Among different crowds, hypnosis can have a reputation ranging from goofy and gimmicky to outright spooky. But regardless of what you think, neuroscience is now showing it has a noticeable effect on the brain.
Research from Stanford University shows that hypnosis actually changes the way blood flows to different areas of the brain. According to a study published (paywall) in Cerebral Cortex on Thursday (July 28), these patterns of activation indicate that patients who are hypnotized are better able to focus on a single task without worrying about their surroundings.
Hypnosis is a “state of relaxed focus,” according to the American Association of Professional Hypnotherapists. David Spiegel, a psychologist at Stanford and lead author of the paper, describes it as the feeling of living in the moment without feeling self-conscious about your behavior.
“You do shift into a different kind of brain function when you go into a hypnotic state,” he says. “It helps you focus your attention so you’re not thinking about other things, you have better control what’s going on in your body, and you’re less self-conscious.”
For their experiment, Spiegel and his team selected 57 patients who tested on either end of the spectrum of hypnotizability—basically, a measure of how open you are to being hypnotized. “In general, people who are hypnotizable tend to be less self-conscious, trust other people more…and use their imaginations more,” Spiegel says. Thirty-six participants showed that they were highly hypnotizable and 21 patients were not able to be hypnotized at all.
The researchers found that when the hypnotizable patients underwent hypnosis, the parts of their brains associated with recognizing the surrounding environment and the patients’ actions were less active and that the networks associated with mind-body communication were more connected than usual. Together, the researchers say, these effects could lead to feeling more focus and control over the body, and less inhibition while moving and engaging with the environment.
Practically, Spiegel says, this means hypnotized patients can experience stressful thoughts without the usual physical side effects, like sweating or higher blood pressure.
Despite the observed changes in the brain, it’s too early to tell whether hypnosis has definitive therapeutic values. This study was only looking at the effects of hypnosis on blood flow in a relatively small number of patients’ brains, and was not looking to treat any particular condition. Hypnosis has been used in Western psychology since the 19th century to help manage pain, like that endured during childbirth (paywall), quit smoking (paywall), but evidence of its efficacy has been mixed. It’s also difficult to implement as a practical treatment: Mark Hall, a licensed hypnotherapist and social worker, compared it to trying to fall asleep—impossible if you focus too much on it.
“Hypnosis is something that can be used to help [people] live in the moment,” Spiegel says. These preliminary brain scans suggest that there’s a biological basis for the effects its been known to have, and further studies may help define its role in medicine.