Hypnosis: Fact or Fiction?

smoking-hypnosis-ftr-1In an earlier post, I examined the science behind the popular phenomenon known as cycle syncing among women. In keeping with the fact versus fiction idea, I was curious to look at the science behind hypnosis.

I’ve never been hypnotized, and I’ve always been a skeptic on the whole concept. Based on the commercialization of the whole idea I assumed it was nothing more than someone standing over you, waving their hands, whispering ‘you’re getting very sleepy.’ However, I went to a hypnotist show in the spring and was absolutely shocked at what the hypnotized participants did and how they acted. I thought to myself, ‘this seems too real to be fake.’

Before looking any further into the science behind hypnosis, I wanted to find out exactly what it meant. By definition, hypnosis is a ‘state of consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness characterized by an enhanced capacity for response to suggestion.’ 

Research from the Stanford School of Medicine found that not everyone is capable of undergoing hypnosis. For the study, led by Dr. David Spiegel, 24 adults were selected. 12 of the participants were determined to be highly susceptible to hypnotization, and the other 12 had low hypnotizability.  Structural and functional MRIs were done on the participants.

They found that people who can undergo hypnosis, and those who cannot have differences in their brains. Highly hypnotizable participants had more active left dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex than the non-hypnotizable participants.  Meaning, the areas of the the brain responsible for executive control and attention are less active in people who cannot undergo hypnosis. So no matter how good a hypnotist may be, there are some people who are not capable of undergoing hypnosis.

One method of hypnosis is known as posthypnotic amnesia (PHA). Patients undergoing PHA will experience functional amnesia, which causes sudden memory loss. A recent study published in Neuron found that PHA influences brain activity associated with memory. for the experiment, scientists carefully chose 25 people to participate. Participant screening showed that all 25 of these people could undergo hypnosis, but only half could respond to PHA, while the other half could not. The participants were then separated into the PHA group and the non-PHA group, respectively. During the experiment participants watched a 45-minute movie. A week later, the participants were hypnotized while hooked up to a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner. While hypnotized, participants in the PHA and non-PHA groups were told to forget the movie until they heard a cue. Following this hypnosis, participants memories were tested twice using the fMRI scanner. In the first test, participants had not hear the cue to end PHA, and were asked 40 questions about the specifics of the movie and then 20 questions about the environment in which they watched the movie, all of the questions were yes/no. In the second test, the participants were asked the same 60 questions they were in the first test, but this time they took the test after they were told the cue which cancelled the PHA. Their results from both the PHA and non-PHA groups proved their initial hypothesis that PHA influences people’s ability to remember the past.

A study conducted by a scientist here at Penn State, William Ray, looked at if there was any validity to hypnosis as a form of therapy. His research included a variety of electroencephalogram (EEG) studies. EEG’s register brain activity with metal electrodes attached to the head. He concluded that while hypnotized, patients still experience sensory sensation without the emotional aspect. Meaning, your brain would register that you were poked, but not the pain associated with the poke. This finding proves hypnosis is in fact legitimate, contrary to what I initially thought. This finding also explains why hypnosis is often used as an effective tool to help patients undergoing psychotherapy.

Before looking into the legitimate science behind hypnosis, I thought it was all smoke and mirrors. Despite my prior assumptions, once I did more research I determined the practice of hypnosis is not a type two error, also known as a false positive. I assumed hypnotists made it appear that there was something going on, when in fact their wasn’t. However, I was wrong. As we talked about in class during our discussion on if prayer heals, the scientist’s decision and the state of the world determine if the scientific conclusion is correct or an error. Based on the information I found, scientists believe hypnosis helps cure patients, and the results from patients reinforce this belief. The science behind hypnosis begs the broader question of what else our brains our capable of, and proves how much we don’t know about what our brain functioning.

3 thoughts on “Hypnosis: Fact or Fiction?

  1. Megan Fleming Post author

    Hi Anne,

    I always was curious as to how the team of researchers at Stanford determined if people were more likely to be hypnotized than others. Other than “the participants went through excessive screening” I could not find out any more information. Granted, based on their results this unknown variable did not discount the study results for me. I think you are right in your assumption that this is not a blind placebo trial, I would call it an experimental study. The idea of psychotherapy is a fascinating idea that I don’t know much about, but would be interested to find out more about. Thanks for your comment and feedback on my post!

  2. William Spencer Hershon

    I too thought hypnosis was all just an act. I have never actually seen it done and person nor do I know anyone that has ever been hypnotized. That being said there must be some speck of truth behind all that we watch on TV and hollywood films. Where would the idea have originally come from if not from some fact based experience. After reading your blog the science behind why hypnosis works is still a little unclear to me but as for the types of people it works on, that is very clear. I did find very interesting though the study conducted here at Penn State. The fact that hypnosis can actually be used in the medical field is very intriguing. Unfortunately and maybe this was just me in the experiment concerning the yes or no questions I did not really understand what the results were trying to show. Maybe you could do another blog post to further explain that experiment.

  3. Anne Curry Heffernan

    This is a very interesting subject, I also was under the impression that hypnosis wasn’t actual real. The study that you reported is very interesting however. I am wondering how they determined if someone would be more likely to be hypnotized versus someone who wouldn’t be, before even conducting the study, which was to find out how people become hypnotized. It would be interesting to see how they came up with these 24 people. Also, this is not a blind placebo trial (I am assuming), so this could’ve swayed how the people who were being tested reacted to being hypnotized. According to a WebMD article, in order for someone to be hypnotized they have to be concentrating very hard on one thing, which results in them blocking out other things in order to not lose focus. This is how therapists are able to help patients, in order to get them to concentrate on specific things, like falling asleep.

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