When we think of cognitive function, we usually think of having the power to alter our reasoning, while we passively respond to our perceptions. What if we could do the inverse: manipulate our perception, while merely responding to reasoning and language? That is the basic neurological explanation of hypnosis, says David Spiegel, MD, director of the Center on Stress and Health and medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine.
Spiegel spoke on new research in hypnosis yesterday morning during the Integrative Medicine Research Lecture Series presented by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). Despite its Greek etymology, hypnosis does not involve going to sleep; it’s more like a narrowing of attention. “Hypnosis is to consciousness what a telephoto lens is to a camera,” Spiegel explained.
When hypnotized, you put outside of awareness what would normally be in consciousness (dissociation), and become less likely to judge what people tell you (suggestibility). The idea of this often makes people nervous, because we’re evolved to respond to nuanced social cues. But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that overcoming this nervousness can yield a wealth of health benefits.
Hypnosis can be an effective method for managing pain, and treating anxiety and stress-related disorders. Past studies have shown that people hypnotized before operative care have a shorter procedure time and a significant reduction in intraprocedural complications, such as hypoxemia and vomiting. One study showed that in select cases “hypnosis as sole anesthesia works extremely well,” Spiegel said.
In another example, getting urinary catheters into kids is notoriously difficult – the more they resist, the harder it is. Telling them that “your body needs to be here, but you don’t, so we’re going somewhere else” and then using hypnosis makes the procedure significantly more comfortable for them, according to a past Stanford study.
In the talk, Spiegel gave examples of recent research that shows that hypnosis can relieve Parkinson’s tremors, help people quit smoking and help moderate gastric acid production. It hasn’t caught on because “we just don’t have an industry to push it,” Spiegel commented, joking about potential interest from pocket watch manufacturers.
To illustrate the opening explanation, Spiegel described some fascinating recent studies where participants actually changed their perception of color saturation and the strength of shocks. When the frontal cortex, responsible for language and “controlled” thought, passively received language during hypnosis, it altered the activity in the back of the brain, where “uncontrolled” perception occurs.
Spiegel has co-authored a book, Trance and Treatment: Clinical Uses of Hypnosis, with more information on his research.
Previously: Exploring the science of hypnosis with Stanford’s David Spiegel, Not everyone can be hypnotized – and researchers are one step closer to understanding why, David Spiegel discusses the healing properties of hypnosis, Easing pain and improving recovery with hypnosis, Hypnosis helps baseball manager quit tobacco habit, and More patients turning to hypnosis to help ease symptoms
Photo by Ludovico Caldara