellen McNally

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