Far from its colourful imagery in movies, a hypnotic state is a common thing, in the most literal sense of the word.
“I compare this state to what happens when you travel by train and watch the landscape go by: you are absent-minded, you go into a trance. This is what happens in the mornings, when you wake up just a bit but don’t feel prepared to wake up completely.”
The same thing happens when you’re in a meeting where a colleague is doing a particularly boring presentation and you become absorbed by staring at a point in front of you. Reaching an altered state of consciousness is not exactly rocket science. Slipping into it seems to be one of the brain’s natural predispositions.
By giving instructions during the trance, it is possible to address a wide range of problems: lack of self-confidence, phobias, sleep disorders, addictions and even pain.
“I have treated children who wet the bed, teenagers with teen problems,… and even a person who couldn’t leave her house. People often come as a last resort after having tried conventional medicine. To the eyes of many people, it’s still magic.”
What does science have to say?
Patrik Vuilleumier, director of the Geneva Neuroscience Centre and of the Neurology & Imaging of Cognition laboratory at the medical faculty of the University of Geneva, conducted a pioneering study in 2009, and has continued observing brains in states of hypnosis with an MRI scanner. The vision that his observations suggest, far from the cliche where the hypnotised subject is like a puppet in the hands of the hypnotiser, is one of a brain in a state of “hypercontrol”, guided by the subject’s own imagination.
“In some way, hypnosis is always self-hypnosis,” says Vuilleumier. “The subject puts himself in this state. Everyone is hypnotisable. The person just has to participate willingly.”
Is hypnosis a scientifically observable reality? Currently, the most common area of application is pain. In Geneva, in anaesthesiology, it has become routine – with an impressive efficacy, Vuilleumier notes.
“Studies confirm that by stimulating the brain circuits that are responsible for the perception of pain, they are activated in a different way under hypnosis,” he says. “The same happens when we suggest to the subject not to see certain colours anymore – or, the opposite, to see colours in black and white pictures.”
In Vuilleumier’s studies, subjects are told that they can no longer move one of their arms: “We see that the corresponding areas of the brain have a particular activation. So we know that hypnosis changes the way the brain responds. It’s not just the hypnotised subject telling you something happened just to please you.”
How does it work? “That is the part about which we know the least,” the researcher concedes. “There are few studies. But researchers agree that it involves focused attention capacities. Some of the areas that are activated under hypnosis are indeed associated (with) the focus control, which allows one to concentrate on one thing while ignoring the rest. The brain sets itself in a mode where it overcomes its automatisms and controls the way it perceives and reacts.”
How is all this studied? Subjects are asked to execute a task, with or without hypnosis. Thanks to neuroimaging, the established “functional connectivity” is analysed, in other words, the way the areas of the brain communicate with each other during the action.
“Normally, the motor areas connect with what are called the premotor areas, which program the movements. Under hypnosis, this connectivity is reduced, replaced by the one between the precuneus – the field of the imaginary – and the motor cortex. It is as if the imagination was taking control.”
“For a technique that has been used in medicine for 150 years, we still know very little about it.”
Source: Gulf Times