It was hypnotherapy supervision day yesterday, a monthly get together with my much admired supervisor and supportive peers to share ideas and insights. As ever there was great banter and our supervisor’s self-deprecating humour had us in stitches. The discussions left me buzzing and reflective. Driving home I listened to my new Audible download, ‘Michel Thomas Beginner Portuguese Lesson 1’ (because you never know when you might be whisked off to Rio). It started with the reminder that the most effective learning takes place when we are relaxed…
Will You Make Me Cluck Like a Chicken?
I am often asked (usually with a degree of scepticism and with the thoroughly misleading association of ‘alternative therapy’) how does hypnosis work? Is it magic, voodoo, or like that bloke on the telly? You don’t make people cluck like chickens do you? Er no, actually its use in therapy is based on neuroscience.
Advances in neuroscience, coupled with technology have allowed scientists to gain a much greater understanding of the functions of different parts of the brain and how they interact with one another. Specifically magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/mri) give pictures of the physiological processes of the body. So, that question of how does hypnosis work can be easily answered in a way that dispels myth and hocus pocus.
What is Hypnosis?
By putting test subjects at the Stanford University School of Medicine under hypnosis and into an MRI scanner and comparing their brains to those of control subjects, it has been possible to ascertain which parts of the brain are activated and deactivated in the hypnotic state. The hypnotic state is actually something which occurs naturally and that we experience many times a day, for example when driving along a familiar road and you slip into auto pilot or when day dreaming whilst doing the washing up. It’s a sort of standby period, where time passes, things get done but the mind is miles away and unbeknown to us is processing the issues of the day. So the individual experience of the hypnotic state is very pleasant, and the deductions made by scientists show what is actually happening when we are in that nicely relaxed state:
What Happens in the Brain During Hypnosis?
1 There is decreased activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate . This area of the brain is part of the salience network, contributing to the experience of self-awareness using sensory, emotional and cognitive information.
2 There is increased connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula, which are also both components of the salience network. The insula is believed to be involved in processing emotions and maintaining homeostasis (balance) in the body through empathy, perception, motor control, self-awareness and cognitive functioning. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is involved in many processes, including cognition, memory and decision-making. This increased connectivity in hypnosis may help the brain process and control what is happening in the body.
3 It was also observed that during hypnosis there was reduced connectivity between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network. The default mode network comprises many areas of the brain and is active when the mind is relaxed and wandering. This reduced connectivity between actions and awareness usually occurs when you are really engaged in an activity, so are doing it without thinking about it, for example when in a day dreamy state. The default mode network is the system that gives you the answer to that crossword question when you finally give up and go for a walk, or gives you creative or business ideas when you are nicely relaxed on holiday.
How Can Hypnosis Help Me?
So in terms of the science, hypnosis can help in a therapeutic setting by reducing critical awareness, that voice that says, “I can’t do that.” This therefore makes a person more open to positive suggestions and the possibility of change. Hypnosis also increases the brain’s ability to process and control what is happening in the body (e.g. pain signals and unwanted habits). It allows space to facilitate creative thinking and problem solving away from the urgency of day-to-day life, enabling a person to work out what small steps they need to make in order to move forwards. The experience in the room is one of restorative, deep relaxation and calm, standby time to dial down the noise, to allow in positive suggestions and to simply let that clever old brain do its thing. I think if I had to explain it with a one liner, it would be ‘science that feels like magic’. https://lucy-brown-ee4r.squarespace.com/config/pages
Stanford Medical centre news (2016) Study identifies brain areas altered during hypnotic trances
[online]. Stanford University press. https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2016/07/study-identifies-brain-areas-altered-during-hypnotic-trances.html
[Accessed 25 August 2019].