Neuroscience and Hypnosis: Unlikely Allies

Hypnosis has kept some strange company over the centuries; from magic and sorcery to stage performance and ‘fringe’ psychology. Yet, it seems as popular as ever, with people seeking hypnosis services on every corner of the globe.

Is hypnosis scientifically valid? It has been viewed as an unexplainable albeit impressive theatrical trick, and at worst, hypnosis inspires fear and suspicion with its seemingly magical ability to control and overpower the will of susceptible ‘subjects’.  Rarely has the practice of hypnosis been welcomed into the realm of the genuine and the medically accepted.

A recently published definitive medical review by Professors David Oakley and Peter Halligan of Cardiff University in the UK looks to change that, shedding much-needed light on the phenomenon of hypnosis, and bringing it off the stage and into the arena of neuroscience and modern medicine.

In their review, Oakley and Halligan demystify many of the common misconceptions and myths surrounding the practice of hypnosis, revealing over a century of past successes for a wide range of clinical conditions and, more recently, supporting the validity of hypnosis within the neuroscientific community.

The Hypnotic State Validated

Studies in cognitive neuroscience using new brain imaging lend support to the long-held assertion that hypnosis is a distinct state; not sleep as it is commonly mislabeled, but rather a different form of consciousness or way of being.  Rather than being dominated or controlled, participants willingly enter this state of focused attention (some more easily than others), wherein a broad range of experiences and behaviors may then be modified or enhanced through the use of suggestion.

In brain imaging studies, a successfully induced hypnotic state resulted in reduced activity in the default mode network of the participant’s brain (active when we are not engaged in specific cognitive tasks; mind wandering), along with increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (executive functions and control of attention).

In this state, participants who are then exposed to suggestion may experience altered perceptual or physical sensations – many of us have heard of or seen stage performances where, at the suggestion of the performing hypnotist, the volunteer can no longer move a limb, or begins shivering from the cold in a warm room.

Remarkably, brain imaging study results indicate that these physiological experiences are not merely imagined – they are real.

The review further makes clear that while neuroscience and brain imaging are helping to provide validation for the practice of hypnosis as a legitimate adjunct treatment, hypnosis is in turn providing valuable insights into cognitive brain mechanisms, and is laying the groundwork for a new understanding of a number of clinical conditions and unexplained neurolgical symptoms.

Through hypnotic suggestion, symptoms and clinical conditions can be simulated, modelled and understood, and new and effective treatments explored.  It appears that hypnosis may finally be gaining the respect and recognition it has long merited.

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

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