Nav: Home

Stanford study identifies brain areas altered during hypnotic trances

July 28, 2016

Your eyelids are getting heavy, your arms are going limp and you feel like you're floating through space. The power of hypnosis to alter your mind and body like this is all thanks to changes in a few specific areas of the brain, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered.

The scientists scanned the brains of 57 people during guided hypnosis sessions similar to those that might be used clinically to treat anxiety, pain or trauma. Distinct sections of the brain have altered activity and connectivity while someone is hypnotized, they report in a study that will be published online July 28 in Cerebral Cortex.

"Now that we know which brain regions are involved, we may be able to use this knowledge to alter someone's capacity to be hypnotized or the effectiveness of hypnosis for problems like pain control," said the study's senior author, David Spiegel, MD, professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

A serious science

For some people, hypnosis is associated with loss of control or stage tricks. But doctors like Spiegel know it to be a serious science, revealing the brain's ability to heal medical and psychiatric conditions.

"Hypnosis is the oldest Western form of psychotherapy, but it's been tarred with the brush of dangling watches and purple capes," said Spiegel, who holds the Jack, Samuel and Lulu Willson Professorship in Medicine. "In fact, it's a very powerful means of changing the way we use our minds to control perception and our bodies."

Despite a growing appreciation of the clinical potential of hypnosis, though, little is known about how it works at a physiological level. While researchers have previously scanned the brains of people undergoing hypnosis, those studies have been designed to pinpoint the effects of hypnosis on pain, vision and other forms of perception, and not the state of hypnosis itself.

"There had not been any studies in which the goal was to simply ask what's going on in the brain when you're hypnotized," said Spiegel.

Finding the most susceptible

To study hypnosis itself, researchers first had to find people who could or couldn't be hypnotized. Only about 10 percent of the population is generally categorized as "highly hypnotizable," while others are less able to enter the trancelike state of hypnosis. Spiegel and his colleagues screened 545 healthy participants and found 36 people who consistently scored high on tests of hypnotizability, as well as 21 control subjects who scored on the extreme low end of the scales.

Then, they observed the brains of those 57 participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. Each person was scanned under four different conditions -- while resting, while recalling a memory and during two different hypnosis sessions.

"It was important to have the people who aren't able to be hypnotized as controls," said Spiegel. "Otherwise, you might see things happening in the brains of those being hypnotized but you wouldn't be sure whether it was associated with hypnosis or not."

Brain activity and connectivity

Spiegel and his colleagues discovered three hallmarks of the brain under hypnosis. Each change was seen only in the highly hypnotizable group and only while they were undergoing hypnosis.

First, they saw a decrease in activity in an area called the dorsal anterior cingulate, part of the brain's salience network. "In hypnosis, you're so absorbed that you're not worrying about anything else," Spiegel explained.

Secondly, they saw an increase in connections between two other areas of the brain -- the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula. He described this as a brain-body connection that helps the brain process and control what's going on in the body.

Finally, Spiegel's team also observed reduced connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network, which includes the medial prefrontal and the posterior cingulate cortex. This decrease in functional connectivity likely represents a disconnect between someone's actions and their awareness of their actions, Spiegel said. "When you're really engaged in something, you don't really think about doing it -- you just do it," he said. During hypnosis, this kind of disassociation between action and reflection allows the person to engage in activities either suggested by a clinician or self-suggested without devoting mental resources to being self-conscious about the activity.

Treating pain and anxiety without pills

In patients who can be easily hypnotized, hypnosis sessions have been shown to be 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. The new findings about how hypnosis affects the brain might pave the way toward developing treatments for the rest of the population -- those who aren't naturally as susceptible to hypnosis.

"We're certainly interested in the idea that you can change people's ability to be hypnotized by stimulating specific areas of the brain," said Spiegel.

A treatment that combines brain stimulation with hypnosis could improve the known analgesic effects of hypnosis and potentially replace addictive and side-effect-laden painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs, he said. More research, however, is needed before such a therapy could be implemented.

The study's lead author is Heidi Jiang, a former research assistant at Stanford who is currently a graduate student in neuroscience at Northwestern University.
-end-
Other Stanford co-authors are clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Matthew White, MD; and associate professor of neurology Michael Greicius, MD, MPH.

The study was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (grant RCIAT0005733), the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (grant P41EB015891), the Randolph H. Chase, M.D. Fund II, the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation and the Nissan Research Center.

Stanford's Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Department of Neurology and Neurological Sciences also supported the work.

The Stanford University School of Medicine consistently ranks among the nation's top medical schools, integrating research, medical education, patient care and community service. For more news about the school, please visit http://med.stanford.edu/school.html. The medical school is part of Stanford Medicine, which includes Stanford Health Care and Stanford Children's Health. For information about all three, please visit http://med.stanford.edu.

Print media contact: Ruthann Richter at (650) 725-8047 (richter1@stanford.edu)

Broadcast media contact: Margarita Gallardo at (650) 723-7897 (mjgallardo@stanford.edu)

Stanford University Medical Center

Related Brain Articles:

Scientists predict the areas of the brain to stimulate transitions between different brain states
Using a computer model of the brain, Gustavo Deco, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, and Josephine Cruzat, a member of his team, together with a group of international collaborators, have developed an innovative method published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Sept.
BRAIN Initiative tool may transform how scientists study brain structure and function
Researchers have developed a high-tech support system that can keep a large mammalian brain from rapidly decomposing in the hours after death, enabling study of certain molecular and cellular functions.
Wiring diagram of the brain provides a clearer picture of brain scan data
In a study published today in the journal BRAIN, neuroscientists led by Michael D.
Blue Brain Project releases first-ever digital 3D brain cell atlas
The Blue Brain Cell Atlas is like ''going from hand-drawn maps to Google Earth'' -- providing previously unavailable information on major cell types, numbers and positions in all 737 brain regions.
Landmark study reveals no benefit to costly and risky brain cooling after brain injury
A landmark study, led by Monash University researchers, has definitively found that the practice of cooling the body and brain in patients who have recently received a severe traumatic brain injury, has no impact on the patient's long-term outcome.
More Brain News and Brain Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Erasing The Stigma
Many of us either cope with mental illness or know someone who does. But we still have a hard time talking about it. This hour, TED speakers explore ways to push past — and even erase — the stigma. Guests include musician and comedian Jordan Raskopoulos, neuroscientist and psychiatrist Thomas Insel, psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda, anxiety and depression researcher Olivia Remes, and entrepreneur Sangu Delle.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#537 Science Journalism, Hold the Hype
Everyone's seen a piece of science getting over-exaggerated in the media. Most people would be quick to blame journalists and big media for getting in wrong. In many cases, you'd be right. But there's other sources of hype in science journalism. and one of them can be found in the humble, and little-known press release. We're talking with Chris Chambers about doing science about science journalism, and where the hype creeps in. Related links: The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study Claims of causality in health news: a randomised trial This...