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Hypnosis Alters the Way Our Brains Process Information, Study Finds

Woman sits in a chair across from her therapist while undergoing hypnotherapy

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Key Takeaways

  • Hypnotherapy has proven effective in treating conditions like PTSD, anxiety, overeating and addiction.
  • A recent study suggests that, under hypnosis, the brain processes information differently.

The mention of hypnosis often calls to mind visions of swaying pocket watches or live shows where everyone ends up doing embarrassing things on stage. But historically, the hypnotic state has been a heavily debated playing field for treating a number of conditions.

Hypnotherapy has been gaining popularity as a legitimate method for changing behavior and dealing with stress and trauma. But how does undergoing hypnosis improve a person's psychological state?

In a recent study published in Neuroscience of Consciousness, a group of researchers from Finland set out to determine whether hypnosis can actually shift the way a person's brain processes information.

They learned that hypnosis prompted various regions of the brain to operate independently of one another, which is very different from the normal waking state. This could explain the types of behavioral changes generally associated with hypnotherapy.

What Is Hypnotherapy?

The practice of hypnosis has appeared in both magic and medicine, and some accounts trace its use back to the ancient Egyptians. Physically, the hypnotized state resembles sleep. In fact, hypnosis was named for Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep.

But despite this outward appearance, a person under hypnosis is not sleeping. During a hypnotherapy session, a therapist uses verbal repetition and mental images to help a patient reach a trance-like state of deep relaxation.

While under hypnosis, individuals typically feel more calm and open to suggestion, which can be helpful in trying to cope with stress and anxiety or overcome unwanted behaviors.

Luke Chao, Hypnotherapist

I would characterize my work as grounding people in these truths that are going to help them, these reassuring truths, comforting, motivating truths.

— Luke Chao, Hypnotherapist

Luke Chao, hypnotherapist and founder of the Morpheus Clinic for Hypnosis, has 15 years of experience treating clients. He believes hypnotherapy helps a patient suspend critical thinking, giving them space to accept ideas that the rational mind will often reject.

While many of us are familiar with hypnosis in a mystical sense, certified clinical hypnotherapist and founder of Berkley Hypnosis and Pain Management Mahesh Grossman says hypnosis is much less formal—and much more common—than you'd think.

When Grossman assesses a potential client, he asks them two questions: Do you read, or have you ever read novels? If so, when you read, "She saw a grey rock castle with a red wooden door," do you see the castle with the door?

Nearly all potential clients respond affirmatively, Grossman says, and this indicates that the person is hypnotizable. With no physical castle within view, the person is merely responding to a suggestion from the book, which parallels the role of a hypnotherapist in making suggestions to alter behaviors and mindsets.

"One of the reasons hypnosis works is because it's a natural state that we access all the time without realizing it," Grossman says.

The Research

A group of researchers from the University of Turku, Finland, focused their efforts on a single individual who has been the subject of previous studies on hypnosis. They refer to this individual as a "hypnotic virtuoso", or someone who is highly hypnotizable and responds to a broad range of hypnotic suggestions.

The study was conducted by observing how a magnetically induced electrical current moved through the subject's brain during both hypnosis and a wakeful state.

"In a normal waking state, different brain regions share information with each other, but during hypnosis this process is kind of fractured and the various brain regions are no longer similarly synchronized," said researcher Henry Railo in a release.

Daniel Olexa, Hypnotherapist

The benefits of hypnotherapy are that it allows clients to enter into a mental space where they can uncover deep beliefs, understand where they originated, and rewrite those that no longer serve their growth and happiness.

— Daniel Olexa, Hypnotherapist

The findings revealed that hypnosis induces an independence among brain regions, fostering a segregated connectivity. This suggests that, because the brain is unable to synchronize communication, hypnotic states are behaviorally inflexible and hypnotic suggestion can facilitate processing not typical to normal consciousness. This shift in functioning could explain the experiential and behavioral changes that accompany hypnosis.

How Does Hypnotherapy Help?

Research has shown that hypnotherapy is effective in helping to alleviate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, aid in immune system functionality, and help individuals to overcome addiction and lose weight.

Much of the work being accomplished in hypnotherapy involves changes in mindset that are themselves healing, or can help an individual to alter their unwanted behaviors.

"The benefits of hypnotherapy are that it allows clients to enter into a mental space where they can uncover deep beliefs, understand where they originated, and rewrite those that no longer serve their growth and happiness," says certified interpersonal hypnotherapist Daniel Olexa.

This doesn't work for everyone, though. Olexa says clients that feel the struggles in their lives have deep internal roots can really benefit from hypnotherapy, whereas individuals whose issues stem from external forces might not see the same success from this form of treatment.

"It helps if they are creative thinkers and open to exploring new aspects about themselves, releasing old ideas about who they have been so that they can become who they dream of being," he says. "It does not work as well for clients who are unwilling to give up the old sense of identity that is not serving their happiness and best life."

Hypnotherapy in the Pandemic

As with most services during the pandemic, the process of meeting with clients has changed. While Chao is able to treat clients in person now, he had been holding hypnotherapy sessions virtually over the course of the year. Thankfully, he says, the quality of those sessions didn't suffer.

Now, he's seeing clients dealing more frequently with feelings of isolation and loneliness, as well as a rise in individuals struggling with overeating. To help clients, he draws from his own experience and the influence of others to spark a change in their mindset and habits.

While hypnosis is often associated with deceit and trickery in the public eye, Chao points out that he's not inclined to create a fantasy for a client to believe in when it comes to, for example, quitting smoking.

He can simply suggest to them, while under hypnosis, that the habit is bad for their health and they deserve clean air to breathe. This alone can initiate a shift in behavior. "The truth itself is enough," he says.

What This Means For You

Although hypnotherapy is controversial, it has proved effective in easing the symptoms of a number of conditions.

If you're interested in pursuing hypnotherapy, seek out a practitioner via the National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists database.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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