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Stanford study shows what happens in brain during hypnosis

7977574743_5f581bf6ca_kI've never tried, but I'm fairly certain I would be difficult to hypnotize. I cling stubbornly to a sense of control, even in situations — such as childbirth — when it might be wiser to let go.

Now, Stanford research appearing in Cerebral Cortex shows real differences between the brains of folks like me and those who are easily hypnotized during a hypnosis session. This is the first study that specifically aimed to show what happens in the brain during hypnosis.

Led by senior author David Spiegel, MD, professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a second-generation hypnosis researcher, the scientists observed the brains of 57 study participants — 36 who were highly hypnotizable and 21 who weren't — using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

A press release explains:

Spiegel and his colleagues discovered three hallmarks of the brain under hypnosis. Each change was seen only in the highly hypnotizable group and only while they were undergoing hypnosis.

First, they saw a decrease in activity in an area called the dorsal anterior cingulate, part of the brain’s salience network. 'In hypnosis, you’re so absorbed that you’re not worrying about anything else,' Spiegel explained.

Secondly, they saw an increase in connections between two other areas of the brain — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula. He described this as a brain-body connection that helps the brain process and control what’s going on in the body.

Finally, Spiegel’s team also observed reduced connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network, which includes the medial prefrontal and the posterior cingulate cortex. This decrease in functional connectivity likely represents a disconnect between someone’s actions and their awareness of their actions, Spiegel said.

This knowledge could help hypnosis shed its reputation as a pseudoscientific slight-of-hand. And it might help researchers develop new hypnosis-based therapies or make it possible to hypnotize people like me. As the release states:

A treatment that combines brain stimulation with hypnosis could improve the known analgesic effects of hypnosis and potentially replace addictive and side-effect-laden painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs, [Spiegel] said. More research, however, is needed before such a therapy could be implemented.

Previously: A closer look at hypnotherapy (aka hypnosis), "Traceformation:" David Spiegel on how hypnosis can change your brain's perception of your body, Exploring the science of hypnosis with Stanford's David Spiegel and Not everyone can be hypnotized - and researchers are one step closer to understanding why
Image by Davide Della Casa

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