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How the Brain Responds During Hypnosis

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

As an artist and former theatre professional, I love that hypnosis employs the power of the subconscious mind to heal. But as the wife of a former Silicon Valley research scientist, I like affirming to clients that hypnotherapy is scientifically proven.

In 2016, Stanford University scientists scanned the brains of 57 people during guided hypnosis sessions like those that might be used clinically to treat anxiety, pain or trauma. The scans revealed altered activity and connectivity in distinct sections of the brain during hypnosis.

With his colleagues, David Spiegel, MD, professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, discovered three hallmarks of the brain under hypnosis. First, they saw a decrease in activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate (an area affecting executive control, learning, adjustment, and self-control). Second, they saw an increase in connections between two other areas of the brain — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (associated with working memory and selective attention) and the insula (which controls autonomic functions through the regulation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.) The insula has a role in regulating the immune system. Proof that hypnosis positively affects both the nervous and immune systems illustrates a mind-body connection. It shows how the brain processes and controls what’s going on in the body - even if that’s fighting disease.

Finally, Spiegel’s team observed reduced connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network, which includes the medial prefrontal cortex (planning, personality and decision making) and the posterior cingulate cortex (behaviors and emotions connected to survival instincts.) This decrease represents a disconnect between someone’s actions and their awareness of their actions. Spiegel explained: “When you’re really engaged in something, you don’t really think about doing it — you just do it.” During hypnosis, this kind of disassociation between action and reflection allows the client to engage in visualizations suggested by a hypnotherapist or even the self.

In short, this study shows how hypnosis physically influences brain activity, explaining why it’s effective in lessening chronic pain, the pain of childbirth and other medical procedures; treating smoking addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder; and easing anxiety or phobias. It also shows how trance state directly affects decision making, which is important because so many clients use hypnosis to change patterning surrounding decisions. And, hypnosis directly supports both the immune and nervous systems, which is great news to clients who turn to hypnosis for anxiety and medical support.

As one of the earliest treatments used in psychotherapy, hypnosis has long been known to benefit emotional states, behavior and decision making. But now we know exactly how hypnosis stimulates the brain to create positive change.

Interested in the complete article? Here it is.

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