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"Hypnosis Recording" - Image Credit: wikiHow

What’s really happening once you’re taken away by a swinging pocket watch has been quite a mystery. You might have heard about the growing clinical treatment made possible under hypnosis, like some disorders, post-traumatic stress or simply as a form of ‘pain management’.

It all starts with a patient and therapist discussing goals. In a relaxed state of focus the patient is then once again retold his or her goals in order to imagine and visualize them. For some patients, mostly ones that can easily be hypnotized, such sessions are effective in reducing chronic pain or quitting bad habits.

So far so good, but nobody really knows what’s happening in the bizarre realm associated with hypnosis. You cannot even draw conclusions for all patients, because some people are highly hypnotizable and others almost impossible to put under. Simply put, the state of the brain wasn’t clear yet.

Wouldn’t it be truly fascinating then to simply know which brain regions and connections switch on or off during hypnosis? Scientists did just that and uncovered that a brain put under a hypnotic trance changes in (at least) three ways.

Researchers in the US have been scanning brains of 57 people while carrying out a new imaging study. During a guided hypnosis, specific changes in activity and connectivity of a few brain areas were found. Those areas could then be linked to connections controlling brain-body functions. Total results have now been published in Cerebral Cortex and surely will help therapists better administer hypnosis beyond only pain control.

Senior author and Stanford University psychiatrist David Spiegel, along with study lead author Heidi Jiang and colleagues wanted to find out what went on in the brain during hypnosis. 545 healthy people have been screened and quantified as hypnotizable. The team then picked the 36 people who consistently scored highly and 21 who scored at the extreme low end. Using a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) helped measuring the subjects’ brain activity, allowing precise measurements of changes in blood flow to the brain. As soon as a subject envisioned a scenario, the fMRI could pick up the blood rushing to the respective parts of the brain responsible for analyzing it.

So the subjects were instructed to run through a maximum of four exercises: Resting the mind (while doing a resting-state scan), followed by thinking about their day in great detail (getting a memory control scan) or simply entering two different hypnotic states. In case a subject was doing hypnosis exercises they were told to look up, close their eyes, inhale deeply, exhale deeply and let their body “float”.

Others have been asked to imagine times of happiness or remember times of rest and recovery. In the end the study had all subjects do four exercises once in a random order, followed by eight-minute fMRI scans.

The study found 3 main differences after comparing the results of the hypnotizable group with the less susceptible. Almost all of the interesting results were related to the those highly hypnotizable.

  1. Decreased activity in a part of the brain called the dorsal anterior also known as the salience network, contributing to a person’s self-awareness. Less activity equals less self-awareness. According to Spiegel “In hypnosis, you’re so absorbed that you’re not worrying about anything else.”

  2. Boosted connectivity between two other components of the salience network: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and insula. The insula is responsible for processing functions such as body control, emotion, empathy and time, while the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is involved in cognition, memory and decision-making. During hypnosis a link between those obviously helped the brain control and process what’s happening in the body.

  3. Less connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and a state called “default mode network”. When a mind is wandering, the brain switches into this default mode, enabling a person to think about the self and time related events.

To sum it up, scientist now know far more about how and that hypnosis changes the brain and people’s behavior altogether. They can follow up the study by concentrating on the development of treatments for even those, who have not been susceptible using new kinds of brain simulation.

Spiegel finally adds that hypnosis equals what we all like to call the flow of things: “When you’re really engaged in something, you don’t really think about doing it — you just do it.”

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