The Neuroscience of Hypnosis: Part 1

What in the world is going on in your brain when you’re in a state of hypnosis? There is a growing field of research looking at the neuroscience of hypnosis—and the results are both promising and very, very cool.

One of my favorite studies looked at the brains of highly hypnotizable people, and what parts of the brain are altered during hypnosis. They found three brain regions that change while in hypnosis. So, let’s take a journey through the hypnotized brain, because it’s the coolest thing. Seriously.

The first change that researchers found was in the part of the brain that is constantly scanning the environment to determine what we should be paying attention to. This part of the brain is called the “salience network.” The salience network alerts us to stuff going on inside and outside of us that require our attention. For example, if an ambulance drives by with its siren blaring, your salience network lights up and notifies you. So what happens to the salience network while a person is hypnotized? Well, the salience network actually decreases in activity. Why is this important? This proves that while we’re in hypnosis, we focus on the therapist’s voice and on internal emotional activity, rather than the environment around you. Essentially, you’re so absorbed that you’re not noticing what’s going on around you. That’s a good activity for your brain, because in our modern era of distraction, our brain isn’t used to focusing and turning inwards.

 
The salience network   Photo credit:  Quanta Magazine

The salience network

Photo credit: Quanta Magazine

 

The second change increases the connection between the parts of the brain—an area in the prefrontal cortex and the insula—that communicate about what’s happening in the body. The prefrontal cortex is in charge of things like decision-making, planning, and problem-solving. The insula, which sits deeper in the brain, recognizes bodily sensations and communicates them to the prefrontal cortex. So what does this mean? Well, the insula recognizes when our bodies feel sensations and then sends information about those sensations to the prefrontal cortex where we name and label them as emotions. For example, let’s say your heart starts racing. The insula recognizes this sensation in the body and sends the information to the prefrontal cortex, where we decide that it’s anxiety or fear. In hypnosis, this connection gets stronger. This is super important for hypnoanalysis because we want people to feel their emotions and then process them in a different way. (Isn’t that amazing?)

 
The insula   Photo credit:  Exploring Your Mind

The insula

Photo credit: Exploring Your Mind

 
The prefrontal cortex   Photo credit:  Medium

The prefrontal cortex

Photo credit: Medium

 

The third (and certainly not least) change occurs in the part of the brain where “you” reside called the default mode network, or as some scientists call it, the “me network.” In other words, it’s the home of the ego. So what is the default mode network? The default mode network lights up when we’re at rest, daydreaming, or letting our mind wander and less active when we’re engaged in an activity or focusing. In hypnosis, the connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the default mode network decreases. Why is this important? There are two reasons. First, this means your ego is stepping aside and turning down, which means you’ll be less self-conscious during hypnosis. Second, I hypothesize that by encouraging the ego to step aside, we are able to access buried memories in the subconscious mind. And again, I shout to the heavens: HOW COOL IS THAT?!

 
The default mode network   Photo credit:  Neuroscientifically Challenged

The default mode network

Photo credit: Neuroscientifically Challenged

 
The prefrontal cortex   Photo credit:  Medium

The prefrontal cortex

Photo credit: Medium

 

I hope you found all of this super nerdy information interesting. I mean, the brain is amazing and what’s so amazing out hypnoanalysis is that it literally can help rewire the brain. Cool, cool, cool.

Brita Larson