A recent Stanford University study conducted at its School of Medicine has revealed the neuroscience of the hypnotic state, published in an online article of Cerebral Cortex.
The study’s senior author was Dr David Spiegel, MD, professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, who stated: “Now that we know which brain regions are involved, we may be able to use this knowledge to alter someone’s capacity to be hypnotized or the effectiveness of hypnosis for problems like pain control.” Research on hypnosis in the past has focused on its capacities in managing pain, in vision, and other aspects of perception, while this study zeroed in on the hypnotic state itself.
The brains of 57 subjects were scanned during the type of hypnosis typically conducted to treat pain, trauma and anxiety, and the results showed specific areas of neural change in activity and connectivity. In particular, each individual was scanned as they recalled a memory, while they rested, and during two guided hypnosis sessions. The subjects were divided into two groups: those tested to have a high degree of hypnotizability, and a control group with an extremely low degree.
The researchers first saw a drop in activity in an area of the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate, which is responsible for functions such as emotion, impulse control and decision making.
They then saw connections with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula, which are responsible for how the brain oversees what happens in the body.
Last, the team saw a drop in the parts of the brain responsible for linking an action to awareness of the action. This lack of focus on one’s self, typical in any kind of absorbing activity such as drawing or playing golf, is also a hallmark of the hypnotic state.
“Hypnosis is the oldest Western form of psychotherapy, but it’s been tarred with the brush of dangling watches and purple capes,” said Spiegel. “In fact, it’s a very powerful means of changing the way we use our minds to control perception and our bodies.”