The rebirth of hypnosis

I’ve got an article in today’s Observer about the re-emergence of hypnosis into the scientific mainstream despite the fact that the technique is still associated with stereotypes.

The piece has been oddly titled ‘hypnosis is no laughing matter’, which kind of misses the point, because no-one laughs at it, but many scientists do find it uncomfortable because of its long-running associations with stage shows, high-street hypnotists and the like.

The sub-heading also suggests that the article is about the revival of hypnosis as a ‘clinical tool’ when the article only discusses the use of hypnosis in the lab.

However, get past the headings and the piece discusses the genuinely interesting cognitive science of hypnosis and suggestibility.

The recent research is interesting not so much because we are learning about hypnosis itself, but because it is helping us understand some quite striking things about the fundamentals of the mind.

Amir Raz and colleagues at McGill University in Montreal reported that it was possible to “switch off” automatic word reading and abolish the Stroop effect – a psychological phenomenon that demonstrates a conflict between meanings, such as where we are much slower to identify the ink colour of a word when the word itself describes a different hue. Furthermore, when this experiment was run in a brain scanner, participants showed much lower activation in both the anterior cingulate cortex, an area known to be particularly involved in resolving conflict between competing demands, and the visual cortex, which is crucial for recognising words. Although this may seem like a technicality, to the scientific world it was a strikingly persuasive demonstration that hypnosis could apparently disassemble an automatic and well-established psychological effect in a manner consistent with the brain processes that support it.

One of the other exciting areas is the use of hypnosis to temporarily induce altered states of consciousness that can then be studied in the lab. More of that in the article.

Link to Observer article.

6 thoughts on “The rebirth of hypnosis”

  1. Resolve competing demands…..I wonder if someone could be convinced to vote a certain way just before going into the voting booth? Or is that considered “against their will”?

    (Note: no sinister intentions here. Just curiosity). 😉

  2. Hi I just want to say how much I enjoy and appreciate what you do here. It’s great to see some serious discussion of the role of hypnosis and suggestibility. Working as a hypnotherapist and co-founder of a hypnosis downloads site it can feel strange when, after telling someone what you do they want to talk about whether you can make them “cluck like a chicken” as if on hearing someone is an airline pilot insisting on talking about “magic carpets” to them. Hypnosis, as a tool to effectively treat ‘hysteria’ or psychosomatic conditions was certainly well respected at one time. Anton Mesmer, from which “mesmerism” derived, apparently had great success using hypnosis as a method of affecting psychological and even possibly psycho-physiological cures. But in a time of ‘rationalism’ his insistence of the necessity of ‘universal fluid’ as an explanation of mesmerism (what we know as ‘hypnosis’) may have damaged its reputation and consigned it to the “mumbo jumbo” heap as far as science was concerned. In 1784 a French Royal Commission (including Benjamin Franklin) appointed by Louis XVI studied Mesmer’s magnetic fluid to try to establish it by scientific evidence.-of course they couldn’t because the explanation lies within the brain
    All best wishes

    1. Dear Mark

      Do you know whether the same mechanisms are at work in the brain when one is hypnotised as one practices meditation? If they are not the same, can you tell me how they differ.

      Many sincere thanks,
      Mary Beth Sutter
      Kew, London

  3. Hello Mary
    I wrote an article about this: but it doesn’t really address what is happening in the brain during these states in any detailed neurological sense and I do state that what I write there is my personal opinion. During meditation people tend to report a slowing down of thoughts, a reduction in mental activity generally, feeling good, calm and relaxed and that is certainly what people report during therapeutic hypnosis. Functioning neuroimaging studies have found an up-regulation in brain regions associated with sustained internalized attention and emotional processing during both meditation and hypnosis. Researchers have found more activation of alpha and theta states which it’s suggested reflects enhanced sustained attention to inner experiences during these states. Subjectively meditation may be more of a suspension of thoughts or imagination whereas during hypnosis thoughts and visualizations may be more directed. So, meditation might be used a as a general method of relaxation and ‘awareness training’ but not used so specifically, perhaps, to help someone overcome an addiction, phobia or trauma whereas hypnosis may in a sense be a more dynamic use of someone’s inner focus-if that makes sense.

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