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Believing in Hypnosis

Hypnosis has been a method of choice within our research group, but some may question the validity of hypnosis and wonder how it relates to cultural and social neuroscience? For many people, hypnosis is perhaps more commonly associated with magical practices and entertainment. Hearing the word may conjure images of pop culture figures, such as the fictional character Svengali, the contemporary illusionist Derren Brown, or even Little Britain’s comical hypnotist, Kenny Craig. But, hypnosis is more than mere illusion and has uses far beyond entertainment. In fact, it has been explored within medical practice for 175 years, first described by the James Braid in 1843. Since then hypnosis has helped to relieve digestive disturbances, as well as aid smoking cessation, analgesia and even surgical procedures.

So how does it work? The method of hypnosis usually involves an individual (hypnotist) who attempts to influence the perceptions, feelings, thinking and behaviour of a subject by using verbal ‘suggestions’ (Heap, 2005). This is achieved by first relaxing the subject using guided imagery and deep breathing techniques. To reach a state of hypnosis requires cooperation and willingness from the subject, not to do anything in particular but rather to ‘go with the flow’. If a person is able to respond to hypnotic suggestion then they will experience passivity in their body, losing their capacity to make voluntary actions whilst remaining alert and aware in their mind. Once in a hypnotized state, suggestions can be made that range in their complexity, from mere motor movements (e.g. eye closure), to motor challenges (e.g. attempting to move one’s arm that is locked into place), and even complex cognitive experiences (e.g. hearing auditory hallucinations). It is worth noting that not everyone is responsive to suggestions under hypnosis. It is in fact normally distributed, with some people being highly suggestible, others not very suggestible, and the majority of the population somewhere in between.

Within research, hypnosis can be used to model functional neurological disorders (Deeley, 2016). These are disorders in which the structure of the brain appears normal, but its function does not. Common examples of such conditions include irritable bowel syndrome or fibromyalgia, both possessing neurological symptoms that are thought to be mitigated by psychological factors (Bowers, Wroe, & Pincus, 2017).

At this point, the critic might question whether hypnosis operated any different from a placebo? In brief, a placebo is a ‘fake’ medical treatment (e.g. a pill with no active ingredient) that is given to a patient, which may result in actual positive effects. The ‘placebo effect’ phenomenon is modulated by how much the patient believes the treatment will help them, the stronger the belief the greater the effect. Comparing the effects of hypnosis and placebos on pain reduction, one study found a significant difference between the two in highly suggestible subjects, with hypnosis having a positive impact, whilst the placebo made no difference (McGlashan, Evans, & Orne, 1969). More recently, neuroimaging studies have illustrated some overlap as well as clear differences in brain activity for hypnosis and the placebo effect (Kirjanen, 2012), reiterating that whilst these processes may be related, they are nevertheless distinct.

Over 100 years ago, the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893) was the first person to hypothesize that hypnotic suggestion may be the mediating factor connecting the effects of thoughts and ideas to functional symptoms via brain activity. Cognitive models supported by neuroimaging evidence, attribute susceptibility to hypnotic suggestions to differences in attention processing – with highly suggestible individuals showing functional decoupling between brain areas associated with conflict monitoring and cognitive control processes (Egner, Jamieson, & Gruzelier, 2005).

It is becoming ever clearer that hypnosis is more than just an illusion, but is a cognitive process that can affect an individual’s perceptions and beliefs. In our research, it has proven a valuable technique for assessing bizarre experiences such as alien control of movement, a dissociative phenomenon that is linked to various cross-cultural and pan-historical practises, including spirit possession, mediumship, and shamanism (Walsh et al., 2014). Beliefs play an integral role in the development of culture and are an inherent aspect of what it means to be human. Hypnosis is one of the very few techniques that are able to investigate the grey area between our physical and mental realities, and how our phenomenological experiences can impact our behaviour, beliefs and the world around us.

Bowers, H., Wroe, A., & Pincus, T. (2017). The relationship between beliefs about emotions and quality of life in irritable bowel syndrome. Psychology, Health and Medicine, 22(10), 1203–1209.

Deeley, Q. (2016). Chapter 9 – Hypnosis as a model of functional neurologic disorders. In Handbook of Clinical Neurology (1st ed., Vol. 139, pp. 95–103). Elsevier B.V.

Egner, T., Jamieson, G., & Gruzelier, J. (2005). Hypnosis decouples cognitive control from conflict monitoring processes of the frontal lobe. NeuroImage, 27(4), 969–978.

Heap, M. (2005). Defining Hypnosis: The UK Experience What Is a Definition? American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 48, 2–3.

Kirjanen, S. (2012). The brain activity of pain relief during hypnosis and placebo treatment. Journal of European Psychology Students, 3(1), 78.

McGlashan, T. H., Evans, F. J., & Orne, M. T. (1969). The nature of hypnotic analgesia and placebo response to experimental pain. Psychosomatic Medicine, 31(3), 227–246.

Walsh, E., Mehta, M. A., Oakley, D. A., Guilmette, D. N., Gabay, A., Halligan, P. W., & Deeley, Q. (2014). Using suggestion to model different types of automatic writing. Consciousness and Cognition, 26(1), 24–36.

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