What Happens in Your Brain During Hypnosis?
What happens in the brain when hypnotized?
You might think of hypnosis as a state of deep relaxation in which your body and brain slow down. During hypnosis, you might expect to feel almost suspended in time, with not much going on in your brain as you listen to your therapist’s guidance.
But you’d be only half right.
Deep relaxation is a hallmark of hypnosis, but there’s quite a lot going on behind the scenes, particularly in your brain; and these mechanisms — including brain waves and neurotransmitters — are why hypnosis works and how it can help produce meaningful change and lasting healing.
What is hypnosis?
Hypnosis is a natural state of deep relaxation and heightened awareness. This state, which can be reached in a matter of minutes, has been compared to meditation and to “flow state” in terms of the experience of narrowed focus and a shifting sense of the passage of time.
Studies suggest that more than two-thirds of adults are fairly susceptible to hypnosis. Although suggestibility might at first be seen as a liability, it’s actually quite positive. During hypnosis, your attention is so keenly focused that the rest of the world falls away, allowing you and your therapist to concentrate on making positive changes and progress. It is important to note: at no time is the client not in control.
The hypnosis process has two principal stages: induction and suggestion.
To induce a hypnotic state, your therapist will ask you to imagine sensory experiences — like the crisp air of a mountain lake, or a quiet, pine-scented forest — to help you move deeper into a relaxing and pleasant visualization.
Once you’ve reached this calm, hypnotic state, your therapist uses suggestions to guide you away from painful rumination and toward solutions to your problems. This immersed concentration can open the mind to new experiences, suggestibility, and positive transformation.
When you’re more open to suggestion, the success of other treatments can be improved. Hypnosis can be especially beneficial in addressing problems related to stress, trauma, depression, grief, phobias, anxiety, sleep issues, pain management, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), eating disorders, migraines, and unwanted habits.
In hospital settings, studies have found that hypnosis can be used to lessen pre-operative anxiety in patients, reduce the need for pain medication during surgery, and reduce the intensity of pain, fatigue, nausea, and discomfort following surgery as compared to patients who received general anesthesia. Experts believe that hypnosis lowers the body’s “fight or flight” stress response.
Areas of the brain affected by hypnosis
But what is the brain actually doing during hypnosis? Brain-imaging studies show higher activity in the prefrontal cortex, parietal networks, and anterior cingulate cortex during hypnosis for suggestible subjects. These areas of the brain account for complex functions like processing emotions, learning, and perception and memory. Additionally, hypnosis has a calming effect on regions of the brain that control breathing, heart rate, and other autonomic functions, leading to a state of deep relaxation.
Because hypnosis alters your attention and emotions, and interacts with past experiences stored in your subconscious, the suggestions you receive during hypnosis can result in striking changes in brain activity.
Scanning people’s brains while they’re hypnotized shows these neural changes. Researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine scanned the brains of 57 subjects during hypnosis sessions and found altered activity in distinct sections of the brain.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers observed changes in blood flow in the subjects’ brains while resting, during memory recall, and while in hypnosis sessions.
The Stanford researchers noted “three hallmarks” in the brain during hypnosis.
First, they saw decreased activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate, which is involved in complex cognitive functions like impulse control and decision-making — meaning that the brain is focused during hypnosis and not distracted by anything else.
Second, they found increased connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula areas of the brain. Stanford researchers described this as a brain-body connection, with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex associated with executive functions like task switching and working memory, and the insula linked to self-awareness and interception.
Thirdly, researchers observed a reduction in connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network. It’s believed this is a separation between your actions and your awareness of those actions — basically, your ability to engage in an activity without having to focus on it, out of habit or through “muscle memory.” Weakening these connections may open people in hypnosis to new actions outside of their normal routines.
Knowing which regions of the brain are involved in hypnosis has potential applications in pain control, and researchers believe hypnosis is a significant tool in “changing the way we use our minds to control perception and our bodies.”
Changes in how our brain processes information
During your everyday waking life, different parts of your brain work together to process information, creating flexible responses to everything and everyone you encounter. During hypnosis, however, your brain functions much differently.
Researchers have found that these same regions of the brain act more independently of one another. This allows you to be more open to suggestions and produces more vivid imagery — which supports the behavioral changes associated with the integration of hypnosis with traditional therapy.
Brain wave activity and neurotransmitters
Brain waves are measured at specific frequencies — including slower oscillations like delta, theta, and alpha, and faster oscillations like beta and gamma.
When you close your eyes and begin to relax, your brain waves slow down. Theta — between 4 and 7.5 hertz — marks deep relaxation and the hypnotic state, in which you can experience inspiration, creativity, and insight.
Studies of brain wave activity links the hypnotic state most closely to theta oscillations, which are believed to be involved in emotion and memory. The theta state during hypnosis allows for significant changes in the brain, like separating strong emotions from painful memories — including anxiety and fear responses.
Similarly, positive connections can be strengthened in the hypnotic state, to help you adopt a different mindset, learn new habits and coping strategies, and improve overall outlook.
There are nearly as many neurons in your brain as there are stars in our galaxy — 100 billion neurons. The dendrites of these neurons receive communications from other neurons via chemicals called neurotransmitters. Three main neurotransmitters are associated with hypnosis — dopamine, GABA, and serotonin. There are also neuropeptides at work, and these chains of amino acids activate brain receptors and can even block painful sensations — which results in emotional distance from upsetting memories and feelings. Additionally, hypnosis stimulates the release of endorphins, further relieving pain and creating ease.
Changes in the brain - why it matters
During hypnosis, these neuropeptides and neurotransmitters help to create new networks inside the brain — just as the lowered brain wave frequencies open your subconscious mind to hypnotic suggestion. These mechanisms work together to free you of old habits and thought patterns while literally creating new channels — “rewiring” your brain — to address and overcome the thoughts, memories, and behaviors that have been holding you back.
These brain changes are entirely natural, as a state of hypnosis can be achieved without drugs or intrusive technology. Our brains have built-in systems to allow for resilience, healing, and growth, and this is supported by brain imaging studies and research into brain waves, neurotransmitters, and neuropeptides.
Hypnosis allows us to rewire the brain to let go of bad habits, to process trauma and grief, to build confidence and self-worth, and to shift our perspectives on a host of impending problems and issues. Hypnosis offers a means of changing detrimental programming, and puts you in control of creating the life you want to live instead.
Our Hypnotherapy Experts are Clinical Psychologists at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy that specialize in combining hypnosis and therapy for treating mental health issues. To get in touch or learn more about how combining therapy and hypnosis can help you, please contact us here.
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