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Hypnosis has a lot to offer patients says professor of psychology

Hypnosis has always been surrounded by an air of scepticism but recently people’s opinions have started to change, as Professor Peter W Halligan, of Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, explains

HYPNOSIS uses the powerful effects of suggestion to produce and modify a wide range of compelling experiences and clinical symptoms.

With its origins in Mesmerism, and later associations with mysticism, quackery, literary fiction and stage entertainment, it is understandable that formal research involving hypnosis was not always been valued or believed by mainstream science. This however, is changing.

Recently, hypnosis has begun to attract renewed interest from cognitive and social neuroscientists interested in using hypnosis and the striking effects of hypnotic suggestion to test predictions about normal psychological functions but also to explore how simulating symptoms from clinical conditions using hypnosis may help better understand the responsible brain systems involved.

Common misconceptions about hypnosis include the belief that hypnosis is a form of sleep or that many of the striking effects produced by targeted suggestions can only be generated in hypnosis.

In fact, studies have shown that responses to the same suggestions with and without a hypnotic induction can be very similar and that difference between the two conditions is small.

Participants in hypnosis studies typically describe the perceptual and behavioural changes experienced in response to suggestion as “real” and beyond their voluntary control. They also report these experiences as not imaginary and not simple compliance with what they think the experimenter wants to hear or had suggested.

Understandably, scepticism remains regarding the credibility of these first person reports, however, several recent studies have provided persuasive evidence for the objective “reality” of hypnotic experience, using targeted suggestions that disrupt automatic, unconscious processes over which participants are thought to have little or no control.

Many but not all people are responsive to hypnotic suggestion but only a minority are strongly responsive – which makes them good subjects for research studies.

Subjects who are highly hypnotisable are capable of experiencing short-term amnesia or fleeting hallucinations.

Under hypnosis, many of these are capable of being convinced that their limbs feel heavier, or experiencing temporary changes in their ability to make movements.

One of the particular conditions that colleagues and I have found very informative is psychogenic paralysis – sometimes described as hysterical motor conversion. This is a debilitating condition where despite not having evidence of brain damage, patients are unable to move their limbs. Patients with similar “functional” or “psychogenic” conversion disorders can comprise between 30 and 40% of patients attending neurology outpatient clinics and place a huge strain on public health services.

Using neuroimaging and other methods, my colleagues and I have demonstrated the involvement of distinctive brain regions in highly hypnotizable individuals who experienced paralysis-like experiences, which could be turned “on” and “off”.

When compared to the actual movements of the limb, the suggested paralysis condition revealed increased activity in brain regions know to be active during motor planning and intention to move – and also brain areas involved in response selection and inhibition.

Comparing symptoms conveyed by conversion disorder patients and those produced by “paralysis” suggestions in hypnosis, also revealed similar patterns of brain activation associated with attempted movement of the affected limb. Collectively these findings could inform future studies of the brain mechanisms underpinning limb paralysis in patients with conversion disorders and could inform effective treatments.

Far from being a mystical process, the neuropsychological exploration of hypnotic suggestion has begun to highlight the importance of the often neglected process of suggestionability. The psychological disposition to respond to suggestion (for example, placebo) is universal and remains one of the most remarkable but least researched psychological processes involving human behaviour and consciousness.


By: Paula Kalik On Saturday, 23 March 2013 Comment Comments( 0 ) Hits Views(1917)
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