The science of hypnosis: What is it and how does it work?

Hypnotherapy has evolved into an important supplemental theory and is used for different purposes, from smoking cessation to pain relief.

Myupchar January 18, 2020 10:00:30 IST
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The science of hypnosis: What is it and how does it work?

We’ve all seen it in the movies, a hypnotist dangling a pocket watch in front of an unsuspecting participant, an enchanted crowd looking on and hanging on to every word. Suddenly the participant is in a trance and completely at the mercy of the mysticist. He will cluck like a chicken, laugh deliriously and reveal his darkest secrets. 

The science of hypnosis What is it and how does it work

Representational image. Image source: Getty Images.

It is depictions like these that have kept hypnosis mostly on the fringes and given it a supernatural element. However, hypnotherapy or hypnotic suggestion has evolved into an important supplemental theory and is used for different purposes, from smoking cessation to pain relief. It is still unclear what exactly goes on during the process, but certain theories and recent physiological studies have explained the changes that take place in the mind of those who are hypnotized. 

Hypnosis is a trance-like state in which people are more open to suggestibility, are relaxed and likely to process information differently. It is usually induced by gentle verbal repetition and mental images in a quiet and calm environment. This phase is called ‘induction’ and the goal of the therapist is to focus the attention of the participant on the modulation and instructions issued by them. 

Hypnosis can last anywhere between a few seconds to over half an hour and depends on the ‘hypnotisability’ of the participant. A fifth of people are likely to get hypnotized, the same proportion completely resistant to it, while the remainder experience it in some form.

How hypnosis works

The ‘suggestion’ phase involves the hypnotist giving guiding the participant through the process. This includes invoking memories of or thinking about past events. Acclaimed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud had suggested that hypnosis works by unlocking access to the subconscious, as it is the seat of reasoning and assimilating information, and performing involuntary body tasks such as breathing - all in the background. 

Freud’s suggestions have mostly been discredited, and the concept of ‘top-down processing’ has been employed to explain the effects of hypnosis. 

You may hear from your ears, but you really ‘listen’ from your brain. Any new information the brain receives is processed based on past experiences and the framework developed by an individual’s mind. Our perceptions are therefore determined by the inclination and patterns of our mind, rather than the simple process of decoding raw data.

This explains the concept of placebo to a large extent; it is enough for the mind to be ‘fooled’ into thinking that something is going on for there to be a physiological reaction to it. This may be why hypnosis works as well - in the heightened state of suggestibility, any aides or direction will feel legitimate and seem to be the reality. 

Additionally, EEGs of those in hypnotic states have shown a boost in lower frequency waves - usually seen in a person when asleep.

Subsequent studies have shown marked changes in different parts of the brain: activity on the left side of the brain goes down, and activity in the right goes up. The left part of the brain is believed to be critical, helping with deduction and reasoning, and the right part with creativity and imagination. These physiological changes may begin to explain why hypnosis works.

Children below the age of 12 are much more likely to respond to hypnosis as they are more impressionable and haven’t developed mature processing pathways. Adults also differ in degrees of hypnotisability; for hypnosis to work, one must want it to work and be trusting of the therapist.

Hypnotherapy for physical and mental health

Hypnotic therapy is known to have been successful in cases of behaviour change such as tobacco cessation and weight loss. A 2007 randomised control trial showed that 20% of those who received hypnotic treatment gave up on tobacco as opposed to 14% who received standard behavioural therapy. Another study dealing with weight loss interventions showed that those who received hypnotic therapy along with behavioural therapy lost double the amount of weight than those who just received behavioural therapy. 

Hypnotherapy even has applications for pain relief and mental health issues such as stress and anxiety. 

While the evidence is encouraging, researchers and medical professionals alike emphasize that hypnosis is a supplementary treatment and must be used alongside cognitive behavioural therapy. It also must be recommended by a medical professional.

Hypnotherapy runs the risk of being exploited by frauds and can have harmful effects, and is not expected to work right away. Swift, non-specific programs that attract a large audience are likely to be ineffectual and based on questionable science, bordering on cults.

Health articles in Firstpost are written by, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health.

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