An interesting study into how hypnosis primes the brain for positive, permanent change across the brain-body axis.Jan 31, 2023
Hypnosis is finally being studied by the scientific community! Despite hypnosis having been around for hundreds of years psychotherapy has barely wanted to look at it.
Science doesn’t want to touch what it can’t understand, prove, and replicate within measurable parameters, and there has been so much mystery around what is actually happening in hypnosis, and concern about the possibility of its misuse - that it has remained largely unexamined.
However, a team at Stanford University School of Medicine have been exploring hypnosis and hypnotherapy in numerous studies over the last few years and the results are exciting for us hypnotherapists who know just how powerful and successful it can be in the right hands.
"(Hypnosis is) a very powerful means of changing the way we use our minds to control perception and our bodies"
said the study’s senior author, David Spiegel, MD, professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
Alongside more recent studies by this team one of their first studies in 2015/2016 used MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to track which parts of the brain activate, connect, deactivate and change during hypnosis.
The Study showed three distinct changes in brain activity...
- A decrease in the dorsal anterior cingulate...
The MRI data showed a change in activity in an area called the dorsal anterior cingulate (dACC), part of the brain’s salience network.
The dACC is associated with environment and social monitoring, and control. It engages when a person is socially rejected or negatively evaluated and may then have involvement in decision-making and altering of behaviour - such as anxiety about what we should attend to and what we can ignore.
It is highly engaged in people with anxiety, distraction and environment monitoring, and so a decrease in the dACC may explain the 'switching off' and 'letting go' suggestible state of hypnosis. Although we don't know for sure as this part of the brain is not well understood.
It even includes direct connections to the spinal cord, as well as the hypothalamus, suggesting a role in autonomic control (the part of the nervous system which controls muscles, glands and hormones).
- Increase in connections between the Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the Insula...
The MRI scans also showed an increase in connections between two other areas of the brain — the Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and the Insula. The study described this as "a brain-body connection that helps the brain process and control what’s going on in the body".
The dlPFC is involved in cognitive processing of emotions, involved in self-control and the driving of thoughtful behaviour. When working well the person has good mood, positive processing of the environment and positive responsive behaviour.
The Insula is believed to be the integration centre between our external environment, our internal processing and subsequent behaviour. It plays a core role in the basis of 'the self', and it is thought that the Insula coordinates the experience > emotion > thought > belief > motivation dynamic in the brain.
It is the 'reflective' system that tries to figure out what has happened to us and what to do about it.
The insula is also involved in pain processing.
Irregular Connection of the dlPFC and the Insula have been extensively studied because of their high rate of involvement in depression.
A 2021 study showed that reduced connection of these two areas of the brain are seen during the progression of depression, and increased connection is seen in recovery from depression.
Whilst a 2020 study describes the positive effect of connectivity between dlPFC and the Insula in early symptom improvement in insomnia, somatic symptoms (including pain) and anxiety in patients with major depressive disorder.
- Reduced connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network...
Finally the MRI scans showed reduced connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and the default mode network (DMN).
The default mode network when activated is associated with high-focus states, interpretation and even moral judgment of others. The DMN decreases in meditative states and is associated with the state of allowing, non-judgement and suggestibility. Reducing the DMN connection with the dlPFC might just be the perfect state for neuroplasticity to occur.
This decrease in functional connectivity likely represents a disconnect between someone’s actions and their focussed awareness of their actions.
During hypnosis, this kind of disassociation between action and reflection allows the person to engage in activities either suggested by a clinician or self-suggested. The person might just find themselves doing what they are suggested to do automatically rather than analysing the ifs and whys.
It is exciting that these positive connections in the brain which are associated with positive outcomes are shown to be active during hypnosis.
In Summary (or TLDR)
- This study reinforces the idea that hypnosis guides you into a different state of consciousness and not just a deep relaxation.
- Changes in the brain indicate that a real 'switching off' and 'letting go' state occurs as well as opening up the mind to the powerful suggestible state of positive change.
- A powerful brain-body connection takes place that helps the brain process and control what is going on in the body via the spinal cord, hypothalmus (autonomic nervous system which controls muscle, glands and hormones). As well the parts responsible for pain processing (and reduction).
- Parts of the brain responsible for good mood, positive processing of the environment and positive responsive behaviour connect up to the parts which embed our sense of self in who we are and what we believe, and the part which reflects on what happened to us and what we want to do about it. Increasing the possibility of positive reframing and future outcomes.
- Parts of the brain which are key markers associated with recovery from major depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia are activated in hypnosis.
- The brain enters an ideal state for neuroplasticity (when the brain rewires itself for different functioning than before and growth).
It is wonderful to understand how the hypnotic state might be priming people for positive, permanent change across the brain-body axis, which of course we clinical hypnotherapists already know!