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Last week a paper was released that got the fields of hypnosis and hypnotherapy very excited. The media was awash with articles discussing how researchers had finally unravelled the mystery of whether hypnosis could be considered ‘real’ from a scientific perspective.

I have briefly written about the subject of whether hypnosis really works previously, covering the basic perspectives. However, as an avid follower of both hypnosis and neuroscience, any newly published research is of particular interest. As an advocate of evidence-based therapy, I aim to offer my hypnotherapy clients in Southampton the highest quality therapeutic approaches available, so keeping up-to-date with research is a must.

So what does this latest hypnosis research tell us?

The research carried out by Dr David Spiegel and collegues of Stanford University Medical Centres department of psychiatry & behavioral sciences ‘was designed to identify differences in resting state brain activity between highly hypnotizable and low hypnotizable individuals during hypnosis’.(1)

Dr David Spiegel is a well known researcher in the field of hypnosis, son of professor Herbert Spiegel himself a leading researcher in the field of hypnosis, Dr Spiegel has authored several books and over 200 papers. His 2000 paper ‘Hypnotic visual illusion alters color processing in the brain’(2) is often quoted by those in the field of hypnotherapy as proof that hypnosis really works. That paper showed that ‘When subjects were hypnotized, color areas of the left and right hemispheres were activated when they were asked to perceive color, whether they were actually shown the color or the gray-scale stimulus. These brain regions had decreased activation when subjects were told to see gray scale, whether they were actually shown the color or gray-scale stimuli. These results were obtained only during hypnosis in the left hemisphere, whereas blood flow changes reflected instructions to perceive color versus gray scale in the right hemisphere, whether or not subjects had been hypnotized. These findings support the claim that hypnosis is a psychological state with distinct neural correlates and is not just the result of adopting a role.’(2)

Put simply Dr David Spiegel’s 2000 paper states that hypnosis can be observed and so is most definitely not the result of someone acting along or pretending to be hypnotised.

So what does Dr Spiegel’s latest paper show?

“There had not been any studies in which the goal was to simply ask what’s going on in the brain when you’re hypnotized,” said Dr Spiegel.

So the paper was aimed at identifying brain function and activity during hypnosis.

Method and findings

The brains of 57 healthy subjects (36 highly hypnotizable) people were scanned and analysed during guided hypnosis sessions similar to those used clinically when working with anxiety disorders. These were compared to the results of 21 low hypnotizable subjects.

The Stanford research identified three areas of the brain directly associated with hypnosis. The changes were observed only in the highly hypnotisable group and importantly only during hypnosis.

Brain activity and connectivity

The three changes observed:

1) A decrease in activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate, this is a perceptual part of the brain that differentiates between shapes/objects/people etc. “In hypnosis, you’re so absorbed that you’re not worrying about anything else,” Spiegel explained.

2) An increase was observed in connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula. These areas of the brain help process and control bodily function. This suggests how hypnotherapy maybe able to harness the ability to regulate cognitive influence over physical function.

3) A reduction in connections was observed between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network, including the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex. These changes are theorised to be representative of a disconnection between a person’s actions and the ‘awareness’ of their actions.

This final change may go some way to explaining why a person can appear to be engaged in activities, in response to the suggestions of the clinician or due to the influence of hypnosis.

Summary

These findings have particular importance to the field of hypnotherapy. Hypnotherapy is considered most effective when a client fully engages with the work and a positive expectancy and belief in the therapeutic process is built. This is something I concentrate upon in my work with Southampton Clinical Hypnotherapy.

For hypnotherapists to be able to confidently point clients in the direction of this research will help both parties understand how to get the most out of therapy and dismiss the idea that hypnosis is in some way fake.

Book a free telephone consultation today. Sometimes just making a call can help.

*Hypnosis is not suitable for all clients and results vary person to person. All our programmes can be delivered effectively without the use of hypnosis. 
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(1) ‘Brain Activity and Functional Connectivity Associated with Hypnosis’. Jiang H, White MP, Greicius MD, Waelde LC, Spiegel D. Cerebral Cortex. Published online July 28 2016

(2) ‘Hypnotic visual illusion alters color processing in the brain’. Kosslyn SM, Thompson WL, Costantini-Ferrando MF, Alpert NM, Spiegel D. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2000 Aug;157(8):1279-84