How scientists are trying to unlock the mysteries of hypnosis
This article primarily covers work from Patterson, Jensen and Kinsbourne using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and EEG... especially in relation to chronic pain management. It also talks about the connection of hypnosis to meditation as measurable brain wave patterns
It may seem like a topic from the edge of woo, but hypnosis is getting a new look from researchers studying its fascinating effects on our brains.
Long before we had fMRI machines, scientists had one singularly powerful tool to understand the mind’s connection to the body: the strange world of hypnosis. Hypnosis has inspired scientists and snake oil salesmen alike for centuries, but we still don’t really understand how it works. In recent decades, however, scientists have been able to glean a few tidbits that suggest a potential brain-based understanding of the ancient practice.
More than one scientist has attempted to think of hypnosis in terms of the placebo effect. Both utilize complex brain processes based on expectations that are not fully understood. And both seem effective against pain, anxiety and sleep problems. But in the past few years, placebos have come closer to mainstream acceptance, whereas hypnosis is still rarely taken seriously. This is in part because of the checkered history of hypnosis and in part because, unlike the placebo effect, hypnosis has stubbornly refused to reveal its mechanism.
According to retired Harvard psychologist Irving Kirsch, who studied placebos decades before it was fashionable for scientists to do so and is one of the country’s leading experts on hypnosis, hypnosis and placebo tap into a deep force in the brain: expectation. The brain is an expectation-prediction machine. While hypnosis and placebos are separate phenomena, their differences probably aren’t as important as their similarities, which give us a glimpse of the very fundamentals of consciousness.
To explain, Kirsch paraphrases a colleague, psychologist Marcel Kinsbourne. “There is a wave of bottom-up information coming up from the external world, up into your brain,” he tells me. “There is a wave of information coming from the cortex that consists of your evaluations, your beliefs, your expectations. Consciousness is these two waves hitting each other. It’s a collision.” That, he says, is where hypnosis and placebos do their work.
“If you see ten patients, there’ll be two of them where the hypnosis will make your jaw drop,” says David R. Patterson. “But you try it with another person and it’s just not that dramatic.”
Hypnosis may be a powerful tool for healing, and perhaps no one knows this better than professors David R. Patterson and Mark P. Jensen at the University of Washington in Seattle, two of the nation’s leading experts on hypnosis. Patterson is accustomed to dubious looks and snickering from people when he brings up his job, and occasionally wonders if he shouldn’t just choose a more mainstream topic to study. But then something happens that blows his mind and sucks him back in.
Take a lecture on hypnotism and pain control at a burn unit that he gave at Vanderbilt University. The doctors had been skeptical. When Patterson offered to demonstrate his technique on one of them, they recommended that he try it on one of the patients, a young man Patterson described as “angry at the world” who had burns covering more than half his body. Every time a nurse tried to remove this patient’s bandages to wash his wounds, he screamed and writhed in pain, despite a stream of powerful drugs.
The young man scoffed at Patterson, saying that he couldn’t be hypnotized. Eventually he agreed to try it but seemed intent on doing the opposite of what he was told. So during the hypnosis, Patterson suggested he would become increasingly tense. As if on cue, the man did the opposite and became relaxed. Within a few minutes, he slipped easily into a deep, peaceful trance as nurses removed the bandages and rubbed sponges over his raw sores. (Patterson showed me a video from a similar case, and watching it sent chills up my spine.)
Stories like this can prompt us to wonder why there isn’t a hypnotist on staff at every hospital. But suggestibility is not easy to prescribe. “If you see ten patients, there’ll be two of them where the hypnosis will make your jaw drop,” Patterson says. “And then you are all excited. But you try it with another person and it’s just not that dramatic.” Only 10 percent of the population tends to respond strongly to hypnotism, but most people respond reasonably or fairly well, according to Patterson.
And of course, hypnotists vary greatly in how well they ply their trade. Even if they nail the voice, pacing and storytelling,... read more