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The Power of Hypnotic Suggestion

Hypnosis brings to mind thoughts of swinging watches and some stage hypnotist making people walk around acting like chickens, but how much can it really change the way we think and act?

Hypnotic suggestion seems to be able to put novel ideas into our heads, making us do and say unusual things. But some psychologists believe it is powerful enough to override some of the most ingrained and automatic processes of the brain, such as reading.

Reading is a skill that once learned becomes unconscious and automatic. Even so, brain researcher Amir Raz has shown that a form of hypnotic suggestion can make some people undo automatic behaviors, even to the point of viewing their native language as meaningless. "It tells us a little bit about what we can and cannot do to certain deeply ingrained processes," says Raz from the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

"In a way, this is very much like 'unringing' the bell if you're thinking about Pavlov and his dogs. Pavlov would ring a bell and the dogs would salivate because Pavlov would condition them to give them food right after the bell was rung," Raz explains. "What we're doing here is we're taking a process that is already deeply ingrained in people, reading, in this case. When we start reading this process is not at all automatic but after a few years of training, particularly when we're adults and particularly as readers, we read effortlessly. As soon as something is in front of us, we read it immediately. What I'm showing is that you can actually make people unlearn the reading process."

Raz says this suggests that hypnotic suggestion could one day be used as a powerful tool for brain research, and perhaps to help alter other ingrained mental processes, like eating behaviors.

Raz gave a confusing word test, called the Stroop Test to eight volunteers who had been assessed and were deemed "highly susceptible to hypnosis," and eight who were not "You can suggest whatever you want to them and they are completely indifferent to it," he says. The test is confusing because it asks people to name the ink color a word in printed in and not the color the word actually says. "So, you could see the word 'red' inked in green and your job will be to say green, or you see the word 'blue' inked in blue, your job will be to say blue," Raz explains. The test forces people to concentrate on two things at once. "The Stroop Task is the ability, scientifically, to look at the conflict that is generated," he says. For many years, scientists have assumed it is an automatic for us to read the word and not be able to block it out and say the color of the ink.

In the test the volunteers watched 144 words flashed on a screen. A third were neutral, for example, the word 'kite' was printed in red, a third were "congruent" — the word 'red' was printed in red ink, and a third were "incongruent" — the word 'red' was printed in blue ink. "When the words are congruent… people will respond very quickly and very accurately," says Raz. "But when the word is incompatible or incongruent, then you would have the word 'red' inked in blue it is more difficult for people to say blue because they get interference from the word that they read. Even if you tell them to disregard the word… it is very difficult for people to disregard the word."

Using the power of hypnotic suggestion — "You are going to see things on the screen that are going to be in a language that you are not familiar with... it'll be very easy for you to crisply see it and report the ink color" — Raz hoped to erase confusion in a brain region that deals with conflict and resolving it, called the anterior cingulate cortex or ACC.

He found that the brains of highly suggestible people under hypnosis processed the words as foreign, and screened only for color. Those who were not suggestible to hypnosis tripped up on the incongruent words, as expected. "Highly suggestibles scored better on the tests because they were able to stop the automatic mental process of reading and only filtered for color," Raz explains. "That means that, as a result of the suggestion, they really perceive the world differently."

Scanning the volunteers' brains during the test using functional MRI and ERP (Event Related Potential) to see what was happening in the brain. The ERP pinpointed that the brain's visual area reacts first, which is then supposed to take the information upstream to the ACC. With the "highly susceptibles" this never happened because, thanks to suggestion, they did not "see" the conflict inherent in the incongruent words.

Raz says the study suggests hypnosis may stop automatic behaviors in some, but he cautions that for now it's best as a companion to other therapies.
Next he hopes to determine if people who are highly susceptible to hypnosis — about ten percent of the general population — are genetically distinct from the rest of us.

Raz's research was published in the June 30, 2005 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and was funded by the DeWitt-Wallace Reader's Digest Fellowship in Psychology.

SOURCE: Science Central

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