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Is Hypnosis Real?

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Is Hypnosis Real? 

There is a growing body evidence that proves there is a hypnotic state. Studies involving PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans have clearly demonstrated that something unusual happens in the brain of people who are hypnotized.

Is That Image Really Black & White or Colour?


PET scans of the human brain have shown that when we see an image in colour, specific areas in our brain are activated. Whereas, if we see that same image in black-and-white, other areas, become active. As a result, one study focused on finding out if hypnosis had any scientifically measurable effect on this process.

Here volunteers were hypnotized, given a PET scan & then shown either black-and-white or colour images. When the hypnotized subjects were shown a colour image, and then given the suggestion to only see black and white, there was decreased activity in the part of the brain that perceives colour. A fact that clearly demonstrates that hypnosis involves something more than just pretending.

There is No Pain Until It Reaches the Brain

Another study focused on the fact that pain causes a specific area of the brain to be activated (the anterior cingulate cortex). When subjects were then hypnotized and zapped with a small electrical current, PET scans revealed that there was a statistically significant decrease in the activation of this area of the brain.

Somehow hypnosis was able to affect the circuits that relayed the pain signals to the brain.

Hypnosis has been endorsed by the British, American and Canadian Medical Associations because it has been proven over and over to really work.

Where the Imaginary Becomes Real

PET scans have also revealed that different parts of the brain are activated when we hear a sound, while other parts are activated when we simply imagine we hear a sound. As a result, researchers realized this would allow them to determine which area of the brain is activated when someone is hypnotized and then simply given the suggestion to hear a sound.

The results of this study prove that when a hypnotized subject is given the suggestion to hear a sound, the area of the brain that hears real sounds becomes activated and not the area one would expect if the sounds were simply imagined.

Hypnosis vs the Placebo Effect

In order for any prescription drug to be approved for use by the government, the drug must be measured against the Placebo Effect. This is usually done by splitting the subjects of the drug being studied into two random groups: one that receives the drug and the other that receives a placebo (often a sugar pill). Numerous studies have shown that slightly more than 30% of those receiving the placebo show an improvement (and closer to 50% when dealing with pain control). This means that for a drug to be approved it must be clinically proven to have a greater effect.

Now one of the charges often levelled against hypnosis is that all it really does is to harness the power of the Placebo Effect. Fortunately, numerous studies have been conducted on the power of hypnosis to relieve pain and they have demonstrated that its ability to relieve pain is much greater than it would be if it were merely the result of the Placebo Effect.

Other studies have also shown that when hypnosis is used to deal with pain it has a different effect then a placebo, because rather than simply allowing you to tolerate more pain (as happens with placebos), hypnosis will actually prevent you from feeling pain in the first place. (See our section on Hypnosis and Pain Control for more details).

Some of the scientific studies on Hypnosis

Hypnotic Visual Illusion Alters Color Processing in the Brain. Am J Psychiatry. 2000 Aug;157(8):1279-84. Kosslyn SM, Thompson WL, Costantini-Ferrando MF, Alpert NM, Spiegel D.

Eight highly hypnotizable subjects were recruited for this study. They were all given positron emission tomography scans (PET scans which record the flow of blood in throughout the brain) while they were shown colour and black-and-white images. Then without being hypnotized, their brains were scanned while they were asked to see the colour image in colour and then to pretend they see it in black-and-white and then to see the black-and-white  image in black-and-white and then to pretend they see it in colour. This was repeated while they were in a state of deep hypnosis. The authors found that when the subjects were in a state of hypnosis and asked to perceive a black-and-white image as colour, the colour areas of their left and right hemisphere became active (rather than the black-and-white areas as should have been the case). They concluded that hypnosis is a real psychological state with "distinct neural correlates" and that it isn't a matter of simply pretending and playing a role.

Where the Imaginal Appears Real: A Positron Emission Tomography Study of Auditory Hallucinations. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 1998 Feb. Vol. 95(4):1956-1960. Szechtman H, Woody E, Bowers KS, Nahmias C.

Eight highly hypnotizable males who were able to hallucinate while in hypnosis were given PET scans (which measured the flow of blood in the different regions of their brains) while hearing a sound, while imagining that they heard the sound ,and while hallucinating hearing the sound while in a state of deep hypnosis. There was a noticeable difference between when they heard the sound and when they simply imagined they heard the sound. However, when they were asked to hallucinate hearing the sound while in hypnosis, the blood flow patterns in their brain reacted in the same way as it did when they really heard the sound. This showed that when in a state of hypnosis, auditory hallucinations are processed as if they were real by our brains.

Hypnotic Alteration of Somasensory Perception. Am J Pschiatry 1989; 146:749-754. Spiegel D, Bierre P, J Rootenberg J.

Ten subjects who were highly hypnotizable and 8 subjects who were not that hypnotizable were recruited for this study. Electrodes were place over their scalp to measure their electrical brain activity (using an EEG machine). They were then hypnotized and told to hallucinate that their arm was anesthetized. Their arm was then zapped a number of times and they were told to press a button every time they felt this zap. Those who were highly hypnotizable pressed the button 38% of the time, while those who were not that hypnotizable pressed it 80% of the time. Within the highly hypnotizable group, their responses matched a reduction in the amplitude of their brain-waves, while those who were not that hypnotizable showed no such responses. This result suggested that hypnosis was more than simply pretending and that it involved some sort of a neurophysiological process. Hypnosis causes real changes in the brain.

Hypnosis Induces a Changed Composition of Brain Oscillations in EEG: A Case Study. Contemporary Hypnosis, 2007, Vol. 24(1):3-18. Fingelkurts Alexander A, Fingelkurts Andrew A, Kallio S, Revonsuo A.

This is a case study of one individual who was extremely hypnotizable. Electrodes were taped to his head and his brain-waves were recorded with an EEG (electroencephalogram) machine. This study involved numerous sessions which were then repeated a year later. The researchers found that when he was hypnotized, not only was there a dramatic change in the oscillations of his brain-waves in prefrontal and right occipital regions of his brain, the readings also showed that the right-side of his brain became dominant.