The Scientific Basis Behind Hypnosis
By Kelly Tatera / The Science Explorer
For all you skeptics.
When most of us think about hypnotism, we picture some magician-like guy waving a pocket-watch back and forth, slowly cooing “You are getting sleepy.”
Instead of the typical, dream-like state everyone imagines hypnosis to be, scientists describe it as a unique state of consciousness. Think about reading a fantasy book or watching a scary movie — your attention is totally focused and competing thoughts are minimized. The rest of the world seems to slip away. From a scientific perspective, this is how hypnotism manifests itself in the brain.
In this hypnotic state, our brains can even shut down our autonomic responses — the control system which regulates essential bodily systems like heart rate, respiratory rate, digestion, and urination. The Stroop effect is a prime example of our autonomic responses in action, as AsapSCIENCE mentions in their video.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the name “Stroop effect,” you’ve probably tried this brain exercise before: you’re given the name of a color, like “blue” for instance, but the word is written in red. You’re asked to distinguish between the two, only identifying the word itself instead of the color. Sounds simple, but it’s actually extremely hard for our brain to avoid getting tripped up.
"However, if the words were in another language like Dutch, then you would have no problem naming the colours,” says Mitch from AsapSCIENCE. “As the words don’t have meaning to you… unless you speak Dutch."
Interestingly, one study decided to look at the effects of the Stroop effect after hypnotizing the study volunteers to think that the names of the colors were gibberish. Surprisingly, the hypnosis worked and it was like the words were in a foreign language to the volunteers — the Stroop effect was eliminated.
So what’s actually happening in the brain when we fall into a state of hypnosis? The researchers decided to observe the brain activity of participants in an fMRI machine to find out. They observed reduced activation in the area of the brain involved in resolving conflict and competing demands, called the anterior cingulate cortex. Further, the visual cortex, which is essential for recognizing written words, was also less active.
When it comes to hypnosis, some people are more susceptible than others. The AsapSCIENCE video informs viewers that a person’s “hypnotizability” follows a regular bell curve pattern — very few people can’t be hypnotized at all, some can be hypnotized to do small involuntary actions like lifting an arm, and last but not least, a small number of people can be hypnotized into strange cognitive states like temporarily forgetting their memories or even who they are. In rare cases, people can be hypnotized into hallucinations.
Even crazier? Hypnosis can even be used to modulate pain. In one study, volunteers were hypnotized and then given a painful heat stimulus on their right hands. After being told that they would be given another painful stimulus, the researchers actually probed them with something completely harmless. However, the volunteers rated the pain in exactly the same way as they had before. Plus, their brains actually showed the same level of activation in the anterior cingulate cortex.
What’s more, scientists have also scanned the brains of people who faked being hypnotized, and then again once they were actually hypnotized. The findings suggest that hypnosis has a different neural basis since they saw no change in the brains of those who were faking it.
So while hypnotism isn’t exactly the crazy, dream-like state where we lose all control, it still has significant effects on the brain. It’s more of a trance-like state with heightened concentration, and it is even used for a number of therapeutic applications today.
Check out AsapSCIENCE’s video on the crazy brain phenomenon here...
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