Relieves anxiety and pain: Research shows measurable changes in brain function
National Post (Canada), Aug. 8, 2003
Brad Evenson, National Post
During a hypnotism show, the amazing Dr. Z once had a volunteer stick him with a long needle. Unruffled, he kept chatting with the audience as blood dripped to the stage floor.
“I suggested to myself that it would not hurt, and it didn’t,” he explained.
But Dr. Z is no stage huckster. His real name is Phil Zimbardo, professor emeritus at Stanford University, past president of the American Psychological Association, and a fervent believer in the magic of hypnotism. On Saturday, during the association’s conference in Toronto, he will try to hypnotize hundreds of audience members as part of a discussion on the topic.
“Hypnotism has been one of the great mysteries of the centuries,” Zimbardo says.
“We have no real idea about how it works.”
Indeed, in this era of molecular biology, when powerful magnetic fields can shed light on the complex workings of the brain, the very notion of hypnotism seems antiquated, a carnival throwback to the days of crystal balls and Ouija boards. But doctors say hypnotism not only works, it often succeeds when modern medicine fails.
“Hypnosis is still one of the main techniques in pain clinics, especially in burn clinics, and hypnosis works incredibly well in childbirth and with cancer patients,” Zimbardo says.
Yet the versatile technique is increasingly being shut out of health care, largely because pain drugs, anti-depressants and other pharmaceuticals have replaced the need for hypnotism. Hypnotherapists say this is a shame because hypnotism has no side effects, causes no allergic reactions, is not addictive and can even be taught to patients to self-administer — for free.
“I’m using it right now to control the pain of a torn rotator cuff,” Zimbardo says.
The mechanics of hypnotism are ancient. The first known performance was given at the court of Khufu in Egypt more than 5,000 years ago. An account of the performance was recorded on papyrus. Its modern history began in the mid-1700s when French healer Frederick Anton Mesmer used magnets to cure disease. Mesmer also believed an invisible magnetic fluid resided in the therapist’s body, which cured the afflicted parts of a patient’s body. The term “mesmerized” is still sometimes used to describe a person paying rapt attention, a good description of a hypnotic trance.
Although his theories were later discredited, neuroscientists in Australia have recently used magnetism to alter human behaviour. Known as transcranial magnetic stimulation, the technique uses weak magnetic fields to cause subjects to concentrate on tasks with unusual power, much like people who are hypnotized.
A much darker side of hypnotism was invented in 1894, when George du Maurier’s book Trilby was published. The tale of a woman who fell under the control of a hypnotist named Svengali, the book captured the public’s imagination.
In the 1920s, stage hypnotists began to put on lurid shows across North America and Europe. The performers, who often made audience members do such embarrassing tasks as disrobing in public, made hypnotism seem like a diabolical power that controlled people against their will. Indeed, the shows were banned in some U.S. states, including Oregon, where the ban was recently repealed.
Yet despite its long history, scientists have wondered whether hypnotism is a genuine psychological state or a gimmick.
But recent research shows it causes measurable changes in the brain.
Last year, Stanford University psychiatric researcher David Spiegel used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to watch changes in brain function in volunteers who were highly hypnotizable.
The hypnotized volunteers were told to see colour. Then, regardless of whether or not the researchers showed them colour, the areas of the visual cortex that registers colour would fire. When the researchers told them to see “grey” objects, the volunteers had less activity in the colour zones of the brain.
“When they believed they were looking at colour, the part of their brain that processes colour vision showed increased blood flow,” said Spiegel, who is presenting hypnosis research at the Toronto conference today.
“This is scientific evidence that something happens in the brain that doesn’t happen ordinarily when people are hypnotized.”
Spiegel describes hypnosis as a state of aroused attentive focal concentration. It’s like looking through a telephoto lens of a camera, which renders great detail but shuts out one’s surroundings.
Far from the zombie-like sleep state of popular myth, it is a form of focused attention. He believes every doctor should be taught the simple hypnosis techniques to help patients manage anxiety and pain.
Until he lost six teeth in a hockey mishap, Vancouver software designer Tom Handel thought hypnotism was a hokey party trick.
“It turns out I’m allergic to anesthetic,” says Handel, who underwent three surgeries.
“So my dental surgeon offered to use hypnosis. My first reaction was, ‘Yeah, right. That’ll really work.’ But it actually did take away the pain.”
Handel’s dental surgeon told him to imagine the surgery was a form of carving. All the sharp instruments would be working on soft wood, making a nice design, not on his mouth.
Today, Handel uses self-hypnotism to help him work on projects.
“I relax with slow breathing techniques, then focus on how I’m going to work productively the next day, wasting no time and taking no breaks. It works great.”
What remains a scientific mystery is how hypnotism works. In spite of all the stage gimmicks, hypnosis is nothing more than words.
“It’s just sounds,” Zimbardo says.
“And if you don’t speak the language, it’s meaningless.”
One theory is that a brain region called the anterior cingulate gyrus, which fires when people generate meaning to words, allows the brain to divide its attention. This causes the consciousness to be driven into two separate streams, with a barrier between them. Known as the dissociated control theory, this suggests even though one stream of consciousness is aware of pain, this sensation is kept “hidden” from the other stream, which is intensely focused on some task or image.
However, not everyone is affected the same way.
People who are more imaginative, and children, are hypnotizable, while more literal-minded people, such as newspaper editors, are not. About 25% of the population is deemed highly hypnotizable, while others may be susceptible after several treatments. The most important part is the hypnotee, not the hypnotist.
“Those stage hypnotists that give hypnosis a bad name are really great entertainers,” Zimbardo says.
“Since you’re paying to see them, they convince the audience that they have special powers, and they have none. Their skill is picking out people that are highly hypnotizable without going through a long testing procedure. They use stage tricks. For example, they go around before the show begins and they shake people’s hands. And as they shake your hand, they try to manipulate you. Some people, they can easily turn their hand from left to right, and those people are more pliable.
“Other people, when you shake their hand, they’re not going to be moved, and the [hypnotist] says ‘thank you very much’ and they don’t use them in the show.”