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Not everyone can be hypnotized – and researchers are one step closer to understanding why

I've never tried it, but I've always assumed it would be difficult for me to be hypnotized. I'm somewhat of an anxious person, and it's nearly impossible to for me to shut down my mind - so much so that I got a C minus (a C minus!) in the "techniques of relaxation" class I took in college. (It was the only C I ever got as an undergrad. I'm still bitter!) What I recently learned from a Stanford psychiatrist who treats patients with hypnosis, though, is that hypnotizability is not linked with any specific personality trait; it is, as David Spiegel, MD, told me, "less about personality variables and more about cognitive style."

(Two other interesting nuggets supplied by Spiegel: About tw0-thirds of adults are very capable of being hypnotized, and a person's hypnotizability is unlikely to change in adulthood. He calls it an "amazingly stable trait.")

Now, Spiegel and those in his field are on the verge of identifying a brain signature of being hypnotized. In an imaging study (subscription required) published in the current issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, he and colleagues show how the areas of the brain associated with executive control and attention tend to have less activity in people who cannot be put into a hypnotic trance. I explain more in a release:

For the study, Spiegel and his Stanford colleagues performed functional and structural MRI scans of the brains of 12 adults with high hypnotizability and 12 adults with low hypnotizability.

The researchers looked at the activity of three different networks in the brain: the default-mode network, used when one's brain is idle; the executive-control network, which is involved in making decisions; and the salience network, which is involved in deciding something is more important than something else.

The findings, Spiegel said, were clear: Both groups had an active default-mode network, but highly hypnotizable participants showed greater co-activation between components of the executive-control network and the salience network. More specifically, in the brains of the highly hypnotizable group the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an executive-control region of the brain, appeared to be activated in tandem with the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which is part of the salience network and plays a role in focusing of attention. By contrast, there was little functional connectivity between these two areas of the brain in those with low hypnotizability.

Spiegel, who told me he was "surprised and pleased" by how clear the findings were, is planning more research in this area. And he said a better understanding of what happens in the brain during hypnosis - which is used to help patients manage pain, control stress and anxiety and combat phobias - would be helpful in the clinical setting.

Spiegel talks more about his work in an Author Interview on the journal's website.

Previously: Easing pain and improving recovery with hypnosis and More patients turning to hypnosis to help ease symptoms
Photo by Alta Oosthuizen

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