A swinging pocket watch, a monotone chant, a gullible audience member. These are tools of the age-old trade of hypnosis. Now though, hypnosis is moving from the performance stage to the doctor’s office as it gains credence as a medical tool among scientists and physicians. Studies show that hypnosis causes a distinct mental state and this can be used to ease pain, among other things.
A British ophthalmologist coined the word hypnosis in 1842 after the Greek word for sleep, hypnos. Recently, however, scientists have used modern technology to show that hypnosis is quite different from sleep. Brain scans performed by positron emission tomography, or PET, have shown that areas of the brain active in a hypnotized subject are not the same as those activated in a sleeping subject. Being in a state of hypnosis actually resembles meditation more than sleep.
According to a recent review in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, hypnosis is “the induction of a state of mind in which a person’s normal critical or skeptical nature is bypassed, allowing for acceptance of suggestions.”
Since the brain controls everything that we do and feel, tricking the brain means tricking the whole body.
One problem with studying the medical effects of hypnosis is that researchers can’t set up double-blind studies, where neither patients nor researchers know who is receiving a certain treatment. To be hypnotized, one must not only know that they are being hypnotized but be open to it as well.
Researchers who specialize in hypnosis estimate that about 10 to 15 percent of adults are highly hypnotizable, 20 percent are completely resistant to hypnosis, and the rest of the population falls somewhere in the middle. Children, on the other hand, are almost all highly hypnotizable. According to a recent New York Times article, neuroscientists believe that this is due to brain circuitry that is not mature until adulthood.
Despite difficulties in setting up experiments, scientists have found ways, over the past few decades, to show what exactly hypnosis is and how it can help patients with a variety of maladies.
Dr. Amir Raz, an assistant professor of clinical neuroscience at Columbia University, used to be a professional magician. Now, he has made it his life’s work to study the science behind hypnotism. A recent study by Raz has particularly drawn attention to his work.
Raz’s test subjects were given the Stroop Test. The names of colors were spelled out on a screen in colored letters. However, the color being named was not always the same as the color of the letters, which the subject had to identify. In literate adults, who are engrained to read what is in front of them, this discrepancy leads to a pause, called the Stroop Effect, in identifying the color of the letters.
Raz set out to see whether, through hypnosis, he could change the way test subjects processed the Stroop Test and obliterate the Stroop Effect. By hypnotizing the subjects, and telling them that the letters they would see in the test were meaningless symbols, Raz was able to do just this — eliminate the pause that people normally have during the test.
By showing that hypnosis can affect the results of such an established cognitive test, Raz’s work is helping to sway scientists towards the belief that hypnosis is worth looking into. Now, it is up to doctors to figure out how hypnosis can be used as a medical tool.
Studies in the past decades have shown that hypnosis can ease allergic reactions, get rid of warts, reduce high blood pressure and alleviate the symptoms of chemotherapy. Most of all, hypnosis can be used as a powerful pain reliever; doctors have even performed surgeries on patients whose only anesthesia was hypnosis.
Besides its use in general medicine, psychiatrists use hypnosis to treat anxiety disorders, eating disorders, phobias and addictions. In many cases, the power of suggestion which hypnosis provides is enough to change the way patients think of themselves, their bodies and their surroundings.
In medical hypnosis, there is no gold watch swinging on a chain, no laughter of an audience. The treatments being developed, however, are certainly worth more to patients than any amount of applause.