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What Happens When You're Hypnotized?
You're getting sleepy...very, very sleepy. When you are hypnotized, your eyelids get heavy, your arms go limp and you feel as if you are floating in space. But what actually happens to your brain? The power of hypnosis to alter your mind and body like this is due to changes in a few specific areas of the brain, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered.

When you take acetaminophen, the main ingredient in Tylenol, it does more than relieve your pain. It has this odd effect on your psyche, too.

"Hypnosis is the oldest Western form of psychotherapy, but it's been tarred with the brush of dangling watches and purple capes," explains study leader David Spiegel, M.D. "In fact, it's a very powerful means of changing the way we use our minds to control perception and our bodies."

But until now there have not been any studies to figure out what's going on in the brain during hypnosis.

The study: The Stanford team scanned the brains of 57 people during guided hypnosis sessions similar to those that might be used clinically to treat anxiety, pain or trauma. Of these, 36 were people who consistently scored high on tests of hypnotizability, while the remaining 21 were control subjects who scored on the extreme low end of the scales.

The researchers then observed the brains of those 57 participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. Each person was scanned under four different conditions: resting, recalling a memory and during two different hypnosis sessions.

The results: What they found is that three distinct sections of the brain have significantly altered activity and connectivity when someone is hypnotized.

  • There was a decrease in activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate, which is part of the brain's salience network. "In hypnosis, you're so absorbed that you're not worrying about anything else," Spiegel explained.

  • There was an increase in connections between two 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.

  • There were reduced 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," he said. During hypnosis, this kind of disassociation between action and reflection allows the person to engage in activities either suggested by a clinician or self-suggested without devoting mental resources to being self-conscious about the activity.

So what? "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," explains Spiegel.

The study findings were reported in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

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