Science of Hypnosis

Time and again, we hear the question, what is hypnosis really and is it even real? A brain signature of being hypnotized was first seen in 2012 through functional MRI (fMRI), a kind of MRI showing brain activity with respect to changes in blood flow. Regions of the brain connected with executive control and attention were demonstrated to be involved.

More particularly, hypnotized subjects displayed greater co-activation between parts of the brain’s executive-control network (in-charge of basic cognitive functions) and the salience network (dictates which stimuli must be given attention). Both networks in the brain are activated in unison. In those who were not hypnotized, no such connectivity was seen.

What placed these experiments in a higher league is that researchers used fMRI to know which areas of brain were activated when the subjects were analyzing colors. The color realms in both left and right hemispheres were excited when the subjects were instructed to perceive colors. The researchers confirmed that hypnosis is indeed a distinct psychological state and undoubtedly not a result of playing a role.
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Another fascinating observation from these studies were the hemispheric changes between non-hypnotized and hypnotized brain. When non-hypnotized subjects were told to point out colors in a black-and-white image, only the right hemisphere responded. The left hemisphere, where reason and logic is processed, responded only during hypnosis.
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Another experiment used positron-emission tomography (PET) to examine cerebral blood flow in hypnosis. The hypnotic state was related to activation of a number of mainly left-sided cortical sections and some right-sided areas.

The trend of activation shared a lot of similarities with mental imagery, from which it showed differences by the relative deactivation of the precuneus (handles visuo-spatial imagery, episodic memory retrieval and self-processing operations of the brain). This activation trend proved to be similar with mental imagery, from which it differed with the relative deactivation of the precuneus, the area of the brain in charge of episodic memory retrieval, visuo-spatial imagery and self-processing operations. For some scholars, hypnotized subjects activate to a considerable extent the brain parts that are used in imagination, but without causing real perceptual changes.
Another functional MRI experiment shows that during hypnosis, there is controlled activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (affects learning, memory and emotions) and the visual areas of the brain. The findings hints that hypnosis impacts cognitive control by regulating activity in particular brain areas, including early visual modules.

In many studies, hypnotizable subjects displayed considerably more brain activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus, which impacts behavior and emotions, in comparison to participants who were not hypnotized. The anterior cingulate gyrus reacts errors and assesses emotional results. Prefrontal cortex is linked to higher level cognitive processing and behavior.

Comparison of findings from several studies also puts contradictory results to fore. Several areas of the brain appear to be responsive in various experiments. This can be related to various experimental techniques, both in terms of hypnotic approach and equipment used for the studies.

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