Hypnosis in the lab: the suggestion of altered states

I’ve got an article in The Guardian online about how hypnosis is being increasingly used in the neuroscience lab to simulate unusual mental states and alter the normal flow of automatic psychological processes.

After years of neglect, it turns out hypnosis is a useful experimental tool that allows temporary changes to both the conscious and unconscious mind that are normally very difficult to achieve.

Whenever AR sees a face, her thoughts are bathed in colour and each identity triggers its own rich hue that shines across her mind’s eye. This experience is a type of synaesthesia which, for about one in every 100 people, automatically blends the senses. Some people taste words, others see sounds, but AR experiences colour with every face she sees. But on this occasion, perhaps for the first time in her life, a face is just a face. No colours, no rich hues, no internal lights.

If the experience is novel for AR, it is equally new to science because no one had suspected that synaesthesia could be reversed. Despite the originality of the discovery, the technique responsible for the switch is neither the hi-tech of brain stimulation nor the cutting-edge of neurosurgery, but the long-standing practice of hypnosis.

As it turns out, our scientific paper on the cognitive neuroscience of hypnosis and the ‘hysteria’ has also just been published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

‘Hysteria’ is the traditional name for an interesting condition now often diagnosed as ‘conversion disorder‘ where people are paralysed, blind, have seizures or show other seemingly neurological problems without any evidence of nervous system damage that could explain the problem.

The 19th Century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot proposed that hypnosis and hysteria might work in a similar way – brain circuits outside of conscious control might be inhibiting or ‘shutting down’ other functions.

The idea was dismissed for many years, but we review neuroimaging and neuropsychology studies that suggest he might have been on the right track and something similar may explain why people can seem to lose conscious control over their body and senses during both hysteria and hypnosis.

The Guardian article explores the use of hypnosis in neuroscience more widely, how it is becoming an important experimental tool, and dispels some of the common myths about the effects.

One of the problems with researching or using hypnosis in the lab is its association in popular culture with quacks and stage hypnotists, which means many scientists give it a wide birth as they did with consciousness research a decade ago.

You’ll notice the piece has been given an odd title and a cheesy picture which I suspect is similar to how articles on consciousness are typically accompanied by a picture of a brain flying through space.

Link to Guardian piece on hypnosis in neuroscience.
Link to abstract of paper on neuroscience of hysteria and hypnosis.

7 thoughts on “Hypnosis in the lab: the suggestion of altered states”

  1. I think much of the problem with hypnosis research is that the field was dominated for so much of its history by the “state/non-state” controversy and the “neural vs. psychological” split in methodologies.

    When it turned out that it wasn’t a “special state” in the sense originally assumed, and that the brain manifestations of hypnotic phenomena were elusive in those terms, hypnosis became envisioned as “just ordinary psychological processes.”

    While probably true, that downplays the experimental value of the unusually fine control over “ordinary psychological processes” like suggestion and expectancy obtained with hypnotic protocols, and the research significance of those ordinary processes to understanding the brain.

    “Hypnosis” is still probably a misleading way to think of these suggestibility and expectancy phenomena, but they have certainly shown themselves useful again and again for scientific purposes across various disciplines.

  2. check out hypnotized women giving birth. They train before labor and during labor they experience no pain and chat etc while giving birth. It’s impressive. Cheers

  3. Thank you for the blog and the entry about using hypnosis as a tool in the lab.

    In the article, Vaughn says, “But perhaps even more mysterious is why we have the capacity to be hypnotised at all. As a species, about 10% of the population can have their reality profoundly altered simply by tuning in to suggestions made by someone else – something that is deeply weird when you think about it.

    Virtuoso hypnotisability has never been reliably linked to any problems or difficulties and it has been suggested that, on the contrary, it actually reflects a more efficient control of the brain’s attention systems. It could be a side-effect of other benefits, but we still don’t have any good theories. If you have any suggestions, do let me know.”

    Easy hypnosis means that it is happening all the time outside the lab. Our daily cultural discourse is a bombardment of suggestions given by resonant authoritarian voices that garner lots of attention. Hypnotization is happening all the time. It is the sticky stuff on memes.

    Ten percent is more than enough Virtuosos to change the direction of the herd. Someone wanting to link hypnotizability to behavior problems should look at the foolish acts of mobs, cults, genocide, etc. But over time, our suggestibility has affected more good than bad. The inherited tendency for human hypnosis should be linked to our herding (schooling?) animal ancestors.

  4. @DC: I have a minor quibble with the casual linking of hypnosis and compliance.

    High hypnotizability is probably a different thing entirely from compliance, and there is a rich psychological research literature contrasting the two. The phenomena of hypnotic suggestibility are most often characterized in terms of “the experience of involuntariness” rather than “obeying commands.” The latter is largely archaic I think.

    That is, hypnosis doesn’t mean following orders, it means subjective experience congruent with an expectancy.

    The confusion probably comes from stage hypnosis, where compliance and suggestion are deliberately linked through experiences such as dramatic role playing.

    People also get confused by so-called “post-hypnotic” phenomena, which because we are unaware of the expectancy, and we see the “hypnosis” end, seems like some sort of mysterious remote control. This is an illusion, because of the way we think about hypnosis and our unawareness of the involuntariness of everyday behavior. The person acting out the suggestion is still effectively in charge in every meaningful sense, at least to the same degree they usually are.

  5. New technology has made some amazing progress for brain mapping. Hypnosis is a valuable tool that has helped many people.

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