Brain stimulation can make you easier to hypnotize
A person’s susceptibility to hypnosis has long been considered a pretty static trait. You may be highly hypnotizable, or you may be part of the nearly 25% of people who can’t really be hypnotized at all. A 25-year-long study found hypnotic susceptibility to be a remarkably stable trait. Akin to personality and IQ, regardless of one's life experiences, the trait doesn't really change over time.
But now a team of researchers from Stanford University has discovered a way to heighten hypnotic susceptibility. Using targeted non-invasive neurostimulation the researchers have been able to amplify a person’s response to hypnosis, and the breakthrough could change the way hypnosis therapy is administered.
For several decades David Spiegel and colleagues at Stanford have been investigating hypnosis. The work not only explored how it can be used to treat things like addiction or chronic pain, but it also attempted to home in on the neural correlates of effective hypnosis therapy. Essentially, the researchers have been trying to understand why some people’s brains are more susceptible to hypnosis.
One of the bigger breakthroughs in Spiegel’s work came in a 2016 study that compared brain activity between a highly hypnotizable cohort and a control group with low susceptibility to hypnosis. That study found one of the key factors seemingly influencing hypnotic susceptibility was functional connectivity between two brain regions: the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.
These two brain regions balance stimuli detection with information processing. And according to Spiegel the greater the connectivity between these two regions, the more effective a person’s ability is to focus on directions when being hypnotized.
“It made sense that people who naturally coordinate activity between these two regions would be able to concentrate more intently,” Spiegel explained. “It’s because you’re coordinating what you are focusing on with the system that distracts you.”
So the next logical step in the research was to explore whether there was a way to amplify functional connectivity between those brain regions. Here, Spiegel joined forces with Nolan Williams, an expert in transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – a non-invasive way to stimulate targeted areas of the brain.
The researchers enrolled 80 subjects with fibromyalgia. Each subject was rated either low or moderate hypnotic susceptibility. Half the cohort received a short TMS burst to the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex while the other half were administered a sham treatment. Immediately after the treatment the patients received a hypnotherapy session focusing on their chronic pain condition.
Tracking hypnotizability with commonly used scales the researchers found those subjects receiving the TMS scored significantly higher in hypnotic susceptibility. And even more interestingly, the effect wore off after about one hour with scores between both groups returning to normal.
“We were pleasantly surprised that we were able to, with 92 seconds of stimulation, change a stable brain trait that people have been trying to change for 100 years,” said Williams. “We finally cracked the code on how to do it.”
While a little more work is needed to better understand how this treatment could be optimized, lead author Afik Faerman is excited about the possibilities afforded by this kind of therapy-enhancing neurostimulation. According to Faerman, if a stable trait like hypnotizability can be amplified by neurostimulation then it is possible other stable traits could be influenced. Or maybe this kind of treatment could simply enhance the efficacy of simple psychotherapy?
“As a clinical psychologist, my personal vision is that, in the future, patients come in, they go into a quick, non-invasive brain stimulation session, then they go in to see their psychologist,” Faerman speculates. “Their benefit from treatment could be much higher.”
The new study was published in Nature Mental Health.
Source: Stanford Medicine