Proof Hypnosis Can Stop Pain

Did You Know…that hypnosis offers a pill-free, science-backed way to stop pain? 

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered some exciting new insights into the powerful effects of hypnosis for your mind and your body, according to a study just published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

     According to a press release from Stanford, the scientists scanned the brains of 57 people during guided hypnosis sessions similar to those that might be used clinically to treat anxiety, pain, or trauma.  What they found is that distinct sections of the brain show altered activity and connectivity during hypnosis.

     “Now that we know which brain regions are involved, we may be able to use this knowledge to alter someone’s capacity to be hypnotized or the effectiveness of hypnosis for problems like pain control,” said the study’s senior author, David Spiegel, MD. 

Hypnosis: Far More than a Magic Trick 

Despite that hypnosis is the oldest Western form of psychotherapy, many people think of it as entertainment—just a magic trick that has no real effects.  “In fact,” says Dr. Spiegel, “it’s a very powerful means of changing the way we use our minds to control perception and our bodies.”

     Still, researchers know little about how hypnosis works at a physiological level.  “[Until ours] there had not been any studies in which the goal was to simply ask what’s going on in the brain when you’re hypnotized,” says Spiegel. 

Science Shows the Effects 

For the Stanford study, researchers first had to assemble a study group of participants who could be hypnotized, since only about 10% of the population is considered “highly hypnotizable.”  Spiegel and his colleagues screened 545 healthy participants and selected:

  • 36 who scored high on tests of hypnotizability     
  • 21 control subjects who scored on the extreme low end of the scales 

Each study participant had his or her brain scanned under 4 different conditions:  resting… while recalling a memory… and during 2 different hypnosis sessions.

  1. A decrease in activity in an area called the dorsal anterior cingulate, part of the brain’s salience network.  “In hypnosis, you’re so absorbed that you’re not worrying about anything else,” Spiegel explains.
  2. An increase in connections between 2 other areas of the brain—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula.  This is the brain-body connection that helps the brain process and control what’s going on in the body.
  3. Connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network, which includes the medial prefrontal and the posterior cingulate cortex.  This decrease in functional connectivity likely represents a disconnect between someone’s actions and their awareness of their actions.  “When you’re really engaged in something, you don’t really think about doing it—you just do it,” Spiegel says.
A Drug-Free Solution to Pain and Anxiety

     In those who are easily hypnotizable, hypnosis has proven effects for lessening chronic pain, the pain of childbirth and other medical procedures;  smoking cessation, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety and phobias. 

     These exciting new findings about exactly how hypnosis affects the brain may help pave the way toward developing treatments for 90% of the population who are not so easily hypnotized.  “We’re certainly interested in the idea that you can change people’s ability to be hypnotized by stimulating specific areas of the brain,” says Spiegel.